Monday, October 2, 2017

Paddling in Duck Country: The Alton Baker Canal

Behind Autzen Stadium in the heart of Eugene, a small waterway flows away from the city's bustle into a peaceful nature park. Named for a local newspaper owner who helped develop this retreat in the mid-1900s, Alton Baker Park is a popular destination for Eugenians, offering over 400 acres of fields and forests. In addition to the canal, visitors will find a dog park, a BMX track, a disc golf course, and miles of trails. This area offers great bird watching, as well, whether from the water or from a trail. The canal is frequently stocked with catchable trout, and fishing is possible all along its banks. One could spend hours in the park, have a picnic at one of the numerous tables or benches, and take in a concert at the Cuthbert Amphitheater. But wait, this article is about paddling...

The two-mile canal is actually a side channel of the Willamette River. There is always some current here, and at times of higher flow the paddle upstream can be a good workout. There are three short, manageable portages. See this map for the park's layout as well as the paddle route. Access is from Club Road off of Martin Luther/Coburg Road.

Our paddle begins, naturally enough, at a duck pond. Park in the first lot, just over the little bridge and within sight of the pond. A local company rents canoes here on the weekends, or carry your own boat down to the water's edge. You will likely have an audience of ducks and geese as you launch and begin paddling. There is little current in this section, which is easily accessible and popular with anglers. When the canal approaches a bridge watch for a large, wooden grating structure on your right (river left). The first portage is just past this; look for a shallow takeout, climb up the bank, cross a trail, and put in on the other side. It's also possible to bypass the portage and paddle under the bridge, but the waterway quickly narrows and peters out here. This lower section of the canal is a perfect spot to learn basic kayaking and canoeing skills; the current is mild and there are few obstacles. If you are fishing, or if you brought kids, this part of the canal may be all you need to explore.

Continuing up the next section, you will soon see a line of metal fencing that extends out into the water. This unfortunate barrier is by far the ugliest thing you will see on this trip, but it is apparently necessary to keep non-paying "guests" from sneaking into concerts in the Cuthbert Amphitheater. Further along, watch on your left (river right) for the Science Factory, a hands-on science museum and planetarium. The water here is much clearer than the previous section near the duck pond. At lower water levels you will find some shallow spots, with aquatic foliage flowing like green dreadlocks in the current. This area is also next to the off-leash dog park, so you are likely to observe some enthusiastic canines along the water's edge. Soon you will see Autzen Stadium, home of the Oregon Ducks, to your left; about this time you will hear what sounds like a waterfall ahead. This is the first drop structure, a sort of man-made cascade that helps to regulate water levels. There is a clear, easy portage to get around this concrete barrier. Watch for eddies and stronger current here, especially at higher flows; during wetter months, some paddlers may wish to make this their turn-around point.

Continue paddling through a beautiful natural area. Watch for great blue herons, pied-billed grebes, cormorants, mallards, widgeons, kingfishers, and a variety of songbirds. In some places, brush and trees crowd against the banks and chickadees, kinglets, and warblers flit from branch to branch. In other areas, grassy fields spread away from the water. Portage a second drop structure and paddle to a wide pond. This is another good spot for anglers to try their luck before finding the canal on the other side.

Paddle past a slough and enter an area of lovely canal-front homes. The Whilamut Natural Area stretches out on the opposite bank. The current increases as you approach I-5 and another drop structure. At this point, it's clear that you are getting closer to the muscular Willamette; water pours over the structure and coils in eddies as traffic roars overhead. This is another good turnaround option, or do one more portage to paddle through the Eastgate Woodlands to the Willamette (incidentally, at this point you have officially left Eugene and entered Springfield).

Return the way you came, going with the flow now and savoring the pastoral views as you paddle your little boat through the second most populous city in Oregon. This park is truly a mid-valley jewel; where else can you take the kids to a BMX course, a science museum, and a trout stream all in one afternoon? Bring your dog and a Frisbee, or your binoculars, or your mountain bike. Take time to escape the city's rush. Take some time in Alton Baker Park.

The relaxing duck pond
The tempting channel at the end of the duck pond. Be not fooled, the rest of the paddle is over a short portage on the right (river left).

The author portages

Canada Geese

Second portage near Autzen Stadium
Top of the spillway
Autzen Stadium
One of many walking trails that follow and cross the canal.
The wide pond
The photographer becomes the photographed.

The canal continues at the far end of the pond.
A peek over the brush at the Whilamut Natural Area
Canal-front homes

The I-5 bridge
The final portage, and the end of our paddle
See you out there!


  1. Paddling in Duck Country: The Alton Baker Canal, wow what a great experience you all had. I was really enjoying in reading all this. Great work

  2. Had a Great Experience There.

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