Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Where the Columbia Meets the Pacific

Most major rivers spend a leisurely time reaching the point where their waters empty into an ocean. Like the Nile, Mississippi, Danube, or Ganges; they meander through a complex of channels and waterways, depositing their sediments and creating vast deltas, rich in nutrients and wildlife. Not so for the Columbia River. It heads full bore into the Pacific Ocean bringing the force of 1300-miles of accumulated water and debris into an ocean not as placid as its name suggests. Here, at Astoria, this dramatic meeting of river and sea has created one of the most treacherous bars in any ocean. Since 1792, nearly 2000 ships have sunk in the area and thousands of lives have been lost, earning it the title “Graveyard of the Pacific”.
The story of the river and its rich maritime past is told at the Columbia River Maritime Museum located in Astoria along Highway 30 on the east side of downtown. Look for the building with a roof shaped like a giant wave. Considered one of the best maritime museums on the West Coast, it is the official maritime museum of the State of Oregon.
Inside, interpretive exhibits trace the area’s maritime history from fur-trapper days to modern Coast Guard rescues. The hands-on, interactive displays allow you to take a spin at piloting a tugboat, walk across the deck of a WWII Navy destroyer, view a Coast Guard rescue operation, and observe real-life river traffic from floor-to-ceiling windows. Also interesting is a look at the importance of the salmon canning industry which attracted workers from all over the world to Astoria. At one time, there were over 30 canneries in town and nearly one-third of the population of Clatsop County was Chinese. A good worker could clean and gut a fish in eight strokes and 45 seconds.
A new exhibit installed this year is “Crossing the Bar: Perilous Passage” and explores the infamous entrance to the Columbia. During winter storms, waves can crest as high as 40-feet and it takes special skills and knowledge to navigate in these waters. Videos taken by the US Coast Guard and Columbia River Bar Pilots are displayed on widescreens, and the effect is so realistic you may need a dose of Dramamine to keep from getting seasick.
Berthed alongside the museum and included in the admission is the US Coast Guard Lightship Columbia. This ship served as a floating lighthouse at the river’s entrance between 1950 and 1979, when she was replaced with a mechanized buoy. The ship’s interior is unchanged since its retirement and you are free to walk through the living quarters to get a good flavor of life onboard, a world described as “a long stretch of monotony intermixed with riding out gale force storms.”
Across the street from the maritime museum in the old city hall is the Heritage Museum. Like many seaports, Astoria has a salty past and all its dirty laundry is on display in a second-floor exhibit called “Vice and Virtue in Clatsop County: 1890 to Prohibition”. There’s no sugar-coating of local history here as you learn about bootlegging, prostitution, drugs, and political corruption. A reconstructed Astoria saloon offers an opportunity to spin the roulette wheel; it’s all legal and G-rated. On the first floor, exhibits provide a look at the area’s tamer side including a display of artifacts from Clatsop and Chinook tribes as well as the Scandinavian and Asian immigrants who worked in the shipping and canning industries.
If all this salmon business has made you hungry, hop on the Astoria Riverfront Trolley and head downtown. There is a trolley stop in front of the maritime museum, and for the grand sum of $1 you can travel in style in a 97-year old, restored trolley car. While there are several good seafood restaurants in Astoria, for something totally unique and tasty, try the Drina Daisy on Commercial Street which serves up traditional, ethnic dishes from Bosnia. The cuisine, a blend of Mediterranean/Greek and Eastern Europe is well-prepared and presented. Selections on the wine and beer list include an assortment of difficult-to-find delights from the former Yugoslavia.

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