From shore, tugboats pushing long barges up and down the Northwest’s biggest rivers seem to move in a sort of slow-motion dream time.

“It’s relaxing,” said Tidewater Barge Lines captain James Fletcher. “The Snake River canyons are beautiful. During part of the year they’re green, and as summer comes along they get more brown. It’s just a different kind of beauty.”

Fletcher and his deck engineer, Tim Johnson, make up half of the two-team crew that pilot a Tidewater tug everyday — six hours on and six hours off — for 15 days straight every month of the year. For a good portion of the 360 miles between Lewiston, Idaho, and Vancouver, Washington, Fletcher can enjoy the beauty and natural history of these big rivers. On this day, it was the Snake between Boyer Park and Almota.

“The river’s carved into this — you know this whole thing,” he said, gesturing to the steep, sheer canyon walls looming above.

Clearly, Fletcher enjoys his work. It’s a job he’s been doing for more than 30 years and a vocation he shares with his father, uncles and cousins who also spend their lives pushing the loads of wheat, corn and other products that make the Columbia River the third-largest grain export corridor in the world.

But being a tugboat captain is also a classic example of a job with long hours of tedium, punctuated with moments of terror. If the grueling schedule and minimal sleep weren’t enough, there’s also maneuvering through tricky locks, hidden navigation channels and unpredictable currents.

Darren Smith piloting the tug out of the Ice Harbor lock.

Darren Smith piloting the tug out of the Ice Harbor lock.

Oregon Field Guide/OPB

One channel at the bottom of the Snake River’s Ice Harbor Dam is about half the size of a normal navigation channel. Tidewater pilot Darren Smith gives it a “10 out of 10” for difficulty:

“It’s 300 feet wide and our tow is 84 feet wide. So it’s a narrow channel.”

Smith referred to a navigation screen as he waited at Ice Harbor for the lock to drain.

A close up of the navigation screen used by the tug's Caption and Pilot.

A close up of the navigation screen used by the tug’s Caption and Pilot.

Oregon Field Guide/OPB

The screen looked deceptively like a video game and showed the “tow” — the 105-foot tug pushing two football fields of barge — blinking just above a placid channel marked with a series of tiny red buoys. But these buoys are more than suggestions.

“When I was training, everybody told me you don’t want to crowd the buoys because they’re sitting in shallow water and they sit on a shelf,” Smith said. “They actually drilled and blasted and cut [the channel] with dynamite.”

The slim margin of error is made exponentially harder when the river runs high and the spillways at Ice Harbor Dam gush full-blast at the tow as soon as it exits the lock.

“Today they are doing 86,000 cubic feet per second, which is a fair amount of water for this time of year. The highest I’ve seen it is a little over 200,000 and when it gets that high we take one barge at a time,” Smith said.

Those 86,000 cubic feet per second — or 5.3 million pounds of water per second — greeted the tow as the big guillotine gate of the Ice Harbor lock lifted.

Exiting the Ice Harbor Lock.

Exiting the Ice Harbor Lock.

Oregon Field Guide/OPB

“You definitely want to be paying attention when you come out of here,” Smith said with a nervous laugh.

So began 7 miles of white-knuckle navigation through the cut. Smith has eight years as a pilot under his belt and handled the difficult passage without breaking a sweat.

Once the Snake flowed into the mighty Columbia at Pasco, Smith, who grew up near Astoria, settled back for another scenic stretch on what he considers his home river.

“I do feel like this is my river, definitely,” he said. “And you know when I’m home in my off time, I’m fishing in the lower river and spending time on it, even when I’m not at work. I love it.”

When Tidewater tug Captain James Fletcher is working long hours pushing huge barges up and down the river, he occasionally writes poetry. Here’s one he shared with us about contending with daredevil kiteboarders on a windy day: