The next day took us to Oregon. First stop was Astoria, the first permanent European settlement west of the Rocky Mountains. The town is named after John Jacob Astor (1763-1848), the fur trading tycoon who died the richest man in the United States after plowing his fur trading profits into New York real estate. Astor financed the expedition that established the trading post, Fort Astoria, in 1811. Astoria was lost to the British a year later in the War of 1812, only to be returned to the US permanently with the Oregon Treaty of 1846 establishing the 49th parallel as the southernmost boundary of British influence (the parallel now comprises the border between the US and Canada from western Washington to the Great Lakes Region).
Fur trading was not to be Astoria’s primary economic activity for long. Astor’s expedition, following the trail blazed by Lewis and Clark, founded the trading post at the mouth of the Columbia River along its southern banks.
The Columbia has the highest discharge into the Pacific Ocean of any North American river, draining a watershed the size of France. Rain falling on portions of seven states and two Canadian provinces reach the ocean via the Columbia River. It wasn’t long until the settlers in the area discovered what the natives already knew–the real wealth of the area lie beneath and upon the Columbia’s turbulent waters. The river teemed with salmon. Chinook, Coho, Sockeye, Steelhead, etc. begin and end their lives in the Columbia River basin. And even into the railroad era, the river offered the best route from the Pacific to reach the vast riches of the interior Northwest. By the mid 1800’s, Astoria had shrugged off its fur-trading roots to become the hub of Northwest fishing, fish processing, and transportation. Sailing ships, and then steamers, left Astoria laden with human or fish or lumber cargoes, bound for points inland or the open seas.
By the end of the 19th century, Astoria had become the salmon canning capital of the country, shipping its wares all across the land. But by then it had so severely depleted the salmon stocks that even President Roosevelt (Teddy) remarked at how meager the runs had become. The 1930’s began the great dam-building period on the Columbia, which ultimately did what even the rapacious fishing was unable to accomplish (there are now some fourteen dams at various points along the watershed). With the dam building, the salmon runs dribbled to only a fraction of what they had been only a hundred years earlier and Astoria’s prominence in hosting the fleet and processing the catch gradually faded away.
Now, like so many mining, mill, fishing, manufacturing, etc., towns before her, Astoria exists as something of a living museum. It has the good fortune to still be the last port on the Columbia before the river reaches the sea, but its commercial fishing and fur trading industries are gone. Pretty much all that’s left of major cash-generating industries is logging and tourism. And it’s got the Columbia River Bar, the passage through which requires the expertise of a Columbia River Bar pilot. And it is now promoting itself as a destination venue for tourists, instead of just a day-trip for sightseers and sportsmen. So the little town (population, about 10,000) isn’t quite dead yet. And the Columbian Café, where we had lunch, was as hipster a hangout as could be found. The little town has got a certain panache. Having now visited, I would consider returning for an extended stay. It was my favorite town on our Northwest Tour.
The Columbia River Maritime Museum, situated on the river banks just east of downtown Astoria (maybe six or eight traffic lights) was simply awesome. A life-sized replica of a Coast Guard rescue crew and vessel greets the visitor to the museum. The boat is about thirty feet in length and of the type used to perform rescues on the Columbia River Bar. It is poised with the bow at about a 45 degree pitch upwards. You can almost feel the salt spray on your face and the cold water washing past the crew’s galoshes as the boat crashes through the waves. The initial display set the tone for the rest of the museum, and it didn’t disappoint.
Most of the museum covers the particular treacherousness of the Columbia River Bar—the mouth of the Columbia where the river spills its load of rainwater and snowmelt into the Pacific, which makes perfect sense for a maritime museum about the Columbia River. Navigating The Bar, where the three great forces that shaped the Pacific Northwest—gravity, plate tectonics and the eastward spinning axis of the Earth—meet to engage in a titanic struggle of the gods, is undeniably the most challenging of maritime endeavors found on the Columbia. Even today, the Coast Guard sends all of its boat captain trainees to the Bar to suffer its conditions, where the everyday turmoil of tides, winds, waves and shifting sand bars is sufficiently representative of the worst conditions they might later encounter elsewhere that training there means being ready to pilot a boat in conditions found anywhere.
It was thrilling to vicariously experience, through the museum’s exhibits, the danger the pioneer settlers faced in crossing the Bar. I would love to have thrilled to the challenge personally in my younger days, had the opportunity ever presented itself. But the possibility is foreclosed by my age and position in life, not by the river. Try as they might to tame the great Columbia, the Bar is still as treacherous as always, because no damn dam has anything to say about the wind or tides on the sea. Such is not the case for the salmon fisheries. Life is more fragile like that. Damn dams destroy salmon spawning grounds when not making them altogether inaccessible.
