Paddling the free-flowing Columbia River at Hanford Reach National Monument.
HANFORD REACH NATIONAL MONUMENT — For kayakers, the Columbia River’s powerful flows can be both good and bad.
On the positive side, the fast-moving river currents propel a kayak swiftly downstream, which means paddlers can travel long stretches without any effort at all.
The downside: Having your kayak swiftly carried downstream is not a good thing if you’re not in it.
I saw this firsthand when I accompanied a small group on a kayaking tour of Central Washington’s Hanford Reach, the nation’s only remaining free-flowing non-tidal stretch of the Columbia River.
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The reach is a desolate-looking stretch flanked by a vast expanse of heat-baked shrub-and-grassland steppe, a kind of landscape the U.S. Department of the Interior considers an “endangered ecosystem.”
If the place sounds familiar, it’s because this is also home to the Hanford nuclear reservation, whose reactors are on one side of the river, while the undeveloped Hanford Reach National Monument lies on the other. This makes for surreal surroundings.
Lots of wildlife
The national monument, managed by the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife and largely preserved as a wildlife refuge, lies on the river’s east bank. With the river as a vital source of water and the plants and cliffs alongside it valuable habitat, animals are never very far away.
Riverside trees are home to herons, pelicans and cormorants. Geese waddle through long grasses, in no hurry to fly off anywhere. Hawks and other raptors cruise overhead. Elk and deer venture to the water’s edge to drink. We saw a fox; a few cougars and badgers also roam the monument.
But the river also gives paddlers a chance to see something else that’s not visible from the road or nearby towns.
On its west bank, squat buildings that appear to be made up of cube-shaped blocks — many of them clad in glinting metal, others looking like massive chunks of dull concrete — rise eerily right next to the water.
To me, the buildings seemed surprisingly small and benign-looking even as the arid landscape lent a desolate and otherworldly feel.
Of course, they’re not benign. With them standing right on the edge of the river, it’s hard to forget the U.S. Department of Energy’s cleanup of toxic material left over from World War II and the Cold War era, when nine reactors produced plutonium for weapons.
From our vantage point, the reactors appeared deserted. Lumbering heavy equipment was the only sign of people on site. One small fishing boat was the only other craft we encountered on the water (seasonal hunting is also allowed in the monument).
The best way to tour the reach is with experienced guides. Ours, Richland-based Columbia Kayak Adventures, calls the Hanford Reach “advanced-beginner” difficulty level, meaning it’s best suited for those with some paddling experience.
Although most of the float is relatively easy, paddlers need to steer clear of swirling currents, eddies and gravel bars, and wind can make paddling more difficult. Life jackets are required.
We put in near the Vernita Bridge, which spans the river below Priest Rapids Dam about 20 miles north of Richland, and cruised 18 miles to the takeout.
The water was flowing fast the day we went, at more than 150,000 cubic-feet per second (CFS), which meant we rarely had to paddle with any effort to make good progress downriver. It’s a nice feeling, lying back in a sea kayak with an idle paddle and letting the water carry you along while you enjoy the sunshine and scan the bank for critters.
Paddling upriver was impossible, as our party discovered when one kayaker tried to make a sharp turn into the bank at our take-out point. Tugged by the rushing water, her kayak tipped over, tossed her out and took off downstream. While two of our guides rescued her, a third paddler raced down the river to catch the runaway kayak. He grabbed it and hooked it to his own but then found himself paddling furiously upstream while towing a water-filled boat, losing ground with every stroke.
Fortunately, another kayaker went to join him and helped tow the craft to shore. The soggy ejected kayaker, meanwhile, threw herself across two kayaks and dragged herself out of the water. Although she was fine, water temperatures in the high 50s meant she was shivering when she got to the boat launch.
Coming at the very end of our adventure, with dry clothes and warm sunshine at hand, it wasn’t a big deal. But it was a sobering reminder of the river’s power.
Once you’re off the river, it’s time to relax and reward yourself for all that hard work. The Tri-Cities is surrounded by wineries. My other mission, before I returned to Seattle, was to pick up some tamales and salsa from the Country Mercantile in Pasco. The market started as a roadside fruit stand and still focuses on locally sourced grocery items, but it has grown to include its own chocolate, ice cream, snacks, condiments and Mexican specialties made in-house with recipes sourced from the Mexican-American employees’ relatives.
I headed back with wine bottles for the home table, tamales on ice, sunburned hands (don’t forget to reapply on the river!) and the satisfaction of knowing I wasn’t the one who fell in. I promise.
Christy Karras is a Seattle-based freelance writer.