Posted by: Columbia River | September 20, 2009

Wenatchee to Priest Rapids Dam

Pushing off once again into the darkness of night, the town of Wenatchee provided thousands of nightlights, making the hillsides glow. Cop cars chasing criminals, stop lights controlling traffic, supermarket signs and gas stations advertising their business. A drastic change from the remoteness of British Columbia and far northern Washington, Wenatchee marked a turning point in the wilderness aspect of the Columbia River. The team was longer out in it away from the hustle and bustle of a commercial society, they were now floating through the heart of it.

As Paul paddled away from the park downriver of Rocky Reach dam he headed towards a boat ramp just a few miles downriver. Kirby Billingsley Hydro Park marked the last boat ramp before the next dam, Rock Island.

Only an hour or so of paddling and Paul reached the Hydro Park where Keel was waiting. Having left a few hours ahead of Paul the two communicated via cell phone where to meet up for the portage around Rock Island. By the time Paul had arrived Keel had already set up camp and started making dinner. Paul on the other hand was about to experience first-hand the horrible effects of food poisoning. As he neared the boat ramp where Keel was waiting Paul began feeling exhausted and nauseated. Tying off the boat Paul walked up to the picnic table where Keel was cooking and sat down. Once done cooking Keel began looking over maps assessing how much further the two had till Kennewick. Eagerly noticing the distance was much shorter then the two had previously calculated Keel began conveying the numbers to Paul. Staring at a plate of pasta Paul was unable to eat let alone do much more than stare at the ground. Over the next few minutes Paul began increasingly sick and eventually had to walk away from the table. Making it about 50′ away Paul dropped to his hands and knees no longer able to stand and began heavily vomiting on the ground. To the sound of Keel’s cheers in the background Paul vommited up everything in his stomach and then lied comatose on the ground for several minutes. Almost instantly after the wave post vomiting nausea past Paul felt unbelieveably better and walked back over to the table to try and eat something for dinner.

The rest of the night was uneventful and Paul and Keel retired for the night. Keel had met someone earlier that day while waiting at the Hydro Park and had plans to leave early the next morning for a ride around the dam. Paul had also secured a ride that day from Eric who agreed to come back and help Paul portage around the Rock Island Dam as well.

The next morning Keel woke up early, packed up, and took the ride around the dam. Paul on the other hand was just trying to survive the physically deteriorating effects of food poisoning. Sleeping most of the day and unable to do much more then simply lie on the ground, even putting on his shoes was as exhausting as running a marathon, any activity other than lying on the ground took an unbearable amount of effort.

Around 5pm that evening Eric showed up to help Paul around the dam. This time Eric had brought his horse trailer, complete with horse poop and all. Loading the boat into the back of the horse trailer Eric and Paul drove downriver to a boat access below the Rock Island Dam. Once unloaded the two sat and discussed how the rest of the trip was looking to go as well as Eric’s plans to convert his horse trailer into a outdoor shower / lounge for the upcoming Burning Man celebration.

Eric Degman and his horse trailer / portage vehicle.

Eric Degman and his horse trailer / portage vehicle.

As darkness once again found its way to the Columbia, Paul slid the cataraft into the water. Exhausted from loading and unloading the boat he only made it a few miles before camping for the night. The next day did not fair much better. Being about 4 days ahead of schedule for a planned party in Kennewick Paul decided to take a short day and only paddled about 10 miles before once again camping for the night. Having about 20 miles to go until the next dam (Wanapum) Paul called it a day.

Campground below Rocky Reach Dam.

Campground below Rocky Reach Dam.

The next day he woke up early feeling much better and easily made the remaining 20 miles to the last boat ramp on river-right above the dam. Arriving at the boat ramp, which more looked like a deserted sloping driveway into the water, the hope of catching a ride was slim at best. Tying up the boat, Paul began walking up the empty road towards the nearest town in search of a ride around the dam.

