A lifelong lover of lakes, rivers, oceans, pools and pretty much all things swimmable, I’ll admit I was overly excited last spring, when my partner, Andy, told me he wanted to go shopping for kayaks.
“My kid’s been kayaking with her dad since she was a little girl. It can’t be that hard,” I remember thinking as we drove to the Next Adventure shop in Southeast Portland.
I soon psyched myself into believing we would become expert paddlers in no time.
And then we tried to hoist Andy’s brand new, sticker-still-on-it, seemingly 10,000-pound fishing kayak over our heads and onto his Subaru.
“I already hate kayaking,” I told him. “Maybe we should just go swimming?”
But we persisted.
And while I may never enjoy lifting kayaks onto a rooftop rack, I can say with confidence that, six months and several paddling adventures later, kayaking is one of the best ways to shake off urban life, let your stress melt away and enjoy some of the prettiest places the Pacific Northwest has to offer.
When we first started kayaking, we stuck primarily to lakes. Then we worked our way up to sloughs, and, most recently, have been exploring the Lewis River-Vancouver Lake Water Trail, which starts near Woodland and winds its way along Clark County rivers and lakes, through a national wildlife refuge in Ridgefield, a state park near La Center, two state wildlife areas and hundreds of acres of conservation land.
There are, of course, some wonderful Camas-Washougal kayaking spots — including Lacamas and Round lakes for beginners and the Washougal River for more advanced kayakers wanting the thrill of a few Class 2-3 rapids — but for local folks craving an easy day-paddle who don’t want to go too far (or battle Portland traffic), the Water Trail offers 32 miles of easy-to-advanced kayaking journeys.
Lessons from a La Center to Paradise Park (and back again) paddle
Two weeks ago, Andy and I decided to give the “East Fork Lewis River: La Center” section of the Water Trail a try.
Having covered the city of La Center as a news reporter for two other Clark County media publications, I knew La Center’s leaders had recently opened a “Water Trail” park specifically to accommodate kayakers, so I really wanted to see how the park had turned out.
Located at 32399 N.W. Pollock Road in La Center, the John Pollock Water Trail Park, which opened in 2017, features ample parking, a lifejacket station, picnic tables and a small but easily accessible kayak launch that puts you straight into the East Fork Lewis River.
Seconds after launching our kayaks into the water, we encountered a group of five kayakers who had just paddled up the river from Paradise Point State Park and were now starting their journey back to their vehicles.
One of the kayakers — a man named Mike from Cowlitz County, Washington — accompanied us for part of our trip and told us about a horse ranch southeast of the Water Trail Park kayak launch, toward the La Center Bottoms, where the horses come right up to the water to check out passing paddlers.
We had already planned to head northwest, however, so we opted to check out the horses another day.
Instead, we took a left turn out of the kayak launch and began a leisurely paddle northwest, toward Paradise Point State Park.
With wide, calm water flanked by spacious La Center properties on one side and the East Fork Lewis River Greenway on the other, this part of the Water Trail is ideal for beginning kayakers. The only somewhat tricky part for complete novices might be entering and exiting the water from the kayak launch at the John Pollock Water Trail Park, where the water is still deep enough to submerge you up to your knees. Paddlers also should watch out for wooden pilings as they make their way under the bridge that crosses into downtown La Center.
Once you’ve crossed under the La Center bridge, watch for horses grazing on the north side of the Water Trail and listen for cattle mooing in the not-so-far-away distance. We heard the cows about halfway through our paddle to Paradise State Park and saw at least three of them hanging out near the banks of the river.
It seems like a solitary sport, but I’ve found kayaking can be quite social. Other paddlers sometimes link up and trade kayaking knowledge and folks walking nearby love to wave and call out their hellos. During our paddle down the East Fork Lewis River, we encountered quite a few friendly strangers, including folks walking along the greenway and people walking their dogs near the La Center Shore Launch (another kayak-launching option with four parking spaces and a gravel-shore launch site), all of whom waved to us and called out their greetings.
Paddling from the Pollock Road launch site to Paradise State Park takes a little less than an hour when you’re not stopping to look at horses and take photos like we were.
Many kayakers paddling this section of the Water Trail choose to keep going past Paradise Point, toward the Pekin Ferry boat ramp, which takes about 90 minutes and offers some incredible wildlife-viewing opportunities thanks to the adjacent Two Forks Wildlife Area.
Kayakers can arrange for one-way trips by taking two vehicles with kayak racks and parking one at each end of the trip. Andy and I were in the same car, so we had no choice but to head back toward the John Pollock Water Trail Park after meandering down the river for more than an hour.
By this time, the weather had started to take a turn for the worse and a strong headwind made our progress back toward the La Center kayak launch much more challenging. When we started our journey, around 2 p.m. on a sunny Sunday in early October, the skies were blue and dotted with wispy white clouds and the water levels were high enough that traversing the Water Trail was no problem. By 3:30 p.m., those clouds were dark and ominous, the temperature had dipped by at least 10 degrees in the wind and parts of the river were so shallow we nearly high-centered our kayaks in the middle of the Water Trail.
We made it back relatively unscathed, save for an accidental leg-plunge into the water getting out of our kayaks, but the trip taught us to always check the tide charts and weather forecasts before setting out — even if we’re just going on a short afternoon paddle.
Paddling Guide offers valuable information about 32-mile Water Trail
To learn more about the entire Water Trail, I relied on a paddling guidebook put together in 2013 by the Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation Department and the National Park Service, with contributions from Lower Columbia River Estuary Partnership, Ridgefield Kayak, Parks Foundation of Clark County, Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, Sierra Club Loo Wit Group, Pekin Ferry Inland Navigation Company and other volunteers.
The Lewis River-Vancouver Lake Water Trail Paddling Guide, which can be accessed online, includes paddling safety and gear checklists, kayaking etiquette tips, resources, information on where to put your kayak into the water and eight trail maps for various sections of the Water Trail.
Those trail maps include the East Fork Lewis River: La Center section Andy and I paddled, as well as the North Fork Lewis River: Woodland; Lake River: North Ridgefield; Bachelor Island Slough/Ridgefield Refuge; Lake River: South Ridgefield; Lake River: South Green Lake; Vancouver Lake: West; and Vancouver Lake: East.
For more information on the Lewis River-Vancouver Lake Water Trail, visit the county’s map at clark.wa.gov/sites/default/files/dept/files/public-works/Parks/PaddlingGuide.pdf or check out the Estuary Partnership’s interactive online map at estuarypartnership.org/explore/lewis-river-vancouver-lake-water-trail.