In the morning, their fingers won’t bend, pushed to new limits by more than a month of rowing on the Columbia River.
“It’s pretty interesting,” Rachael Mallon said, then laughed. “The thing is, you need your fingers for pretty much everything.”
Slowly, achingly their hands warm up as Mallon, 25, and Leah Shamlian, 21, load their gear into a 17-foot Jersey Skiff and shove off for another 20-mile day.
The women, both University of Puget Sound graduates, started rowing 5 miles north of the Washington-Canadian border on Sept. 23. On Wednesday, they expect to complete their 730-mile journey to the Pacific Ocean.
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Along the way they’ve showed schoolchildren their passion for the environment and adventure, they’ve battled 30 mph winds, portaged dams, shared locks with massive vessels and camped with a bear.
“It’s a great experience,” Shamlian said.
Their boat, built by Gig Harbor Boat Works, has done something like this before. So has the toy dinosaur, Rex, the women have on board.
Last summer, four men (three of whom were UPS graduates) rowed the boat, and another like it, the length of the Mississippi River. As Mallon and Shamlian are doing on the Columbia, the men stopped at schools along the way to talk to kids.
They passed 10 states and spotted a pelican in each one. Because of this, the boat the women are using was named Pelican.
The Mississippi voyage was part of a program called the Rowboat Classroom, an offshoot of Ocean Adventure Rowing Northwest.
Part of the magic we’re trying to bottle is different perspectives. My perspective is just one perspective. We want to bring in as many as possible.
Jordan Hanssen, OAR Northwest
OAR Northwest got its start by winning a rowing race from New York to England in 2006, then followed up with a variety of other adventures. Until Mallon and Shamlian took the oars for the Columbia expedition, only organization President Jordan Hanssen had made every trip.
Now that honor belongs to Rex.
Mallon and Shamlian learned about OAR Northwest while rowing at UPS, where the organization got its start. When they heard new rowers were wanted, they eagerly signed up.
Mallon and Shamlian have always had adventurous spirits.
Shamlian grew up in Washington, D.C., and rowed in high school. She yearned to move West and experience new things, so she enrolled at UPS, lured by the Loggers’ accomplished rowing program and academic reputation.
University of Puget Sound students may soon be able to row the Mississippi River for college credit.
Mallon was raised in Hood River, Oregon, where the Columbia was her backyard.
“I was definitely the type of person who tried to fit in when I was in high school and middle school,” Mallon said. “Then, in college, I realized that’s not who I am. I’m not the person who tries to fit in.”
Mallon, who graduated in 2012, and Shamlian, who graduated in May, definitely won’t be accused of following the crowd.
When they heard Ocean Adventure Rowing Northwest was looking to assemble a team for a Rowboat Classroom expedition, they were excited to sign up.
They tried to help OAR Northwest round up other participants for the Columbia expedition. “But even people I thought were pretty adventurous said no,” Mallon said.
“You have to really want it to be away for that long,” Hanssen said.
11 Number of Columbia River dams the crew navigated as it passed through Washington.
Shamlian and Mallon say it was more than adventure that lured them.
“I think that environmental education is really important, for not just getting kids engaged in their local environment but also in helping them see what’s out there and understand the different ways they can explore,” Shamlian said. “OAR Northwest does a really cool thing in that it combines human-powered exploration with the environmental aspect.”
DAMS, BEARS AND DAMN BEARS
Shamlian has been enchanted by the changes in the landscape as the Columbia snakes through Washington. Forest. Desert. The Gorge.
The women started 5 miles into Canada and had to portage over the border. This is a requirement for all vessels, Shamlian said.
It was the first of several portages along the way. The women have had to navigate 11 dams. Some required portaging and others were passed using locks.
On the lower river, Mallon said it’s been a common experience for them to have to convince lock operators they are skilled enough to share the locks with much larger vessels.
“You feel so small (in the locks),” Mallon said. “It is humbling.”
730 The length in miles UPS graduates Rachael Mallon and Leah Shamlian are rowing on the Columbia River.
Pelican is outfitted so the women can sleep aboard if needed, but they prefer to camp on shore away from populated areas.
The first time they slept in the boat was early in the trip near Grand Coulee. They made camp and found themselves with the river on one side and a black bear on the other.
“We anchored to a rock and slept in the boat so we’d be less accessible to the bear,” Mallon said.
Wind is sometimes a nuisance, too. They’ve experienced gusts as strong as 30 mph. Sometimes slowing them to a pace of 1 mph. Sometimes forcing them to the shore. “You can’t beat the wind.” Mallon said.
And when the wind is on your side, those days are unbeatable too. As good fortune had it, a strong tailwind helped the women arrive in Hood River two days ahead of schedule.
Mallon’s dad texts her almost every day. “Stellar texts,” she says.
He, like her, has lived on the river most of his life. He sees it almost every day.
“He tells me that the river has white caps here or it is glassy here,” Mallon said. “He sees it from a different perspective knowing that I’m out there. And I see it from a different perspective now, too.
“That’s what we want people to get out of this. We want people to see the river differently.”
OAR leader Hanssen knows the importance of different perspectives.
“Part of the magic we’re trying to bottle is different perspectives,” he said. “My perspective is just one perspective. We want to bring in as many as possible.”
That’s one of the reasons Hanssen is working with UPS to turn these annual expeditions into a program at the university where participants can earn credit toward their degrees. Hanssen wants future trips to be on the Mississippi River, because of its national significance.
We want people to see the river differently.
Rachael Mallon, OAR Northwest
He says stories that come from adventures such as rowing the Mississippi and the Columbia are important to help share knowledge.
Mallon and Shamlian won’t waste any time sharing their stories and knowledge.
On Wednesday, they plan to row as close as they safely can to the notoriously hazardous Columbia River Bar. Then they’ll load up their boat and head to Portland to talk to classrooms.
“Then,” Shamlian said, “It’s back to real life.”
COLUMBIA RIVER EXPEDITION
CREW: Rachael Mallon, 25, and Leah Shamlian, 21. Both are former members of the University of Puget Sound crew team.
START: Sept. 23 at Beaver Creek Provincial Park, British Columbia.
FINISH: Estimate finishing near the mouth of Columbia River on Wednesday.