No further than 300 yards had he gone when a large pickup truck appeared. As the truck approached Paul asked how far it was to town. The couple in the truck told him not far and asked what he was up to. After mentioning he was paddling the Columbia and needed a ride around the dam the couple immediately offered up their vehicle and helped Paul load the boat into the back of their truck.

Lucky and random, a friendly couple helps Paul portage around Wanapum Dam in the middle of nowhere.

Lucky and Random, a friendly couple helps Paul portage in the middle of nowhere above Wanapum Dam.

A short drive later Paul was around the dam. Keel had already portaged the same dam a day earlier. Apparently, he portaged on river left just above the final bridge above the dam. To Keel’s good fortune he ran across someone who was driving around charging the battery in his car. So he had nothing else to do but drive around. Lucky for Keel he picks up hitchhikers with a sea kayak!

After driving around the Wanapum dam the couple in the pickup truck helped Paul unload and drove away to enjoy the rest of their vacation. Happy to be around the dam, which could have taken hours if not days had the couple not helped Paul, he headed up the road to a gas station to buy some good ‘ole gas station fried food. At the gas station Paul asked the women behind the counter how far it was to Priest Rapids and if she knew where the last boat ramp before the dam was located. She didn’t really have much of an idea of where the river went and asked where Paul was eventually heading.

“This river goes to the ocean!?” The woman behind the counter asked, shocked that the river went all that way. Staring blankly at the woman Paul explained where the Columbia starts and how it eventually makes up the Washington/Oregon border. The woman clearly had never thought to wonder where the river in her backyard wandered. Not sure what else to say Paul thanked the woman for her time and headed back to the boat.

That afternoon the wind once again unleashed its fury. Paul found shelter in the grass and lied on the ground trying to escape from the wind. During this time Keel who had been picked up a day earlier by Chris Bolken and Lanson was flying high above shooting photographs of the area in one of Chris’ friends experimental planes. Flying to the area where Paul was Keel spotted the cataraft and the piliot headed towards where the boat was tied up. Once above Keel and the piliot began feeling the strong winds pushing the plane in all directions. Scared of crashing the plane in the unpredictable and strong winds the two headed back to Kennewick.

Unaware Keel had been flying above Paul lied on the ground waiting for the wind to die down. Hours later it was apparent that the wind wasn’t going to take a break anytime soon. Setting up a tent (which was extremely difficult to say the least) he went to sleep hoping the wind would be better in the morning.

Dead salmon on the banks near Paul's tent.

Dead salmon on the banks near Paul's tent.

The next morning Paul woke up to a slight wind and pushed off hoping to make it the 18 miles to Priest Rapids Dam that day. Unfortunately, the wind had other plans for Paul. After paddling a few miles the wind began to howl, pushing the Columbia upriver making it impossible once again to paddle. Frustrated, tired, and wanting to reach Priest Rapids for a scheduled pickup Paul broke down. Muttering a wide range of swearwords and insults Paul walked along shore pulling, pushing, and dragging the boat along the water near shore trying to make it around a bend in the river ahead in hopes that the wind would relent.

Bald eagles were out and about.

Bald eagles were out and about.


Another Bald Eagle watches from above.

Another Bald Eagle watches from above.


Eventually, Paul made the mile or so distance to the bend and got back in the boat happy to be able to paddle once again. Not sure where he was heading all Paul knew was the last boat ramp was on river left in a town called “Desert Aire”. After miles of off again, on again wind, Paul eventually limped the boat into the Desert Aire Marina and called the support crew in Kennewick to let them know he had arrived. A few hours later Chris Bolken and Lanson arrived, helped Paul load the boat into their truck, and headed back to Kennewick.

Priest Rapids Dam sign at Desert Aire Marina.

Priest Rapids Dam sign at Desert Aire Marina.


Priest Rapids Dam

Priest Rapids Dam

Once in Kennewick, the team sat down to a feast of a dinner Keel had made. The team had arrived 3 days ahead of schedule for a community event through the Hanford Reach section they had planned months earlier. So all the team had to do now was eat, sleep, and relax!

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