One woman in a kayak versus 250 miles of the mighty Columbia River — sometimes serene and breathtakingly beautiful, sometimes choppy and riddled with treacherous currents, and always buffeted by wind.
This isn’t how most people envision the rest and relaxation of retirement. But after 35 years in classrooms, out on the water is exactly where Laurie Case Wilhite wanted to be.
Wilhite was 61 in the spring of 2016 when she began her arduous paddle from John Day Dam near her hometown of Goldendale to Astoria, Ore., where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean. She had just retired from a long career in education that included a year at the International Air and Hospitality Academy and a decade at Woodland High School from 1983 to 1993, among other positions.
“When I retired from teaching, I wanted to slow down and see the Columbia River that I love so much from river level,” Wilhite said. “It became the paddle to the Pacific as a journey of reflection, taking time to appreciate my home river.”
“Home river” is a concept that’s important to Wilhite, inspired by Paul Schullery’s words from a 1991 anthology of fly-fishing essays: “A home river is that rarest of friends, the one who frequently surprises you with new elements of personality without ever seeming a stranger.”
This excerpt graces the preface of Wilhite’s recently published book, “Paddle to the Pacific,” a detailed account of her journey with 200 full-color photographs.
Each of the book’s 26 chapters describes a different leg of her epic aquatic trek, which took her 2½ years to complete. Wilhite was judicious about her timing, overwintering at home and paddling only in relatively good conditions. She didn’t follow a straight east-to-west route but kayaked when and where co-paddlers could join her.
She rarely kayaked alone, she said, but teamed up with “a dozen people who paddled different stretches with me,” such as Vancouver resident D’Ann Horrocks and Wilhite’s adult sons, Fletcher and Casey. Her husband, Don, sometimes joined her on the water as well as providing logistical support from land.
Organizing a trip of this magnitude was a challenge all its own, Wilhite said. Accommodations needed to be arranged, campsites booked, schedules coordinated and river conditions double-checked. She writes that her gear included big plastic tubs of “straps, life jackets, bungies, sunscreen, dry clothes, snacks, a safety throw bag, paddle gloves, multiple hats and much more.” Everything was hauled from site to site in Wilhite’s wine-colored Chevy truck, nicknamed “Vinny” and outfitted with a Thule Hullavator, a specialized piece of equipment allowing her to single-handedly load and unload her kayak from its rooftop perch. To Wilhite, it was all part of the fun.
“It was thrilling to be able to plan the next paddle and always have something to look forward to. It became a grand adventure, but not something that was painful,” Wilhite said. “Well, it was painful, but in a different way. I did get in better shape!”
From her kayak, Wilhite beheld the Columbia’s many facets, from the towering cliffs and wild waterfalls of the Gorge to busy industrial areas with bridges, barges and huge shipping vessels. She paddled “as close as safely possible” to the mammoth dams at John Day, The Dalles, Ore., and Bonneville. She marveled at the array of avian life both on the water and overhead, writing of the “pelicans, gulls, ducks, geese, osprey and smaller songbirds” that she saw. In Washougal, she was greeted by the whiskery face of a sea lion as it swam upriver looking for tasty salmon. When she grounded her kayak on sandy shores, she noted the fresh tracks of coyotes, bobcats and bears.
“From river level, it’s different. It’s intimate. And it changes,” Wilhite said. “I refer sometimes to the Columbia as ‘the beauty and the beast,’ because from certain times of day and certain seasons and tides, it can change dramatically.”
Every leg of the journey offered its own surprises, joys or obstacles. Paddles ranged from an easy, 5-mile trip between the Hammond area of Warrenton, Ore., and Clatsop Spit, the westernmost point of the journey, to a grueling 17-mile stretch from Ridgefield to Kalama in which Wilhite, Horrocks and another friend, Carla Whitmire, battled harsh winds and the incoming Pacific tide, which pushes surprisingly far up the Columbia. But no matter what setbacks Wilhite encountered, it never occurred to her to just take her paddle out of the water and call it quits.
“I’m tenacious. I never thought of giving up, because once I start something, I am driven to finish it. If I say I’m going to do something, I do my utmost to do it,” Wilhite said. “But I couldn’t have done it without help from my friends. It was not a solo journey. It was a whole team of people. I didn’t have to give up because I had so much help.”
After she finished each leg of her journey, she’d return home to her writers’ group, The Goldendale Writers’ Bloc, and craft an account of her experiences. The book became a memoir of sorts, brimming with recollections of her life near the Columbia River, including many cherished memories of kayaking on the Lewis River, Lake Merwin, Yale Lake and Vancouver Lake. Wilhite said she’s especially fond of Lake River and the Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge.
She joked that maybe she’s spent so much time on lakes and rivers because she’s a Pisces — the astrological sign of the fish — and water is her element. However, she seems fueled as much by curiosity as an affinity for water. She said perhaps that’s the teacher in her.
“One of my favorite quotes is by Eleanor Roosevelt: ‘Do one thing every day that scares you.’ What that means to me is not just paddling in huge waves and taking on surf. It can mean saying hello to someone you don’t know. It can mean looking up an old friend to repair a rift,” Wilhite said. “It’s what keeps me going. I like the concept that we can always grow and learn new things.”
The journey’s final leg wasn’t in Astoria, but closer to Wilhite’s home waters. She took her last paddle strokes on a very windy day at Drano Lake, where the Little White Salmon River empties into the Columbia. In honor of her Scottish heritage, she engaged a bagpiper to pipe her to the shore. Later, she celebrated with friends and family in Stevenson.
“On the drive home, I found myself looking at the river from the car and having this whole deeper connection, looking at where I had paddled,” Wilhite said. “I can’t not look at myself through my mind’s eye, being on the river and how I was feeling. The journey will always be with me. It’s a grand memory.”