Cruising Puget’s Island and Beyond

The names of the first European explorers are “writ large” all across the charts of the northwest. Spanish, English, Russians, Americans, and a few Frenchmen are immortalized in place names. The most prolific of these navigators was Captain George Vancouver. He managed to gratify all his sponsors and friends in high places, but with true English reticence avoided self-promotion to the end. Only many years after his great voyage was his name given to towns in that are now in Washington and British Columbia.

Lieutenant W.R.Broughton was Vancouver’s right-hand man–entrusted with the important task of directing the ship’s boats. Broughton’s small-boat team rowed and sailed over a hundred miles inland while following the Columbia River. His reward? His name was given to Broughton’s Bluff, an obscure outcrop by the Sandy River, Oregon. (Later in the voyage, he had the Broughton Archipelago in Canada named after him.)

History doesn’t record exactly how it was that another Lieutenant, Peter Puget, scored so well in the naming stakes. But his is the name that has become an everyday part of the language–and in more than one place. Curiously, Puget’s name had already been attached to an island in the Columbia before the expedition had reached the sound that would also carry his name.

Of course there have been many changes since then. Two centuries after the pioneers arrived, the forests have been cut, the salmon harvested. Today, the sorting yards, piers and canneries left along the shore are slowly being reclaimed by nature. Despite, the passage of time, I still find that every time I sail onto the lower Columbia I feel I’m going way back in time.

By the time I reach the quiet almost forgotten town of Cathlamet, 25 miles west of I-5, the illusion is complete. The name Cathlamet is derived from a Chinook Indian word meaning stone, which was given to the tribe that lived below the bluffs that now surround the marina. James Birnie settled here in 1846 and briefly called his place Birnie’s Retreat.

The town has a curious look to it from a boat. The only business or building that faces the water is the River Rat Tap, an eatery that won’t win any stars for cuisine, housed in an 1891 building that looks ready to slip down the river bank and drift away. Walking inland from the marina, however, you discover that none of the houses have fenced yards, which gives a unusual open-plan look as you stroll up the hill to the main street.

On the way you will pass many houses with historic plaques carrying building dates in the late 1800s. For those wanting to see more, the town hall has a map of the complete walking tour. Stroll back along the recently-built shoreline trail and you will pass the museum, where an 80-year old, gear-driven, logging locomotive is on display.

Peter Puget’s Island

This is the perfect place to begin an exploration of Puget Island and the “Great River of the West.” Here are some of the possibilities you can try with a trailerable boat, whether it is power, sail or paddle-powered. The next village down river was named Wakaiyakam, which means tall timber. This became the name of the name of the county–pronounced “Wah-KAI-a-Kum.”

After 1792, the next white men to pass through might well have been Lewis and Clark in 1805, who unfortunately didn’t arrive until November. They wrote “Rained all the after part of last night. I slept but very little for the noise kept up during the whole of the night by swans, geese, ducks, etc.” And a day later, “Opposite to this village the high, mountainous country leaves the river on the port side, below which the river widens into a kind of bay and is covered with low islands subject to the tides.”

A modern bridge carries traffic onto low-lying Puget Island, which was farmed by Scandinavian immigrants in the mid-1800’s. Today it is protected by dikes and has a network of quiet backroads that are great for biking or driving. Until the 1920’s, most transportation was by water, and eight sloughs around the island were open for launches, salmon tenders etc.

The last car ferry on the Columbia runs between Westport, Oregon and the west side of the island every hour. A new bigger vessel was introduced in 2015, reducing the times when it departs full and has to leave some drivers behind. It’s a pleasant trip and gives you a good view of the river and the surrounding hills. The western shore has been sub-divided for vacation homes, but the rest of the island is still used for agriculture.

Downstream from the ferry landing, Welcome Slough is the one navigable inlet that leads into the island’s interior. You can launch from the public ramp upstream and drift slowly inland passing the new marina and camp ground, the old boat shop where the Blix family launched many fine gillnetters, a small wooden church, and some well-kept back gardens. About one mile inland, the slough ends in a miniature turning basin.

