Up the Snake

by Howard Eskildsen

We left Metz Marina on the Columbia River on June 20, 1993, beginning a cruise 145 miles up the Snake River to Lewiston Idaho.  Fairy and I had five days alone together while the kids were away to camps.  We had wanted to do the trip by boat since moving to Tri‑Cities three years earlier, inspired by tales of other cruisers.  It was also a good time to “shake down” the boat for a planned cruise in Puget Sound in August.  As Captain Ron said, “If anything is going to happen, it will happen out there…”  We didn’t realize, however, that “shake down” would have a more literal meaning before the trip ended.

Two miles from the marina we turned north into the mouth of the Snake River.  Ten miles farther upstream was Ice Harbor Dam, the first of four dams that we would traverse during the journey.  It was named after a small harbor in the area used in the past by steam boats waiting for the ice to break up so they could continue on to Idaho.  Small craft are allowed to lock through the dams every three hours on the hour from 9 AM through 9 PM going up stream.  The down stream lock times are half an hour later.  The lock has a vertical lift of 103 feet dwarfing the boats inside.  It is entered by passing under a huge gate that is hoisted open vertically. 

The gate was open when we arrived and a green light gave clearance to enter.  We went into the cavernous vault while avoiding streamers of water dripping from the gate.  Once inside the lock, we proceeded to the farthest buoy on the starboard side and tied up carefully.  The water is turbulent when the it gushes in to fill the lock and careful attention must be paid to the mooring and to fending the boat as it rises. 

A couple of other boats tied up and then the giant gate lowered.  A low rumble came from the depths below as the water started to churn, and the walls trembled.  We used fenders and boat poles to keep the sides of the boat off the coarse concrete aggregate wall while rising steadily.  The top of the lock approached and the rumbling and tremor diminished.  The waters calmed and the gate on the up stream side of the lock disappeared below the surface.  Moments later the horn signaled that it was safe to leave the lock. 

In the waiting area upstream of the dam a small armada of boats awaited their turn to lock through downstream.  The local yacht club was returning from a weekend outing.  We understood why we had been asked how many boats were in our “party” when we talked to the lock master on the radio earlier. 

The returning boats kept the water churning with their wakes, so we cruised at our displacement speed of seven miles per hour past Charbonneau park, Fishhook State Park and through Anchor Canyon.  Just up stream of Anchor Canyon a bay opens up to the south side of the river that is protected from westerly winds by cliffs and has a good holding mud bottom.  It brought back memories.

The year previously we anchored there for a night.  The kids swam around the boat and wanted to take the inflatable raft to shore until we told them about the rattlesnakes in the area.  Twilight was glorious in the cloudless sky as we ate around the table at the helm station.  The two girls got into a spat and Fairy worked at stopping the furor.  I had learned long ago to stay out of such female fracases lest I face the full furry of three angry “ladies”.  The peace was restored when I casually mentioned that there were bats overhead.  Three faces turned immediately skyward as they covered their hair with their hands.  The bat sighting was soon confirmed and they went below, leaving their differences behind them.  I settled back and basked in the peace and quiet of the fading twilight. 

Past our old anchorage and we stepped up the pace, running 25 MPH in plane, to get to Lower Monumental Dam for the 3:00 PM lock through.  The river canyon had brown basalt covered with brown grass with an occasional orchard visible to break the monotony.  We hoped for prettier scenery farther up the Snake.  We locked through Lower Monumental Dam alone.  From there it was 20 miles to Lyons Ferry at the mouth of the Palouse River, our intended destination for the night.  We still had five hours of daylight remaining so there was no need to hurry.  It was a good thing.

A thunderstorm caught up with us just up stream of the dam.  It rattled the  biminy top and enclosure we hastily put up to keep the rain off.  The wind and the swells were traveling up river.  We would overtake a wave, sometimes 4 feet high, accelerate as we surfed down it and then decelerate as we climbed up the next wave.  Some waves came from odd directions, pushing the boat to the side.  The combination of accelerating and decelerating while pitching up and down and being shoved from side to side took some getting used to.  It was not terribly uncomfortable, however, as we wallowed along with the “following seas”. 

Five miles from Lyon’s Ferry the sun broke through the clouds and the rain diminished.  The southeastern canyon wall turned brilliant orange against a backdrop of dark blue and gray thunder clouds.  Around another bend appeared the world’s highest working railroad trestle bridge, gleaming silvery white in the rays of the setting sun.  Between it and a smaller highway bridge up stream our evening’s destination came into view.  Before long we tied to the marina retaining wall. 

