Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Astoria Oregon and the Columbia River

On a recent family visit to Oregon, we drove from Portland to Astoria along the scenic East Columbia River Highway. It was a beautiful morning, but the surrounding place names, such as Dismal Nitch and Gnat Creek, belied the sunny skies. Turns out that Astoria is the third wettest city in the United States with an average precipitation of almost 70 inches a year. (The leader is Hilo, Hawaii with 128 inches followed by Quillayute, Washington with 104 inches.) Summer in Astoria is beautiful, however, since most of its rain falls in late autumn and winter. 

Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery found that out when they spent the winter of 1805-1806 in what is now Astoria. Nearing the end of their 4,000 mile journey of exploration of the North American continent, the Corps was in dire need of supplies. They raced down the Columbia River toward the mouth, hoping to meet one of the last trading ships of the season, but an early winter storm forced them off the river and into a cove where they spent six wet, miserable days. As fierce winds blew and monstrous waves pounded the steep and rocky shoreline, Clark feared that the expedition would founder just a few miles from its destination of the Pacific Ocean. "A feeling person would be distressed by our situation," he wrote in his journal, trapped in "that dismal little nitch."   

The group survived. They missed the trading ship, but with the guidance and help of the local Clatsop Indian tribe, they built a winter camp near present-day Astoria, which they named Fort Clatsop. The Corps spent 100 days at the Fort, only 12 of them without rain.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the founding of Astoria in 1811. During that time, the livelihood of the town has come from fur trading, shipping, fish canning and now tourism. A friendly guide in the Heritage Museum told us we needed seven full days to see all Astoria has to offer. I don't know if she is correct, but I do now that two days was not nearly enough to visit all the parks, beaches, hiking trails, historical sites, museums, markets and restaurants in Astoria and nearby Warrenton. (Click here to visit the Astoria/Warrenton Official Visitor Information page. You'll find everything you need for your stay, including a great piece,"Fun in the Rain," that will make you want to seek out Astoria on a stormy day.)

Our first morning was spent outdoors, walking along the estuary of the Columbia River. Dams and locks have significantly tamed the once free-flowing 1,243 mile-long river, but the Columbia is still an awe-inspiring sight. We ate our picnic lunch near a picturesque abandoned cannery, one of about 30 that once lined the Columbia and made Astoria the salmon-packing capital of the Northwest.
On November 7, 1805, the Corps of Discovery arrived not far from our lunch spot. They were still 20 miles from the sea, but Clark mistook the mighty estuary for the Pacific. "Ocian in view! O! the joy," he wrote in his journal. Soon after, the storm rolled in that would maroon the party at Dismal Nitch. Another three weeks would pass before they actually saw the Pacific.

The ships that Lewis and Clark hoped to encounter in 1805 were engaged in trade, with routes between the Northwest territory, the Orient and the United States. To enter the river, these ships had to cross the notorious Columbia River Bar, a series of shoals and sand bars that since 1792 has been the graveyard for approximately 2,000 large ships. The Bar is just as dangerous today, but modern ocean-going vessels have the help of specially-trained bar pilots, who board the ships and navigate them through the restricted channels of the Columbia and over the Bar to and from the sea.

As we walked along the river, we watched bright yellow pilot boats pull alongside immense tankers to deliver or pick up bar pilots, who, each year, guide about 3,600 vessels, carrying 40 million tons of cargo. 

In the afternoon, we visited nearby Fort Stevens State Park for a hike along the ocean, some birdwatching and a close-up look at the mouth of the Columbia and the infamous bar. The seas were calm and we watched as pleasure boats easily crossed the bar. Further down the shore, however, was a beached and swamped sailboat, a reminder of the dangers of rougher seas.

We had planned to camp at the park, but Fort Stevens was booked solid. Cancellations were a possibility, but not until later in the evening. Fortunately while waiting for our dinner table at the wonderful Columbian Cafe in downtown Astoria, we wandered into the Voodoo Room, the bar next door to the Cafe, where the friendly bartender told us about some little-known campsites near Gnat Creek, about 14 miles east of town. Darkness was approaching as we drove up a steep, overgrown dirt road. Just as we were getting uneasy, the road ended at a perfect, flat campsite surrounded by a cathedral of spruce trees. We set up our tents and climbed inside just as darkness fell.  

We awoke to a Lewis and Clark kind of morning, with the rain making a low patter overhead. We rolled up our wet tents and made coffee and oatmeal huddled under the raised hatchback of our car.  

By the time we got back to Astoria, the sun had returned. We walked about the town, looking at the old Victorian houses, sea views, distant hills and mountains.  We had lunch at the Bowpicker - an old fishing boat converted into a take-out restaurant, where the only thing on the menu is fish and chips. The fish is albacore tuna and the line is long, but worth the wait. In the afternoon, we visited the Columbia River Maritime Museum, a fun and interesting place with well-curated exhibits.

Our last stop was a fish market in nearby Warrenton, where we picked up an freshly-caught albacore tuna that we had ordered the day before. We drove back to Portland and by 9 p.m., sat down with family and friends to a dinner of Stephanie's cold cucumber/avocado soup, Matt's marinated, flash-seared tuna and Erin's fresh, sauteed garden vegetables. 

O! the joy!

(The recipe for Steph's "Avocado Soup with Herbs, Slivered Radishes and  Pistachios is from her favorite soup cookbook, "Vegetable Soups from Deborah Madison's Kitchen."  Click here for a copy of the recipe.)

To see more photos, click here.

Until next time,

Photos unless otherwise noted by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor 


  1. I drove through Astoria many times along 101 between Olympia and Lincoln City over the 11 years I lived in Seattle and visited my uncle and his family in Dallas, OR (south of Salem). I only stopped there a few times but, after reading this, I wish I'd spent more time there. I did climb that bizarre tower at least twice in my life, though.

    If you're still in the area, you should check out Seaside and Cannon Beach and there's a lovely cheese factory in Tillamook that should be discovered as well. Happy travels!

  2. I've been up in that neck of the woods, Geraldine. It is beautiful country. And I smiled that you mentioned Lewis & Clark, as I am always very much aware of their presence when I'm up in that part of the world. I've also gone all through the Columbia River gorge on my travels for Duke in the fall, from Washington state into Oregon, and it's just breathtakingly beautiful. I'm going to have to make note of some of the spots you mention here that are new to me! I'm off to look at more of your photos now!


Thanks for your comments.