Century Paddle

On August 31st, Rivers in Demand explorer and fellow Wend ambassador Andy Maser and I led a group of kayakers for a week long paddling trip on the Columbia River, from the Willamette Falls to the Pacific. The aim was to scout and investigate what would be needed in preparation for next year’s big event: bringing a large group of Disabled American Veterans on an unforgettable paddling experience. The event would be done in collaboration with Team River Runner, an organization that “gives military veterans and their family members an opportunity to find health, healing, and new challenges through whitewater boating and other paddling sports. The benefits of TRR have as much to do with social support, finding emotional strength and re-creating personal identity as they do with athletic activity.”

The other goal Andy and I had, was to see how we could maximize the use of social media tools to promote the importance of such event. It is one thing to do so at an event, on land. But when you are on the water, in a kayak, it is slightly different. It is common knowledge that connectedness nowadays happens everywhere – political and news events have seen their dynamic turned upside down with social tools such as Twitter. Would it be possible to do the same with an outdoor event and spread social awareness? We wanted to find out!

Real time reportage is coming of age, and to bring this new reality into this short expedition was for us an exercise on how to raise the interactivity both Andy and I seek with our followers and viewers. It is important for us to communicate this sense of adventure that drives us. For this to succeed, we brought with us the necessary communication devices. Andy was carrying a SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger, an amazing GPS tracking system with a great online structure that allows people to follow in real time ground progress. Our iPhones, protected by Aquapac waterproof cases, would allow us to post content on Twitter and upload realtime photos, while sitting in our kayaks. Our GPS coordinates were also trackable through iPhone’s Google Maps and my Suunto watch. Granted, for all these devices to work, you need to have cell phone or satellite coverage. But in a world where GSM coverage reaches 3 billion people in more than 212 countries, these new technologies bring a brand new dimension into content consumption. I wonder how Cousteau and Attenborough would have used them in their nature journalism?

The itinerary itself was a testimony to the nature vs. urban reality that our world faces. In our ever expanding number, nature’s necessity is constantly requestioned. To kayak from Portland’s industrial waters (Portland’s port is the largest in Oregon and the number one auto import gateway in the Western U.S) to the Pacific, on the the fourth-largest river in the U.S., the Columbia River, was for us an occasion to see first hand how the two worlds cope with each other. Was the river clean? It was important for us to see how bird and fish wildlife was adapting and living, or struggling in a natural world highly influenced by the industrial landscape.

On our first day, from Willamette Falls, we paddled 27 miles and established camp on Hayden Island. From the massive expensive houses on the river in Milwaukie, under the bridges of downtown Portland, to Swan Island industrial terminals, to under a long dock supported by hundreds and hundreds of cement pillars, our first stretch was straight through human’s industrialized achievement. Yet, in the midst of this urban world, we saw sturgeon breaching, salmon jumping, cormorants, Canadian geese, Pilgrim geese, Great Blue herons, ospreys and several species of ducks. We saw countless people enjoying the river banks and of course we saw a great number of motorized boats – but also many, many non-motorized ones. The Fire Department, in their red jetskis and red speed boats kept zipping up and down the river, keeping a vigilant eye, always ready to rescue, assist, or reprimand misuse of our precious river. Our campsite could have not been more anachronistic. Behind us was a wall of trees, with birds singings. In front of us, across the river, were eight giant cranes, at least 300 feet high, surrounded by a sea of lights, containers and cars. The site, which was lit up all through the night, was a constant reminder of the urban industrialized presence.

