Monday, August 27, 2012

The river's ups and downs

We rise and fall with the river levels. Portland has a Mediterranean climate, warm, dry and sunny in summer, and the river level drops accordingly. I see it when I paddle, the shoreline constantly changing. Now, the ramp to get from our parking lot to the walkway leading to our floating homes is steep and it's hard to believe that a few months ago it was flat. When the water rises again I will add another photo for comparison. The steepness makes it difficult to go up and down -- everything seems heavier -- especially for those of us with bad knees and a bad back. Sometimes I divide a load in two and cart it up half at a time so it doesn't pull on my body so much.

The first time I had a heavy load to bring down the ramp I was terrified that it would get away from me and crash into the house directly at the bottom. I've heard stories of the "agua" man, maneuvering a cart of 5-gallon bottles of water to people, who did just that.

When I moved some things here last April to stage my forest house for sale, the ramp was flat. When I finally moved here in November the river was rising and kept rising through the winter. This April, when with great relief I finished the last bit of room-painting and other work I wanted to get done -- "out of the headwind" was how I described it to friends -- literally the next day we got an email from the moorage owner telling us that the river level was at 17 feet, and if it rose to 18.5 feet, the parking lot would be flooded. We would have to park our cars on higher ground, and depending on how high it would get, we would either need boots or boats to get to our vehicles. I was especially groaning because I had quite a supply of firewood I'd bought from the previous owner up in the field adjacent to the parking lot and I could imagine it all floating away, or a weary me having to try and move quite a bit of it to the wood racks on the houseboat. Fortunately the river started dropping.

Today when I wanted to take a photo of the river gauge on the walkway dolphin, I couldn't find it. I walked back and forth looking for it, sure that I'd seen it there. Silly me. One of my neighbors pointed out that I needed to look up -- the painted-on gauge was far overhead -- that way up there was what we were watching at eye-level when the river ran fast and high.

While I'm enjoying the summer sun, I can look forward to the rains that will raise us, and our ramp.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Solace of calm waters

Joe Kowal died on Wednesday. He was 74. When you're a month shy of 64, that doesn't seem so old. My cousin Rob died in June; he was 52. My cousin Patty Sue died in January; she was about the same age. This weekend Peg, my best friend from high school, came for a visit from Washington, D.C. to see my new place. We have been friends since 1962 -- 50 years. We knew each other's mother and father so well, and now they are all gone, our mothers not so long ago. We spent a lot of time sitting and watching the calm waters flow by, talking and reflecting.

Joe Kowal was a remarkably talented artist; I worked with him for years, beginning with my first job out of college in 1970. When I wrote a scriptwriting book, I hired him to illustrate it. He came up with some pretty hilarious caricatures of me -- see above and below. I haven't see Joe in years, decades probably, but this week it feels like there's yet another hole in my life.

Below is a quote from the April 2012 issue of Garden Design magazine, from a story titled "Liquid Assets" by Lise Funderburg, that I stenciled on a piece of wood that I have installed on my back deck wall. It says, "The reflective surface of water asks us to reconsider the world around us -- what is up, what is down -- and where we find our place in it."

As I write this, the moon in a cloudless sky is reflected perfectly in the calm water flowing past my window. When I was moving here, and frazzled, the woman who would become my next door neighbor wrote, "The wonderful thing about being on the water is that it makes painful memories fade away rather quickly, at least that is my experience, and hopefully will be yours as well."

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Month of the Leaping Carp

Splash! you hear. Splash! again. Splash! from close to the houseboat. Splash! from amid-river. Splash! first thing in the morning. Splash! all during the night.

Oh, yes, my neighbor mentioned. In August, the carp leap -- constantly. For the most part, you don't see them, because by the time you look up, they're back in the water and all you're left with is a receding circular ripple. I sometimes see them leap because I take long kayak paddles, so I have my eyes ahead on the water for a good distance.

I wanted to see them up close and I had not.

One person advised, "Listen for slurping instead of splashing. Their mouths make a big sucking sound." I tried, but haven't yet heart slurping.

But my next door neighbor informed me that she was seeing them underwater all the time -- maybe a dozen or so -- between our houseboats. It seems that they are after the birdseed that the birds scatter from my feeder into the water, which drifts downstream to her place.

