Christmas boat parade lights up Columbia River

Dec 1, 2023, 8:52 AM | Updated: 9:56 am

CAPTION: The route of the Christmas Lighted Boat Parade on the Columbia River between Kennewick, Wash. and Richland, Wash. (Courtesy Clover Island Yacht Club) The Christmas Lighted Boat Parade has been a tradition on the Columbia River between Kennewick and Richland since the 1960s. (Courtesy Clover Island Yacht Club)

The Christmas Lighted Boat Parade, which began back in the 1960s, will ply the waters of the mighty Columbia River between Kennewick and Richland this weekend.

Afternoon darkness, unrelenting precipitation, and cold temperatures mean that “Christmas Light Season” has officially arrived all around the Pacific Northwest. Along with these atmospheric conditions, we also have a lot of lakes, rivers and salt water, and plenty of boats, too.

This is why in Seattle, the Argosy Christmas Ship is sailing every weekend between now and Christmas all around Elliott Bay and Lake Washington, with cheery bonfires in select Seattle parks. It’s part of a tradition stretching back to the 1940s.

A similar tradition has been part of the aquatic holiday celebrations east of the mountains, too. This tradition dates back to 1964 and is officially called “The Christmas Lighted Boat Parade.”

On Friday, Dec. 1, at 6:30 p.m., a flotilla of decorated and illuminated boats will leave Clover Island Yacht Club in Kennewick, one of the Tri-Cities. The festive boats will head upriver eight miles to Howard Amon Park in Richland. Around 7:30 p.m., they turn around and head back. As they leave, a big fireworks show gets underway at Amon Park. The same schedule repeats on Saturday, December 2, too.

Groups of holiday revelers gather in advance and line the banks of the Columbia all along the route, at Columbia Park in Kennewick, at Amon Park in Richland, where they have bonfires, on the trail that runs along the river, and just about any riverside restaurant (if you can find a seat). The annual holiday weekend event is a big deal in the Tri-Cities.

Mike Rhodes is in his 50s. This is his second year as Clover Island Yacht Club’s Lighted Parade Coordinator. KIRO Newsradio spoke with him Wednesday, just hours before the mandatory “Skippers’ Meeting” for the 30 or so decorated boats that will take part and that will compete for the prizes.

“Some of them go pretty wild, simple to extravagant, or they go with a Seahawks theme,” Rhodes told KIRO Newsradio. “One of them last year, one that won, did a ‘Christmas Vacation’ theme with the station wagon, and we’ve got a guy pulling a dinghy with a lamp leg from ‘A Christmas Story.’”

“They get pretty creative,” Rhodes said.

The Christmas Lighted Boat Parade generally takes place regardless of the weather, and the Coast Guard and Sheriff’s Office often assist Clover Island Yacht Club with logistics and overall safety of the boats and crews. Mike Rhodes says that as far as he knows, the parade has only been canceled once in the past because of high winds. As an outdoor event, it was able to keep going all through the pandemic.

Even if the wind is blowing, Mike Rhodes admits that it can be cold in the Tri-Cities this time of year. He says there were occasions in the past when there’s been snow or freezing rain during the parade, and during last year’s Saturday night edition, the air temperature dropped to 19 degrees Fahrenheit.

As coordinator, Rhodes is a veteran of many years of parades and wisely leads the flotilla from the cozy confines of his 34-foot Sea-Ray Sport Cruiser.

But, he says, not everyone chooses to cruise in comfort. This means there’s usually a wide variety of boats taking part.

“We have bigger boats [and] a lot of sport cruisers,” Rhodes said. “We even have some people out there in a pontoon boat freezing their butts off.”

Rhodes says that there are many great spots to watch the parade along the banks of the Columbia. If watching from outdoors, be sure and dress for the weather. Rhodes also says to bring a flashlight because that’s how the audience along the river signals their approval.

“It’s cool,” Rhodes says, “because when you’re on the boat, people communicate by flashing their flashlights and you know that they’re there applauding.”

According to the Yakima Herald-Republic, the first weekend in December is a big one for many other holiday parades – on dryland – all over Eastern Washington, including:

  • Selah, Friday, Dec. 1 at 6:00 p.m.
  • Sunnyside’s Lighted Farm Implement Parade, Saturday, Dec. 2 at 6:30 p.m.
  • Cle Elum, Saturday, Dec. 2 at 6:00 p.m.
  • Yakima, Sunday, Dec. 3 at 6:00 p.m.

And, on this side of the Cascades, the annual lighted tractor parade will be held in Centralia next Saturday, December 9.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Christmas boat parade lights up Columbia River