Tuesday, August 28

Graveyard of the Pacific

Astoria proved a wonderful addition to our itinerary.  It had been a last minute addition literally weeks before our departure.  I'm glad we added it to the tour.  Astoria sits on the edge of the Columbia River, 14 miles from where the river meets the Pacific Ocean.  It's considered the oldest European settlement west of the Rockies and was once the USA West Coast fishing industry's main hub.  At its peak the town’s waterfront housed more than a dozen canneries.  Each cannery sealed thousands of tonnes of salmon annually.

Tuna was also canned here for several years after the salmon catch declined. According to the New York Times, Astoria is responsible for popularizing the iconic tuna fish sandwich, the staple of every diet-conscious American’s lunch. Says the NYT, “The town is…to canned tuna what Detroit is to the automobile.”  Astoria's fishing history was very much in evidence at the Columbia River Maritime Museum nestled on the downtown waterfront.  

In fact the museum was an unexpected highlight. Its exhibits are beautifully presented, with just the right level of detail to capture the essence of every fact and anecdote.  We quickly learnt that the bar across the mouth of the Columbia River is North America's most treacherous stretch of water. Since 1972, thousands of vessels have been ship-wreaked in the area earning it the title, “Graveyard of the Pacific.  As a result the US Coastguard operates a national training school on the river's northern shore.  They say that if you've mastered the bar here then you've mastered the worst nature will throw at you.

The museum brings home the challenge of crossing the bar in vivid detail with video footage and first person accounts of dramatic rescues.  However, these exhibits pale in comparison to the display of a retired lifeboat presented mid-rescue.  The full-size vessel is shown teetering precariously on the near vertical edge of breaking storm wave.  The entire scene towers dramatically over visitors bringing the drama and danger of storm rescue powerfully to life.

On a wooded hill above the town rises a 125 foot pillar, the Astoria Column.  This monument was built in 1926 to provide visitors with a sweeping view of the entire Columbia River mouth area.  A climb of 164 spiral steps takes you up to a narrow viewing platform.  However, the effort is worth every breathless moment as the view is simply stunning.

Perhaps the most dominant feature is the Astoria–Megler Bridge.  This green steel girder structure is 6.5 kilometres long and links Oregon with Washington on the north bank of the Columbia River.  The bridge was completed in 1966, completing the final gap in Highway 101’s route along the entire USA West Coast.  We’ve driven much of its length over the last few weeks.  It’s hard not to be impressed by this feat of engineering while safely crossing from shore to shore in a matter of minutes.

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