Columbia Cruise

By Howard Eskildsen

Further Adventures of the Fairy Boat

The morning dawned bright and calm, August 8, 1991.  It was time to begin our cruise from Kennewick, Washington, near the confluence of the Snake and Columbia Rivers, to Portland, Oregon, over 220 miles away.  This was a new experience since we had never been more than 20 miles from our home port.  The trip was carefully planned, but unforeseen circumstances always seem to arise, especially for neophyte cruisers. 

It was a relief to finally be leaving since a funeral had delayed our departure and had made the trip a spiritual necessity as well.  We couldn’t help but wonder what other circumstances might alter our plans. 

Fatigued by the past week’s turn of events, we decided against a sunrise departure and allowed for last minute packing, food planning and fueling on the day of our departure.  By noon we had bid farewell to the marina and slipped under the Cable Bridge to the main portion of Lake Wallula on the Columbia River.  Sara, 14, Emily, 11, and Bud, the “Boat Cat”, went below to find something to do while Fairy (age not for publication) stayed top side with me. 

“Dad, can we go a little faster?”, a voice came from below.  We were 10 minutes from home port with over 350 miles cruising to go and they were already at it!  I explained that we had to verify our displacement speed by measuring the time it took to travel between two fixed points.  This measured out to 7 miles per hours with a fuel burn of 3 gallons per hour.  This gave us a range of over 200 miles, more than enough to make the 110 miles of our longest leg.  Still I wondered.

Running in plane we could go a lot faster, but the range would drop.  Performance charts suggested that we could only go 85‑90 miles at that speed!  I would later learn that the performance chart that I had been using was over estimating our high speed fuel burn by almost double, so range at either speed was not a problem.

“Here we go!”,  I shouted to the kids below.  With full power, the boat rose out of the water and started planing on the surface as we cruised along at 25 miles per hour.  Emily was now topside to enjoy the breeze and Sara was in her usual position, lying on the v‑berth with her face against the open starboard port.  Bud             was somewhere below out of sight.  The breeze was welcome relief to the hot summer air.

We passed through Wallula Gap with its towering basalt cliffs, and were soon at McNary Dam.  This was the first of three dams that we were to lock through on our trip. Fortunately, locking through dams was one procedure with which we were experienced.  With the range problem solved, the only remaining concern I had was that our depth sounder was acting up as it always seemed to do in August and there were shoals down stream.  Following the channel markers kept us out of trouble and soon we were at the Umatilla Boat Basin fueling up for the long stretch to the Dalles. 

The afternoon continued hot, calm, and dry.  As soon as we got back on the river, it became apparent that there would be a mutiny on hand if we did not stop to take a swim.  The water was clear and refreshingly cold as we drifted with the boat.  After swimming for an hour and drifting a mile and a half downstream , we were ready to continue.  The scenery had changed very little with sage and grass covered hills browned by the summer’s sun, and a few farms scattered about.  The sense of adventure and anticipation spurred us on through the dullness of the countryside.

We stopped at Boardman about 20 miles further down the river and had supper at a small marine park.  A couple of fishermen on the breakwater watched our entry, but looked the other way when we waved.  We tied up to a dock, stretched our legs a bit and then continued on our way.  Although several people were picnicking in the park, none seemed to want to engage in conversation.  We had considered spending the night there, but felt that the residents would be happier if we just kept going.  Ten more miles down the river was Three Mile Creek, which had a large protected bay where we could anchor for the night. 

The sun was close to the horizon as we rounded the island protecting the bay where Three Mile Creek joined the Columbia.  It got its name from being three miles upstream from Willow Creek.  The depth sounder worked off and on, but now was more off than on.  Following the chart closely and going slowly through the entrance to the bay kept us out of trouble.  Once inside, the depths were charted at 20‑30 feet and this was confirmed by the length of anchor rode let out.  There was a slow current that pushed us away from the anchor as we paid out sufficient scope to keep it from dragging.  For added security, we “backed down” on the anchor (put the drive in reverse at idle speed).  The anchor rode stretched tight, but we weren’t going anywhere!

This was to be our first night ever “sleeping on the hook”.  It was exciting in a scary sort of way.  According to my book, everything should be OK, but there is always at least one unforeseen way to screw up and wake up with the boat on the rocks.  The pop of a small caliber gun heard periodically from the vicinity of some campers on the shore added to the uncertainty of the situation.  A quick check with the binoculars revealed that the shooters were pointed the opposite direction from us, and soon the fading twilight brought an end to their shooting.  Finally, the kids were in their berths and Fairy and I made the bed in the cockpit where we could sleep under the stars.  It would be a peaceful night, or so we thought.

