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The cliffs of Klindt’s Cove

Navigation light

Navigation light "64" at Fsiherman's Cove, The Dalles, viewed from the river. Copyright Mark B. Gibson

It isn’t far from my downtown office to the river.

A few blocks west on Second, left on Union, over the railroad tracks and under the interstate highway. Barges often anchor there by the underpass, loaded with scrap metal or grain or huge construction cranes for work at the nearby dam. Great access for foot traffic and bicycles, but no way to launch even a canoe down the rocky banks. Driving west the river vanishes as the road moves away, around the historic campsite of Lewis and Clark. Occasionally the river shows, glimpsed between the fruit processing plants and manufacturing facilities as the road curves and turns through The Dalles Industrial Park.

A lone restaurant sits on the riverbank, surrounded by maintenance yards, bus barns and office buildings, more typical residents of industry. A concrete kiln roars beneath a plume of gas and steam. Cooling towers create misty clouds above two huge, windowless buildings that house a Google server farm.

Map of Klindts Cove

Klindts Cove

Until recently Klindts Cove was a tiny cove with a sandy beach surrounded by gravel flats. Mrs. Klindt was the nearest neighbor, she lived nearby for a great many years. Today there are office buildings, the newest and closest still under construction. Workmen rattle and bang on the roof as I park and offload the canoe, sliding it off the rack and onto my shoulders. I can feel the eyes as I carry it past the restroom, over the paved Riverfront Trail, down to the tiny horseshoe-shaped cove. With my head inside the upside-down canoe, I look like a 17-foot blue banana with legs.

The aluminum canoe is more awkward than heavy. Reaching the sandy beach, I roll it off my shoulders to my knee, then down to the water. It hits with a hollow boom. A quick repeat trip to grab my pack, paddles and lifejacket. Across the water of the small cove, rows of windows reflect the sun from a new office building. I still feel all the eyes, hidden and unblinking.

The cove itself is tiny, a small sandy beach protected by a rocky spit. A half dozen paddle strokes and I’m curving under a broken pole once used to hang a tribal fisherman’s net. The world shifts as I turn upstream. I become invisible, hidden by the vertical basalt cliffs plunging from above. The windows and eyes vanish and I float into another world.

It was here that I first ventured my canoe onto the Columbia River, back in November, the “Moon of Travelling by Canoe” on the historic calendar of the Native Americans across the river in Wishram, Washington. I didn’t know what to expect. At first I made short loops into the river channel, trying to judge the flow. For the most part it’s an invisible current. A tiny eddy creates miniature funnels at the entrance to the cove, but otherwise there is little to hint at the passage of water. I was surprised to find the current, for the most part, nonexistent. The river here has the character of an impoundment or reservoir. Still, I enter with caution: The river level sometimes fluctuates dramatically, and wind driven breakers can roll upriver long after the last gust is felt. The river is tamed, perhaps, but it certainly isn’t dead.

Paddling along the base of a cliff is a fascinating adventure. I love to paddle a hand span out, letting the rock flow past within easy reach. Waves from passing boats or the wind lap and splash in the cracks and seams of rock. Here and there the clay nests of cliff swallows open round doors to the river, sometimes only a few feet from the surface of the water. Winter moisture has caused some of the nests to separate into round bits of clay that drip to the rock below and pile into pebbled shapes like dripped candle wax.

Grain silo and barge

A loaded barge at Mid Columbia Grain Growers in The Dalles. Mark B. Gibson photo

Now and then the cliffs fall back, giving way to a rocky shoreline. Industry occasionally intrudes, but most of it no longer faces the river. I pass the outflow of the old aluminum plant, the dock and moorage for a local tugboat company, massive grain silos loading grain into barges. Many tie-ups for anchoring the floating nets of Native American fisherman dangle bright green nylon rope. All of these have a living relationship with the river.

Here and there are ropes and cables for securing barges and nets, bolts and railroad spikes driven into the rock. Next to one protruding bolt, “1879” is scratched into the stone. Old, crumbling stone steps once provided some sort of access near a processing facility, now they vanish into the water. I pass moldering ladders and steps, then float  over a long series of concrete foundations flooded by the Bonneville Dam far downriver.

Mill Creek

The arched outlet of Mill Creek, The Dalles. Copyright Mark B. Gibson

Beneath the high cliff of the Rockfort campsite of Lewis and Clark is the outflow of Mill Creek, joining the river via an arched tunnel in the basalt. After flowing free from the Mount Hood National Forest and through town, the creek drops through bars into a tunnel at Thompson Park, vanishes under Sixth Street, under the railroad and highway and road to emerge here in the face of a cliff. At low water I once canoed inside, it’s a strange and scary place. I had no flashlight, and did not go far… I didn’t want to be tossed about in the dark by the wake of a passing barge. Just beyond the creek is the Union Street underpass and downtown The Dalles.

In the nooks and crannies all along the way, often invisible from the trails and roads, are piles of peeled sticks marking the feeding areas of the resident beaver. Blue herons perch on the cliffs. Waterfowl gather and disperse in the deep water.

I quietly return with the gentle current, at the pace of a slow walk if don’t paddle. Arriving back at the cove, I emerge again into the modern industrial world with its unblinking eyes and artificial clouds of steam.

Driving away, I marvel that the common, every day world of business and industry can exist so close to the mysteries of high cliff and water.

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