On our second day, we encountered a phenomenon that neither Andy nor I had ever seen before. Just before lunch, we came across a group of floating bees. Some of them were dead, but most of them looked like they had just fallen in the water. What started like one bee here and there rapidly turned into a massive number of stranded bees. Hundreds of them, scattered all over the water surface. It felt like we were going through a city that had just been bombarded and devastated. Not sure what to make out of all this, Andy and I started to scoop them out of the water, dropping them on our sprayskirts. At one point, I had more than 20 of them buzzing their wings around my torso, trying to dry themselves. I have been following the strange disappearance bees are going through right now (Colony Collapse Disorder) and honestly, I could not witness this scene without doing something. I am not sure if those 40 something bees we rescued that day from the water survived or will make a difference, but at least we tried. That evening, prior to joining the others at our next campsite on Sandy Island, Andy and I went to Kalama to do some work. After securing our kayaks at the marina, we walked to the little town, dressed in our paddling gear, and our laptops under our arms. Going down the main street – occasionally getting the double look from passerby, not too sure what to make out of us, we stopped at the Public Library, the only place with free wifi in town.

On the third day, Andy went along with another kayaker to see a man on Puget Island, who lives directly across from Bradwood, where a Liquid Gas Terminal has been proposed. The issue has been extremely controversial. Beside the obvious problem of turning wild lands into industrialized ones, the project is filled with red flags. This plan is to facilitate the import of natural gas from around the world and to deliver it to the State of California. Previous attempts in Long Beach and Mexico have been refused and now Oregon would like to give it a go. If such project would go ahead, every house in the neighborhood would lose any value. Waters around the site would rise up considerably, disrupting the local fish life. The ships used to transport the gas are enormous and would require dredging the river even deeper; once again disrupting the fish life; today the majority of the new ships are around 120,000 m³ to 140,000 m³, but there are orders for ships with capacity up to 260,000 m³. Imagine a 1,120 foot long floating leviathan carrying gas, going up and down the Columbia River. Once in place, the plant, being a high risk location for attack, would necessitate high security both on land and on the water, disrupting all local activity. The topic is so controversial that Long Beach and Mexico have refused to have them in their backyard. A similar project is currently in the works in New York, but faces major opposition from the likes of Hillary Clinton and other New York Senators.

But back to the kayak. In the meantime, I had decided to paddle ahead and search for our next campsite. Along with another kayaker, we reached Eagle Cliff and to make sure the rest of the group would know exactly where to find us, I texted Andy our GPS coordinates taken from my watch. With them he was able to locate our position on his iPhone with Google Maps.

The next morning, we woke up at 5am. The full moon was in total display and the idea of paddling under the moon light was too good to resist. The river was like a giant mirror, with not even a ripple. Our kayaks slid on the surface like diamonds cutting glass. As the moon lowered over the horizon, the sun arose behind us. At one point, both sky and water turned into a metallic blue and suddenly, the horizon line disappeared; looking ahead of us, there was no demarcation whatsoever between what was above and what was below the horizon. The current and tide were pushing us downstream and in only three hours, we reached Astoria. We paddled a little bit more to Warrenton and after securing our kayaks at the marina, we walked over to the Serendipity Cafe for a well deserved American breakfast! Coincidentally, on the very same day, the local newspaper, The Daily Astorian, was running a story on myself, Andy and our paddling trip.

Driving back, Andy and I reflected on our original task – to see how we could use social media tools to benefit an outdoor event carrying a social cause. Not only did we feel that we succeeded – Century Paddle was featured on several blogs and in local news sources, and its Facebook page and Twitter hashtag both saw huge traffic – but we also felt that we had discovered a new way of sharing our expeditions. To get people to follow our adventures in the wild in real-time is for us one of the most intimate and efficient ways to spread our message. Someone that sees our videos, our photos, or reads about us, will have a desire for and connection to nature for a limited amount of time. With tools such as Twitter and Facebook, the same person is constantly reminded of the power and treasures of the outdoors. Therefore their desire is sustained. This will certainly become extremely interesting as both of us are preparing to leave in November for Argentina and Brazil.

Accompanying us on this little journey was Don Smith, Executive Director, Disabled American Veterans, Chapter #1 Portland, Sam Drevo, owner and operator of Northwest River Guides and founder of We Love Clean Rivers, Hayden Peters and Ralph Bloemers. You can find more about information online by visiting the Century Paddle Facebook page.

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