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.
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.
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.
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.
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.