Like No Other Blues Festival

Published in the July 2011 Issue July 2011

"One of the best times of the year to enjoy Portland, Ore., is during the Fourth of July when the blues festival kicks off three ideal summer months," stated Dave King enthusiastically.

Boating this time of year on the river is very popular and with good reason. It is ideal for cruising (weather-wise and water-wise) while listening to over 120 non-stop stellar performances on five stages at the Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival. There is just something about looking at the impressive Portland skyline behind the performers, or the glistening glacial peaks of Mt. Hood to the east while on a pontoon boat.

Dave made this remark with a comrade, Mike Testa (comrade in arms, since they are both cigar smoking aficionados), before their respective spouses and friends came aboard his 20-foot Bennington pontoon boat. They were ready for a leisure cruise around the anchored and slowly-moving boats in front of the Tom McCall Waterfront Park. Once everyone was onboard, they glided past rafted boats with makeshift floating docks, as they listened to the music while it resonated across the Willamette River.

The festival is actually held in the heart of the downtown riverfront area, with the elegant condominiums and equally elegant JW Marriott Hotel overlooking the sprawling grassy bank. While viewing the glacial peaks of Mt. Hood, the music of Taj Mahal Trio, Booker T, Bobby Rush, Super Chikan & the Fighting Cocks, Galactic with Cyril Neville, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue and Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen pulsate at the largest blues festival west of the Mississippi River.

For A Cause 

However, the Oregon Food Bank, a nonprofit, charitable organization responsible for the Festival's last 23 years of great music over the 4th of July holiday, is not satisfied with just non-stop authentic blues-swaying strains until 10 every night. They have included the toe curling, electric guitar of North Mississippi by Northwest to Super Chikan's own fabricated instruments that bend the mind forward to what blues can be, and to the Delta Music Experience at the Louisiana Pavilion on how blues once was, down in the Mississippi Delta. And all for only $10 a day per person, plus two cans (or more) of food for the food bank.

Children can learn to make their own instruments like a cigar-box guitar, or see young band members perform at any number of different stages. There are also Blues Cruises on the Portland Spirit for a nominal fee featuring women in blues, who come in from around the world, to Blue Bayou Cruises that feature Zydeco, Hoodoo to Rockin' Blues. There seems to be something for everyone to enjoy and groove to with the various versions of blues music.

If you decide not to partake on the grounds of the festival or any number of food venues, beer, wine and of course, coffee booths, and stay on your boat while you listen to the music just a few feet from shore, consider donating online to the worthy cause that distributes donated food statewide to more than 935 nonprofit, hunger-relief agencies and other programs helping low-income individuals. The Oregon Food Bank also works to eliminate the root causes of hunger through advocacy and public education, while thousands of volunteers spend as many hours and more, making the festival possible. And one hundred percent of the donation benefits the food bank.


Oh yes! There is also Oregon's largest firework show that is set to music and the simulcast can be heard by the local radio station, KINK FM, right in front of the park. And you don't have to move your boat one inch to view them, just turn around!

In the mild July afternoon, Dave cruises in his boat for a while as his friends enjoy beverages and snacks before the fireworks extravaganza. After having a ski boat, which he gave to his children once they won the Bennington (not a bad prize for a $100 raffle ticket), Dave and his wife Debbie now realize the advantages of the boat's amenities and don't want their other boat back. They love their Bennington.

One advantage to the area is that Portland doesn't get dark in the summertime until 10 p.m. so locals can get out of work and still enjoy the water for three to four hours, or even have dinner out on the water.

"We take the children to Ross Island as it is known around here (Hardtack Island), about 20 minutes south up river from the downtown River Place Marina to swim or just relax," says Dave. "With a nice cigar from Rich's Cigar store, which has the best selection and is the oldest cigar store in Portland, this place is hard to beat."

Back Again

Other pontoon lovers include Bill and Laurie Nielsen who took their family and friends to the Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival for the first time last year. Leaving from Vancouver, Wash., just over the state line and across the Columbia River, Bill motored in his 24-foot Aqua Patio boat with a 115hp Mercury four-stroke engine for an easy trip.

Just over a 12-mile run from the northern part of Portland, the 35-minute ride took them past a lot of marine-related industries from ship repair and dry docks, to terminal cargo facilities with material destined for the orient or other parts of the Northwest. Boats staying in mid-channel go past a small Coast Guard station, riverside condominiums, the Rose Garden Stadium and many high bridges.

The depth of the Willamette River is around 20 to 25 feet when you're 20 feet from the shore and it gets as deep as 40 feet in the middle of the channel. The current is not a large issue, even though there is a tidal fluctuation of about three to four feet every six or so hours. Bill didn't have a lot of trouble dropping his anchor over board for about five hours by the performance stages, while he listened to the music with his entourage. It's a good thing there was plenty of food onboard, because the grilling meats and seafood aromas wafted over the water from Deschutes Brewery with their bratwurst, to the Fish Shack, Fat Schlag or the Cajun Café, all on the festival grounds.


