Feeling the power of the Columbia

Monday, July 13, 2020

Kettle Falls Marina to Little Sheep Creek (above Northport)

34 miles cruised today; 185 miles for the trip

Railroad and highway bridges at Kettle Falls

This promises to be a special day. We’re going all the way up to Northport, where Lake Roosevelt transitions to the free flowing Columbia River. We eat a hearty breakfast of omelet and toast before heading out. Sky is a deep blue, with nary a cloud in sight. We swing out of the marina around 9:30 onto the glassy surface of Lake Roosevelt. We pass a few fishing boats as we approach the highway and railroad bridges. The railroad bridge is the lowest, at 45 feet vertical clearance. We should clear it by 8 feet. I’m always nervous going under bridges with clearance in this range. It looks like we’ll never make it. To be on the cautious side I slow the engine as we approach the span, and I swing into a shallow angle of approach, so that if our radio antenna or the top of the mast should touch, I can quickly veer off. Worries were uncalled for as we clear the bridge with, you guessed it, about 8 feet of clearance.

Waters narrow on Upper Lake Roosevelt

As we proceed uplake, the hills keep getting greener, with lush timber on both sides of the river and fascinating rock formations of various colors, including bright white. We conclude that the white formations are marble, and with a place name of Marble along the lake, and also evidence of quarrying, we’re sure we’re right. Poofy white clouds begin to appear, and they simply add to the quality of the panoramas which unfold as we make our way up. We have the water virtually to ourselves, and only see a few fishing boats in the vicinity of the 2 or 3 boat ramps along this stretch.

Scanning for wildlife
Approaching the narrows in strengthening current

We had noticed current while going under the bridges, and the strength of flow steadily increases with every mile. I’m running at 3000 rpm and most of the time only moving at 5.5 mph. A little while after lunch we reach China Bar and, above there, the current really gets strong. We’re definitely in an actively flowing river from here on. Just above Rattlesnake Creek the river dramatically pinches down, to less than half its previous width at the narrowest. It flows between steep rocky cliffs on both sides, and the current increases dramatically. The river boils and eddies, and I advance the throttle to nearly 4000 rpm. It’s like going against a full ebb at Deception Pass. I rapidly counter the lateral force of the eddies with sudden steering corrections. At times the boat threatens to turn sideways and I struggle to

Challenging whitewater on the Columbia

turn her back upstream. The boils rock us from side to side. Sandy goes below and puts her life jacket on. I’m already wearing mine. Our forward

progress is painfully slow. Despite the aggressive throttle, our forward speed drops, at times, to below 2 mph. Current here must be close to 10 mph. After a battle of 30 minutes, we get above the narrows and the waters smooth, and our speed begins to increase. We’re still in strong current

Halfway through the rapids

though, making around 5 mph at 3800 rpm. It seems like it takes forever for us to reach Northport, but we finally pass under the highway bridge at this little border town. I’ve got my eye on an interesting creek mouth, called Little Sheep Creek, which is less than a mile above Northport. It’s just around the next point on the left. However, I can see white water riffles coming off that point, and off to the right, another stretch of white water stands guard. Between these two shallow, rapid patches of water is a smooth but extremely fast flowing way through. I advance the throttle to 5000 rpm and start to fight my way through. About half way up the run I must turn to the left, to avoid being swept into the white water shoal on the right. I get into a good line, but before clearing the hazard zone I see 8 kayaks rounding the point of the island, setting up for a run down the rapids. I now must navigate the rushing water and, at the same time, avoid running a herd of kayaks down. I can’t imagine what they’re thinking as they witness a sailboat fighting its way up the swift water. They all pass securely on our left, getting a good bounce from our wake as they do. I can’t tell if they’re delighted with the additional challenge, or mad at me for throwing wake at them.

As they bob through the rapids we finally ease above the fast water and into a placid little bay, bounded by lush meadow grass. I drop anchor in the center, in about 5 feet. The bottom is hard and cobbly, however there is no current here, and the weather is fair. I let out 50 feet of rode and count on a scope of 10:1 to take care of us. It’s close to 4pm, so we decide to go walking on shore before the bugs get too bad. We row over to a little sloping bank, with an abandoned little house at its top. We climb up to it, but can find no good road

Abandoned cottage at Little Sheep Creek

or path through the lush vegetation which surrounds the structure. We retreat to the dinghy and row over to the meadow side. There we find an interesting dirt road which winds its way through the bottomland woods, toward the main highway. We turn around before getting to the highway. It’s just long enough to give our legs a good stretch. On the way back we encounter a local who’s out walking his dogs. He’s lived here much of his life, and his wife’s family homesteaded here and owns 2200 acres. He seems happy to be living here.

Colorful vetch

Back on the boat Sandy fixes up a stroganoff dinner, which we eat at the cockpit table. It’s a beautiful evening. Entertainment is provided by a beaver, who cruises by our boat twice, affording us good looks both times.

Resident beaver
Placid waters just off the main flow of the Columbia

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *