Wild rapids touched off a whirlwind visit to restore my sagging spirits
After a long, calorie-filled winter, my body and spirit were in serious need of repair. So in early spring last year, I visited Portland, Oregon - my favourite U.S. city - to put myself through the rigours of its outdoor-adventure scene. My arrival co-incided with an unexpected heat wave that sent temperatures soaring into the mid-30s. With my shirt stuck to my back, I decided to cool down with some rafting.
Meltwater was gushing from the nearby Cascade Mountains and the Clackamas River was in record flood, a seething mass of white water and spray. Pete Giordano, our guide and an 11-year veteran of the river, shouted over the roar: "This is the highest and fastest I've ever seen this water. Once we're out there, listen very closely to my commands."
Five of us squeezed into wet suits, clambered aboard a small rubber raft - it looked very frail - and were swept away on a wild rollercoaster ride. Whenever Pete gave the order, we paddled with a superhuman frenzy. We hurtled through a series of nine rapids with brief interludes in between to collect our composure. The rapids bore worrisome names such as Toilet Bowl, Slingshot, Hole in the Wall and Rock and Roll. To my relief, we emerged unscathed and exhilarated, but very wet.
Soon I was back exploring downtown Portland.
As a book nut, my first stop was, as always, Powell's Book Store, which occupies four levels of an old warehouse that takes up an entire block in the colourful and funky Pearl District. With aisles and stairs heading in strange directions and book sections arranged in seemingly haphazard order, it's like a maze. But what a neat way to get lost and just browse. Used books are shelved right beside the new ones and the prices are surprisingly low, made even better since there is no sales tax. How could I not buy?
After a short stroll, I wandered through the Classical Chinese Gardens, a sanctuary of tranquil beauty and harmony located, conveniently, right in the middle of bustling downtown. The pools, pagodas and gardens were designed and built in collaboration with artisans from Portland's sister city, Suzhou, in eastern China, and emanate a feeling of zen and peace. It was a great place to sit, contemplate and thumb through my newly acquired books.
The next day I puttered along the Infinity Loop, one of the locals' favourite Sunday drives, to Timberline Lodge, a beautiful historic stone and log building that sits high on the shoulder of Mount Hood. It was still half-buried under deep snow. Water was running everywhere in the hot, sunny afternoon, soaking the parking lot and gushing in the culverts.
That afternoon I donned snowshoes and - wearing shorts - tramped through a pine forest with sunlight filtering through the canopy and the smell of pine rich in the air.
In the morning I drove north to a broad stretch of the Columbia River, where the bright sails of a flotilla of windsurfers sped back and forth like water spiders. Soon I was at Multnomah Falls, which was packed with weekend visitors who had come to see the awesome spectacle. The heat wave had transformed the usually small-flowing waterfall into a gusher with torrents of water surging over the rim. The water tumbled downward for 190 metres, about double the height of Niagara Falls. Mist was flying everywhere, a rainbow lit up a pool, and a small bridge above was enshrouded in spray. Best of all, the mist was delightfully cool in the torrid mid-afternoon heat.
The next morning I caught the tram - free in the downtown core - to the waterfront. Portland's leaders get my vote for ripping up the interstate highway, which ran along the Willamette River right in the middle of the city, and transforming it into a long waterfront park. With seven bridges linking the two river banks, I wandered back and forth, accompanied by other happy pedestrians, cyclists and rollerbladers, watching the nautical traffic.
In the afternoon I arrived at the Willamette Valley Soaring Club in North Plains, about 30 minutes west of Portland. A golf cart pulled delicate, sleek gliders into position and every few minutes a squat, orange Piper Pawnee pulled one into the air.
Before too long I was strapped into the front of a two-seater, 50-year-old Schweiser 233 glider. Bill Weiter, the 71-year-old pilot, sat behind me and said, "Don't worry that you're in an ancient plane with an even older pilot, I haven't had an accident yet." The traffic controller gave us the thumbs-up and the Pawnee dragged us into the air.
At 1,000 metres the cord connecting us was severed and we were gliding in the vast blue sky. With no sound but a slight whistling, I felt like an eagle soaring effortlessly. Far below, the urban growth boundary divided suburbs and farms like ruler lines. In the distance, mountains were shimmering in the heat. Thirty minutes later we bounced down onto the grassy landing strip.
On my last day I slid into a kayak at Scapoose Bay, a secluded maze of channels and intricate pathways northwest of Portland. The record melt had transformed the bay into a flooded, surreal waterworld with the river spreading far past its normal banks. We paddled among trees whose moss-covered trunks were submerged deep in still waters that reflected the bright colours of our kayaks and felt like a Louisiana bayou.
"Fish are plentiful," explained Mike Cottrell, our guide. "Carp often bump the kayaks. Once I lifted a 20-incher right out of the water with my paddle."
That evening I sat at a sidewalk table at a pizzeria in the Nob Hill neighbourhood and watched life buzzing up and down the street. In the Laurel Wood Brewing Company brewpub, I savoured a rust-coloured Free Range Red ale with a frothy head. Portland has 32 breweries, the greatest number per capita of any city in the world. "The city should be re-named Beervana," the proprietor said, drawing me another pint.
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IF YOU GO
General information: travelportland.com
Where to stay: The all-suite boutique Northrup Station hotel (northrupstation.com) or the elegant Governor Hotel (governorhotel.com)
White-water rafting: blueskyrafting.com; 1-800 898-6398
Historic Timberline Lodge: timberlinelodge.com