THE COMEBACK KID
THE CLOSEST WILD AND SCENIC RIVER TO PORTLAND, the Sandy River is a better river now than it was two summers ago. Why? In the summer of 2007, the forty-seven-foot-tall Marmot Dam—the tallest concrete dam ever removed in the Northwest—was destroyed with 4,400 pounds of explosives to improve fish habitat and river recreation. While most environmentalists welcomed a newly restored section of free-flowing river, there was some controversy among biologists about whether the sediment that had accumulated behind the ninety-five-year-old dam would clog fish habitat downstream once it was removed. Happily, the silt washed downstream in months, rather than the years some scientists predicted, and boaters have been relishing the higher water levels ever since (more water means a longer river-running season, by a month or two). And with the removal of the smaller Little Sandy Dam in 2008, the Sandy is now completely unbridled. In fact, the river is one of only a handful of Oregon waterways whose entire lengths have been declared navigable—from its headwaters on Mount Hood’s Reid Glacier to its entry into the Columbia River just east of Portland. That means there are fifty-five miles of untamed river just waiting for Portland adventurers.
PADDLE If you want to elicit a Pavlovian response from paddlers, simply utter these three words: Sandy River Gorge. About thirty-five miles from the headwaters, the river cuts a serpentine path through layers of compacted volcanic ash; the deeply chiseled walls rise past vertical at times to become overhanging rock sculptures. Here, in the spring, snowmelt swells the river to levels high enough to slalom through rock-choked rapids like Rasp Rock and Boulder Rapid, where a waterfall plunges right into the white water, and boulders the size of houses clog the channel. If that sounds a little beyond your solo skills, fear not: River Drifters rafting company has your ticket to a guided ride (riverdrifters.net; $85). Below the gorge, the river eases into mellower water. The Class I section downstream of Oxbow Regional Park is particularly prized by canoeists, novice kayakers, and—in the hottest months—“redneck rafters,” who float on inner tubes towing essential supplies (i.e., coolers full of beer).
FISH Nowhere else in the country does a healthy steelhead stream flow through an area so heavily populated by humans. That’s in part because the loose gravel sliding down the river from Mount Hood makes for great spawning conditions for the large anadromous fish, which are more prevalent in the winter than in the summer. The fishing is good nearly everywhere along the Sandy’s fifty-five-mile passage (Oxbow Park has particularly easy bank access), but locals guard their favorite fishing spots jealously. Fortunately, the Fly Fishing Shop (flyfishusa.com) in Welches has been leading trips on the Sandy since 1981. In addition to their daylong float trip ($450), they also run half-day hike-in trips ($120) for the more budget conscious.
HIKE/BIKE Access to the Sandy’s most spectacular section—the seven-hundred-foot-deep canyon just below where Marmot Dam once stood—has been limited in the past, but in 2002 Portland General Electric began donating pieces of it to the Western Rivers Conservancy. Now, the Bureau of Land Management is creating about thirty miles of trails suitable for hikers and cyclists of all ability levels. The trails should be tread-ready in the next two to four years. In the meantime, get a close-up look at where the Comeback Kid meets the Columbia on the Sandy River Delta, where you’ll also find artist Maya Lin’s newly opened bird blind (see “Living History”). A network of dog-friendly paths crisscrosses the delta’s 1,400 acres, which boast cottonwoods, cherry trees, and a near-constant view of Mount Hood.