The Right Platform

Bill and Laurie say it took them about four years and many boat shows to finally find a boat they and the children (including grandchildren) loved. Normally they take the pontoon boat on surrounding lakes during their vacations, but they wanted to see the festival over the holiday.

"It's an excellent boat," said Bill. "We fish and swim from it, and pull the inflatable tubes behind it for the children. It also offers excellent deck space and protection for the children with no fear of one of the little ones hitting his head on something sharp or falling overboard."


Other Options

If you came without your boat, there is one company, SK Watercraft Rentals, which rents pontoon boats for a half or full day, if you prefer to not trailer a boat. This way you can just cruise for the day between the hours of 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. and then be free to do others things while you're in the area.

Not far from the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia River, between I-5 and I-205 on the Columbia south side, the firm has several Pleasure Island 21-foot pontoon boats for rent with four-stroke Mercury engines. Figure on a several hour run each way, up or down to the festival from their marina, since the Columbia can be challenging in terms of current (about 7 knots), and watching for large ships or barges traveling the river. They have the right-of-way, but there is certainly enough room to pass them.

The rental company also has over a dozen personal Sea-Doo watercrafts available that can easily and quickly go the distance to the festival.

"A trip to the east on the Columbia before going to the festival is possible," says Blake Koch, who is the assistant general rental manager at SK. "You can go see the famous Columbia River Gorge with its sheer cliff drop-offs, wildlife and cool land formations."

Rules of the road and common sense are in order at all times, even though the company takes time and effort in giving a hands-on safety meeting, mission report, and orientation on how to operate the rented crafts.

"It's pretty much in-depth, so the state has given us permission to issue temporary permits to operate the vessel during the rental period," explains Koch. "Otherwise, state law mandates a `boater education' card; basically a boater's license is required.


Tips To Remember

The trip from the SK Watercraft Rentals marina to Portland is calmer in the morning. With the Columbia having swifter currents below the surface, you always need to be aware of the currents. When coming back to the marina, make sure everyone is evenly dispersed, so the boat doesn't tip to one side when entering the Columbia with its faster tides, or the larger amounts of water coming from the Bonneville Dam system over 30 miles to the east.

The safest travel area is in the middle of the river, where it's the deepest with less submerged debris and easier to stay within the buoy system. July is the ideal time of year to boat, since the rivers are receding from the snow melts and abundant rains, yet it is not so low that low water would cause a problem. There are no pontoon boat rentals at night to view the fireworks for safety reasons, and if visitors aren't familiar with the area, it's more fun to listen to the music and see the spectacular display from shore anyway, without the need to rush home through unfamiliar territory.

Staying at the Marriott hotel may be the ideal way to vacation, since it is directly across the street from the event, and the music can be heard or even seen breathtakingly from any balcony overlooking the river. The higher elevation enhances the view of Mt Hood on a clear day, and you get to observe the event through your binoculars, feeling like you're right there on stage. Depending upon your room level, you may be eye-level with the firework explosions, while enjoying a glass of locally-made wines from the Oregon vineyards. The hotel also has after-hour blues jams in the ballroom until 1:30 a.m., but buy your tickets early because they sell out quickly.


Final Suggestions

Willamette Park has four public boat ramps upriver to the south and about a half a mile from the festival. The ramps make it easy to launch the boat, but just be aware of the rocks-usually submerged, toward the city. They are located out to the middle of the river or further, and may be hazardous, depending on the tide. Across the river is a rougher Milwaukee Boat Launching area. The rocks are well-marked by the red cans, but not always obvious. The river itself is never too rough for a pontoon boat, with a 2.5 knot current at its fastest, but also be aware of fast boat traffic leaving wakes. And of course, if at all possible, have the local chart (Chart W-2) accessible.

If you plan to dine in, the Newport Bay Restaurant that floats on the river has dockside boat space and the food is exceptional and reasonably-priced. That is where Bill and Laurie, along with their friends, stopped. Just a hint: the salmon was done just right.

One of the most outstanding memories about the event other than the music, while on land or even on water while weaving through the multiple boat tie ups, is the politeness and courtesy extended to each other. If you got bumped among the more than 100,000 blues fans, an "excuse me" or "sorry" was commonly heard. People went out of their way to be friendly and courteous, so everyone-children, adults, or elderly-could have a good time and hear the great music. Some people even compare this festival to the likes of the original Woodstock, and if this is anything like that event, I sure did miss a tremendously good time! But I made up for it by coming to listen to great music in ideal weather, among friendly, gracious blues lovers in the great city of Portland.

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