I’ve been itching to get out to Astoria, on the northern Oregon coast. For one thing, the mighty Columbia River spills into the Pacific there, a confluence of legendary currents, tides, waves and winds, plus frequent fog and rain. I mean, who wouldn’t want to visit the place known as The Graveyard of the Pacific?
For another thing, I just had to drive over the Astoria-Megler Bridge, a four mile span soaring over that confluence, connecting northern Oregon with southern Washington. Built in 1966, it can withstand 150 mph winds and river speeds of 9 mph! I needed to feel it for myself.
I’d briefly visited Astoria twice before moving to Oregon, with only vague ideas about the area. Nowadays I’m on a mission to incorporate Oregon as a meaningful place in my life, rooting myself by learning about the history, geography, geology, and interesting events and characters that came before me. Knowing more about my new state feels like taking ownership, perhaps as early explorers once did, although with fewer risks and better restaurants. I’m as curious as explorers Lewis and Clark, as fur trader Colonel John Astor, as sea captain George Flavel, wanting to plant my flag and claim the place as my own, but in an existential sense, without the need to subjugate anyone.
I think back on my early school studies of California history, with sugar cube models of the Missions, grinding acorns like the Hopi Indians, and how knowing those things became part of who I was, giving me roots and a key to understanding the land, though somewhat narrow and only partially accurate. As an adult in Oregon without that local childhood imprinting, I want to create my own studies and find hopefully less biased and more complete sources. I was never much of a history buff, but I no longer need to rebel against school, and well, I’m retired.
I’ve driven along other parts of the Columbia River, seen where explorers approached from the east, and how the river was used by natives and pioneers. Now I wanted to get to the river’s end. The Columbia has a dramatic role in Oregon’s history, and a big influence in the local and US economies. Astoria is where voyagers came from around the world, where they “discovered” the land and river, and attempted to conquer the dangerous river entrance, with mixed success.
The mighty Columbia is four miles across as it pours out into the Pacific at great speed. At the same time, the wild Pacific waves slam into the river mouth, and terrific winds create ferocious turbulence and dangerous shifting sandbars. Since the late 18th century, 2000 ships and 1000 lives have been lost in these waters.
Since the 1850s, captains who competently steer their own ships across the world, avoiding disaster and risking life and limb, come to the Columbia Bar and are then required to have a Bar Pilot take over steering the ship to safety, avoiding grounding on the bar or being dashed into the jetties on either side. A Pilot boards the ship in all weathers and hours – originally by oar boat, then by motor boat in the 1950s, and more recently by helicopter. There’s a wild west feel to how these Pilots still have to negotiate the elements and conquer the currents and stormy seas. These ship jockeys’ attitude is “I think I can” as they overcome adversity to bring necessities and luxuries to all the good little boys and girls on the other side. They have a rugged cowboy mentality, undaunted by daily danger astride the buckingest broncs that ever lived, hurling themselves into danger, and coping with treacherous conditions. Yet they keep going, defying death (mostly) and loving their work. It’s compelling to read and listen to them talk about it and watch footage of some crazy rescues, not to mention just getting themselves on and off the ships.
I didn’t have much of a plan the day we went to Astoria. After the two hour drive, I realized there was too much for a short day’s visit, so we followed our instincts, first enjoying fresh crab near the now defunct fish canneries. Astoria was built on its fishing, canning, and logging industries, but now banks on promoting tourism around its rich history.
We walked along part of the 6.5 mile long Riverwalk, watched enormous ships and relatively tiny boats on the river, skirted the outside of the apparently not-to-be-missed Maritime Museum (next time!), looked up at the Astoria Column acknowledging that the long winding staircase and great views were for another day, ate more crab while admiring the bridge just out the windows, and finally drove up the winding ramp leading to the spectacular bridge.
The bridge was everything I wanted, marvelous construction, clean lines, strength, engineering genius, beauty, breathtaking views, and a feel of flying as we rumbled over the narrow two-lane span. The Oregon side rises up 196 feet, allowing enormous international commercial ships to glide under. As you approach Washington, it sinks down to just above water level where you can almost feel the current as it races under you. Had I been alone I would have turned around to do it a few more times, like that time I rode the Santa Cruz roller coaster 17 times in a row before finally getting nauseous. Once just isn’t enough.
Standing at the river’s mouth on either side was going to be more adventuring than we were up for (next time!), so I found the nearest beach at Seaview on Long Beach, just north of the confluence, where we were almost completely alone with the fierce Pacific wind and sea air.
The drive home along the Washington side of the Columbia was unexpectedly lovely, a few clear cut forests on the distant mountain slopes, some industrial moments, but mainly a pastoral twisting road amongst rolling hills, farms and water-related activity. Mission partially accomplished, until next time.
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