Teens explore Willamette River just like Huck Finn


They say that great literature can inspire. Case in point: High school seniors Cameron O’Neil and Elliott Lownsbery of West Salem.

After reading “Huckleberry Finn” the past school year, the longtime buddies decided to lash together logs and wooden pallets to make a raft, packed a tent and barbecue on board and towing a kayak, made a four-day August float on the Willamette River from Peoria to Wallace Marine Park in Salem.

“That was pretty much the inspiration,” Lownsbery, 17, said, then chuckled. “I mean when you think of a log raft, it’s kind of Huck-Finnish.”

“I read it last year for school,” O’Neil, 17, added. “That wasn’t the main inspiration, but that’s the main story where somebody’s done something like this.

“So your mind’s obviously going to go to something like that when you think of a log raft.”

Given the heft — O’Neil calculated that the 36 8-foot logs and the pallets came in at somewhere between 300 and 400 pounds — the only way to get it on the water was to build it on-site.

“We stacked up the logs and put the pallets on top, and we also had a kayak on a trailer that my dad has,” he said. “So we drove it to Peoria and tied it together pretty much in the water because it was too heavy to pick up.

“We used just Harbor Freight rope. It had a 600-pound rating, so it wasn’t underdone, I don’t think.”

The original plan had been to make a 100-plus-mile float from Peoria to just above Oregon City, but the going wasn’t all that swift.

“Riding a bicycle is definitely faster than we were going,” Lownsbery said. “We weren’t even going a walking pace. A lot of times, we were almost standing still.”

“The first day, we got finished building it about 5, so we didn’t have much daylight left to go, so I think we probably only got two or three miles,” O’Neil said. “And then we got sucked into this weird eddy thing onto the side.

“So we just decided to tie up to a tree there, and that’s where we spent the night on the raft.”

“The first night, we slept on the raft, and that was really uncomfortable,” said Lownsbery, a senior at West Salem High. “So we said, ‘Let’s move the tent onto the ground’ because that would be more comfortable.

“It was kind of annoying at the end of the day because you’re really tired, and you have to move everything off of the raft and up onto the land.”

The reason for the fatigue was the near-constant watch and maneuvering the lumbering 16-by-8-foot raft around snags and rocks, along with working the powerless floating platform out of the back eddies, known as towheads, that would stop them dead in the water.

“We were going just with the current because there was no other way to really power the thing without having to get another permit, so it was like really heavy,” said O’Neil, a senior at Western Mennonite High. “And the currents would pull us into these little eddies — I think you call them towheads — so we got stuck in quite a few of those.”

Getting back in the channel was a matter of using the two kayak paddles or, in one case, sheer might and main like a team of barge horses, pulling the raft against the current.

“What we’d do is pull the raft over to the side, and then we’d use the kayak to get back up the towhead towards the current, and then get off onto the land,” Lownsbery said. “We had this 100-foot rope, and so we’d pull (the raft) back toward the current from the land.

“It wasn’t too fun.”

That’s not to say that the four days were all a grueling grind. There were lots of those Huck Finnish experiences.

“The neatest thing I saw?” O’Neil repeated the question. “That’s really hard.

“I was amazed about how many fish there are in the Willamette,” he said. “Like nobody ever fishes in the Willamette … there’s a few, but not a lot. There was really a lot, like you’d see one jump about every 30 seconds.

“I think a lot of them might have been trout or sunfish. There was quite a few carp in the water. You could tell them because they’re big and slow.”

Although neither got to cash in on the piscatorial bounty.

“We did bring our fishing supplies and everything, but by the time we got the bait set up and everything to cast it out, the raft would turn, or we’d get sucked into another eddy or something,” O’Neil said. “We’d have to reel it up and put it away. So we decided not to bother.”

He laughed.

“We did a lot of reading.”

“I think my favorite part was just whenever we were rafting somewhere when it was sunset,” Lownsbery responded to the same question. “That was just so …”

He paused.

“The sunset on the water and everything, and just being able to float down the river, that was my favorite part,” he said. “I think it was also cool to go under all of the bridges that you pass. I’ve been over them, but it was pretty cool to go underneath them.”

And the pair got a lot of style points from the bank and passing boats.

“I think just about everyone we saw thought it was really exciting,” Lownsbery said. “People were taking pictures and videoing us, and any boat that we passed by usually stopped and talked to us.

“They definitely thought it was really interesting.”

Added O’Neil: “Pretty much everybody thought it was the coolest thing they’d ever seen. So it was pretty fun hearing everybody’s remarks about it.

“I don’t think anybody thought it was a dumb idea, so that’s a pretty good thing, I guess.”

By the second night, the pair had made it to Albany’s Bryant Park. The third and final night was spent on the grass at Riverview Park in Independence.

The Albany section provided the only scare of the trip, when the raft lumbered into a bridge pillar.

“I was really worried because we talked to some guy with the Willamette River Watershed or something like that, and he said the pilings are going to be the hardest things to avoid,” O’Neil said. “We hit it, but it was just a bunch of logs tied together, and you couldn’t even feel it, really, and we just kept on going.”

Their first night in the tent on the grass was heaven, he added.

“The night, we stopped in the park in Albany,” O’Neil said. “That was a really great place because it had bathrooms and really cool like stove things that you burn wood on.”

And at each stop, the pair called on one of their cellphones, and Cameron’s dad, Ed, came with food. It was a blessing because their main provender was “hot dogs and Bisquick,” Lownsbery said.

“That was probably one of the best things, too, because I was sooooo hungry at the end of the day,” he said about the catering service with hamburgers and Subway sandwiches. “Because during the day, we really didn’t stop to eat breakfast or lunch. We just cooked hot dogs every time we were hungry.”

The cellphones were one of the few concessions to 21st century technology during the voyage, Lownsbery said. But because they had no way to charge them, they were turned off unless they were making a call.

“My parents wanted to know when we got to some certain city,” he said. “So we’d call them every once in a while to tell them we hadn’t drowned, yet.”

Just more than halfway to their original goal of Oregon City during the four-day float, the crew ran out of time and energy in Salem.

“We kind of dragged it up onto that little rock bar, and then we tied it up to a picnic table,” O’Neil said about their arrival at Wallace Marine. “My dad had parked my truck there the night before, and we got there and loaded a bunch of stuff in the truck.”

They then disassembled the raft and decking.

“Then my dad came later after we called him with the big trailer, and we took all of everything and loaded it up,” O’Neil said.

Both said it was an experience that they never will forget.

“I think it’s just … it might have been really tiring, and after the fourth day, we just really wanted to get off,” Lownsbery said. “But it’s something; I can tell that story to anyone that I wanted. And it’s such a unique story. Nobody else has had that experience.”


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