On a clear day, the view atop Bradley State Scenic Wayside to the Columbia River is astounding! Picnic tables invite a longer stay in this prime day use site just off State Highway 30 near Astoria, but it’s the river view that begs closer inspection. So give in and try something new with paddlers who gather to explore Columbia River backwater sloughs and islands.
Steve Gibons, owner and lead guide of Scappoose Bay Kayaking, said that the Lower Columbia River’s nooks and crannies provide paddlers a wealth of waterways. “At this time of year, you cannot ask for better weather – cooler and milder – so we’re going to paddle upstream (from the Knappa Dock) and then cut into a special site in a Sitka Spruce forest with really big and really old trees. There are two easy to reach sloughs that will put us right in the thick of things.”
“Blind Slough” is certainly the ‘thick of things;’ it is Nature Conservancy Preserve of over 800 acres of soggy swampland with no land access. It is the last sizable intact Sitka spruce and tidal-influenced swamp forest of the Columbia River, a habitat type that once stretched from Tillamook Bay north to southeast Alaska. It is home to salmon, beaver, river otter, bald eagles and several other wildlife species. Fortunately, it has been protected by The Nature Conservancy since 1992.
The swamp is a braid of channels, separated by acre-sized (or larger) islands. These are soggy places, reminiscent of some distant southern bayou, but of dense willow, alder, and immense Sitka spruce. Some trees rise 200 feet or more and are 400 or more years old. The native vegetation is a jungle so thick you cannot walk into the islands, but when paddling through the backwater sloughs inside a stable kayak, with time and tides in your favor, the travel is easy and pleasant.
In fact, in this part of the Columbia River dotted by scores of islands that are separated by dozens of sloughs, a boat is the only way to get around. Gibons insisted that if you come to visit, remember that safety starts with a life jacket: “It is a state law that you must have one in the boat, but it’s our rule and a smart boating rule that says you wear it at all times.”
Boating is only way to take in the huge swamp forest that dates to the 1600s. Gibons called the trees giants. “It was the predominant tree of the coastal northwest two hundred years ago. The Sitka stands ran all the way up the western coastline to Alaska. Some of the trees reach 4-feet in diameter so to have a preserve like this is very special.”
Historically, these areas flooded each spring from Columbia River runoff, so over time the silt built up and the islands grew larger. The big, old Sitka trees could take root and adapt to the moist soil. Along the southern edge of the Columbia River, water is washing through the preserve all of the time and that makes it a rich place for salmon, waterfowl, and the larger predators like osprey, bald eagles, and even bears.
When you visit I hope you feel as I did: that despite a short 80 miles from Portland, you are in the middle of nowhere. There are very few places in western Oregon that allow that sense of escape and that feeling is not lost on the other paddlers in our small armada.
“”I’ve never seen anything like this anywhere else,” said longtime paddler Bonnie Gibons. “It’s the size of the trees, the quiet and just being able to experience the outdoors here is wonderful.”
Of all the different ways I’ve journeyed throughout Oregon, paddling is the most intimate way to touch nature. It’s easy and quiet, and you never know what you’re going to see: perhaps an eagle roosting in a towering spruce, or a beaver or muskrat cruising by, maybe even a pond turtle basking on a log in the warm, waning afternoon sun. Paddling offers time well spent in the Oregon outdoors.
Note: Blind Slough is accessible only by canoe or small boat. The tides here can be strong and so can the winds. Please respect private property signs and avoid the log rafts. May, June, and September are excellent times to visit the Blind Slough Preserve.
From Portland, travel west approximately eighty miles to Knappa Junction. Turn north at the Logger Café. In less than a quarter mile, turn right onto Brownsmead Road and travel approximately one mile to a junction. Stay left and continue north toward the river. Cross a wooden bridge over railroad tracks and go approximately a hundred yards to the Knappa docks for canoe launching.