Smith and Bybee Lakes

Lucky day for mid December

Location: Smith and Bybee Lakes in North Portland

Rating: 8 of 10

Directions: From I-5, exit at Killingsworth and head east. Turn left onto Martin Luther King Blvd. You are going to stay on this road for a while as it moves past I-5 and into the more industrial areas of North Portland. Once past I-5, MLK turns into Marine Drive. About 1.5 miles later, you will cross over an overpass. Once at the bottom of this, keep an eye out for a driveway on the left. This is the entrance to Smith and Bybee lakes. Follow this down until you reach the last parking spots and you will notice a small trail that heads toward the water. This is your launch. It’s a bit mucky if the water’s low, but totally worth it.

Wildlife: Lots of water fowl, belted kingfisher, great blue heron, golden eagle, bald eagle, swallows, red winged black bird, common/Wilson’s snipe, nutria, beaver. This is such a popular spot for both resident and migrating birds that it is not possible for somebody of my limited bird expertise to identify/list them here. Just trust me that if you enjoy bird watching, you will be satisfied with this trip. I’m sure that the diversity of wildlife is beyond what I’m listing, but these include what I was able to see myself.

Common Snipe (Wilson's)

Notes: There are a few other ways to get into the water here, but I’ve only gone the route described above. Apparently it’s possible to connect from the Columbia Slough by one of the water control structures, but this involves portaging your boat from the slough to the lakes. Also, rumor has it that there is a way to get directly into Bybee lake, but I don’t know the details. When you are on the lake, it seems like access would be pretty easy to come by at different locations. The parking area for the put in I’ve described closes at sunset, so if you are hoping to go for a night paddle in hopes of seeing some beavers, you should definitely look into another put in or a different parking arrangement.


Mid December at the put in

Water levels fluctuate pretty wildly depending on the time of year and the amount of rain. The picture of the put in above was taken on December 16th, but in the summer, there is a few feet of mud beyond the end of the “walkway” before you get to the water. Of course, during the rainier times of year, the same “walkway” is covered in water. The most important issue for this is that you don’t want to get caught in the mud. Also, if water levels are low, as they are in the summer, paddling here can be a bit challenging, but not impossible.

Wind can also be an issue here, making for difficult progress if you need to go into it, not to mention the challenges of paddling a choppy lake.

One last bit, there is a lot of shoreline that looks the same and it is easy to lose your take out. It’s always a good idea to carry a map and compass with you, but you really need to visually mark where you are going to take out. Unless you’re into stress, but that’s your business.


It's amazing how something so peaceful is not only in the city, but sandwiched between the airport, the freight tracks, and an industrial complex.

Paddle: Any paddle here is going to be determined by the water levels. That’s not to say that when the level is low that it’s not as good of a trip, because in many ways, it’s more interesting at lower levels. Moving between the lakes when the level is low involves maneuvering through a series of choke points where the vegetation is so tightly matted that you could probably walk on it. These mats always seem to be inhabited by some type of critter, usually nutria. The water is rumored to be very clear in the summer, but I’ve never seen it first hand. Either way, the bird viewing always offers something special. The last time I paddled here, I had only traveled about twenty feet from the put in when I found myself in the middle of a few hundred swallows as they picked bugs out of the air. They were darting in and out between my buddy Jacob and I as we watched. I was already satisfied with my paddle and we were still within splashing distance of our starting point.


Swallows having brunch with the spires of the St. John's Bridge in the background

From the put in, paddling to the left is generally less dramatic, but there are a few spots where it is possible to paddle between some of the vegetation that grows up through the water, which can be pretty interesting. It seems that it’s always a bit more peaceful in these spots and there is usually a lot of birdsong. It’s worth checking out this less appreciated part of the lake, but there is more variety if you head to the right, which takes you closer to Bybee lake. The channels that connect the lakes are particularly fun and if you are going to check out any part of the lakes, that should be your destination. That said, when the water levels are high, there aren’t really “channels” to speak of, but it’s still beautiful and interesting. Look at a map, or even a satellite image on google maps to get an idea of what I’m talking about.

It’s amazing that this is so close at hand for those that live in the area, but it’s worth the drive if you don’t. Unless you’re driving from Idaho, which is just too far to go just paddle these lakes.

While the birds tend to hog the stage here, they are quickly overshadowed when a beaver makes an appearance. The beaver population here is pretty large and there are lodges scattered throughout both lakes, but these guys are pretty elusive. I’ve only seen one, but it let me get a good, long look. You are much more likely to see nutria here, which look like beaver, but smaller, which is weird because nutria are pretty large animals. Beavers though, are huge, often weighing over 55 lbs. If you are wondering if you saw a beaver or a nutria, you most likely saw a nutria. When you see a beaver, you know it’s a beaver.

Check out this trip if you get the chance. It’s one that you can do many times as it changes so dramatically throughout the year so it never gets boring. Plus, there are some good views of Mt. Hood from the lake. From some areas you can also see the top of the St. Johns Bridge. Look for it shortly after shoving off.