The north end of Puget Island is just about the widest spot on the river before Astoria and gives you the chance to actually settle down and enjoy the sail before you’re on the other bank. (The local windsurfing hotspot is at the east end of the island which also gives a long reach.) The Clifton Channel follows the Oregon shore, beginning just downstream of 650′ cliffs that force the Astoria road away from the water. Just around the corner, the milltown of Bradwood came and went in just a few years, starting in 1930, but the next village has existed for at least 120 years.

Clifton was quite the small town, with a roller-skating rink, dance hall and all the amenities for its ethnic mix of Greeks, Slovaks and Italians. One of the last residents was an old timer named Andrew Marincovich, a generous old gentleman who always waved to passing sailors and welcomed me into his home in the early 1990’s as soon as I had came ashore at the old docks. He loved to recall the good old days before the dams, when salmon filled the river and men worked long hours for low pay.

On one visit he took me on a tour of the barn-like net shed, showing us the bluestone tubs where the linen nets had to be regularly soaked to stop them from rotting. The original gillnet boats were light enough to be lifted into the building by the crane which is now used to hoist loaded fish totes. Each issue of the fishermen’s union quarterly paper carries the obituaries of these fine old fishermen, and sadly Andrew too has since passed on.

The Backwater Route to Skamokawa

So numerous are the islands and channels around the town here that you don’t even have to venture onto the river for the first adventure. The city marina sits at the mouth of the Elochoman River, from which it gets its name. In a shallow draft boat you can head west from the dock and disappear into the Elochoman Slough. Just around the bend is a sawmill, but after that there’s nothing for three miles as you slip along behind the Hunting Islands. All this land comprises a national refuge for Columbian white-tailed deer. It is named after Julia B.Hansen, the daughter of a pioneer family who served in the state legislature and Congress.

While keeping an eye open for large animals, you’re likely to see the nutria, a large, imported rodent once reared for fur, which have taken up residence in the river banks. (When followed by inquisitive humans in paddle boats they make a noise like a miniature outboard motor before scuttling up the shore into their burrows.) Otters are less numerous, but more curious than the nutria. The cottonwoods overhead give shelter to many kinds of birds, from kingfishers to eagles, while the waterfowl noted by Lewis & Clark still break the silence.

When you emerge onto the Columbia, only a half mile of open river separates this backwater from Steamboat Slough, which leads back behind Price Island to the village of Skamokawa. Big boats can enter from the west and find a quiet anchorage here, then dinghy into the center of the well-preserved Skamokawa (Ska-MOK-a-Way) National Historic District. Like many small towns on the lower river, this charming little harbor has also seen busier days. During its early days, the settlement stretched along the shore of two tidal creeks and carried the fanciful title of “the Venice of the West.” On the west side along the Skamokawa River, charming cottages line the shore giving it the look of a French canal. On the eastern side, float houses line Brooks Slough. The gillnetters and net racks here are looking neglected, as commercial salmon fishing struggles to survive.

But the focal point of the town, from land or water, is Redmen Hall, a building that gives an almost-magical appearance to the waterfront. It was built as a schoolhouse in 1894, and celebrated its 100th birthday on July 4th 1994 with a re-union of nine early pupils. In 1926 the students moved to a new structure and the school became Lodge 65 of the Improved Order of Redmen. This was described as a fraternal organization dedicated to “preserving native American culture,” but I think it highly unlikely that any of the members ever saw an Indian.

The elegant, Queen Anne-style building was abandoned in the 1950s and began to slip into ruin, until rescued by the Friends of Skamokawa in 1988. Today, it has been restored and revived as the River Life Interpretive Center. On the second floor, where grades 5 through 8 once studied, a series of panels depicts the natural, native and pioneer life of the area. Up in the bell tower, you might how the place got its Indian name of “smoke on the water” when fog rolls out of the valley and onto the river,

Before the 1930s and the arrival of the highway, schooner could moor in the harbor mouth to take on lumber, and steamboats provided a regular service to Astoria. This flourishing community had its own regatta and photographs of the period show the docks crowded with people waiting to board. But that was long ago. Now you can walk the beach along Vista Park, look up to Redmen Hall and see only the shadows of the past.

