Celebrating the 4th at the Blues Festival

May 2013 Feature Gini McKain

Sitting on the top deck in a hot tub while watching the spectacular fireworks over the Willamette River may be the best seat in the house. Your could argue that there is no better way to enjoy the 4th of July and the Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland, Ore., than on a houseboat.

Ken Smith and Maggie "Candy" Doyle sure feel that way onboard their 68-foot Plum Krazy houseboat that is moored just a few blocks south of the Tom McCall Waterfront Park where the festival is held.

"We go wherever the fun and great weather is," says Smith. "That means you just have to be here for the blues festival. Our plan all along was to come to town and be here in time for the event, because it's a great party."

His moored location is also the south part of the heart of downtown Portland, so Smith, who is the vice president of research and development for Cascade Microtech-a high tech integrated circuit test products company-only drives 15 minutes against traffic to get to work.    

Maiden Voyage

"I took ownership of the boat about three years ago and put it into the Columbia River in Richmond, Wash. for its shake down run," recalls Smith. "I always wanted to see the Columbia River Gorge with its steep sheer cliff drop-offs, wildlife and cool land formations. It was 250 miles and we made it in four days. It saved me a lot of money transporting it by water from where I bought it, and gave me a chance to learn the boat. It was a great trip before coming home to Portland."

The best seats in the house are also for the over hundred boats moored just off shore of the festival grounds, as they listen to the rhythm and blues over a four-day period. Boats of all sizes and makes raft together for several weeks before the holiday, and have inflatables, kayaks and dinghies serve as their second boat to shore for necessities. However, any boating this time of year on the river is popular 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.

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!

It's a good thing there is usually plenty of food on deck, 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 are tempting everyone to come and get the great food.

Smith came down from the Portland Yacht Club near the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. Just over a 14-mile run from the northern part of Portland, the 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. A leisure trip can be enjoyed, even up to the late afternoon because dark doesn't come until about 10 p.m. and the winds are usually light.

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. However, there are a few areas to watch for if you plan to keep going up-river past Portland.

By a very nice multiple boat ramp at Willamette Park, just about a half mile south of the festival, there are rocks that extend out beyond half the river width from the right on the west side. The area is marked with red cans, but the rocks may not always be obvious, depending upon tide fluctuations. Currents are slow, the highest probably 2.5 knots, but be aware of boat wakes left from fast-moving smaller boats, not the barges that travel through town since their wake is minimal. There is no noticeable `no wake' zone anywhere on the river within city limits.

Here For Good

Plum Krazy
, according to Smith, is moored with five anchors, since he can legally be there for several months with no city restrictions. The reason for so many anchors is that his long boat is in a narrow river (quarter mile at his location) by the tall Marquam Bridge on I-5. His location sees barge traffic numerous times during the day, three- to four-foot tidal fluctuations, and winds that can come up quickly. Anchoring is usually in a sandy, silty mud, so typically the captain can get a good hook quickly.

Staying for months at a time is not usually a problem for Smith and Doyle since the boat is equipped with 1000 gallons of fresh water, a 600-gallon holding tank, and 600 gallons of fuel. The boat has twin six-cylinder MerCruiser Bravo drives, and they can cruise at seven to nine knots comfortably, with their max speed of 14 knots. The deepest draw for the boat is three feet, so they can go where they want to with no problems.

The boat is a two-bedroom, two-bath with a top deck hot tub and jet ski off the stern.

"We have an electric fireplace, central air conditioning with forced air off of a propane system, and a 50-gallon drinking water tank," says Smith. "Candy does use the dishwasher, and I enjoy the 42-inch flat screen TV. We also catch rainwater off the roof, and have a particulate filtration system for that water. There are facilities about every ten miles along the river with pump-out stations, but we have to pick and choose our places, since this is a bigger boat than most."

The couple has embraced the healthy green lifestyle that is popular and prevalent in the Portland, Ore., area. Rowing to the boat from the Newport Bay Restaurant dock where the food is exceptional and reasonably priced, or bicycling to the local farmer's market, help keep them active.

Playing an instrument is also grass roots to Doyle, who played in groups and in large churches with her guitar for years while running a nearby horse stable before getting into nursing. Smith maintains at least five guitars of his own, but confesses to "just playing."

They also have music night onboard the houseboat with friends for a jam session.
"We have five guitars, a bass, and an electric, along with whatever our friends bring," says Smith. "The goal is to have everyone be a member of the Plum Krazy house band, and have fun. That is why we like the houseboat. There is more privacy than on a floating home, which is positioned close to each other here in the northeast. It's more private than in a condo or apartment, and we can make more music for everyone to enjoy."

Last year Smith says he was rafted up with other boats for several weeks in front of the bowl where the music is performed.
"It was fun, and everyone was friendly and courteous," recalls Smith. "But this time we decided to just stay longer, a little ways away, yet still hear the music."

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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