Kayakers dive into Columbia, local history
September 7, 2023
Ken Bell-Garrison leans against the wooden railing of the docks at Viewpoint Landing in Skamokawa. An easy-going man with a wry smile, Bell-Garrison is a veteran kayaker but this is his first time visiting the Lower Columbia.
Behind him, a sandy bank on the north point of Price Island slides elegantly into Steamboat Slough. He likes paddling in sloughs.
"You're just right there and there's wildlife and plants all just right around you, as opposed to just going out across the lake," Bell-Garrison says. "The paddling is nice, but all you see is water 'til you get over there."
A retired social worker from Spokane, Bell-Garrison is embarking on his first adventure in this part of the world as a participant in Road Scholar, a national nonprofit dedicated to curating trips for lifelong learners. Mostly geared toward retirees, Road Scholar offers vacation programs across the country and around the planet that focus on active learning and cultural immersion.
The crisp air at Viewpoint Landing is alive with birds of all kinds, particularly dozens of purple martins that dive in and out of view. They make a lively racket. The air also buzzes with the somewhat nervous energy of fourteen other Road Scholars, some new to kayaking, some more experienced. They are helping one another with their personal flotation devices and stork-walking amongst the brightly colored Necky Looksha kayaks that are packed onto the dock side by side like giant tinned fish.
Lyn Dahlstrom of Eugene is another veteran paddler. She has been kayaking for about 30 years, mostly whitewater, but got into flatwater kayaking during covid with a 12-foot Eddyline Skylark. This is her first longer trip, and the kayaks they are using are a little bit longer than she's used to.
Altogether the group will go on four multi-hour excursions during the week, and a full morning interpretive hike.
"Flatwater and lakes and easy rivers," she says. "I've never launched from the docks so I'm a little bit freaked about that. I'm fat, and my knees are shot."
"I avoid docks, oh, and this one is very far up!" she says, peering over the high deck to the docks below. "My knees don't bend."
Sandra Lee, of McMinnville, Oregon, is traveling with a dear friend, Brian Mandak. Sandra is new to kayaking, but not to Road Scholar.
"I've never kayaked but this is great," Lee says. "I've tried lots of things with Road Scholar: Hiking, dog sledding in Jackson Hole."
This is Madak's fifth Road Scholar excursion. He's been to Arches National Park in Utah, Escalante National Monument, and Death Valley. He too, is new to the Columbia Pacific region.
"That's the unique thing," he says. "Learning about the area. Looking at these islands, you just kind of wonder, what lives here? And just the natural setting of the place. It's kind of hidden. The dynamic times of the canneries and the logging. Now it's changing."
The night before, the participants had attended a talk by Skamokawa resident and historian Irene Martin. Martin specializes in the history of Wahkiakum County, and speaks eloquently about the changes in the fishing and logging industries over the past century.
Another source of local history is guide Andrew Emlen, whose insights into the changing physical and cultural terrain flow as generously and spontaneously as the river itself. He speaks fluently about the landscape, and historical moments, like when Lewis and Clark first emerged into the widening mouth of the Columbia at the Skamokawa Bend, where the river turns for its final flow to the west.
Emlen points to the narrow gray horizon that stretches between the basalt bluffs and islands of the lower Columbia.
"There was an island blocking their view right here," he says.
"Where did the Island go?" asks one participant.
"The river took it away," Emlen says, simply. "Things are always changing. There's an island we're going to go by that, when I first came here, it still had trees on it. Geese nested on it, it had a little wetland you could get out and explore. It's a sandbar that's under water at low tide now."
Later, having hacked through the wake of a huge Pacific Basin container ship, the group rests near a bank of the Lewis and Clark National Wildlife Refuge, waiting for a few stragglers to catch up. Emlen again points toward the mouth of the river in the far distance.
"See that little thumb of rock? Straight across from there is where Lewis and Clark camped the same day they came through Skamokawa," he says.
