Paddling the Willamette Narrows

West Linn is the gateway to world-class paddling in the Portland metro area.
July 22, 2022

Our kayaks glide almost silently but for the dipping of the paddles as we enter a narrow channel between the west bank of the Willamette River and Little Rock Island, the first of three large islands and several smaller ones that make up the Willamette Narrows. As we pass breathtakingly close below a bald eagle holding sentinel in the top of a tall fir, the silence is broken by a squawking belted kingfisher, annoyed that we have invaded its territory. 

Oregon is blessed with some of the finest paddling in the country, and the Willamette Narrows just might be the jewel in the crown. Formed when the Missoula Floods scoured the river bottom, leaving only uplifted basalt bedrock, this collection of islands in the Willamette River a few miles south of Portland forms a paddler’s paradise of small channels and coves.

The Willamette Narrows represents a small section of the 187-mile Willamette River Water Trail, one of only 20 National Water Trails in the United States. Willamette Riverkeeper offers maps and itinerary ideas for the entire trail on their website. For those without their own watercrafts, PaddleLinn rents kayaks and stand-up paddleboards at Willamette Park during the summer months. Once you’ve got your gear, here’s how to explore.

Kayaker starring at the Willamette "Narrows"
The Narrows

Paddle Alongside Osprey and Otters

The current is light on this summer afternoon, making the upstream paddle an easy task. We’re a little over a mile from our put-in at West Linn’s Willamette Park, but it’s hard to believe that we are still within a major metropolitan area.

The islands and 469 acres of the west bank are part of a preserve owned and managed by Metro and The Nature Conservancy. The Narrows, which are part of the Willamette River Water Trail, are home to a wide range of wildlife, including osprey, great blue herons, beaver, mink and river otter. Landing beaches afford paddlers an opportunity to explore the shoreline further, where plants like Oregon white oak, bigleaf maple, ash, madrone and one of Oregon’s rarest wildflowers, the white rock larkspur, thrive. (Just watch out for poison oak.)

Passing the southern tip of Little Rock Island, we turn and begin weaving our boats in and out of the veritable obstacle course formed by the rocks. Eventually, we make our way across the narrow main channel and then circumnavigate the larger Rock Island on smooth water. All the islands and rocks afford paddlers a kind of safe haven from motorized boat traffic, which is forced to slow when passing.

My paddling partner spots a good beach landing, and we take our beach chairs and snacks ashore to soak in the warm August sunshine. The water is inviting, and I take a brief swim to cool off before we begin our return paddle downstream to Willamette Park.

Aided by the gentle current, we relax and drift along, barely lifting our paddles as we make our way back to the take-out. The effort has left us feeling peckish, so once we stow our boats and gear, we take the short walk up the hill to find refreshments.

Dining and Drinks on West Linn’s Willamette Main Street

West Linn’s historic Willamette Falls Drive offers numerous options. The Ale & Cider House is located in a historic 1915 building and offers 32 craft beers on tap, as well as 22 taps of their own house-made Queen Orchard ciders and Italian hard sodas. Rotating food trucks and vendors such as Kelly’s Tacos provide dining options. Check their calendar to see which cart is serving when you visit.  

Just down the street, Nineteen 33 Taproom offers hearty, scratch-made pub food, plus a full bar and several taps featuring local craft beers. If you need pre-paddle nourishment, Lark Cafe offers coffees, pastries, breakfast sandwiches and hearty breakfast burritos. Up the street, Para Juice Bar features fresh-pressed juices, smoothies, healthy bowls and salads.

If your paddle adventure happens on a Wednesday between May 25 and September 15, stick around for West Linn’s Summer Street Market featuring local crafters, artisans and farmers.

The Ale & Cider House

If You Go

  • Summer is the perfect time for beginner and novice paddlers to explore the Narrows, but keep in mind conditions are seasonal. The river’s current is usually gentle in summer. During spring runoff and after heavy rains, much swifter current can result in challenging swirls, boils and eddies around rocks and islands, and should be left to advanced and expert paddlers. Check the NOAA Gauge for water levels. Information on flow rates, water temperature and more can be found via USGS. 
  • Remember to always wear a personal flotation device (PFD), no matter the conditions.
  • Willamette Park, located just below West Linn’s historic district, is the best launch spot for a Narrows loop-paddling adventure. The paved boat ramp can be busy with motorboaters, so an easy walk down to a protected cove at the mouth of the Tualatin River may prove to be a more convenient launch.
  • PaddleLinn offers sit-on-top, pedal-powered kayaks and SUPs for rent seven days a week. Look for their brightly colored trailer. On busy summer weekends, it’s best to make reservations online. 
  • To reach the Willamette Narrows, head south from Willamette Park aka Bernert Landing. You’ll encounter Little Rock Island just over a mile upstream. Avoid paddling north (downstream), as that takes you to the upstream side of Willamette Falls and would be very dangerous.

About The

Robbie McClaran
Robbie McClaran is an award winning photographer, whose work focuses on the American people and landscape. He shoots editorial, corporate and advertising photography for clients based worldwide. His work has appeared in diverse publications, such as The New York Times Magazine, Time, Smithsonian, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, Runner's World and Fortune. He splits time living in Portland and Rockaway Beach.

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