The Columbia River singularly represents to me all that is good about European cum American capitalism, and all that is bad. It was the capitalist impulse to exploit nature for man’s benefit that compelled the Astor expedition and the fishing and canning industries that followed, selfish impulses which nonetheless fed multitudes. That the fisheries were soon depleted is attributable to the capitalist myopia in seeing only those costs appearing on an income statement, disregarding the environmental degradation that exploiting nature necessarily accrues. It was the capitalist impulse to bend nature to man’s will that harnessed the power of the river’s flow for power generation purposes, but which effectively destroyed the capacity of the river to support its abundant fauna at the pristine level it enjoyed before man’s interventions. It was the capitalist impulse that drove man to make the river his servant, managing to temporarily improve his welfare, but at a great long term cost to the environment in which he must exist.
But the Columbia River Bar, still as wild and treacherous as ever, stands as irrefutable testament to the puniness of man against the vast forces controlling his fate. Man can harness, through damming the river, the gravitational potential infused in rain and snow clouds by the power of evaporative sunlight, but the water ultimately finds its way to the sea. In time, his dams will all lie as rubble along the water’s inevitable path. Man can make the particular plate tectonics of the region work in his favor, but only so long as they remain quiescently roped to a geologic time that regards man’s prevarications as not more significant than the blink of an eye. Man is helpless when the great ferment at the core of the earth rumbles and shakes and forcefully expels its heat and power at the surface in his time. Man is powerless to stop the spinning of the earth that drags violent storms eastward across the Pacific. He can’t stop the moon from pulling the Pacific into the Bar, creating a cataclysm of waves, wind and water. No matter how civilizing are man’s imperatives, the naked forces that created the great and bountiful Columbia River and its drainage basin remain untamed.
I hope that man’s civilizing efforts meet their demise before the salmon meet theirs; that one day, the salmon will run free, fettered only by bears and other predators, to their nesting grounds to procreate and die; that the dams all fail before the only salmon left are those grown on farms. Man doesn’t need to be seven or eight billion strong to survive, in fact, such numbers might well make man’s survival more precarious and uncertain than it was before sedentary agriculture and its successor, rapacious capitalism, and those damn dams, made all those humans possible. In any event, I know which forces will ultimately win. Within the power of creation always lies the power of destruction. Plate tectonics, the Earth’s spinning axis, the furnace at its center, and ever and always, gravity—the forces that shaped and molded and created us will ultimately destroy us and all that we fancy to have created. Man’s victories are always temporal and limited, which I find reassuring. Whatever is the reason for humans; whatever is our purpose for being, we are part of something vastly grander and magnificent than our puny and finite minds can imagine or control.
There was posted a quote in the museum from one of the fishing and canning pioneers, something along the lines that there is no greater thrill than feeling the pull of a 55 pound King salmon on the hook; that every man should have the opportunity to experience it. His observation was made at about the end of the nineteenth century. It’s been almost a century since the River’s salmon was fished and dammed nearly to extinction. Very few Kings grow to 55 pounds anymore. I’m pretty sure that the opportunity for me to hook one is all but foreclosed. But in time, once man’s overwrought civilization fails, and earthquakes, volcanoes, storms and neglect finish off the dams, perhaps, if man is lucky, the salmon will have survived strong enough to return in force, and some far distant version of me will stand along the banks of the untamed river, thrilled again, like his ancient ancestors, at the challenge of wrestling a monster King to the shore. Or so that’s what I was thinking and feeling while standing along the banks of the mighty Columbia after having toured a museum devoted almost wholly to man’s recent relationship with the river.
Our next stop in Oregon took us westward, to the coast, to actually see the mighty Pacific. We drove to Seaside, a little beachside town about thirty minutes southwest of Astoria. Incredibly, the town looked a lot like its namesake on the Gulf coast of Florida, which is situated a little ways from Panama City. It had quaint cottages lined in a row down narrow streets meant more for walking than driving. And it had tourists spending vacations on the shore.
This is quite remarkable in many ways. The Oregon shore is mostly a quite nasty place, where gales howl in from the North Pacific, and the water, chilled as it passes through the Arctic on its way to the west coast of North America, never gets much warmer than fifty or so degrees. There is, however, a beach in Seaside, Oregon, and on the day we were there, people were frolicking and generally making holiday upon it. It was nothing like its Florida cousin. The sky was frosted with a marine layer that refused to depart. The water was very obviously cold, as was the weather. But even as we got the coats out of the trunk of the car for our short walk along the shore, there were people in shorts along the beach, some even wading, but not past ankle depth, in the water.