Jacob heading back to Smith Lake from Bybee lake

Geese over Smith Lake

Here in Portland, the sun often appears to be under water

This mallard was not interested in hanging out with me

Beaver lodging

Nutria, not Beaver, AKA "Giant of the Northwest"

Tree less fond of beavers than the rest of us

As much as I don't want to admit it, baby nutria are pretty damn cute

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Columbia River in the Gorge

The Columbia River Gorge from one of the little islands

Location: Columbia River just east of Cascade Locks, OR

Rating: 8 of 10

Directions: From Portland, take I-84 East until exit 51 toward Wyeth. Turn left and get back on 84 heading West. Exit at Herman Creek Road and turn right (There is no Herman Creek exit when heading west bound, hence the double back). Follow the road as it bends around to the left and park by the gate. This may seem obvious, but don’t park on the road.

Wildlife: Lots of osprey, salmon, steelhead, carp, bald eagle, great blue heron, green heron, western skink.

Notes: Putting in at this location can be a bit harrowing as you have to maneuver through rocks to get to the water. Easier access can be found at the marina in Cascade Locks, with the benefit of free parking in a lot that boasts camara surveillance, a cafe for when you get out, and a place to buy fresh salmon. This makes the paddle a bit longer and I’d rather have more time for the leisure exploration of the rocky islands that pepper the water closer to the Washington shore. That said, Cascade Locks is a cute little town that is worth checking out, and they have a great little ice cream stand “down town.” If you are worried about scuffing your boat, put in at Cascade Locks. I will describe, as best I can how to get to the best place to put in with the easiest route to the water.

Finding the put in.

In the picture above, you leave the paved road and take the larger path until you see an old fire ring of rocks on your right. Turn right here and head down to the river. You are aiming for the spot between the two trees, which, at the time I was there anyway, had a stack of rocks to mark it (pictured below).

Old fire pit at bottom of picture and the stack of rocks can be seen toward the water.

Keep in mind that paddling the Columbia, especially in the gorge, can be a bit challenging. There is often a lot of traffic, both private and commercial, and when the wind picks up, which is common, the water can get a bit rough. This makes this paddle less desirable for canoes. And, if you’re curious, the cove opposite of the put in is called Government Cove.

Sometimes it's really worth it to get to the gorge.

Paddle: This was a great trip for a hot, late summer day and if it was easier to get in to the water, it would have gotten a 10 of 10 on my rating. Getting in early gives you a better chance of not dealing with the wind and as you can see, a windless summer morning in the gorge makes for some beautiful water. We immediately paddled to the cluster of rocky islands on the other side of the river. The islands range from small, rocky clumps to larger, but still pretty small, islands with grassy areas and cosps of trees. The largest of these islands has a half-submerged dock on the north side that the nimble adventurer can use to tie off the boats and scramble up to the island. This is a worth while side trip, especially if you want to stop here for a picnic lunch. The south-west point of the island has a picnic table, propane-ready bar-b-ques (propane not provided) and horse shoes and stakes. This looks like the work of some enterprising locals as opposed to parks and rec. Lots of the islands have portions of their coast lines that drop into deep water making for good diving opportunities if you’re into that kind of thing. If you are, please take the necessary precautions to avoid submerged rocks or other hazardous obstacles. Ospreys are always present and in the mid to late summer, you can see families of them in their nests/trees. If you get too close, you may get swooped, but at the very least, one of the birds will come and check you out. It makes for some great bird watching. The views are pretty stunning and seeing the dramatic landscape from the water makes it that much better.

There is not much else to tell you about the paddle. The islands are worth exploring, other than that, just paddle to what you want to check out and enjoy the scenery. Salmon and steelhead were jumping all over the place when we were there and there were a lot of carp in areas with less water movement and more water plants. I didn’t notice a real difference between paddling up or down river, so I don’t think that a point to point is worth the hassle.

Craig heading toward the Oregon shore

Smooth as mercury and almost Freddy

Immature green heron (I think) blending in with the rocks at the water's edge.

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Steelman Lake on Sauvie Island

Steelman Lake on Sauvie Island

Location: Sauvie Island, Portland, OR

Rating: 10 of 10

Directions: From Portland, take US Highway 30 west for about ten miles until you see the Sauvie Island Bridge. Take the bridge and turn left at the end onto Sauvie Island Road. You will take this road for quite a ways. It will narrow and become rougher, eventually becoming a gravel/dirt road. Shortly after it turns to gravel/dirt, you will see a trio of informational signs and a large blue port-a-potty. Turn right into the turnabout and park. Your launch is at the end of a short trail through the grass.

Parking/launch area at Steelman Lake

Time: 1-10 hours

Wildlife: Great blue heron, bald eagle, golden eagle, kestral, owl (not sure what kind), red tail hawk, peregrine falcon, kingfisher, frogs, turtles, beaver, swallows, catfish, some other fish?, and cows.

