The splendor (and salmon) of NW Oregon

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Glenda C. Booth

Mt. Hood towers over vineyards (and everything else) in the Columbia River Valley in northwest Oregon. The 1,200-mile Columbia River is one of North America’s longest, and forms the boundary between Oregon and Washington.
Photo © Bridget Calip

“Ocean in view! O! the joy,” exulted Captain William Clark on November 7, 1805, when he heard deep rumbling and thought he had finally reached the Pacific Ocean, as the waters before him roiled and frothed. The ocean was actually still 20 miles away, and Clark had encountered an area near the mouth of the Columbia River instead.

While awed, little did he understand the rough waters he was about to encounter, later called “the graveyard of the Pacific.” At the five-mile-wide mouth of the 1,200-mile Columbia, where the river clashes and churns into the Pacific Ocean, the tide is seven feet high on average, waves can roll in at 40 feet, and fog can shroud everything in sight 200 days a year.

Here, 5,000 miles of Pacific Ocean energy, unbroken by barrier islands, storms in and meets what’s been dubbed the “firehose” of the river. Since 1792, 2,000 boats have sunk in the water’s fury. 

Good place for a town

The mighty Columbia — one of North America’s largest rivers, and the boundary between the states of Washington and Oregon —  crashes into the Pacific Ocean in Astoria, Ore.

John Jacob Astor saw more than a roaring ocean here and established a fur trading post which he named Fort Astoria in 1811, later becoming the city of Astoria.

In the late 1800s, 2,000 salmon canneries flourished here, thanks mostly to low-paid Chinese immigrants. Salmon dominated the town’s economy and became a popular food for American soldiers and at many American tables.

Salmon was a staple for Pacific Northwest peoples for thousands of years. The Shoshones introduced Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s hungry Corps of Discovery cadre to fresh roasted salmon in 1805.

When the explorers reached the Columbia River, “the men were astonished at the numbers of salmon in the river…” wrote Stephen E. Ambrose in Undaunted Courage, his chronicle of their 1804-1806 expedition to find an all-water route from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.

Early traders negotiating with Native Americans could swap a nail for two salmon. Salmon became Astoria’s economic engine at the mouth of the Columbia River in the late 1800s when fish canneries exploded. There’s even a shrub named for the fish, the salmonberry.


In 1805, Lewis and Clark built a winter encampment at Fort Clatsop, near Astoria, Ore. Today, the National Park Service oversees a replica site, where reenactors portray daily life of the early settlers. Here, one prepares fur pelts for sale.
Photo © The National Park Service

Exploring Astoria

Today, downtown Astoria and many restored Victorian homes have earned a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Astorians brag that the town’s charm has made it a favored setting for movies like The Fisherman’s Bride in 1908, Free Willy I and II in 1992 and 1994, and Wendy and Lucy in 2008.

A stroll along the Riverwalk is a good introduction to the gritty side of town — a mix of warehouses, restaurants and seafaring establishments. People can hail the trolley by waving a dollar at a trolley stop. During the 40-block ride, an on-board commentator expounds on the area’s history.

The Astoria column, a tower with 164 spiral stairs up to an observation deck, sits atop Coxcomb Hill and offers 360-degree panoramic views — including a mega-view of the Columbia, the ocean and the mountains. Murals recount Astoria’s history from Lewis and Clark to the arrival of the train.

The confluence of the river and ocean are the central theme of the Columbia River Maritime Museum (www.crmm.org). A video dramatically brings home some rough water passages during severe winter storms.

The museum’s 40,000-square-feet of exhibit halls and over 30,000 maritime artifacts — the most extensive collection in the Pacific Northwest — lay out the region’s rich maritime history.

Particularly captivating is the fiberglass, 20-foot, Japanese abalone fishing boat that washed up in March 2013 with its intact Japanese license — a particularly notable piece of “debris” from the 2011 tsunami generated by the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that struck Japan. The owner told the museum he didn’t want the boat returned. 

Don’t miss family-owned Josephson’s smoked fish shop (www.josephsons.com) established in 1920 at 106 Marine Drive. Try the smoked halibut, oysters, sturgeon, rainbow trout, and that health-promoting salmon — smoked salmon jerky and canned coho and alderwood-smoked fillets made the way Grandpa Anton did it.

Forts and trails

To the native Clapsops and Chinooks, the Pacific Northwest was “almost paradise,” wrote Lewis in 1806. But to the probably exhausted expeditioners, it was “a miserable place.” Arriving in December 1805, they built their winter encampment, Fort Clapsop, with felling axes, drawknives and hatchets. Suffering through 94 days of rain out of 106 in the drippy, woodsy wetness, they worked on their journals and made elk hide clothes and elk fat candles.

At today’s Fort Clapsop replica, a National Park Service site about five miles south of Astoria, visitors can see firsthand in six rooms how 33 people endured the “dreadful weather,” as Clark complained. Rangers in buckskins, a la Lewis and Clark, demonstrate flintlock gun shooting, hide tanning and candle making.