The wind blows quite prolifically and powerfully (but not warmly) on the Oregon and Washington coasts. The day we were at Seaside was no exception. Some groups took advantage of the wind and flew kites for recreation. Some built fires, which were easy to keep stoked with the constant gale, but weren’t much good for warmth, as the heat left on the breeze. I simply marveled at why anyone would think such a place were worth a vacation. Perhaps it was folks from back East who had been indoctrinated in their rearing that an annual beach trip was required of any self-respecting middle class family. I don’t know. But for my money, I’d have gone to the mountains or the desert for relaxation and fun. But at least the wife can now say that she has seen the Pacific Ocean.
We left Seaside in a line of traffic reminiscent of Gulf Coast beach towns during spring break to head east, to Portland, the last stop on our one-day, whirlwind, northwest Oregon tour. Heading east meant another picturesque drive through towering Douglas firs on winding mountain roads and passes through the Oregon Coast Mountain Range. But once we pushed through the mountains to the rolling hills and flatlands of the Willamette River flood plain (the Willamette River flows north between two mountain ranges—the Oregon Coast and the Cascades–emptying into the Columbia River in Portland), a curious thing didn’t happen. The land did not turn into desert. It was still lush, cultivated with what appeared were fields of wheat and hay. Portland and Oregon was settled and grew rich much sooner than did Seattle and Washington (Oregon was admitted to the Union as a state in 1859; Washington not until 1889). Perhaps the topography and attendant climate explains why.
Portland has its own version of a Father Rainier looking over it. Mt. Hood, at about 11,239 feet, is the highest peak in Oregon and sits about fifty miles east of Portland. Its visage appears in the sky as you reach the city from the east in a very similar manner to how Rainier appears when approaching Seattle from Puget Sound. It’s not an accident that both Seattle and Portland have volcanoes keeping watch over them, for reasons explained earlier, in the exegesis on Rainier.
But Portland has a distinctly different vibe than Seattle. It seemed the people there were dressed so as to signify membership in particular clique or along the strata of a particular hierarchy. In contrast, Seattleites appeared to dress according to their own individual tastes. There were plenty of hipster conformists in Portland, if that’s not too oxymoronic. Seattle has plenty of people who really are hipsters, if hipster is defined as following your own path, regardless of what people think of you. The thing about being hip is that when you try to be hip, or even appear to be trying to be hip, then by definition, you are not hip, but are something like a hipster conformist. It’s sort of how it’s quite impossible to express your individuality through slapping some indelible ink on your body (i.e., getting a tattoo) if you are doing so because everyone else has done the same thing.
Not much impressed with Portland, we didn’t stay long. We ate dinner at a street-level café, literally on the sidewalk, which offered an excellent perspective from which to observe the interactions and activities of Portlanders. Our waitress had an interesting story. When she asked if we’d need a doggie bag for the unfinished portion of our meal, I told her that I would if we were home, but the dog was about 2,500 miles away. So she told us about her dog who was under the care of her boyfriend at the moment, and how it couldn’t eat table food because it was so fat. We told her we were from Alabama. She didn’t blanch at the horror, but told us she’d been through Alabama once on a cross-country trek with her dad when she was teenager, and that she’d moved back home to Oregon when she finally convinced her boyfriend they should leave New York City for some place better. Hers was an interesting story, and she was pleasantly capable of telling it. I think she’d have been better off to have gotten a ring before moving three thousand miles across the country with a guy, but who am I to judge? After dinner, we made our exit from the city, just as the sun was sinking into the western horizon.
The drive north to Seattle on I-5 skirts along the banks of the Columbia for several miles after crossing the river on the way out of the city. Lumber is still a big industry in the Pacific Northwest. The stacks of logs awaiting transit down the river, three stories high and stretching literally for miles along the banks of the river north of Portland, attest to its continued importance. Never before had I seen so much cut timber in one place, and logging is not an insignificant industry in Alabama and the Southeast. In a previous age, the logs might have been strung together and fashioned into a floating barge to be tugged along the coast for delivery to Southern California. There’s no telling these days where it might all be heading.
It was pushing midnight by the time we got back to the Inn. Thankfully Macklemore wasn’t filming another music video. We were both exhausted, but in a good way.