Fairy was getting into the bed at the back of the boat, while I made one last check of the anchor and the switches on the instrument panel.  The battery switch was set to one battery so that the other battery would be sure to be fully charged to start the engine in the morning. 

Suddenly I could feel the hair standing up on the back of my neck.  There was a strange commotion coming from the cockpit area where Fairy was now under the covers.  She was making high shrill pitched syllables that never quite coalesced into words.  This was accompanied by flapping, squawking, and an occasional thud.  For a brief moment I considered heading for the opposite of the boat.  But I had to find out what or who the intruder was that had stolen the calm from the evening. 

I was finally prompted into action when Fairy regained her vocabulary.  “Get it out of here!”  There in the back of the boat was a form that desperately wanted out, but couldn’t quite get its bearings nor stretch out its wings in the confined area of the cockpit.  As it frantically flailed about, I managed to grasp it by its sides and give it a toss into the air.  The young gull headed into the sunset without so much as a backward glance. 

Over where Fairy was lying, I noticed the covers shaking.  “Great,”  I thought, “this is the end of our cruise!”  Then I heard the belly laughter and realized she was trembling with laughter and not fright.  A quick check of the cockpit area failed to reveal any surprises left by our feathered visitor.  Perhaps he wasn’t as startled as we had been! 

“What’s going on out there?”, a voice asked from below.  Before long we were all laughing so hard over the event that it rocked the boat.  As the crew quieted down and the stars came to full brightness, it was apparent that we’d be able to handle whateverchallenges lay ahead.

The morning sun peering over the horizon roused us from our bed.  The wind had come up from the west and was making waves in the anchorage.  On the other side of the island, the Columbia was churning with whitecaps.  With some hesitation, we pulled up the anchor and headed into the river.  We had no choice but to go slow.  The waves were over five feet at times.  By watching the pattern of the water it was possible to avoid some of the worst of the waves, but now and then a set of waves six or more feet high and very steep would materialize out of nowhere and break over the bow of the boat. 

“Mom, there’s water dripping into the boat!”, a panicked voice called from below. 

“Close the hatch!”, was the disgusted reply.  A vigorous discussion of how, why and by whom the aft hatch had been left ajar was cut short by the next set of waves.  As usual, a lot had been said but nothing done about the offending hatch.  More water poured into the cabin as another wave broke over the bow.  There was a thud as the hatch was finally closed and battened down.  At least there would be no more water coming in. 

This was the roughest water that we had ever been in.  The learning was quick and with a little more practice of coordinating the throttle and steering wheel, soon very little water was coming over the bow.  It was still very rough! 

“We’re not going to sink, are we?”, Sara asked.  The tone of her voice was unnerving.  We thought that letting her sit in the helm area would calm her nerves.  “I don’t want to drown!”, she whimpered as the next set of large waves went by. 

For the next few moments, we tried to console her as we bounced along.  Then she started asking questions.  I thought that I could console her by answering her queries.  Big mistake!  As I diverted my attention from the waves to the companionway where she stood, a large wave tossed the bow up into the air.  It came down sharply into the following trough and we pitched and rolled as the next wave splashed over the bow and broke on the windshield. 

“GET BELOW AND STAY THERE!” I bellowed.  Sara was not seen again until we finally limped into the harbor at Arlington. 

Arlington is a marvelous marina in the middle of nowhere.  Nearly halfway between Umatilla and The Dalles, the boat basin is as large as the adjacent town.  The docks are in excellent shape with plenty of room for boats of all sizes.  Between this and the town is a lovely park with a pond for fishing, swimming, or canoeing.  There must be an interesting story as to how such a small settlement acquired such a beauty of a marine park. 

After four hours waiting at the boat basin, “we” decided to try and put some more miles into the cruise before night fall.  We really wanted to make Portland and to do so comfortably would require pressing onward.  It took about five minutes (less than that for the crew) for me to realize that what I had hoped was an improvement in the conditions was really only failure of the wind to rise more than ten knots since we’d sought refuge at Arlington. 

Twenty minutes later and two miles downstream the only reason that I was still on board was that the rest of the crew was convinced that they would all drown if they tossed me overboard.  Three miles further down river was Chapman Creek where there was a sheltered basin where we could spend the night if we could negotiate the entrance.  The basin was created by land fill from the railroad and the entrance to it was through a cut in the rocks on the east side of the fill.  The entrance was only 20 feet wide and turned nearly 90 degrees halfway through.  With our boat length of 26 feet, there would be no way to turn around. 

