But the danger and the record of disasters belies a getaway that will keep you coming back many times, as I have – especially to visit a place that tells the Columbia River’s powerful story of untamed nature.
The Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria puts you in touch with danger; a place where respect for nature runs deep and the history of the region comes to life in unique and exciting ways.
Dave Pearson, the CRMM’s Assistant Director, said the river’s bar is still considered the most challenging water passage on the planet: “Graveyard of the Pacific still works as a description – after all, 2,000 wrecks have occurred there – it remains a frightening place.”
Ocean swells coming down from the Bering Sea are caught by a near-shore sandbar that helps create huge waves. In winter especially, these waves and their breakers can occur in gale-force conditions and challenge the most experienced mariners in the largest ships.
It’s the mouth of the river that runs through the heart of the Pacific Northwest and at this Astoria landmark you will find many intriguing swirling stories.
“People really appreciate connecting with the water, everyone loves to go to the beach – so to come here and learn about your heritage, learn about how life along the river used to be and how things are done now – I think that’s fascinating for a lot of people.”
We’ve shown you the fascinating power and fickle nature of the Columbia River first hand in previous getaways – in fact, just last summer, on a fishing trip to the famous Buoy 10 salmon fishing grounds where dense fog nearly cost us as a two-hundred foot long ship showed up out of nowhere.
It wasn’t supposed to be there – in such shallow water, but she certainly was there, less than a football field away from us and we were certainly lucky.
Fishing partner, Trey Carskadon, a member of the Oregon State Marine Board noted: “You get absolutely turned around in the fog, so GPS and certainly a compass should be must haves - and knowing how to use them! It's essential equipment and I wouldn’t come out here without it.”
Last fall, we joined lifelong local fisherman, Steve Fick, on a Dungeness crabbing adventure. He showed us a new respect for the power of the river and the bar:
”Steep swells, the danger of a breaking swell on the bar – every once in a while you’ll see one crest and break. Plus, the currents – particularly if you lose power and you get your boat pushed sideways – it can flip you.”
The people who work on the water know this danger well and they accept the risk. For example, U.S. Coast Guard personnel put their lives on the line each day to help folks who get into trouble.
Pearson noted that their story is told at the CRMM through a dramatic blending of photos, equipment, video and a full sized motor lifeboat.
“All of their rescue crews come here from all over the country,” said Dave. “Every January –crews purposely go to the bar just to experience rough water and to train on the boats.”
Columbia River Bar pilot Mike Tierney takes a “leap of faith” each day he steps off the helicopter “Seahawk” and goes to his job guiding a huge container ship across the Columbia River bar.
Mike, like the other 15 bar pilots, call this 15-mile stretch: “the office:”
“When you come across the Columbia River Bar you are met by the current the big swells and then the wind - even the largest of the ships have substantial movement because those 60 knot winds hit hard and can push the ship sideways, so you have to get used to that sort of thing. It takes many, many years to learn the nuances of the river.”
Curator Jeff Smith noted that visitors to the Maritime Museum come face to face with all of these stories – but in winter, it’s all indoors, where it’s warm and safe.
He noted that the varied photos, exhibits and video displays merge the past with the present and provide you with a compelling place to see, touch and learn more about an important corner of Oregon.
“Understanding and appreciating the history of the river and it’s impact on people throughout time is a fascinating story and that’s what we’re here to try and convey to people and capture - so future generations can appreciate that as well.”