After that I started looking and yesterday, when the light was just right, I saw them. I sprinkled some bird food in the water, got the camera, and high-tailed it to the deck, where I was able to capture these photos. The one below shows its "sucking" mouth.

I work with my desk butted up against a 6 ft x 6 ft window that goes down to the floor. Today when the sun hit at just the right angle, I could see the fish, somewhat ghostly, underwater right in front of me. As soon as I went outside on that narrow ledge they disappeared.

Some people see them as big, wild koi.

Another view, though, by coincidence, appeared in todays' Oregonian. Columnist Steve Duin had a commentary called "The elephant in Malheur Lake" -- about how "trash fish" carp are so invasive they have ruined this migratory jewel "with healthy females dropping 1.5 million eggs annually." Read his piece at:

I heard one splash! just now.

P.S. Thanks to my artist friend Kathy Reilly for raising the quality level of these two photos so you can actually see the fish. Her paintings are currently on exhibit at Muse Gallery in Longmont and you can see her work at

Friday, August 17, 2012

Empty Nest Syndrome -- alas, the purple martins are gone today

Dave told me they would be leaving soon, but I didn't want to think about it. On April 28th, Dave Fouts, aka "The Purple Martin Man," rigged up a post with four gourds so I could have purple martins -- a kind of swallow -- here at the riverhouse. [To read more about Dave and find out more about the species, see the chapter, "The Purple Martin Man" in my book Wild Things.]

It was about 7 in the evening when he finished with the pole, welded steel plate, ropes and white gourd houses and he said, "You'll have purple martins here in the morning." It was hard to be dubious since he's such and expert, but-- really? the next morning?

Sure enough, when I awoke at 8 there were purple martins at the gourds. They are considered a "sensitive species" and this just shows how much they are lacking in places to live.

All summer I enjoyed hearing their bustling chirpy chatter and watched them constantly flitting about. I could see that some were nesting. When I lived at the forest house, it wasn't the right kind of setting for the martins -- they need more open space -- so I was thrilled at last to have some to call my own. They do feel like your own because the nests are right here and they are outside and noticeable.

About a month or so ago, I started to be dive-bombed by what I presumed were the moms -- literally swooping six inches off my head while I would be outside watering plants, etc., turning around and repeating the swoop from the other direction. I guessed there were young in the gourds and when I went around to look at the outside holes, I could see three babies in one nest, and two in another. Sometimes I would see the parent land on a post with a large insect like a dragonfly in its beak.

Last week there were more birds than ever on the cross-poles, so I figured these extras were the fledglings, practicing flying and landing. I knew they would be leaving soon to migrate south, but it was hard to imagine them not being around. Today for the first time since April their "housing unit" is devoid of their cheery chirps. I miss them already.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Rats! No, no. The birdfeeders

Bird-feeding from a houseboat requires some creativity. Not so much hummingbird feeders -- they can still go on windows or be hung on hooks from the house. But for seed birdfeeders -- like my sunflower seeds -- they have to hang out over the water. I was advised of this from the get-go, because if seeds collect on the deck they will attract rats. So the feeders need to stick far out enough for any seeds that fall to get picked up by the river current and float away and not pile up and attract vermin.

When I moved here in November at first I didn't put up any sunflower seed feeders -- I didn't have any that would work and I was so betaken by the water birds I was seeing that came by on their own, especially the cormorants. But it wasn't long before I wanted woodland birds, and right up at the window where I work.

First I rigged up a post that I bungy-corded to a heavy two-person glider and hung a feeder from there. But it was ungainly and too low. Neighbors kept telling me "Ask Bruce" -- that's Bruce Anderson, who's lived on the moorage for decades and is a builder and all-around handyman. Bruce came over and looked at where I wanted it, and created a custom copper-pipe bird hook. It is very clever. It has a straight post attached to the house, and then bends into a horizontal arm that sticks out over the water, and ends with a curved hook for the feeder. He designed the whole contraption so that it swings around so that I could fill it without having to stretch too far unbalanced over the water. This swinging arm turns out to have another advantage -- when I'm in my office, it's in view of the desk, but it its radius is enough that when I'm in the living room or have guests on the deck, I can swing it more in that direction so the birds can be seen from these other places. An added bonus is that birds use the arm that stretches out as a perch. It's fun to watch them land, and then to see some fledglings seem to try and get their balance.