Our charts did not show the depth of the channel, only that it was less than 15 feet.  Our cruising guide suggested that (seven years ago) it was passable to most boats and the anchorage excellent once inside.  Fortunately our depth sounder was working very well, for reasons that I would discover later.  It was of small comfort, however, since once the channel was entered there was no way to stop or go in reverse without being blown onto the rocks. 

Luck was with us as we made it through, wild eyed and with clenched fists, but without a scratch.  We dropped the hook in 15 feet of water on the windward side of the lagoon and the wind backed it down for us.  The anchor bit hard and we were set for the night, but we had only made 15 miles that day. 

Inventory of the vessel showed some wet carpeting, some moisture in the v‑berth, and water in the forward bilge.  The latter revealed why the depth sounder started working.  The water was around the transducer and improving the sound conduction.  Now anytime the depth sounder gets a little erratic, a glass of water is thrown into the forward bilge and in a few minutes it’s working again.

The wind was still blowing the next morning, but not as wildly as the afternoon before.  It took a bit of work to raise the anchor and a large chunk of mud came up with it.  Soon we were bouncing along in the water again, but it was not quite as rough.  A little over an hour later, the river started to meander through the rising terrain and the waves greatly subsided.  Bud the cat finally left his perch at the foot of the aft berth to explore the rest of the boat.

As we rounded the last wide bend before John Day Dam, Mount Hood

came into view.  It was like a rainbow after the storm of uncertainty that we had experienced.  We had come through the longest and roughest stretch of the water that we had ever been on.  Before this trip we had never spent the night at anchor nor traveled any great distance.  But the greatest relief was the knowledge that we had plenty of fuel and range was not a problem for the trip. 

John Day dam has the highest single lift lock in the western world with a change in elevation of 113 feet.  We shared the lock with the Cascade, a tug pushing four grain barges.  We tied directly to the tug and remained there until it and its cargo exited the locks.  We were let loose when there was no danger of the turbulent water from the barge dashing us against the dam walls.  The captain offered to let us pass, but we elected to stay behind him in the flat water of his wake since the wind was still kicking up some large waves.  “Well, you won’t spill the coffee that way.” was his casual reply. 

We followed the Cascade for eight miles of the upper end of Lake Celilo past Maryhill and Stonehenge to where the channel divides into South Channel on the left and Hells Gate on the right.  Miller Island divides the channels and has a lovely hook or bay on the north side just upstream of the narrowest part of Hell’s Gate.  We dropped the anchor and three of us settled down for breakfast.  The fourth, Emily, had plans of swimming instead.

Soon she had her inflatable life ring in the water and headed after it.  The wind was so strong, however that the ring was bouncing across the water faster that anyone could swim.  There was no way to get the anchor up and catch up to it before it got to the rocky shoals upstream of Miller Island.  “I think it’s gone for good.” I told Emily.  She was more thoughtful than sad, however, and later said, “I can get it, dad.” 

After she ate a pancake or two, there was a splash as Emily headed for the shore of the island to retrieve her toy.  She was half way to the shore before I could get my swimming suit on and shoes off, etc.  Together we walked along the shore of Miller Island to where her life ring was.  The island had been a special place to the Native Americans in times past and there were flakes left over from their flint working strewn about the shore.  It turned out to be a delightful adventure as we walked along the island shore and back.  The life ring had blown up on some rocks near shore and was easily retrieved just as she had said it would. 

Devil’s gate was a short, but beautiful passage.  The water boiling up around its edges showed that there was current even though we were in a “lake”.  We were thankful for the stability of the boat going through.  It takes more than a few dams to tame the Columbia. 

A little further downstream was the site of Celilo Falls.  The depth sounder showed an impressive drop as we passes over the site.  A century ago there were people fishing with dip nets, leaning over their platforms to catch the salmon that were migrating up the river.  The people, like the salmon have all but disappeared, but I doubt that they will ever be forgotten. 

A couple of miles upstream of the Dalles Dam we passed Horsethief State Park.  On a cliff beside the park is the face of “She Who Watches”, an ancient petroglyph.  It was humbling as we passed by to realize that she had been watching for centuries before our passage and would be watching long after our memory had faded. 

Lock through at the Dalles Dam went smoothly.  Even the exit though the swirling current below the dam seemed like a breeze compared to what we had been through earlier on the trip.  Soon we were tied up to a dock at the Dalles Yacht Club.  They welcome visitors and for a very reasonable fee provide moorage, electricity and use of the showers.  I filled the gas tank with 55 gallons (it holds 105) and then tied the Fairy Boat to the dock for the night.  We were all excited at the thought of showers after three days and two nights on the river.  The ladies headed for the showers and I showered on the boat.  The people at the yacht club informed us of a very good restaurant and soon we had reservations and a “taxi” on its way. 

