Trip of a lifetime

Scouts recreate Lewis and Clark canoe journey down Columbia


End of the challenge: The canoeists paddle past a lighthouse near the mouth of the Columbia River.

POLK COUNTY -- The 20 boy scouts were exhausted and sore by the time they reached their destination near Astoria on Aug. 13.

For five days they had battled the Columbia River. It had been four days since anyone had bathed.

The trip was difficult, sometimes frustrating - and absolutely worth it, said Richard McBurney.

As he described the moment when Troop 29 reached the point where the Columbia drains into the Pacific Ocean, the 16-year-old from Independence sounded almost lyrical.

"That was the only day the wind was at our backs," McBurney said. "The water was smooth, you could see the fog covering islands and hills in the distance.

"It was surreal to think we'd soon be stopping at a point almost 140 miles from where we started."

Two weeks ago, McBurney and his fellow varsity scouts from Monmouth and Independence piled into canoes and braved high winds and swells on the lower Columbia River trail.

Their 146-mile ride from the Bonneville Dam to just outside Astoria was performed to coincide with the bicentennial celebration of Lewis and Clark's trek across the Western United States -- in particular, the final months traversing the Northwest by river.

"It was hard, but really neat, too," said Zach White, 16, of Monmouth. "I mean really, how many people can say they've canoed all the way to the ocean from Bonneville?"

Antone Gatherum, team leader for Troop 29, said the group has performed a "high adventure" trip annually for the past several years, including a 150-mile bike ride on the San Juan Islands and an Independence-to-Astoria trip by canoe.

They'd been flirting with a trip down the Columbia for three years, Gatherum said. The 200th anniversary of the Corps of Discovery served as the perfect opportunity.

"Our objective was to learn about Lewis and Clark at this stage of their trip, experiencing what they did from modern-day canoes," he said.

The boys studied up on the original journey, made a list of supplies, and took overnight canoe trips on the Willamette River to prepare. On Aug. 8, they put in just west of the Bonneville Dam and ventured forth -- sort of.

"I don't think any of us had an idea of how challenging this would be, said McBurney, whose longest previous canoe voyage was a trip of eight miles on the Deschutes.

"There was wind and waves that we had to fight constantly ... that first day, we did five miles in five hours, because of all the swells."

The boys would get on the river about 7 a.m. and paddle for 10 or 11 hours, with few breaks. They'd camp out on islands, or on any hospitable site off the banks.

The strength of the current made it almost impossible to sit idle in the water, White said, particularly when tankers and barges would pass and rock the canoes in their wakes.

On one day, considered the most difficult of the trip, they had to physically drag their boats through knee-deep mud to reach the shoreline -- after two hours of intense paddling.

They read passages from the journal entries of Lewis and Clark around the campfires to get a sense of what those explorers were feeling on the Columbia back in 1805.

"They went during November, when it was raining the whole time," White said. "They had been robbed ... they were miserable ... I don't think they liked Oregon all that much."

The only casualty for the "Corps of Rediscovery" was a digital camera that fell from a tipped canoe during the first day out.

The were hardships, however.

There were no towns or campsites immediately off the river for most of the journey, Gatherum said. Like Lewis and Clark, the boys depended on the kindness of strangers for information or for refills of their canteens. One samaritan near the coast allowed the boys to camp out on his dock.

The busy shipping lanes and high winds near Astoria prevented the scouts from reaching the open Pacific. They ended their journey at Tongue Point, a few miles from Astoria's waterfront. They were elated, nonetheless, McBurney said.

"After we had driven home, it took a day for me to realize we weren't going to be on the river," he said, adding that the journey was "something I'll definitely remember to my dying days."

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