A hundred ways to die on the river

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One of the great benefits of living in Oregon is access to a limitless array of world-class waterways.

The Oregon Coast, all 300 miles of it, is one of the most dramatic, unspoiled stretches of oceanfront property anywhere, with its characteristic rocky shorelines, open beaches, hidden coves, and quaint communities. Thank goodness Oregon's political leaders recognized from the beginning the tremendous value of maintaining public access to the ocean beaches and protected them from the kind of out-of-control development that has taken place along the California coast and other beachfront property around the world.

The mighty Columbia River and its tributaries - the Willamette, Deschutes, and Snake - are no less dramatic and inspirational as they cut through some jaw-dropping landscapes. It's hard to think of a place more beautiful than the Columbia River Gorge, with its scenic vistas and countless waterfalls spilling over lush walls that disappear into Oregon's high desert and the Deschutes.

I've stood, mesmerized on the rim of Hells Canyon peering into the deepest cut into the North American continent at the wild and scenic Snake River more than a mile - almost straight down - below. From that vantage point, the river appears like a long strand of Christmas tinsel cradled by cliffs so rugged and so steep they look surreal. For those adventurous enough to look at the river from the mariner's view, on a raft or a jet boat, the Snake is equally impressive, with rapids so big and so furious they look like they come from the bowels of the earth.

There isn't a more picture-perfect body of than Wallowa Lake, created eons ago when a large glacier slid out of the Blue Mountains and came to a halt on the valley below, carving out a bowl with sides so smooth they frequently appear in geology textbooks as the preeminent example of lateral moraines.

Crater Lake, which as the name implies rests in the cone of an ancient volcano, is so clear and cold that when you see a mirror image it's almost impossible to tell which one is the object and which one is the reflection.

Owyhee Reservoir in Malheur County, backed up in the canyons by Owyhee Dam, is so vast it's easy to get lost in the labyrinth of arms, reaches and offshoots under the desert sky.

These are just a few examples of places that are almost mystical in large part because of the water, and the best part it is these places are there for all of us to enjoy.

One of the best ways to experience the richness of Oregon's waterways is by boat. It is not the only way, but it one of my favorites because boats provide views of our world that simply would not be possible any other way.

I've been intrigued with boats and boating since my dad bought an old, wooden tub when I was 5 or 6 and began teaching us to water ski. I fell in love with the sport, and we spent many a summer skiing at every opportunity. Later on I learned how to scuba dive and was immediately captivated with the richness of the marine environment and, in particular, the world's coral reefs, which are teeming with life and, unfortunately, are on the brink of disaster because of pollution, global warming, overfishing and other pressures.

One of the reasons I was so excited about coming to Columbia County is because this place is a seafarer's paradise, and a marine environment I'm looking forward to exploring.

It didn't take long after I arrived in Scappoose for conversations at the Spotlight to turn toward boating on the Columbia River. Dallas Bentley, the Spotlight's advertising manager, is an experienced Columbia River pilot so it was only natural that I began to pick his brain.

'There's three things to watch out for on the Columbia,' Dallas told me during one of those conversations, 'Current, current, current.'

Translation: You're not at Wallowa Lake anymore, sonny. This is big water, and you better be damn careful out there or you're going to get yourself killed.

He put the scare in me to such an extent that I decided to take a 13-week 'Boating Skills and Seamanship' course from the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary.

I didn't know there was a Coast Guard Auxiliary until I signed up for that course, but I've since discovered this is a group of volunteers dedicated to promoting boating safety. Boy, am I glad to know these folks. And boy, do I wish more people would take that course.

What I learned was there's a lot more to safe boating than wearing your personal flotation device and not driving drunk, although those are really important. You need to know how to trailer a boat without fishtailing and driving off the road. You need to have a marine radio and know how to use it. You need to know how to read and understand buoys, beacons, and other signs. You need to know you're obligated by law to help others on the water that may be in trouble. You need to have a chart and know how to read it. You need to be cognizant of the weather. And yes, you need to watch that current.

What I learned was those Coast Guard Auxiliary people are worse than Dallas when it comes to putting the fear of God into you, because they have figured out at least a hundred ways to die on that river ... and they shared every one of them with me, and left a few more to my imagination.

Those Coast Guard Auxiliary folks have all these cutesy rules of thumb, too, to drive the points home, like the Rule of 50: 'A 50-year-old-man who falls into 50-degree waters without a life vest has a 50 percent chance of swimming 50 yards before he drowns.' Ah, uh, let's see ... I'm 51 - Yikes, they're talking about ME!

I also learned that Scappoose had a Coast Guard Auxiliary up until the early 1990s and that it folded because there wasn't enough interest.

That's too bad because there is so much interest in boating in Columbia County, and we'd all be safer if more people knew the rules of the road. Not only that, who's going to scare the peejeezus out of people like me who are new to boating on the Columbia.

Rick Swart is publisher of the South County Spotlight. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.