The park is a great place to camp, with a launch ramp for small craft. But note that there is shoaling at the mouth, and beware of the ocean-going ships that come impressively close inshore before making a turn west. The entrance is marked, but Redmen Hall is an even better aid to navigation as long as visibility is good. Further west are the old canneries of Altoona and Pillar Rock, very typical and easy to photograph from the water. In 1889 Rudyard Kipling passed through and described a cannery in his diary as a “rude wooden warehouse built on piles in a lonely reach of the river.”

More often than not, a solid west wind will be blowing off the ocean, still 20 miles away. By afternoon, this breeze might feel like a gale to a small boat, so take care. Wind against tide conditions will kick up a chop that will encourage you to look to the south, where a chain of islands provides dozens of escape routes from the “seabreeze.”

Lewis & Clark National Wildlife Refuge

From Cathlamet west, the entire group has been established as the Lewis & Clark National Wildlife Refuge. Hiking is allowed, but no camping. That’s not to say that there are actually any trails, or docks, for that matter! You re definitely “on your own” on the lower Columbia, so choose an inlet, cut the motor and drift slowly into a likely spot, drop an anchor and listen to the wilderness. You’ll hear the wind on the reeds and the cries of the birds.

My best memory is of a voyage down the middle of Marsh Island. With the boat brushing the shore on both sides, I gently pushed a way through to the far end and broke out into open water after an amazing hour’s boating. I should add that I had no schedule, no itinerary, and 20″ draft. My many attempts at crossing the island barrier inevitably result in minutes (OK sometimes hours) of total disorientation. For a more seaman-like route we’ll go over to the Prairie Channel on the Oregon shore.

Another remnant of a different time is the occasional duck-hunting shack moored out among the islands. They appear like mirages as you round a bend then disappear as quickly. Next you pass the farming community of Brownsmead, and follow a well-marked route to Tongue Point, gateway to Astoria. There’s always some impatience to reach “the oldest city west of the Rockies,” but it’s been there since 1812, so why rush?

Along the Prairie Channel

The backwaters of Blind Slough, Knappa and Swensen all support remnants of the culture that existed before the automobile. Where families subsisted on fishing/farming/logging from one season to another. The last outpost before the end of the channel is the John Day River. Beyond the swinging railway bridge is a float house village so picturesque you’d think it was movie set. It’s not, so proceed cautiously and respect the life that is still lived here.

Across on the Washington side I once spent a weekend exploring Grays Bay and found the area to be so quiet it became eerie. The Deep River is as well marked as the main channel. The curious thing was…. there was “no there there.” We followed upstream for miles, and saw pilings, log rafts, signs of roads. There were just a few houses and private docks on a waterway that would be choked with marinas in a more populous part of the state. As the road bridge stopped our progress a bald eagle took off from his perch above the river and circled us. Then we motored slowly back, confirming the impression we’d just gathered that here was a genuine time warp.

Just remember, you’ve been sheltered from the ocean all this time. When you re-enter the Columbia from here, or round Tongue Point on the Oregon side, you’re likely to have a stiff breeze in your face! In Astoria, however, you’ll find a modern marina, a thriving marine service sector, and enough history to keep everyone busy. But this cruise has been about the history you can’t find behind glass display cases, so we’ll bring it to a close here.

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One Response to Cruising Puget’s Island and Beyond

  1. Brian Ruff says:

    I enjoyed your story. I fish and explore this area frequently in my 16′ skiff from my home in Svensen; it is, indeed, “the land that time forgot” and a very beautiful place.
    When I am on the stretch of river between Cathlamet and Astoria it feels like I am in a real wilderness.

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