Down the Columbia

I set out for the Pacific Ocean this morning from Camp Orofino. The moonset over the  Clearwater River downstream from camp:

Early start since the campsite itself didn’t have any people to talk to and I had close to 500 miles to ride to reach Astoria and the mouth of the Columbia. Plus another 20 or so to the campground at Fort Stevens. Another oatmeal breakfast as the sun came up on the last westward day of the trip. The lights of Orofino’s bridge district can be seen a couple miles upstream.

Gonna take it to the bridge.

I headed back up and crossed over the Clearwater River to return to Hwy 12 toward WA. Just downstream, the Clearwater’s North Fork runs in from the northeast. It is impounded by the Dvorshak dam, creating the reservoir and state park I’d seen on the map yesterday. The dam is almost two miles upstream from the mouth of the North Fork, but it’s visible from the shore opposite:

Here’s a closer look:

Ya, it’s tall! At 717 feet tall, this dam is the third-tallest dam in the United States after Oroville (CA, 770 ft.) and of course the Hoover dam (AZ, 726 ft., sez Wikipedia), and the highest of its kind anywhere (a “straight axis gravity” dam). The reservoir behind it is 53 miles long! There is a steelhead hatchery on the point in the foreground, established as mitigation for the dam’s blockade of steelhead and salmon from their spawning waters upstream on the North Fork.

The dam was completed in 1973. Here’s an artist’s depiction of the 19th-century confluence area, from a state park placard:

This huge dam project on a small river was embroiled in controversy from the outset.

In his guidebook, Idaho for the Curious, Cort Conley wrote, “There have always been more politicians than suitable damsites. Building the highest straight axis gravity dam in the Western Hemisphere, on a river with a mean flow of 5,000 cubic feet per second, at a cost of $312 million, in the name of flood-control, is the second-funniest joke in Idaho. The funniest joke is inside the visitor center: a government sign entreats, ‘Help protect this delicate environment for future generations.’ The North Fork of the Clearwater was an exceptional river with a preeminent run of steelhead trout, and the drainage contained thousands of elk and white-tail deer. The Army Corps of Engineers proceeded to destroy the river, habitat, and fish; then acquired 5,000 acres for elk management and spent $21 million to build the largest steelhead hatchery in the world, maintaining at a cost of $1 million dollars a year what nature had provided for nothing.”

This reminds me of the old Indian proverb/joke:  “When the white man found this land, Indians were running it. There were no taxes, no debt, plenty of fish, plenty of deer, clean running water. Women did all the work. The medicine man was free. Indian men spent all day hunting and fishing; all night having sex. Only the white man could be dumb enough to think he could improve on a system like that.”

The proximity of this structure to small towns and to the numerous parks and campgrounds near the mouth of the river–along with its history of structural problems–makes me think of the Taum Sauk reservoir breach in SE Missouri. In 2005, the overfill system failed, allowing the reservoir to overflow, washing away a portion of the northern retaining wall and leading to a catastrophic release of 1.5 billion gallons of water in twenty minutes. The campground below, one of the most popular in MO, was completely inundated with a 20-foot flood of muddy water, huge boulders, and massive trees swept from the heavily-forested slopes of Proffitt Mountain. The only thing that kept it from being an even larger disaster was the date: Dec. 14. Had this occurred during a summer weekend, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people would have been killed instantly. On the morning of the breach, five people living in the park–the park superintendent and his family–were swept away in their house, but all survived!

On dams and the massive projects which accompany them: these are trade-offs we make–and accept–as a civilization. Every time we flip on a light, camp in a scenic lakeside state park, enjoy a California orange or a Washington wine, or bake a loaf of bread grown from irrigated Kansas wheatfields. Compromises on behalf of our own advances: irrigation, recreation, drinking water, flood control.

But that’s enough sexism, racism and politics for one post. And this is not a blog about dams.

Lewis and Clark landed here after their grueling search for navigable water ended when they reached the Clearwater. They then marched downstream until they reached this large grove of Ponderosa pines that grew on the left side of the river. Here, the Expedition camped for ten days in order to make canoes for the remainder of the journey. The site is called Canoe Camp.

These tree trunks are parallel, it’s just hard to get a good vertical panorama. The Ponderosa is perfect for making dugout canoes: its wood is easy to work, and its long, straight trunk is free of knots. The Corps’s boats could carry 7 men and half a ton of equpment and supplies. The boats were huge and difficult to maneuver. Clarks’ canoe sprung a leak in just the third set of rapids they encountered. They overturned numerous times, risking supplies and lives in the swift, rocky water.

This dugout is about 40 ft. long. The party made one this large, and four more, each 50 ft. long!

The Clearwater winds down to the Snake River on today’s WA/ID state line, carving its shallow valley into the basalt and sediment. The river drops 300 feet in about 40 miles.

US 12 follows the river all the way to Lewiston, ID, on the WA state line. There, it joins the Snake River, known in these parts as Lower Granite Lake.

