As an avid hiker and backpacker, I’ve spent a lot of time on trails in the Northwest’s many mountain ranges. Oregon’s trails have made me stronger, taught me that I can do things I never imagined and taken me to places of incredible beauty.
While I had crossed over the Willamette River countless times on its bridges, the closest I had ever gotten to it was a bicycle ride on the floating walkways in downtown Portland. The river was always just an obstacle to cross or background scenery to the hiking trail I was conquering. But a local tour guide I met changed all that when he took me on a kayaking trip in Corvallis, Oregon.
Brett Gallagher, the founder of Cascadia Expeditions, an adventure tour outfitter, was the guide who would expand my horizon beyond the hiking trail. Brett began his career as a fish biologist, but his love of adventure led him to become a guide who helps others benefit from outdoor experiences, including people who wouldn’t normally have them. In addition to its regular guided tours, Cascadia works with local non-profits to offer programs to disadvantaged and underserved communities.
Knowing I’m a novice kayaker, Brett recommended joining him on a half-day tour that went downriver on a 10-mile stretch of one of the top river adventures in the country. And I’m not just saying that. My relatively short paddle was part of a 97-mile segment of the Willamette River that REI rated the #1 U.S. Thru-Paddles for its location near urban centers yet still offers a true wilderness experience away from it all.
The day of our paddle, I met Brett at our journey’s end point, Crystal Lake’s boat ramp, and he shuttled me via van to our starting point at Peoria County Park. On the drive over, Brett told me he believed that outdoor adventures are a form of wilderness therapy, benefitting everyone who experiences them, and I agreed completely. As someone who has spent the last 10 years in Oregon being transformed by outdoor experiences, I looked forward to what the river would show me.
However, I still had some initial nervousness about being on the water when we arrived at Peoria County Park. It reminded me of how I felt when I first started hiking. There were so many unknowns. I think Brett had seen this kind of apprehension before, as he soon gave a basic “how to paddle” tutorial before our kayaks met water. He went over basic kayaking safety and what to expect to hear from him during the tour. After getting fitted with portable floatation devices (otherwise known as life jackets), we put our intentions into action and got our kayaks in the water.
The Corvallis section of the Willamette River made practicing my first paddle strokes easy with its calm and mellow waters. We entered through a side channel then pushed forward to the main channel of the river. We crossed the river’s eddy (a current moving in a different direction than the main current) and instead of resistance, I soon felt the current gently move my kayak downriver at a leisurely pace.
For the most part, we paddled slowly. Brett made sure I had the time and comfort level to let myself get immersed in the surroundings of cottonwood trees and willows. And I did just that. I let the water and paddle do the work while I looked all around me and soaked in Brett’s local know-how.
At one point, we came across a few downed trees and branches, but Brett skillfully showed me where to paddle to avoid contact. The farther we paddled, the more life we encountered. A few moments after we entered a side channel, a river otter crossed in front of us. The birds were abundant: ospreys, blue and green herons, cedar wax wings and killdeer. A bald eagle flew and perched in the trees above us. Paddling on the water instead of hiking above or beside it gave me a view into a world I didn’t usually see: a river world where life seemed to gather.
Toward the end of our kayak tour, we rounded a corner on the river with a view of the highest point in Oregon’s Coast Range, Marys Peak, which has outstanding views and wildflowers in early summer. But that’s a different journey for another day. All I could think about then was what I had seen and experienced on the river.
When we got back on land, I noticed the nerves were gone. I had left my uncertainty on the shore when we first launched without even realizing it. Corvallis’ undisturbed section of the Willamette River, and Brett’s instruction, helped me gain a newfound confidence and interest in exploring Oregon’s waterways.
Seeing my enthusiasm, and knowing that I’m a backpacker, Brett suggested I plan a multi-day experience with Cascadia Expeditions that combines kayaking with wilderness camping on some of Corvallis’ primitive, publicly owned islands on the river. The Willamette River Water Trail is the perfect place for both, as it’s one of only 20 national water trails that provides a combination of put-in locations and campsites along the river. Cascadia Expeditions also offers novice stand-up paddleboard tours, and for a little extra buzz, paddle and brew tours that run through the fall. The half day brew tour consists of paddling followed by sips and eats at a local brewery. Taking it up a notch, the Rogue Hop Farm kayak tour is a full day of experiencing local hop history and industry via the river and a lunch stop at the local hop farm.
Kayaking the Willamette River with Cascadia Expeditions showed me there is a different way to experience the Oregon wilderness. Previously, I viewed the waterway as something to cross on my way to somewhere else. Now I know the river leads to new discoveries in the wilderness and within the cities, and in Corvallis, it’s a gateway to exploring another side of Oregon.
On August 21, 2017, Cascadia Expedition took their guided adventures into another atmosphere with an event that was 70 years in the making. Marys Peak was along the path of totality for the solar eclipse, and Cascadia Expeditions invited people to gather with them at the very top to view and celebrate this rare celestial event.