June 28, 2016 / Comments (43)

Family Flow Time: The Simple Pleasure of Running Oregon’s Sandy River with Your Kids

Like a lot of hard-core winter sports enthusiasts, I tend to have a hard time when the snow melts. Especially after an especially fine powder season like 2016-17. It can be painful when that waist-deep snow melts down into slush. Except those H2O molecules you’ve been riding aren’t really gone.

They’ve just assumed a different form. They’re flowing downstream in the river now, and you can ride them if you like.

Here in Portland, I have the double good fortune to live within an hour of skiing on Mount Hood and a half hour from river riding on the Sandy and Clackamas Rivers. Both rivers have serious rapids followed by mellow stretches of water with a nice snow-melt flow rate, stunning greenery and just enough little stretches of whitewater to keep things interesting.

I’m a family guy and an old school canoe paddler, so it’s pretty easy for me to leave the Class IV rapids to the super-skilled and the fearless, and stick to the mellow Class 1-plus stretches, secure in knowing that there is little if any risk of something going wrong. I’ve taken my daughter Emily and my son Andoni down the Sandy, and both canoe trips were rewarding bonding experiences. Next up was my youngest daughter, Melina.

My favorite put-in spot is the boat ramp at Oxbow Park, due east of Portland off Division Street. It’s a slow drive through the park at 15 miles an hour, but that limit is enforced for a reason. The area is filled with deer, and the same day Melina and I drove through another driver exceeded the speed limit and hit and killed a fawn. So yeah, no problem driving super-slow and looking around — the scenery is lovely and easing back on the throttle helps complete the transition from urban to natural. Roll down the window, look around, breathe in, exhale, and repeat. Oh yeah, and don’t forget the paddles. I learned that lesson embarrassingly enough a few years ago. It turns out that Frisbees just plain don’t work as substitutes for paddles. We briefly considered attaching Frisbees to sticks with duct tape but that level of buffoonery will not stand.

This time we had remembered everything we needed for a smooth ride down the mellow portion of the Sandy: water bottles, paddles, life jackets, fresh fruit, cheese and crackers, binoculars, towels, sun screen, sun glasses, and a waterproof dry bag large enough to store all of the above. Our family canoe is a big old clunky Old Town, a wedding present to my wife Christina and me from some very good friends. Nothing fancy in design, but it works just fine as long as you don’t tip it over. I know kayaks make more sense for serious paddlers, but there is something freeing and comforting about sitting relaxed in the open air with your dry bag full of everything you need at your feet, a couple of water bottles rolling around and a splash or two of nice fresh river water coming over the bow in the bubbly. Kayaks obviously work just fine for the Sand, and I imagine stand-up paddle boards would be a blast too. Anything but tubes.

Melina’s a Portland summer camp kid and a Mount Hood ski racer, so a little river current and whitewater don’t bother her. She lit up with enthusiasm as we found our line through a little shot of whitewater and took in a few splashes over the bow. Picnickers and swimmers lined the shores of the park, but as we paddled downstream we very quickly entered a lush green world of kingfishers and soaring ospreys and darting swallows. The only other river riders we saw were in tubes, and they looked mighty envious of our paddles. The day was warm, the air smelled good and the sound of the river flowed from tranquil to powerful and back again. Large moss-covered boulders beckoned from the river’s edge, and when we found the perfect spot we pulled in for fresh pineapple and a refreshing dip in the river. Unfortunately, the one item we forgot was a sharp knife. Fortunately we did have a metal spoon. I can now report with confidence that digging out the fruit from a Tuscan Melon and a Hawaiian Pineapple using just a spoon is a juicy challenge worth experiencing.

As the current eased up downstream I encouraged Melina to hold onto the camera and experiment. We followed a family of mergansers around for a while, and she got a good shot of the little ones climbing up onto mom’s back to make a speedy retreat.

After that she got an award-winner of a merganser dropping a huge poop into the river.

She also got some nice shots of the scenery downstream from Oxbow as the Sandy snakes its way down to the Columbia, including this study of light and reflection in the water.

Lewis and Clark named it the Sandy not long after the last major eruption on Mount Hood sent a torrent of debris downhill and down-river. No doubt the river looks quite different today than it did 200 years ago. That is one of the things I love about rivers, the way they are constantly in flux.

It also helps to have rivers that are clean. Given its proximity to a major urban center, the Sandy is in refreshingly good shape, with clean water, healthy salmon and steelhead runs and thriving wild bird populations. Osprey abound, as do swallows and kingfishers, cedar waxwings, great blue herons, river ducks, Canada geese and bald eagles.

The water flow was still strong when we ran the river in mid-June and we’ve gotten some rain since then, but I would recommend checking on water level before setting out. It can get pretty shallow in late July, August and September. I did have to get out of the canoe and drag it a few times, but nothing too bad. All in all, I had a blast – and so did Melina. She’s about to turn 12, and I know that our relationship is bound to change as she enters her teen years. The goal is to spend as much quality time together as possible before the inevitable period when she will prefer the company of her peers.

On all my trips down the Sandy with my kids I have put in at Oxbow and taken out at Lewis and Clark State Park down by Troutdale, but I think my new recommendation for future trips would be to shorten the trip and take out at Dabney State Park on the right side of the river. The river is so pristine through Oxbow and downstream of the park that the increasingly populated waterway downstream (often a big-time party zone) just isn’t the same. I’d recommend keeping it short and sweet: Leave a car or a bike at Dabney, drive up to put in at Oxbow, and take your time for a nice relaxing four or five-hour journey with snack and a gourmet lunch en route, plus a swim or two. Put-ins and take-outs are super simple on the Sandy because it is an officially designated Water Trail for 38 miles from the former Marmot Dam to Lewis and Clark. Just don’t forget those paddles! And be sure to bring along your favorite pineapple-scooping spoon.

And your bathing suit!

For maps, check out the Metro’s Guide to the Sandy River Water Trail site.

For gear check in with Next Adventure’s Portland Paddle Sports Center at 624 SE 7th Ave. Portland, OR 97214, 503-233-0706. They’ve got kayaks, canoes, SUP boards and river gear for sale and rent, plus a highly knowledgeable staff that does lessons and tours.

Shred Hood editor Ben Jacklet was born in Eugene, raised in upstate New York, and has been exploring the Pacific Northwest since 1990.

Last modified: June 28, 2016

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