A taxi?!?  Sara and Emily were still giggling with excitement over the idea of riding in a taxi when the rattling sound of a dragging muffler was heard.  An old rusty vehicle followed by a blue cloud of smoke lurched down the road to the yacht club parking lot.  It wheezed to a stop and we were greeted by our taxi driver! 

“Nice tooth!” I thought to myself as the driver grinned and welcomed us aboard.  I’m not sure whether it was the fatigue or the hunger that overruled my better judgment, but we were soon bouncing down the road toward Ole’s Restaurant. 

“The speedometer don’t work, so I just ‘foller’ the traffic”, she said, flashing a nearly tooth less grin.  There was another excuse for the lack of working seat belts.  Sara and Emily sat quietly in the back, their eyes open wide.  No one mentioned the lack of shock absorbers. 

The dinner was well worth the risks that we had taken to get there.  The waitress was a hit with us all as she listened to our tales of adventure and woe.  “So let’s just wait here until the waves get a little bigger!” was her comment on our brief layover in Arlington.  Emily and Sara were nearly rolling with laughter.  A different, safer appearing taxi took us back to the boat and I was able to enjoy the ride without worrying about whether or not my life insurance covered “suicide”. 

We agreed to get up when we felt like it.  For me it was near sunrise.  The sky was beautiful and the wind light, perfect for a leisurely 20 mile cruise to Hood River.  We were just into the narrow stretch of river downstream of The Dalles when Fairy joined me topside.  The river turns nearly 90 degrees into the Cascade Mountains and for the first time on the cruise we were surrounded by green.  It is a perfect place for our six knot displacement speed and we took in the scenery like one would take in water after a long hot day in the sun.  It was nearly as refreshing.

Past Klickitat we encountered one of many Memaloose Islands on the river.  Memaloose is a Chinook word referring to the dead.  These had been burial grounds for the original inhabitants of the area.  Lewis and Clark had referred to it as Sepulcher Island.  A small monument on the island is the memorial of Vic Trevett, a white settler, who was buried there in 1883.  He had insisted on being buried at the Indian island because he wanted to “sleep among honest people”.

We followed the meanders of the river through the mountains toward the Hood River Bridge.  Just past the bridge on the left was the boat basin that would provide wonderful accommodations for the next two days.  Between us and the bridge were hoards of sail boarders darting about, their sails splashing a rainbow of colors.  The winds were coming up and we had to watch carefully to avoid them.  Usually it was a simple task to steer behind their direction of travel, but occasionally one would do an abrupt about face and be headed directly at us.  We used their presence to good advantage, however, as an excuse to stay at displacement speed.  The two “speed demons” on our boat were now awake and asking, “Dad could we go fast?”  Neither Fairy nor I wanted to hurry through those surroundings. 

“Before beginning a long journey, it is best to know where you’re going.  That way you’ll know that you’ve arrived once you get there.”  Winnie the Pooh.

Once safely at the dock in Hood River, we took stock of our cruising plans.  Portland was 70 miles away and was in reach, but with one cruising day already lost to the wind, it would have pushed our endurance and time to the limit.  We quickly decided that we had “arrived” even though this wasn’t our original destination.  There were a few chores to do on the boat, and then we could have a quiet afternoon in Hood River.

After cleaning the top side, we set to drying out the inside of the boat.  The hatches were opened wide and all the articles, bedding, and carpet that had been doused the two days before were attached to railing, radar arch and anywhere else that the sun and breeze could hit.  The v‑berth mattress was placed on the foreword deck.  A few people on the shore and some student board sailors seemed amused by our floating laundry. 

Other boaters at the dock understood the ritual.  A few stopped to visit and swap tales.  One gentleman was single handing a 45 foot ketch from Portland.  His original plans to sail to Puget Sound were prevented when his crew backed out at the last moment.  Not wanting to sail solo off shore, he decided to travel up the Columbia instead.  He had traveled the same waters the last few days that we had been on and said that at one point he had seen our boat.  Later I asked him about crossing the bar at the mouth of the Columbia and his reply was that most of the time it’s not as bad as what as what we’d been through earlier.