Looking upstream from the bridge over the Snake River. Lewiston, ID on the left. Clarkston, WA, on the right.

Looking downstream at Lower Granite Reservoir. Clarkston, WA, on the left. Lewiston, ID, on the right. Photoshop skills waning.

The Snake continues NW, then W into the Palouse region of east central WA, while US 12 heads W, then SW, crossing the Tucannon River, then following the Touchet River for 10 miles before arriving in Walla Walla, where I grabbed a few more envelopes of freeze-dried backpacker food. The region has been a major wheat-producing center since before the Civil War.

Tilled wheatfields. Just like Kansas, only with mountains.

Also flyover country. Contrails near Walla Walla.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, there are numerous fires burning in WA. This one was was less than a mile from Walla Walla’s city limits.

The central mountains of WA are the site of dozens of much larger fires. They are all well north of my route, with two notable exceptions burning near the I-84 corridor through the Columbia River Gorge. The OR side fire is mostly contained, and the WA is one ridge removed from the gorge.

It’s 30 miles of rolling prairie and river valley through Touchet, where US 12 drops down to the Walla Walla River, finally to the gates of the Columbia.

Looking back upstream, just south of the Snake River.

Or, as they call it around here, Lake Wallula, which is created by the McNary Dam almost 20 miles south of the mouth of the Walla Walla. US 12 turns north toward the Tri-Cities, which bristle with hydro-electric generation and nuclear waste storage, while Hwy 730 falls in along the southern shore of the Columbia River–I mean, Lake Wallula. Where the river once crashed its way from the inland plateau toward its titanic collision with the Pacific Ocean, there is now still, deep water up to the max-fill line: I-84. But the high gorges remain.

The road clings to the water, with a few excursions to the ridge tops, many of which were covered in windmills. These creatures of the wind seemed to be getting along with their hydro-powered brethren of the waters:

Wind power above the John Day Dam.

Sculpted by a once-raging river.

Along the Columbia. I mean, Lake Umatilla.

The passenger train The Pioneer ran on the tracks along the Columbia as part of its service from Chicago to Seattle until it was discontinued in 1997.

Lots of pull-outs for fishing, boating, windsurfing and kayaking. Watch out crossing the interstate.

Approaching The Dalles, smoke from yet another fire began to fill the valley.

Lake Celilo, just east of The Dalles.

On October 24, Lewis and Clark arrived here with their canoes to find a tremendous falls and rapids. The entire river passed over a falls of 20 feet, swept through a opening of 45 yards, then another falls of 8 feet, then another 40-yard opening. This was later known as the Short Narrows of The Dalles. Clark described this gorge as an “agitated gut-swelling, boiling and whorling in every direction,” but believed, along with their best waterman Peter Crusatte, that they could pass the Dalles in their canoes!

And they did, with the numerous lodges of locals turned out to watch the daredevil white men run the rapids. The picture above is taken alongside Lake Celilo, named for the underwater city of Celilo and the falls which once existed here. About 100 members of the Yakima tribe had inhabited Celilo until it was submerged in 1957. At that time, Celilo was the oldest continually inhabited place in North America. I proceeded on.

At The Dalles, WA, the dam is a run-of-the-river type, meaning it does not control the flow of water or store water. But a shallow lake still forms behind it.

There are two large fires on the south slope of the Columbia valley, near Hood River and Mosier, OR, just 15 miles downstream from The Dalles. They were both over 50% contained, but their stubborn remnants and a few new, smaller fires still put out plenty of smoke.

The party made one more difficult run through the rapids at the Cascade of the Columbia (now covered by the lake behind the Bonneville Dam), before arriving at the first sign of tidal waters, near today’s Beacon Rock. They were still almost 150 miles from the ocean, but they were getting close. They passed Multnomah Falls on their left:

I arrived in Portland around 4 p.m.

Crossing the Willamette, looking downstream (north) toward Sauvie Island.

Downtown Portland, where I-84 ends and US 30 and crosses the Willamette River (pronounced will AM it), is about 5 miles upstream from the actual mouth of the Willamette. On the way northwest on US 30, I passed under the St. Johns Bridge.

Bridge with lamppost in the foreground.

Another 5 miles downstream to the north, Sauvie island divides the main channel of the Columbia from the mouth of the Willamette. The Expedition camped on the north bank of the Columbia, across from this island. According to Ambrose, they did not realize the Willamette joined the Columbia on the other side of the island. Today, Sauvie Island is home to about one thousand people. They, like everyone in the Porland-Seattle corridor, are very close to a lot of volcanoes.

The view from above US 30 just south of Scappoose. I think Mounts St. Helens and Adams are not quite visible to the northeast in the center of the pic. Mt. Hood is hazy behind the towers at right.

Here’s a slightly better shot of St. Helens (left, 8364 ft.) and Adams (right, over 12,000). Adams is farther away.