I wiped down the boat while Fairy made supper.  Satisfied that the boat was clean and dry, I joined her for a romantic dinner below.  Everything was ready for the next day’s cruise.  The weather front causing the storms should move on through that night leaving calm waters behind.  What could possibly go wrong?

Ants!  I moaned as my eyes adjusted to the early morning light. It was our misfortune to tie up to the section of retaining wall backed by massive anthills.  We had chosen one of the few days each year when ants fly away from the hill to mate and start new colonies.  The decks were covered with the winged bodies of ants that had not survived the previous night’s orgy.  A few of the hardier ones staggered in a hung over stupor towards nooks and crannies where their sorry remains would be found months later.  The dew pasted the others to the deck so that they could not merely be swept or blown away. 

After two hours of cleaning 90% of the insects were gone, the rest hidden in areas to be discovered later.  There was plenty of daylight and our next destination was only 45 miles away, so we decided a walk would calm our nerves for whatever would befall us next.  When we returned the humor of the whole situation became apparent.  Even the looming clouds from the front that became stationary during the night could not dampen the spirits of the intrepid cruisers.

The wind freshened as we entered the river and proceeded up stream.  York Island came into view.  It was a flat, drab, brush covered sand bar that seemed terribly misnamed.

The scenery up river had more of the same dull hues that we saw

on the previous day.  The canyon just got deeper and browner with very little greenery.  Central Ferry State Park did break the monotony to a degree, with its oasis of greenery.  Across from Central Ferry Meadow Creek entered the river and formed a calm bay that provided shelter from the wind blowing up river.  Little did we realize what it would mean to us two days later.

From Central Ferry the river narrowed and became shallower.  We paid close attention to the buoys marking the safe channel.  Thunder heads developed and there were scattered showers.  The waves from the wind seemed to follow the meanders of the river as we wallowed through the following seas once again.  Fortunately, neither of us became seasick.  The river was 1500 feet lower than the surrounding terrain, so the lightning was not a hazard. 

Around 4:30 PM Boyer State Park came into view.  It was lighted by sunbeams that broke through the dark rain clouds.  Everything was wet from the rain and williwaws sent ripples scurrying in different directions in the marina as if some water sprites were playing hide and seek.

It took several attempts, but finally the winds and the waves eased enough to allow docking.  We paid for the night’s moorage and went to the restaurant to eat.  The path to the restaurant went by a flock of geese and their small goslings.  They were cute to watch, but we had to also watch our step to avoid what they left “behind”.

After supper we explored the park in the golden light of the setting sun.  The rain stopped and the wind lessened.  Around the bend was the last dam to be crossed before Lewiston and the scenery was definitely better. 

The morning brought clear skies and more wind!  By my calculations we should have been in clear and calm.  Three days remained to complete the trip.  If we waited out the wind we would not make Lewiston.  If we went on to Lewiston and the wind continued, we would be committed to returning in conditions that

we would prefer to wait out.  We decided to press on. 

We locked through Lower Granite Dam at 9:00 AM into the upper portion of the snake river.  The canyon walls were much deeper and a few oak and juniper trees dotted the landscape.  The rock cliffs were still basalt except for one small outcropping of pink granite just up stream for which the dam was named.  I pointed it out to Fairy and she gave me the standard “so what” look. 

Around the bend from the dam cliffs blocked the wind, making the water calm enough to run in plane.  We maintained a careful lookout to avoid the floating logs that had gotten away from sawmills up stream.  We passed Silcott Island which was about as exciting as New York Island. There the river took a sharp bend to the east and the wind and waves returned.  We slowed to displacement speed again and sloshed on to Clarkston and then to Lewiston. 

The wind finally became our ally.  It was blowing the paper mill smoke to Idaho and we were spared its pungent odor.  At the confluence of the Clearwater and the Snake Rivers, the Snake makes a sharp bend to the south.  There we were protected from the wind and ran at full speed up the river to Devil’s Gate Marina.  We had reached our destination!

The attendant at the marina was quite courteous and answered questions about the area and the weather forecast.  The wind was expected to last for another day or two.  We emptied the holding tank, fueled the boat and then contemplated our return trip over lunch. 

