Big Paddle aims to blaze a water trail

Ridgefield event raises awareness of county's recreational waterways

By Paul Suarez, Columbian freelance

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Dozens of boaters and a handful of local dignitaries took to the waters of Lake River near Ridgefield on Saturday morning in a flotilla of kayaks and canoes.

The group was taking part in the Vancouver-Clark Parks & Recreation's "Big Paddle" event, a 5-mile round-trip journey between the Ridgefield Marina and Columbia River.

The event was a way to celebrate National Trails Day and raise public awareness for an 18-agency effort to plan a way to turn regional waterways into a Clark County water trail system for recreational non-motorized boaters.

"We're really excited about this," Ridgefield Mayor Ron Onslow said before the event. He was already thinking about having it again next year.

As the group paddled away from the marina, it passed an old mill at the Port of Ridgefield. A BNSF freight train hurtled past, blowing its horn. Overcast skies parted to reveal strips of blue. Eventually, clouds choked out the blue and dumped a bit of rain on the group of kayaks and canoes.

The variety of weather was fitting because hundreds of years ago the rivers were used by Chinookan people, fur traders and others as

"superhighways" rain or shine, said Doug Wilson, archaeologist at Fort Vancouver National Site.

"Rivers 180 to 200 years ago were essentially the I-5," of the time, he said.

Wilson, one of several people who spoke at two stops along the way, said people were connected by river trails and relationships, he said.

The water was the only mode of transportation for the Chinook, said Sam Robinson, vice chairman of the Chinook Tribal Council.

"We didn't need horses, we had highways," he said.

William Vinson paddled through the crowd with his 15-year-old beagle, KaLei, balancing in between his legs.

"We got out all the time," he said. "The dog doesn't like the water that much, but she doesn't like to be left at home."

Eventually, the water trail will benefit Vinson and others who recreate on Clark County waterways.

As a part of the planning process, Parks & Rec staff took inventory of water access points between Vancouver Lake, Woodland and La Center, said Jean Akers, county parks planner. Eventually, the group hopes to improve access to the waterways and publish a water trail guide.

The event was a part of the planning process to get people more aware, Akers said.

Saturday's turnout shows there's interest in paddling through Clark County, said Dan Miller, planner with the National Parks Service Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance program.

The final plan should be done by the end of summer.

Two donors, as well as the Clark County Sheriff's Office and Clark County Fire & Rescue, provided motorized safety boats.