Some type of owl that I have yet to identify

Great blue heron flying down one of the arms off of Steelman Lake

Notes: There is no signage that identifies this as Steelman Lake so you will have to trust me on this. Also, this is in the Sauvie Island Wilderness Area and you need to purchase a pass to park anywhere in the wilderness area. Passes can be purchased from the Cracker Barrell convenience store on Sauvie Island Road. This is on your left just after you turn off of the Sauvie Island Bridge. Passes are $7.00 for one day and $22.00 for a yearly pass. Lastly, during hunting season (Oct to mid April) the wetland areas are closed to all non-hunting activities.

Paddle: Heading to the right from the launch, the shoreline terrain is a little less varied, mostly grasses with a few stands of trees, but the trees often have a variety of raptors in them while great blue herons wait in the shore grasses below. Heading to the left will eventually take you to a few arms that offer excellent wildlife viewing. Also, there is a wetland area that can be explored when the water levels are higher. Eventually, you will come to a channel that is known as the narrows. This channel ends at a small dike that can be portaged to gain access to the much larger Sturgeon Lake.

Steelman Lake is pretty shallow, topping out at about five feet in most places, and it has a mud bottom. The water is a murky brown, but it smells and feels clean and is nice for swimming in. I don’t have much to tell you as far as route directions… it’s a lake after all. It’s beautiful. There does seem to be more bird activity in the early afternoon.

Tree with swallows

Swallows flying over Steelman Lake

One of the arms on Steelman Lake

View of Mount St Helens over Steelman Lake

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Upper Columbia River Slough

Paddling to the North Slough from Big Four Corners

Location: Portland/Gresham, OR

Rating: 8 of 10

Directions: From I-84, take NE 181st Ave (exit 13) and head north. The road becomes Airport Way. The site is about a mile down the road on the left and it shares a parking lot with the Portland Water Bureau. The lot is gated and closed over night. If you get there during hours that the gate should be open and you find it closed, you can call the water bureau security phone number which is posted on the sign by the gate. The one time that I had to call, security showed up within five minutes to open the gate. They open at 8:00am and stay open until 6:00pm.

Time: 1 to 5 hours

Wildlife: Lots. Beaver, river otter, nutria, sharp shinned hawk, red tail hawk, bald eagle, killdeer, oregon junco, green heron, great blue heron, carp, salmon, small mouth bass, western painted turtle, frogs (not sure what kind).

Notes: Boats need to be carried about 200 feet from the lot to the launch. The path is nice and paved, with plenty of room. The dock has been recently removed and will not be replaced until at least early 2011, so between now and then, you will have to launch from the rocks, which are fairly large and sharp. Be careful. Also, a great source for information about the slough is the Columbia Slough Watershed Council. Check them out at They have waterproof maps that they will give you for free and they are extremely friendly and helpful if you have any questions. You can swing by their office at 7040 NE 47th Ave in Portland, it’s right on the middle slough and even has a launch to paddle the middle slough.

Paddle: From the launch, you can paddle to the right (West), which is very pleasant, but there is only about one mile of paddling in that direction before you reach a rather large dike. Paddling to the left (East) offers much more in terms of variety and time on the water.

View of main slough from Big Four Corners

On the main slough

About 1/8 mile east of the dock, you will reach a large intersection called “Big Four Corners.” This intersection is quite beautiful. While I was here a great blue heron swooped out of a tree and picked a fish out of the water on the fly. I’ve never seen one fish this way before and it happened about twenty feet from my kayak.┬áTurning left here will take you to the North Slough. Paddling about 1/4 mile longer will take you to the pump house, which regulates the water level on the slough. Stay clear of the pump house. Back in this area, there are lots of huge and lazy carp. If you don’t want to go left to the North Slough, you can continue going straight. This takes you through wooded areas that give way to wide open areas with tufts of macrophytes, grasses that root in the mud underwater. This offers great raptor viewing. There are office buildings on the left and train tracks to the right of the slough at this point, but don’t let this dissuade you from going, this is a very beautiful area. Also, for the adventurous paddler, there are small arms that branch off and can be explored. Past this, the slough narrows and becomes less interesting, ending at the unremarkable Fairview Lake.

The CSX vibrates the tracks

Carp in the North Slough

It's just nice out here

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Pdxpaddling’s Maiden Vioyage

On the mighty Columbia River off of Viento State Park, 8 miles west of Hood River

Howdy all. I tried to find a blog about local paddling routes and there doesn’t seem to be any. As a humble servant to society, I will try to fill the void. My wife thought that the local shops would have blogs, and some do, but they are mostly about their shops. While these were informative regarding sales and updated gear, they don’t really help me get in the water.

So, what’s the deal with this site then? Well, I’m thinking along the lines of a kayak/canoe guide book but with the potential to showcase many more routes than a book. Also, I’d like to see other bloggers/kayakers/canoe folk link up with this blog, complete with their route info. In short, I will be profiling trips, complete with pictures, directions, length of time, some sort of rating system, and any other pertinant info in hopes of making our waterways more accessable to the masses, or at least to my reading audience, which will likely consist of my wife. Thanks B.

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