Two guys from California provided a humorous diversion when they launched their 30 foot Sea Ray, roared down river, returned, hauled it out, changed props, re-launched and took off again in a great hurry.  They planned to travel to Portland and back, a total distance of 740 miles, while locking through dams 16 times in one week!

It was early in the afternoon, so we went for a walk on the trail along the river protected from the wind.  Cedar Waxwings and other birds darted through the brush by the trail and lifted our spirits.  Two and a half miles down the trail rain forced us to take cover for a while.  When it stopped the clouds parted revealing a steel blue sky over the eastern mountain skyline.  The troublesome storm front was moving out of the area, giving hope of better weather.

We took the boat to Red Wolf Marina in Clarkston, 5 miles down river from Devil’s Gate Marina.  This gave us a head start on the return home.  It was located on the wind swept portion of the Snake.  The chaotic wind made traversing the marina and docking a challenge.  It was a great relief when we were finally tied securely to the dock. 

The marina was under construction and had no groceries available.  The only open store there was a dingy bar.  We hiked a mile along a dreary street to a grocery store and got the needed supplies.  By the time we returned to the boat we had concluded that the people who told the glowing tales of trips to Lewiston and Clarkston by boat had never actually done it. 

We settled down to relax in the boat out of the wind and enjoy supper.  Fairy made Rice-a-Roni using water from our water tank.  Normally we only used it for washing.  I took one taste and immediately spit it out!  Fairy would not believe me that it truly tasted awful and tried a bite herself.  The look on her face told me that it was the worst tasting thing she had ever put in her mouth.  It seems that I had not completely gotten all of the antifreeze out of the water tank during the spring commissioning. 

After a good laugh, we found food to eat and then tidied up for the night.  I had to check the mooring lines again as the wind still roared through the canyon.  The 50 foot motor yacht “Chelsea II” from Newport Oregon entered the marina and promptly tied up to the fuel dock next to the sign that read, “No overnight moorage”.  It would prove to be typical of their conduct. 

We left at dawn to make the 9:30 lock through at Lower Granite Dam.  The wind came up with the sun, but we soon were in the protected waters in the canyon above the dam and made good time.  It was essential to cross two dams that day to make it home on schedule.  We passed the dam in relative calm and were by Boyer State Park when the wind caught up with us. 

Heading into the 3-4 foot waves was much more violent than the following seas had been.  The bow would pitch up and then head for the trough between waves.  Spray blew back from the bow as it hit the next wave.  It took care to avoid burying the bow in the water.  It was more a problem of discomfort than of danger.  We grimly set to the task for the next five hours pounding out the 36 miles to Little Goose Dam. 

Three hours later we limped into Meadow Creek across from Central Ferry State Park.  Fairy gave me the “I’m going no farther” look and I too was ready to duck out of the waves.  Our muscles ached from bracing against the constant pounding.  We dropped anchor in the relative calm and tried to regroup. 

“Give me the phone, I’m calling Gwen to come and get me!”, Fairy commanded.

The phone would not work in the depth of the canyon, but I felt it best for Fairy to find that out for herself.  “Damn!” was all she said.  After an hour of calm water and some refreshments we considered our options.  The river meandered more now and the waves were not as intense.  The sky was cloudless, the harassing weather front was gone and the wind would just have to diminish.  Wouldn’t it?  In the end it was the desire to get home more than anything else that got us back on the river. 

We arrived at Little Goose Dam an hour before the 3:30 PM lock through.  On the south side of the river was a small bay known as Little Goose Landing where we tied up to a dock while waiting.  The wind continued to howl.  While there I decided to use the fiberglass privy on shore.  It shook so in the wind that I was certain that it was going over a couple of times.  Finally I figured out that the falling sensation was only a trick being played by my “sea legs”, and I was able to finish my business. 

We entered the lock facing the wind with the fenders to starboard and planning to tie up to the buoy on the north side of the lock.  We were closing in on the mooring buoy when the lock master called on the radio and asked us to tie to the other side.  As I reached for the mike, the wind caught the bow and hurled it towards the wall of the lock.  Quick reverse throttle and coordination of the wheel kept the bow from striking the wall as the boat turned stern to the wind.  Rather than change the fenders around we went to the other side and tied up facing up river. 

The lock master suggested that before exiting we turn around in the deepest portion of the lock where the wind would affect us the least.  Out side of the lock a four knot current going against 30 knot winds built steep waves over four feet high making backing out a dangerous proposition.  In the process of stowing the fenders Fairy’s sun visor blew off and was lost.  I was just thankful that she had not gone over as well. 