Below are examples of other floating home seed birdfeeders.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The +$20,000 view

Some moorages have the equivalent of streets, where there's row after row of houseboats and the ones closest to shore are floating on the water, but don't really have a water view. At our moorage, there is only one row of houseboats, side by side along the shoreline. The view from all of our houseboats is Burlington Bottoms, a protected wetland area with a shoreline of forest. Many of the trees are tall deciduous cottonwoods, so that in the winter when they lose their leaves (as seen below), the Tualatin Mountains can be seen beyond.

When I had to get an appraisal for a mortgage for my floating home, one of the features that was rated was "View." The two comparables were at a moorage where those houseboats were on the "back street" called an "inside slip."  My houseboat, in comparison, was noted as having an outside slip, and a "Good/Water" view and the value of my place was upped "+$20,000" compared to the others. That tickled me.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Adventure paddling (off the deck)

If you're a paddler, one of the best things about living in a riverhouse is being able to plop your kayak or canoe off the deck and go for a paddle. From my houseboat, if I go downriver I paddle past a lot of greenery -- the woods of a state park on one side, and mostly protected wetland/forest on the other. From that direction, of course, coming back is all upriver. (Even though we're about 80 miles away from the ocean, the tides affect the Multnomah Channel, and I've been drawn swiftly upriver, but mostly I go out and paddle when I feel like it and pay no attention to the tide table.)

What's come to be my favorite paddle is to go upriver to the channel's confluence with the Willamette River and the southern tip of the island, about six miles round trip. It usually takes me 2-1/2 hours. I paddle east upriver, passing a sailboat moowith four containers heading toward the City of Portland, plus the gravel barge that passes almost daily -- sometimes twice daily -- on the channel by my houseboat. Yesterday when I was near the bridge and some foolish boater got too close, the barge pilot let out a blaring horn signal.

The cargo ships make you realize how living on a river is different from living on a lake -- you are connected to other places up and down and even around the world.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Celebrating the end of landscape drudgery

For 23 years at my forest house, I worked continually on my 1-1/2 acres. When I was married, my husband took care of the mowing and orchard trees. I took care of the gardens -- a huge vegetable garden and what ultimately became ten small gardens. There was the wall of rhodies, the dahlia garden, the antique rose garden, the two tiny shade gardens, Elizabeth's Garden, the shasta daisies border, the long shade garden, the woodland garden, the hydrangea border. On top of that, there were invasive blackberries, invasive ivy and invasive vinca. And then mint that I foolishly planted that imposed itself everywhere. Plus a never-ending influx of new invasives like Herb Roberts. Even though half of the land was forest, there was always more work to be done than time to do it. I often had to remind myself to see how beautiful it looked and not just the undone labor.

After I got divorced and hung onto the house because I loved it so, I rented out part of the place, so there was a need to keep the grounds looking nice. It all fell to me and I did not have the money to create more hardscaping or hire help. I bought an electric lawnmower I could start myself and settled on a schedule of a half-hour of landscape drudgery year-round, even in the worst of weather, and most of my spare time on evenings and weekends. I applied for and got a West Multnomah County Soil & Water Conservation grant to remove the ivy and vinca and the very last of the blackberries and replace that with 500+ native plants. Even with that, I ignored the few blackberries that came up the next spring and when I got to them in the fall, I kept track and saw that it had taken me 18 hours to clear them all.

So one thing I was looking forward to with a riverhouse was having a stunning landscape that I did not have to take care of. I have some flowers and trees on my deck and have resisted going overboard (no pun intended).

A few weeks ago I went with a friend to my favorite (of many) annual art event -- Cracked Pots. It's a two-day show and sale of mainly garden art, all made from recycled things. The creativity is delightful and inspiring. I always buy something, both because I love the art (my place was filled wacky garden art -- more about that in another post) and because I like supporting the artists.

This year I could not resist splurging on a fantastic piece that I decided I would keep in my office as a celebration of the end of landscape drudgery and a reminder that I now have more time to write. The object is a shovel and the steel blade has been "cut" into a lacy design that includes a dragonfly, which is part of the logo for my business, The Writing Works. It also has a wrapping of feathers and a bead, which goes along with other feather/bead art in my office, too. The artists is Kelly Phipps and you can see more of her work at  It's now "installed" next to my desk and makes me smile.