Laurie Case Wilhite believes you can see a thing without really seeing it, just as you can live in a place without really knowing it.
Born and raised in the Columbia Gorge, Laurie spent her entire life along a waterway that straddles Oregon and Washington. But it took a kayak and paddle to fully experience her “home river.”
After 35 years of teaching high school students, Laurie retired in 2016 and embarked on a 250-mile kayak adventure.
“When I retired from teaching, I wanted to slow down and see the Columbia River from river level,” Laurie says. “I paddled the river to slow down and to get to know it better. It became a journey of reflection, a reflection of my life.”
The Columbia River Gorge, in southern Washington and northern Oregon, is the largest national scenic area in the United States. The Columbia River is 1,243 miles long. It is the Pacific Northwest’s largest river and the fourth-largest river by volume in the nation.
Laurie had spent years rushing up and down the Columbia, driving to work, appointments and other errands. Rather than a thing of beauty, the river was a background blur in her busy life.
She started the journey at John Day Dam—near her hometown of Goldendale, Washington—and traveled westward to Astoria, Oregon, where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean. The journey was portioned into 26 legs of approximately 15 miles each. Each section took about six hours. The trek took more than two years to complete.
This was not a solo journey, but an opportunity to draw close to family and friends. Her adult sons, Fletcher and Casey, joined her for stretches, as did her husband of 37 years, Don, and a collection of supportive friends. Rather than follow a linear east-to-west route, Laurie kayaked when and where her friends and family were available.
“Friends and family made this an emotional high,” she says.
Laurie was outfitted in a 17-foot kayak with rudder. From water level, her perspective deepened with an appreciation of nature’s power and beauty. Then 61, Laurie faced physical challenges as she put her two knee replacements to the test. She paddled against wind, current and tide, through rain, ice and sweltering sun. Salmon and sea lions circled her vessel. Bridges, barges and shipping vessels loomed. She enjoyed up-close views of pelicans, gulls, ducks, geese and osprey. Wildflowers bloomed along riverbanks. Pulling onto shore, she often spotted the fresh tracks of bears and bobcats.
Inspired by naturalist Paul Schullery, Laurie embraced his words: “A home river is that rarest of friends, the one who frequently surprises you with new elements of personality without ever seeming a stranger.”
“From river level, it’s different,” Laurie says. “It’s intimate, and it changes. It makes you feel so small and so connected to the water. Perspective can show us where we fit in the natural world. My perspective has changed about what I can accomplish, and the river reminds me of what it taught me each time my paddle path comes into view.”
In 2022 she published “Paddle to the Pacific,” a detailed account of her journey, including 200 color photographs.
Though she retired from teaching, Laurie continues to share her awe and appreciation for the natural world with young people. Several years ago, she created Pathfinder Outdoor School as an opportunity for students to learn more about math, science and ecosystems.
She also serves as a volunteer for Trout Unlimited’s STREAM. With an emphasis on science, technology, recreation, engineering, art and math, the program offers immersive learning experiences at Brooks Memorial State Park Environmental Learning Center near Goldendale.
“I like hands-on learning. We teach that nature is all connected,” says Laurie, who fondly recalls the impact of her childhood explorations at Brooks State Park. “I was raised in a rural life. I grew up on a cattle and wheat ranch, and my life was full of hard work and outdoor challenges. I was very active in 4-H and went to this same camp in 1964. It was where my love of nature blossomed.”
She now urges people of all ages to slow down.
“Sitting on a rock makes me happy,” she says. “You don’t fully reap the benefits of nature unless you take the time to be in it.”
But she warns slowing down doesn’t mean avoiding a challenge.
“The Columbia River is the third-largest river in North America, and I felt its enormity during each section I paddled,” Laurie says. “My kayak was insignificant compared to the towering cliffs, blasting winds and always-moving water. The experience taught me that both people and water can be malleable yet forceful. The river journey revitalized my qualities of tenacity, persistence, loyalty and lifelong learning. The river taught me about myself.”