The pics aren’t great but it was a convenient overlook above US 30, looking to the east.  I continued past Longview and its long bridge:

The wide confluence valley where the Willamette meets the Columbia is ten miles across, but narrows to about 2 miles just west of Longview and continues for another 40 miles westward. At about 20 miles from the ocean, the Columbia widens and becomes quite shallow.

Looking across to the WA side of the Columbia Bar. The Expedition tried to camp at the base of the hills.

The Columbia meets the Pacific across the Columbia Bar, a shifting, dangerous, three-mile-wide, six-mile-long navigational hazard formed by the flow of sediments in the river and the force of the tides and waves of the ocean. The channel is dredged and there is a special squad of ship captains who board and pilot all ships over the bar. The area is known as the Graveyard of Ships. Over 2000 shipwrecks have occurred here, the most recent in 2002, when a crab ship ran aground 5 miles south of the Columbia’s opening to the sea. In the last 30 years, 16 wrecks have claimed 26 lives.

The weather and tides are infamous on the northwest coast, and the Corps experienced the worst of it during their short stay on the north side of the opening. They also struggled with theft and very hard bargaining by the Indians they met in the last 200 miles of the Columbia. For ten straight days, rain and wind soaked the explorers and their gear; their canoes filled with water; they camped in driving rainstorms; they were beset by fleas. Still, once below the Cascades, they traveled over thirty miles a day on the fast-moving river.

Lewis and Clark arrived on the north side of the broad opening to the Pacific on November 7, 1805, near Pillar Rock, and camped almost 20 miles from the sea. Looking out over the huge estuary, they thought they saw the ocean. Clark wrote; “Ocian in view! O! The joy!” Lewis wrote that there was “great joy in camp, as we are in view of the Ocian, this great Pacific Octean which we have been so long anxious to see. and the roreing or noise made by the waves brakeing on the rockey shores may be heard distinctly.”

The horrible weather continued for the duration of their stay on the north shore. It rained for 11 straight days. It hailed. The wind blew water from the river onto the hillsides where the party crouched. Clark wrote: “…our present situation a verry disagreeable one…we have not leavel land sufficient for an encampment clear of the tide, the high hills jutting in so close and steep that we cannot retreat back, and the water too salt to be used, added to this the waves are increasing to such a hight that we cannot move from this place…all very wet and disagreeable”

Their canoes were tossed by the waves. “Every exertion by the party was scercely sufficient to save our canoes from being crushed by those monsterous trees maney of them nearly 200 feet long and 4 to 7 feet through. our camp entierly under water dureing the hight of the tide. At this dismal point we must spend another night as the wind & waves are too high to proceed.”

Nov. 11: “Wind verry high from the SW with most temendious waves brakeing with great violence against the shores, rain falling in torrents. we are all wet as usial–and our situation is truly a disagreeable one; the great quantities of rain which has loosened the stones on the hill sides; and the stones fall down upon us, our canoes at one place at the mercy of the waves, our baggage in another; and our selves and party scattered on floating logs and such dry spots as can be found on the hills sides, and crevices of rocks. rained all day.”

Nov. 12: “Tremendious wind from the SW, with lightineng and hard claps of thunder and hail which continued until 6 a.m.” Nov. 13: “rain continued this morning…tide came in with great fury. Nothing to eat but pounded fish.” Nov. 14: “Rained all the last night without intermition, and this morning, wind blows verry hard. one of our canoes is much broken by the waves.”

The party needed a place to spend the winter, and the north shore, with its steep, rocky terrain, would be impossible. Lewis went to explore the south shore after getting reports from some visiting Indians that game and timber, as well as inhabitable land, were more plentiful on the southern side. 24 days after arriving in view of the Pacific, the party moved to a location about two miles inland from the coast, on the western shore of the Netul River, one of the many tidal creeks which lace the southern margin of the estuary. It is now known as the Lewis and Clark River. There, they build a 50 x 50-foot log stockade and named it Fort Clatsop. It would be their winter home until March, 1806.

I arrived at the ocean under fair skies with a few clouds, just in time to grab a key for a yurt and make it down to the beach for sunset.

A kitesurfer skipped across the low waves as an ocean liner crossed the horizon.

To the south, Tillamook Head stuck out into the Pacific.

The wreck of the Peter Iredale sinks into the beach. It ran aground in Oct., 1906, and was swallowed by the sands before weather abated enough to allow a salvage attempt. the ship was 285 feet long.

A bystander offered to take a picture of me with the bike. With my eyes closed.

And the Beemer takes a bow. 2748 miles covered.

I turned to the east with a fistpump and a shout out to every mile I’d just traveled. A shout of triumph, relief, and gratitude for the chance to travel this beautiful country. Yessss! in my best Ed McMahon. I headed to my very nice yurt, started dinner, and dreamed of tomorrow’s date with Paige, who is flying into Portland to meet me! What a life!

528 miles from Orofino to Astoria. The Corps spent 30 days traveling from Canoe Camp to the mouth of the Columbia. I made the trip in just over 10 hours.


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