Water-Logged: Wet and Wild - The Columbia River Gorge (Part 1

The Columbia River Gorge, a 1,243 mile water way cut into volcanic cliffs, is a natural border between Oregon and Washington. But it’s also a natural playground, with stunning rugged beauty near Hood River, an hour east of Portland. It’s here that Lewis and Clark concluded their epic cross-country journey in 1806, and where today, epic adventures await in and on the water. There is a recreational bonanza including white water rafting, stand-up paddle boarding, waterfalls (see part 2 of this post), food cruises, kite-boarding, kayaking and virtually anything you can do on water. There are water activities for adrenalin junkies, like plunging down a 14 foot waterfall, to junk food junkies who prefer merely watching water while noshing.
The White Salmon (photo: Wet Planet)

The White Salmon River cuts through Washington State and empties into the Columbia River near the town of Hood River, and the narrow canyons are home to class III and IV rapids and best of all for the adventurous, a 14 foot drop at Husum Falls. Wet Plant White Water (3 hour trip, $60) starts their trips at their own private put-in where they access further upriver than anyone else. Second, once you’re finished rafting, you’re at their office, just walk across the road and you’re done, no need to transport you back to where you started. Besides, after rafting for three hours you’re wet, tired and hungry and ready to get dry. The river is stunning in its beauty with volcanic rock banks and verdant green forests. Parts are calm and serene, and parts are frenetic a wild, but the whole of the river is breathtaking. Since there are no hiking trails here, you cannot see the river any better than rafting it. Drew Parker was my guide and led me through the Triple Drop, the Staircase, and other class III rapids that will flood you with the crystal clear water of the White Salmon. We stopped a few times to stretch our legs and at one point you have the option of leaping from a 17-foot drop into the river to your raft, or follow a land-based line back towards your raft.
Emerging from the falls (photo: Wet Planet)
Either way getting on land occasionally gives you a better understanding on the river. But you’re thinking about the waterfall and are you really going to make that drop in a raft? You’re trained for this moment, rehearsing exactly what to do with specific instructions from your guide: from when you approach the falls to what to do once you head down them. Your heart will beat faster, you’ll paddle like a madman and the time from when you descend to when you pop up out of the water is mere seconds, but those seconds see you plummeting down a cascading roar of water delving nearly face first into the White Salmon, totally submerged enveloping all of you, the cold, brisk water completely invigorating you. Never has so much water gone up my nose in so short a time. Popping up from the whirlpool our raft is like toast exiting a toaster. I’ve done the waterfall twice and it’s exhilarating, awesome and slightly nerve-wracking, but it’s just so cool. I highly recommend it!
Jim and I on the Columbia

“If you can walk and swim, you can do this,” says Jim Stevens, who teaches stand up paddle boarding at Big Winds, based in Hood River. Classes are an hour and a half and show you the basics of paddling which requires more understanding than you might think. Their classes ($49 all inclusive) get you on the water in no time, cruising the Columbia River up close. If you’ve seen paddle boarding from shore you might wonder what the deal is. First, it’s a quiet non-invasive way to explore rivers, lakes, oceans and here, paddle across the Columbia River up into the White Salmon River. The other aspect is that it gives you a full body workout. How hard you paddle is up to you; break a sweat, or just cruise, but it will definitely tone your body while you soak up the views. Ultimately staying on your board is all about balance which is why instruction is necessary to keep you from taking a plunge, or learning the proper way to get back on your board if you do. Once you trust your legs, you’ll be exploring the Columbia River like a native.
The Sternwheeler is a more relaxed way to view the Gorge
For those who prefer to watch the water and not be in it, Portland Spirit offers multiple river cruises, but the Sternwheeler, a replica of a traditional 1880s paddle wheeler which used to run these waters, offers a Sunday brunch cruise ($44 per person) as well as other food cruises. The two hour cruise explores parts of the Columbia River like the Bonneville Dam, the Bridge of the Gods, and the ramshackle fishing villages that line the banks, allowing you to view the river in ways you can’t by driving the Oregon or Washington highways which flank the River. The captain narrates a brief history about Lewis and Clark and the Native American Indians who once controlled these waters. The interior of the Sternwheeler is studded with historic photos of former ships and makes you realize that we’re blissfully lazy compared to what the early settlers endured, especially as you sip Champagne from the comfort of your chair. Brunch includes bottomless Champagne, eggs, bacon and sausage, home-style potatoes, shrimp, cheeses and it ends with a dessert course. This is an easy way to see and experience the Columbia Gorge effortlessly.
Villa Columbia B & B

There are no shortages of places to stay in the Gorge but with all the physical activity comfort is a priority. The Villa Columbia B&B in Hood River has great access to the river but it’s also within walking distance to wine tasting rooms, brew pubs and restaurants. The 100 year-old house has all its original hardwood, including built-ins. Breakfasts are served in the dining room with views to the Gorge, and snow capped Mt. Adams across the river in Washington State. Their six rooms offer wireless Internet, TVs, complimentary water, sodas, coffee and tea. For winter guests, they are only 30 minutes to skiing at Mount Hood. If you have your own bikes, rafts or kayaks they have storage underneath the house. Breakfasts feature area produce and the region is packed with orchards so you’ll get fresh apple juice, organic orange juice and some of the best fruit parfait imaginable.

Wet Planet White Water: (www.wetplanetwhitewater.com)
Big Winds (www.bigwinds.com)
Portland Spirit (www.portlandspirit.com)
Villa Columbia B&B (www.villacolumbia.com)


  1. Great Place! and great Pictures!!

    grand canyon rafting

  2. Thanks for the note. We'd also love to get to the Grand Canyon someday - no doubt it's stunning!