As an outdoor excursion, Saturday’s paddle on the Elochoman River began as a downer. But it ended in exhilaration — and an existential celebration.
I usually check the tide tables any time I boat near the Columbia River, but I neglected to do so this time. So when my son, Nicky, and I arrived on the riverbanks early that afternoon, the river was too low to launch. I sank up to my knees in mud, and I still was 15 feet of from the water’s edge.
I love canoeing the Elochoman, particularly through the white-tailed deer refuge just west of Cathlamet. The river and the refuge certainly lack the majesty of Mount Rainier, the sublimity of Mount St. Helens or the grandeur of the Columbia River Gorge. But it is serene and infrequently visited.
Stymied by the mud, I drove out to the Columbia itself. I had some trepidation about launching into the big river, but the waterway was as smooth and gray-blue as smoked glass. We used the wake of a passing freighter to get off the driftwood- and clamshell-littered beach. Then we paddled upstream into Steamboat Slough, silently and gently pushed along by the incoming tide.
The slough, which is the western arm of the Elochoman delta, has a lush, primeval feel to it, as if a Jurassic period dinosaur was about to erupt out of the shrubs and shallows. Moss- and lichen-covered Sitka spruce, cottonwoods and alder line the banks, which are impenetrable with blackberries, wild roses, salal and other shrubs.
As we paddled upstream, the slough was a green corridor. Spring’s soothing chartreuse foliage had just about fully conquered winter’s dour dress. We paddled past old knotty pilings slathered with slime and mud below their high-tide marks. Grass and shrubs grew out of the tops, making them a vegetated colonnade lining our path up the slough.
The upright branches of stranded logs were dark and hunched in a sinister posture, like the black-cloaked Spanish inquisitors who sentenced heretics to burn at the stake.
Silence engulfed us. Some sounds were our own: Droplets dripping off our paddles, the occasional thud of a paddle against the canoe gunnels. Others were our companions on the journey: geese honked and ravens and crows croaked and cawed.
I became aware of a steady and restful breathing sound — only to realize it came from the rubbing of my life jackets’ nylon fabric as I rotated my back and shoulders to paddle.
The tide jolted me out of my reverie when we struck the muddy bottom of the slough, still well short of the main branch of the Elochoman. The tide was moving in pretty quickly, and I could not turn around without getting out of the canoe and dragging us back into knee-deep water.
It was a small thing, really. But as Nicky and I began our mile-and-a-half cruise back to our pickup, I was surprised by how much the tide had inundated in about 90 minutes. Mud flats that had shone in the sunshine were now flooded, and we easily floated over the sand bar that we’d barely cleared on our way into the slough.
The pull of the moon’s gravity from 250,000 miles away had tugged millions of gallons of water into the slough. I felt humbled. Nature’s force was nearly imperceptible. It was causing me to work harder to paddle, but also nourishing the slough’s web of life that in part depends on twice-daily tidal cycles. Tides freed that huge container ship in the Suez Canal, and here they were feeding life and reinforcing my bond with nature.
And where did all this water come from anyway? Scientists speculate icy comets and asteroids brought it to Earth during its formation billions of years ago. So in a sense Nicky and I were paddling on a cosmic ocean.
The water in our bodies came here that way, too. And the minerals that made our brains, hair, teeth, bones and organs were smelted in ancient, now dead stars. With what other creatures, here or elsewhere in the universe, have we shared these atoms? And what were the chances they would some day combine to create these two humans who would think about these imponderables?
The specialness of each one of us, and the thought of how we are linked to nature and one another, put a smile on my face. With a happy heart, I paddled for shore, and the canoe scratched and hissed as it slid into the sandy beach.
Andre Stepankowsky retired in August after a 41-year career as a reporter and city editor at The Daily News. He has won or shared in many prestigious journalism awards, including the staff’s 1981 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of Mount St. Helens. His column will appear on the editorial page every other Wednesday.