Visitors can also walk the park’s trails and enjoy shoulder-high ferns, sitka spruce, thimble berries, huckleberries and wapato in the damp, mossy forest. For more information, visit www.nps.gov/lewi/planyourvisit/fortclatsop.htm.

The hardy, 19th century settlers found a wild, raging, untamed Columbia River a mile wide at many spots. Those who venture inland today from the Pacific see a more docile waterway, transformed by 20th century dams that have slowed its rapids and currents.

Because some salmon cannot get past many of these dams to spawn, many salmon runs and other fisheries are at risk, argues the environmental group American Rivers. They rated it as the country’s second most endangered river in April.

Gorge on scenery

The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (www.fs.usda.gov/crgnsa) spans 292,500 acres stretching from the mouth of the Sandy River to the mouth of the Deschutes.

The gorge, up to 4,000 feet deep in some places, is an 80-mile river canyon through the Cascade Mountain Range, going from dry grasslands in the east to dry woodlands and temperate rainforest in the west. The forests are home to bigleaf maples, Douglas firs, western hemlocks, Ponderosa pines and cottonwoods.

Travelers find diverse ecosystems, waterfalls and great vistas. It is a popular destination for sight-seeing, fishing, wind-surfing, paddling and hiking.

The Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail crosses the area. Lewis and Clark passed through this historic transportation corridor for Native Americans en route to the Pacific.

Oregon Trail pioneers soon followed, and settlers established steamboat lines and railroad lines through the gorge. Today, most people access the gorge from I-84 in Oregon or state route 14 in Washington.

The engineer for the historic Columbia River Highway — Highway 30 paralleling I-84 from Troutdale (16 miles east of Portland, exit 17 off I-84) east to Dodson — did not want “to mar what God had put there.”

Today, between Troutdale and The Dalles, visitors can explore historic sites and over 75 waterfalls. Some waterfalls are a short hike from the road, and some are right smack in front of you near the parking lot. Tourism promoters call the gorge “the world of waterfalls.”

The 620-foot high Multinomah Falls (exit 31 off I-84), the second highest year-round falls in the country, is a must-see. A steep, paved trail takes visitors to hiking paths and a platform above the interpretive center, restaurant and gift shop. Pick up some travel tips at the U.S. Forest Service counter at Multnomah Falls Lodge (www.fs.fed.us/r6/columbia).

The Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum on the Washington side in Stevenson (www.columbiagorge.org) has 11,000 square feet of exhibits, including Indian artifacts, a replica of a fish wheel (used to catch fish), and the world’s largest rosary collection — 4,000 rosaries.

A 12-minute film examines the area’s geologic history, the Corps of Discovery’s expedition, native peoples, timbering and salmon harvesting. There’s also a Columbia Gorge Discovery Center in The Dalles.

Mount Hood, all 11,000 feet of it, looms from many vantage points. The Mount Hood loop is a popular scenic drive, and the mountain offers hiking and the only year-round skiing in the U.S. On the Washington side of the river, Mount Adams “competes” at 9,000 feet.

If you go

The closest airport is Portland, Oregon. Delta and American Airlines have the lowest-price roundtrip tickets, starting at around $350 from all three area airports.

Some lodging facilities in the gorge have shuttle services. Visit www.flypdx.com.

Astoria is two hours from Portland. The Northwest Point Bus (www.northwest-point.com) connects Portland and Astoria.

Visiting the Columbia River Gorge’s waterfalls and shoreline sites requires a vehicle. Several cruise companies offer sightseeing trips on the river, including the Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler (www.portlandspirit.com/sternwheeler.php), RiverCruise.com, and American Cruise Lines (americancruiselines.com).

The Columbia River Gorge Visitors Association is a good basic source of information about sites, events and lodging. Visit www.crgva.org.

Wind River Publishing (www.windriverpublishing.net/) puts out a free paper and online tourist’s guide.

For Astoria information, including where to stay and eat, stop by the Welcome Center, 111 West Marine Dr., call 1-800-875-6807, or visit www.travelastorial.com.

The renovated, centrally-located Hotel Elliot (www.hotelelliott.com, (503) 325-2222) has a rooftop garden. Rooms start at $230 a night.

The Multnomah Falls Lodge, built in 1925, has a restaurant but no overnight accommodations (www.multnomahfallslodge.com).

For a rejuvenating Pacific Northwest mountain retreat, try the Skamania Lodge in Stevenson, Wash. (www.skamania.com, 1- 800-316-9495), 45 miles east of Portland. Set on 175 acres, the lodge has a spa, golf course, trails, complimentary mountain bikes, and a dining room featuring Pacific Northwest cuisine. Rooms start at $180 a night for those who are 55 and older. There is an additional $20 per night resort fee.