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A River’s Awesome Power: Riding the Flood With Coast Guard Patrol

February 10, 1996

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) _ Skimming across a flood-swollen river in a skiff gives some insight into how the flea must feel atop the dog.

``You can’t stop it or slow it down,″ Coast Guardsman Jeff Craig said Friday as he patrolled the Willamette River at the peak of its fury. ``It goes where it wants to go, and you just have to work with it.″

A ride with Craig and his crew in their 18-foot aluminum skiff offered lessons in humility, navigation and the astounding variety of junk that a flood can heave into view, from basketballs and refrigerators to a whole dock complete with lawn chairs.

Normally, the Willamette is a placid river, its surface as flat as Kansas. Friday morning, as flood-muddied waters crested just inches below the top of Portland’s sea wall, the river had a topography more like Montana’s.

Craig’s boat bobbed over peaks and valleys, swells and dips. Water piled up in standing waves behind bridge supports, then bucked and roiled in sucking whirlpools as it passed.

Even in seemingly quiet eddies, the river showed its power. Wooden pilings wagged like metronomes, slamming rhythmically against a dock with a loud ka-CHUNG.

Craig, 21, a boatswain’s mate from Wolf Point, Mont., spent two years piloting small Coast Guard boats off the Florida Keys. But a flooding river has challenges even ocean waves can’t match, he said.

The current is fierce, and the murky water hides rocks and shifting sandbars. Then there’s the obstacle course of debris _ anything that floats, and some things that shouldn’t.

Steel drums. Plastic barrels. Foam blocks. A bright orange life ring from a boat named ``Smurfit.″ A wooden walkway. A sun-faded basketball. A hay bale. A garage door. A circle of wrought-iron fence, complete with lamp posts, impossibly afloat atop a platform the size of a golf green.

The river was choked with a floating forest _ mats of twigs and bark, bobbing stumps, logs up to 3 feet in diameter.

An abandoned plywood skiff swirled into view between two bridge abutments. Craig motored toward it, and crew members Casey Thomson, Donna Pue and David Gogue corralled it alongside the Coast Guard craft. Craig nudged the ancient skiff toward shore, where the crew tied it to the sea wall for safekeeping.

Flood gawkers on a nearby bridge cheered the successful river rodeo.

But Craig had less luck with a runaway dock, 10 by 20 feet across, floating down the river with four wooden lawn chairs and a chaise lounge set up as if for a picnic.

He maneuvered the skiff alongside and revved its two 70-horsepower outboard motors, but for every foot of progress the boat made, the river pushed it 20 feet sideways.

``It’s too big,″ Craig shouted to the others. ``I’ve got no control.″

So they set the dock free and it pinwheeled downriver, soon disappearing amid the other debris.

``On a day like today, you see what the river can do,″ Pue said. ``You learn to respect it.″

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