He points out some distant spots that catch the light like tiny vertical strokes of brilliant white paint on a canvas. They are American white pelicans, recent arrivals from the inland lakes of eastern Oregon.
"They're climate refugees," Emlen says. Droughts in Oregon have exposed the pelicans' nesting grounds to coyotes, among other hardships.
Emlen is passionate about the natural history of the area. From an early age, his first inclination has been to incorporate geology and natural history into learning.
"Place based learning is important to me," he says. "Every aspect of what we do should reflect the place we are."
I ask him if he grew up in the area.
"Same watershed," he says. "I grew up south of Portland."
Though Emlen has found kayaking to be a uniquely effective way to teach local history, he came to the practice in a surprising way.
"I was living in Astoria when I got the cold call asking if I wanted to start the kayak program. [Warren Rovetch] was looking for someone who already knew the natural and cultural heritage of the area."
Rovetch owned the Skamokawa Resort at the time, and brought Road Scholar to the area in 1998. Emlen had led wilderness adventures, but never by kayak.
"I had some intensive rescue training," he says. "I learned what works at different tides at different times of year. I learned how to read the weather."
The participants of Road Scholar consistently praise Emlen's leadership.
"Andrew just does such a great job," Mandak says. "You can sense his passion for it. It's a good thing to see."
"I feel very safe in Andrew's hands," says Jeanne Clark. Clark is a retired school librarian living northwest of San Antonio. She and her sister, Olivia Koenig, a fundraiser for the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, are traveling together. Like many of the participants on this excursion, the sisters heard about Road Scholar from their parents, who took 10 trips with the company. They seem to embody the lifelong learner ethos of Road Scholar. They joke that "go get the encyclopedia" was a common utterance in their parents' house whenever one of the girls had a question. While vacationing as a family, they tended toward trips centered around learning and culture.
"We never went to touristy locations," Koenig says.
The attraction of learning while vacationing is echoed by Kelly Fidei from Evanston, Illinois. She likes the combination of sports, proximity to nature, and learning.
"Like about birds," she says.
I ask her if she, like many of the other participants, is an avid birder.
"No," Fidei says sheepishly, but then adds, flashing a radiant smile, "Now I'm interested! Because I've met some people who are, and I realize there's a lot to it."
It is Fidei's first visit to the area.
"I didn't realize how big and deep the Columbia River is," she says. "We had to kayak across the wake of that huge ship, and I didn't know if I was going to go over!"
Fidei is a management consultant specializing in "a values based way of working. The number one value of respect for people, plus courage, collaboration, experimentation, focus," values that she says align with what she's experiencing here.
"It's a nice community feeling here," Fidei said. "When I work on organizational engagement I always assess the culture, like what's the feel, is it warm and friendly? Is it distant? Why is it distant? Is it survival? I work on helping people create communities."
Later that night, the bulk of the participants gathered for a presentation of music by and about the Columbia Pacific region, featuring members of the kayak guide team playing instruments as varied as the mouth harp and the mandocello, a baritone member of the mandolin family. The songs comprised a surprisingly diverse range of genres, from blues, to rousing bluegrass, to the Finnish Säkkijärven polkka, and culminating in a Motown-inspired setting of verbatim transcripts from this newspaper's weekly sheriff's report.
But the heart of the concert is a trio of songs by Washington songwriter Mary Garvey, including "Tie It Up and Let It Rot," a pained anthem mourning the lost fishing industry; the haunting "Oyster Shell Road," commemorating the Nemah, WA, women working the tide flats of Willapa Bay during World War II; and the rowdy and bawdy "Cannery Shed Song."
The concert tied together the threads of community and history, and showcased the not-so-hidden multi-talents of the kayak guides, offering a unique glimpse into the multifaceted cultural life of the region.
"A number of people have commented that they came expecting to kayak and found a community," Emlen told me later. "They didn't necessarily expect all the extras. That's what I want to show them. That we are a community, and a vibrant one."
For more information, visit http://www.roadscholar.org/