Friends paddle down the Willamette River with Willamette Riverkeeper as the guide. ##Photo by Kathyrn Elsesser
Guests enjoy a gourmet dinner as part of the Pinot Paddle experience. ##Photo by Kathyrn Elsesser
Cramoisi Vineyard, Arcane Cellars, Winderlea Vineyard and Yamhill Valley Vineyards are
featured during the 2019 Pinot Paddle by Willamette Riverkeeper. ##Photo by Kathyrn Elsesser
Guests savor the scenery while rowing down the river. ##Photo by Kathyrn Elsesser

Paddle for Pinot

Willamette Riverkeeper hosts wine-soaked adventure

By Tamara Belgard

We began our trip dipping paddles into the refreshing river water, splashing ourselves each time we switched sides, as we propelled the canoe forward. Stroke after stroke, mile after mile, we kept paddling, knowing at the end of the day, a fully catered dinner and four Willamette Valley wineries awaited our arrival. But as I paddled along, keeping the ultimate goal in mind, I found myself entranced, swept away by the breathtaking scenic beauty of this stretch of river I’d never witnessed.

One of approximately 70 people, from Oregon and beyond, we poured into kayaks and canoes for the 29-mile two-day journey on the Willamette Riverkeeper’s first wine-themed event, Pinot Paddle. The trip began in Salem, with small pods launching inside the city, traffic din all around. It was surprising how quickly the noise fell away, leaving only rural vibrations in its place. In no time at all, it felt like we were remote — without a house, car or person in sight — though in reality, we were merely a few minutes’ drive from downtown Salem.

When I closed my eyes, it was as if I were floating through a rainforest with the boisterous sound of birdsong. Eyes open, I counted more bald eagles than motorboats; in fact, on the first day, the actual ratio was 10 to one. Hawks put on a show as they chased after eagles likely trying to steal their eggs. The aviary display included osprey looking for summer fish, and green and blue herons skirting gracefully across the water’s surface also looking for a meal.

The scented air also enticed. I breathed in the warmth of sunshine lingering in the air. And the familiar smell of fresh cut hay — hidden over the banks of the river — dominated the breeze.

Was it only an hour that passed, or had it been a whole day? How easy to lose perception of both time and distance. Time was ruled more by our stomachs than a clock, requiring regular re-fueling to keep up with the labor of paddling.

Nothing captures this event’s spirit better than environmentalist Sigurd Olson, who, in his book “The Singing Wilderness,” says, “There is a magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded by distance, adventure, solitude and peace. The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness, and of a freedom almost forgotten.”

At the end of the first day, we pulled our boats out of the water at Grand Island. Organizers shuttled our gear in, so people were able to bring all kinds of amenities to make the overnight more plush and comfortable, including chairs and mattresses — it felt more like glamping than camping. Even if they hadn’t lugged our things, boating allows for about 100 pounds more gear than backpacking.

After setting up camp, four wineries, each with a connection to either the river or the Willamette Riverkeeper’s mission, set up for a wine tasting. Yamhill Valley Vineyards, Arcane Cellars, (the only winery on the river), Winderlea and Cramoisi Vineyard satisfied tired and thirsty travelers with mouthwatering tastings served alongside a selection of hot and cold appetizers, and a backdrop of gentle live music.

Dinner, an elaborate buffet, included everything from carved prime rib to wild salmon, grilled vegetables and everything in between, all served under the stars. And before the morning’s breakfast buffet, people practiced yoga in a nearby field — perfect for stretching tired muscles.

Travis Williams, the Willamette Riverkeeper executive director and one of the guides, supplied knowledge and levity on this easy-going paddling trip; he also took the opportunity to educate as well. He explained how, in 1996, they utilized the Clean Water Act to improve water quality and scientific research on the river. The Willamette Water Trail remains the only nationally recognized water trail, with nearly 200 miles making its way through forests, meadows, parks, farms and cities, that’s also part of the National Waterkeeper Alliance.

Williams stressed the importance of his nonprofit organization dedicated to water quality, habitat restoration and river conservation. And while they take groups of paddlers on river excursions, they are not just a paddling sport group. They’ve planted more than 5,000 trees and shrubs, removing invasive species to create optimum habitats for local fish, purchasing land to safeguard the river and working on fish passage issues for salmon, steelhead and spring Chinook.

If Pinot Paddle sounds appealing, Willamette Riverkeeper hosts a number of events throughout the year, including Paddle Oregon. Guests will enjoy five sun-ripened days, August 12–16, meandering down the magnificent upper Willamette, winding along 85.5 miles of river, beginning at Marshall Island Access in Junction City and ending at Wallace Marine Park in Salem. A catered breakfast, lunch, evening appetizers and dinner will be provided.

Organizers of the event say, “There will be food that borders on the sublime. There will be stars. Tents. Music. And a moon so big, bright and happy, you can’t help but howl. Best of all, there will be friendships made and remade, anointed by a National Water Trail so magical, you’ll wonder how long a secret this amazing can possibly be kept.”

From my incredible experience with Pinot Paddle, I can attest: The Willamette Riverkeeper folks are good at keeping their word.

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