Rafting Riddle on the Columbia

The annual smelt run on the Columbia is a sure sign Pacific sea lions are in the water, feasting on the not-nearly-as-abundant run of small, silvery fish that once migrated so thick, you could walk across the Sandy River on their backs.

The warm afternoon around Sauvie Island’s Reeder Beach had air the filled with barks and howls from the gathering mass. Normally a menace to migrating salmon, smelt commanded attention of pinnipeds plying the chilly runoff bulging the Columbia on this particular afternoon. Their calls and numbers would leave casual observers wondering how this seemingly ample species deserved federal protection. With shark and orca populations down, and the sea lions main predator, man, sidelined by federal law, the black, slippery beasts were having a field day fishing the lower stretches of river.

One of the more remarkable afternoon events could have easily gone unnoticed or at the very least, misinterpreted. What looked like a log floating by covered in dark sea birds, say cormorants, seemed a bit peculiar. Being a quarter mile away required the binoculars to come out for an assist. Even in magnification, the there was an oddity that could not quite be placed. Suspecting it might be sea lions resting on a log, the iPhone helped with dialing up some background on the strange congregation.

These barking mammals have a strong social side, hence their practice of living in colonies. That connection extends to water in a number of ways, the most dramatically visible being “rafting.”

Moving closer to the flotilla of heads, flippers and fins, it was clear these animals were in a state of relaxation. Comfortably full of smelt and finding safety in numbers, they occasionally raise a nose for air and lie back down with front flippers extended above the waterline, gently swaying in the breeze. Of the half-dozen sea lion rafts spotted, they ranged in size from eight to ten members, to the largest around twenty strong. Boats passed on either side for closer looks as these mellow animals held formation and lazily floated on downstream. So ends another curiously perfect day, effortlessly inhabiting Portland’s wild backyard on the great Columbia River.