Dry at last.  I heaved a sigh of relief as the last items were returned to their proper places inside the boat.  The only chore left was to arrange the storage under the step in the companionway.  Some beer that we keep on board for our friends was rearranged to make room for other drinks.  As luck would have it a can of beer slipped out of my hand and landed on a sharp piece of metal.  Beer began spraying in all over the cabin through a slit in the side of the can.  I fumbled for the can and began speaking that language that the kids aren’t supposed to hear.  I threw the can through the companionway, but my aim was poor and it landed on the seat by the helm and sprayed that area as well.  A second toss placed it in the water well beyond the stern of the boat not far from a student sail boarder and instructor who had witnessed the scene and were about to roll off the dock with laughter. 

With the twilight fading in a cloudless sky over the mountains, we retired for the night.  The plan was to sleep late, visit some of the local stores and get a start back up river in the early afternoon.  Bud, however, had different ideas.  He wanted out and there would be no sleep for any of us until we let him.  As quickly as the hatch was opened, he bounded onto the dock and headed for the shrubs on shore.  Fairy and I both wondered if this was wise.  It wasn’t. 

In the early morning twilight we were awakened by the racket of jet boats being launched from the ramp next to the dock.  This was the usual time of our cat’s return from his nightly wanderings.  Bud, however, didn’t like the noise any better than we did and did not return to the boat.  The sun rose and there was still no sign of him.  A search failed to find him so we decided to spend another day there in hopes that he would return.  We had planned a couple of days into our itinerary for unforeseen emergencies.

After a late breakfast, we decided to explore the gorge to Cascade Locks.  It was well worth the trip with the forested mountains on either side.  A stern wheeler river boat, the Columbia Gorge, was by the locks with tourists cruising the river.  We went under the Bridge of the Gods and then made our way back to the marina. 

Some new boats and a couple of aircraft on floats had joined us at the docks.  Another search failed to produce Bud.  Time was running out and we decided that if he didn’t return in the morning we would have to leave him to his fate. 

We didn’t have to wait until morning.  We had barely gotten settled in for the night when we heard a meow at our hatch.  He headed for the food, hit the kitty litter, and then wanted out again!  There was no way we would let him out even if it meant staying up all night.  He protested vigorously for a bit but finally quieted down and we got some sleep. 

The sun had not cleared the horizon when we left the marina.  Fairy joined me at the helm while the girls and Bud slept below.  We locked through the Dalles Dam and headed toward Miller Island where we hoped to spend a little time at anchor as we had earlier.  As we traveled up stream, the whole river seemed to be a maze of fishing nets.  It seems that the season had opened the day before.  Our hoped for anchorage was so full of nets that we could not enter.  I remarked that with all those nets it was a wonder that any fish could make it upstream.  One of the girls asked, “If the salmon are nearing extinction, why do we keep killing them?”  I didn’t have an answer. 

John Day Dam was just before us with the gates to the locks wide open.  “John Day, this is the Fairy Boat, over.”

“This is John Day.” a lady said over the radio. 

“We’re half a mile downstream and would like an upstream lock through, over.”

“The gates are open, come in and tie up and we’ll proceed when we see that you’re secure.” 

We did as instructed and waited patiently at the mooring buoy.  Nothing happened.  “John Day, this is the Fairy Boat, we’re secure at the buoy. 

“Ferry boat?  What kind of boat are you?” 

“We’re a 26 foot motorboat.  The name is Fairy Boat.”  I spelled the name for them. 

“Oh!” she said with a chuckle, “I was expecting a passenger ferry” 

We chatted briefly and then locked through.  Her courtesy and good humor were characteristic of the lock masters on this trip and other trips taken subsequently on the river. 

The river upstream of John Day took a decidedly bland appearance compared to the mountains and greenery of the gorge.  The waters that had been so troubled a few days before were now flat and calm.  There was nothing new to see and there was no fear now of running low on fuel so we decided to run in plane.  The kids were delighted when we put the throttle forward and ran past Chapman Creek, Arlington, and the brown hills and basalt cliffs towards home.  Forty miles later we anchored by some islands across from Three Mile Creek where we had spent our first night. 

A thin crescent moon slowly slid behind a basalt cliff overlooking our anchorage.  Bud and I looked at the surrounding water and it was clear to both of us that he wouldn’t be going anywhere that night.  The next day would easily see us home with over 380 miles having passed under the hull.  We were nearing the end of the trip and yet there was a sense of beginning.  We had discovered new capabilities.   Never again would we be content to drift in sight of the marina.  There would be further travels and eventually we would discover that the even Columbia and Snake Rivers were not big enough for the Fairy Boat.  But that’s another story.

© Eskildoodle 2021