Columbia River Challenge – A Tri-state Watercraft Adventure Ride

In 2022, I proposed a watercraft ride of historic proportions, inspired by the history of the 1805-07 Lewis & Clark expedition. Their excursion included amongst others, a 14 or fifteen year old native by the name of Sacajawea, won in a betting game by a French Canadian trapper, her newly born baby, an African American slave named York, owned by one of the expedition leaders, and a Newfoundland dog named Seaman.

Their expedition lasted just over two years while encountering harsh things like mosquitoes, weather, unforgiving terrain, treacherous waters, injuries, starvation, disease and more than a few hostile Native Americans.

This is now a story of the stuff of history legends that we aren’t taught about, our past USA history. I love history and I also love watercraft riding; this adventure was meant to provide some fuel for both passions. And as it turned out the research for this ride taught me plenty.

Before the full scale of my proposed expedition could fully sink in; Lewis, founder of the West Coast Watercraft Club said- I want in and so did countless other watercraft riders. Although many who signed on originally had no clue what they were signing up for.

And just like that, a watercraft ride is born. We had to call it something so, at times we dignified it by calling it an expedition. The Columbia River challenge 500 sounded good, so we went with that for a while. I don’t now know why. From Lewiston Idaho to the Pacific Ocean by waterways, the distance is not even four hundred miles. And why a challenge you might ask? That also sounded good to the other riders.

The three very experienced and capable watercraft riders that outlasted the others that canceled earlier on are; yours truly on a 2022 Yamaha FXHO, Lewis on a 2022 Seadoo RXP 300 and Jeff on a 2017 Kawasaki Ultra 300.

I figured out earlier on that the three of us have our own set of idiosyncrasies. This became very apparent from the start since we never met. Everything was discussed and planned on the WhatsApp app.

It’s always best to just prepare your own watercraft according to your own riding experience. It’s amazing how many different items a small boat can hold. Things like anchoring, safety stuff, navigation and communication and photography top the list. Towards the end Amazon items started arriving like electric fuel transfer pump and a fuel rack.

Once the watercraft is fully equipped what J quickly discovered is that you can easily get by (today) with just a smartphone, a GoPro to record the action and a credit card and lots and lots of cash for expenses like everything else, but, mostly limited to fuel for both watercraft and body. I’m going to try that one day.

So how does one go about organizing such a challenge you might ask? Well, today one knows most everything needed within accuracy like the weather, where to find fuel, food and lodging.

I bought from the Fish N Map company waterproof maps that I referred to oftentimes. They helped me with the planning, finding accurate gps locations, launch ramps, and marinas. Plus you need to physically see on paper the extent of what you committed yourself to. A way to simply wrap your mind around all the man made places available to you on the waterways of the river.

It’s probably easier to get killed or maimed on the road than on this adventure of a lifetime; except that’s not what I heard from most riders considering coming.

If you want to know real hardships then you won’t find them in this story. The real hardship came from the original expedition. You can read about what all those men and that one woman and dog experienced in a book called Undaunted Courage written by Ambrose.

Our original goal was to be the first to ride and explore the Snake and Columbia river from Lewiston Idaho to the Pacific Ocean on personal watercraft while making our very own memories.

Will Rogers once said that there’s three types of people in this world; the ones that learn by reading. Then there’s a few who learn by observation. And finally, there’s a type of watercraft rider that has to pee on the electric fence to find out for ourselves.

Only three of the original sixteen even attempted to ride the “Columbia River 500 challenge”. And like Mother Nature itself having the last word; Covid in our group, became the last reason why we didn’t finish this ride. So why am I writing about it and still sharing this story? Perhaps it’s because when you put some effort into something you want to document the outcome. So feel free to read on.

The Columbia river that we traveled on after leaving the Snake River starts as a trickling brook in Canada’s Kootaney Mountains. It’s then continually fed by up to 100 raging tributaries along its circuitous, 1,234-mile dash to the pacific ocean.

The other naysayer watercraft riders invited on this trip of a lifetime piped in with you’d have to be mad to even try it!” There’s not enough fuel stops, gas is at it’s highest right now, a dozen river locks exist and you won’t get through them; there’s deadly rapids down the Snake river that will suck you down plus winds in excess of 100 mph when and if you reach the Columbia river gorge. Plus, it’d take you a year to complete it.

We originally planned to launch at Hells Gate marina in Lewiston Idaho and the next day touch the southern border of Washington and northern Oregon state.

Boaters cruising season is now in full swing this August 2022, under sunny skies with daytime temperatures on the river reaching the mid-80s, then dropping down to the 70s overnight.

The scenery that I know because I have ridden this area on a motorcycle is always magnificent, starting with the wheat field country referred to as Palouse country.

Did you know that this area of our country produces more wheat per acre than anywhere else in the world. About 90% of it gets transferred by barge down river. This distinct geographic region of the northwestern United States encompasses parts of north central Idaho and southeastern Washington. From there the scenery changes to a nice mix of evergreens and colorful hardwoods on both sides of the riverbanks.

Our first river, the Snake River gorge is ten miles wide and plunges down to 7,913 feet. That’s 2,000 feet deeper than our Grand Canyon – making it the deepest river gorge in all of North America.

I wish I could report that we made it to the Pacific Ocean and the Columbia River Bar and that no one died. But then we’ll never know because we didn’t even get a chance to get there; maybe next year.

An expedition usually sets out from a port with the eventual return to the same port. In our case once we launched in Lewiston Idaho, we would go all the way downriver ending up in either Illwaco Washington or Astoria, Oregon, touching both Washington and Oregon state most of the ride down.

On a personal watercraft most riders go out onto the waters of a lake or ocean for a few hours of adrenaline induced or cruising riding. And just like that you’re back home for a shower and supper.

All of our route planned is down river and if you think you can’t get lost- think again. Cruising the Columbia River from Lewiston Idaho offers much for the heart . . . but, not for the faint of heart.

At Cascade locks we would enter a lift chamber carved into solid rock 460 feet long, and 90 feet wide. And you may think you know the conditions coming in the morning or even the next day or two but, Mother Nature always has the last say.

Thankfully we can move at an average pace of 45 mph so we end up dealing with whatever comes our way. And come it will: rains, winds, fogs, seas . . . and mosquitoes.

One life lesson I think I really walked away with was that without the right people, experiences are often shallow and won’t leave you fulfilled in and of themselves.

Would you recommend doing this ride to others?

I would absolutely recommend it.

I’d like to tell the naysayers now that more people have climbed Mt. Everest, and at this point left the earth’s orbit, than have completed this adventure but, I can’t. At times, rest and retreat are perfectly legitimate needs.

At other times, we all have a surplus of energy and interest that must be utilized or lost before we are OLDER; such surpluses don’t accumulate over time like some might think —they atrophy. We maintain and feed this thing called Life till the very end.

And towards the end of this little story I leave you with a little known history: Sacagawea, was the daughter of a Shoshone chief, was born circa 1788 in Lemhi County, Idaho. At around age 12, she was captured by an enemy tribe. In November 1804, she was needed as a translator on the Lewis and Clark expedition as a Shoshone interpreter.

Remember, she’s eleven or twelve years old when captured by the Hidatsa Indian’s who raided her camp. She is now forced to walk with them back to where they live in North Dakota, which is about five hundred miles away, as the crow flies.

And today most of you may see her on a US stamp and also on the new one-dollar US coin.


August 2022