For the next two miles the view was blue sky, a brown blur, blue water, a brown blur, and blue sky again.  The bow bounced up and down so fast that the brown basalt cliffs were barely noticeable  Finally by Riparia a sharp bend in the river dampened the waves

to a manageable 2-3 foot height.  We briefly considered anchorage in the Tucannon River, but the depths weren’t charted and it looked shallow and obstructed. 

When the bridges by Lyon’s Ferry came into view, we turned right, into the mouth of the Palouse River instead of going to the marina.  There would be no ants boarding tonight!  Past the state park a large research vessel lay at anchor.                                             

We continued up the Palouse until the depth read 15 feet and dropped anchor.  The wind finally diminished while the setting sun painted the eastern cliffs orange.  Marmes Rock Shelter archeological site was just to the north.  A crescent moon looked down on our quiet anchorage.  Our bodies still danced to the rocking rhythms of the day’s travel, but the boat was perfectly still.  Sheer exhaustion pulled us into a deep slumber. 

The first serene sunrise of the trip woke the two dreamers.  The cloudless calm gave promise of a peaceful journey home.  I wiped the dew off the boat and raised the anchor.  There was plenty of time to reach Lower Monumental Dam for the 9:30 lock through.  We ran in plane through the brown blandness of the countryside, enjoying the waveless water.  At 8:30 we stopped a mile above the dam to drift and wait in the quiet water. 

“Look what’s coming!”  The Chelsea II was roaring down the river headed for the locks.  They were in a hurry, the hull being over driven by two large diesel engines.  They passed us with a huge wake and a cloud of smoke.  Either they did not know the lock times or didn’t care.  They hove to in front of the lock and got on the radio. 

“Lower Mo, this is the Chelsea II.”

No answer.  The lock master must have been busy with other chores at the time.  They called again, again, and again.  Finally the

lock master answered. 

“Lower Mo, this is the Chelsea II, we are ready to lock through going down stream.”  There was a hurried tone to the skipper’s voice.  He was told to wait for the scheduled lock time, and the radio was finally silent. 

At the proper time, Chelsea II moved to the far downstream end of the lock.  We stayed on the upstream end, happy to be as far away as possible from the scurrying skipper.  Before the lock finished

emptying, the two diesels roared to life.  The skipper called the lock master on the radio and ordered him call Ice Harbor Dam and have the locks ready for them when they arrived.  I would have loved to heard the comments of the lock master after the conversation ended.  The giant downstream gate opened and Chelsea II opened the throttles sending a wake through the whole lock. 

We managed to maneuver clear of the lock walls before the wake hit us.  Our words mixed with the blue diesel exhaust clouds as we bounced around the inside the lock.  The discussion regarded the appropriateness of the skipper’s parentage and whether his mother had two legs or four. 

Two miles farther down stream Windust Recreational Area appeared.  It had a dock where we could eat breakfast.  The greeting was less than friendly when we pulled up to the dock.  Two kids tried to get the water out of their row boat while an elderly gentleman, bleeding form the forehead and elbow, glared at our boat.  His wife told how the wake from the Chelsea II had swamped the kids’ boat and had tossed the man from his chair on the dock into the nearby piling.  He was momentarily stunned, but fortunately had not followed his fishing pole into the water. 

We traded tales of woe recently experienced from the passing motor yacht and helped with first aid.  I used the boat hook to snag his fishing pole which was in six feet of water.  We were happy to tell them how to contact the Coast Guard to report the wake damage.  They commented that it was nice to know that all boaters were not jerks, and then went on their way.  Later, after breakfast, we departed and saw them waving from the shore. 

The water remained calm as we returned to familiar waters.  The old anchorage came into view, then Anchor Canyon and Fishhook State Park.  We stopped at Charbonneau since we were too late for the 12:30 lock at Ice Harbor Dam.  Chelsea II was on the radio  barking orders to the lock master again.  I thought about warning the lock master, but decided he probably already knew what he was dealing with. 

The next few hours passed slowly while we waited only twelve miles from home for the next lock time.  We walked through the campground and talked about the coming trip to the San Juan Islands on Puget Sound.  The Fairy Boat held up well during the

past few days and no major problems surfaced.  We had been jolted by the snake but not bitten.  We wondered if the ocean would treat us better than the land locked waters had.  Little did we realize that our river cruising was nearly over.  The ocean lay ahead.