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Nonprofit hosts free canoe trip on Willamette in West Linn

TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - A group of canoers hosted by the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership heads out from the Willamette Park docus to tour the Willamette River narrows.McKenzie Miller is sitting at the front of a canoe as it glides along the Willamette River, her back to the water as she tests out a bird caller on her iPhone.

The canoe, fittingly named “Kingfisher” after one of the native birds in the area, has slowed to a near-complete stop, nestled in between the river shoreline and a small island about a mile upstream from West Linn’s Willamette Park. After making the bird call, Miller explains that this species is particularly territorial and will often shoot back a loud response to mark its ground.

It is difficult to make out a response amidst a series of cries from other birds, but that’s hardly the point. In utilizing the bird caller, Miller is making just one of countless observations in her role as the guide for 10 paddlers on a canoe trip organized by the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership.

Every summer, the Portland-based nonprofit organization offers a series of free educational paddling trips along the Willamette and Columbia Rivers, as well as a number of local lakes. The paddling trip in West Linn July 9 was the first of its kind, as Miller and two fellow guides detailed many of the river’s sights and sounds for a group of 20 participants.

“I think we have about 12 this summer that we’re offering in different sections of the Willamette and Columbia and a couple of lakes,” Miller said. “The goal is just to get people out on local rivers and to gain appreciation for all the wild areas.”

Already this summer, the partnership has hosted paddle trips at Vancouver Lake, Ross Island and even a “moonlight paddle” near Willamette Park in Portland. Seven more trips are scheduled in July and August, and each is available free of charge — although donations are accepted.

TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - James Sterrett of the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership gets Eric Littnin ready for the canoe tour.

“Some folks don’t have access to getting out on the water, so we can provide a lot of people with their first time in a canoe, or even their first time in a boat,” Miller said. “It’s like an introduction.”

Since 2000, the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership has focused its efforts on “advancing science, protecting ecosystems and building connections to sustain the lower Columbia River estuary,” which is located between Oregon and Washington. Education is at the heart of the preservation effort, and beyond the summer paddling trips, the partnership also works with students and volunteers throughout the year.

“Our mission is to improve and protect the Columbia River for people and wildlife,” Miller said. “We do that by doing a cool series of habitat restoration projects, water quality monitoring and education programs.

“We work with about 4,000 kids every year, mostly in classrooms and taking them out to natural areas.”

Indeed, on a recent sunny Thursday morning in West Linn, nearly half of the paddlers were children. Though their enthusiasm for paddling was, shall we say, inconsistent over the course of the two-mile round trip, the wildlife sightings proved to be worth the effort. A bald eagle was spotted floating high above the trees, while a blue heron was seen balancing atop a tree branch before sailing back down toward the water.

“It’s nice, because folks will come with big families, and renting a boat is pretty expensive typically,” Miller said. “So it’s great we can offer this to anybody who can drive themselves out here.”

Marilyn Feldman and Dennis Golik drove from Portland to take part in the West Linn paddle, and they are frequent guests on the partnership’s canoe trips.

“I’m a real city girl — I do symphony and opera and art galleries, museums, theater,” Feldman said. “But I crave serenity, and I come to get away from the concrete and all the traffic and noise. I kind of revitalize.”

Golik, a former smokejumper, spent much of the trip identifying different trees and plants along the river, with Miller stepping in to help on the rare occasion that he didn’t recognize the species.

“We’ve done a number of trips,” Golik said, “Ross Island, Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge, Clackamas Lake, Vancouver Lake.”

“I’m an arts girl all the way — I spend all of my time in the arts,” Feldman said. “But I love this.”