A MOST DANGEROUS BAR
The Columbia River Bar is called the “Graveyard of the Pacific” for good reason: it has a horrible history of more than 2,000 ships that have floundered and sunk on this shallow shoal, characterized by a crosshatching of currents, eddies, and whirlpools.
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.
David 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! That’s essential equipment – 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.”
KAM WAH CHUNG
There is a timeless feeling at some places in Oregon’s high desert – not just the across the vast landscape – but with imagination, you can also experience it on the back roads or neighborhood streets where life passes by as it did a century ago.
So it is with the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site in John Day where imagination and Judy Bracken’s description may sweep you back to an earlier time.
“Chinatown was all around us, noted Bracken – an Oregon State Park Ranger. “The laundries were all along one side of the street and over in the corner was a brothel and a bar – and then we have Kam Wah Chung.”
The Kam Wah Chung or “Golden Flower of Prosperity” – was a general store and herbal medicine shop that operated for more than half a century – including a time when more than Chinese laborers worked in the region.
Bracken added that Kam Wah Chung was the social center for more than 2,000 Chinese: “They had baking powder, rice, sugar, flour, beans – everything you might need but there was so much more! This is where you would come to find a job – you could have letters written home because a lot of the miners were illiterate. You could come here and gamble, smoke, drink – have a nice relaxing time.”
What comes into clear view inside this tiny, dim-lit shop was a big business that once flourished on the western frontier beginning in 1887 when two young immigrants, Ing Hay and Lung An, bought the Kam Wah Chung.
In addition to food for the stomach and solace for the soul, you might also find a cure for what ailed you.
You see, “Doc” Hay was the most famous herbal medicine doctor between Seattle and San Francisco – Christina Sweet, OPRD Curator, added that Hay served both the Chinese and the white communities:
“He took your pulse, told you what was wrong with you, gave you Chinese medicines and herbs, and made you better. Doc Hay cured influenza, blood poisoning, even broken bones with a thousand different herbs.”
Even more remarkable - the shop was locked up for twenty years, and when it reopened in 1969, perfectly preserved artifacts were revealed.
From a box of Wheaties - the Breakfast of Champions - to marshmallows sealed in a can - the stone and brick structure protected the building’s contents from blistering heat or frigid cold.
Sweet added that we also know much about the men and their place from the records because Doc Hay and Lung An kept everything: more than 20,000 letters, accounts and correspondence.
“They provide a detailed picture of the Chinese in Oregon,” noted Sweet. “The letters and the records go everywhere, so we are learning about the Chinese in John Day and what they did here and also what happened in the community and the Chinese in different areas of the state.”
Like everything in this wonderful state park time capsule, all of it is perfectly preserved! Just as the story of the unusual men who ran a business that became a legend.
“These men changed the community, added Sweet. “They made this area what it is today – initially, they were very much the outsiders but then each really became a part of the community. They were well loved by hundreds of locals and this is a part of our Oregon heritage. We want to celebrate it and preserve it through Kam Wah Chung.”
FORT YAMHILL STATE HERITAGE AREA
If you know where to look, Oregon’s history books come to life in the great outdoors –– including one of the oldest and more controversial chapters that even pre-dates Oregon statehood.
It is history that’s open for you to explore at a military outpost that’s also one of Oregon’s newest state parks – a trail to new understanding about Oregon's past at Fort Yamhill State Heritage Area near Grand Ronde, Oregon.
A stroll across the Fort Yamhill State Heritage Area with Oregon State Park’s Ranger, Ryan Sparks, is a bit like time travel – back 150 years to the time of pioneers, Native Americans and U.S. Soldiers.
Sparks says Fort Yamhill was the "blue line" provided by more than 100 US Soldiers above the Grand Ronde Valley.
The soldiers provided protection for five hundred Native Americans from 30 different tribes who were forced to the Grand Ronde Reservation in 1856.
“The soldiers would have congregated on the large grassy area - drilling in formation all of the time,” said Sparks. “There were 6 officers quarters at the highest end of the fort – white washed buildings with wide porches. The officers would sit out on the front porch and watch the soldiers down below on the parade grounds.”
Today, you can still see signs from those times inside one of the original and intact officer's homes. Although undergoing a painstaking restoration, the old home is remarkably well preserved.
“There are original hand hewn beams,” noted Sparks. “Upstairs, the roof has no nails, but wooden pins that hold the rafters together. Actually, the weight of the roof holds it all in place.”
Oregon State Parks considers the house a "treasure chest" because it may have been the residence for then Lt Phil Sheridan who was fresh from West Point Academy and commanded Fort Yamhill years before the Civil War led him to fame and glory.
Fort Yamhill's story isn't always pleasant. After all, the US Army was there for a purpose: in the 1850’s as new emigrants arrived from back east, westward expansion approached a peak and more land was developed by Oregon pioneers.
The Army was there to protect the remaining Native Americans in the wilderness - but it was a symbol of the government's "big stick" of power and authority.
That power was specifically symbolized by the heavy timbered “blockhouse:” a military defensive structure and a presence that couldn’t be denied.
“I am not a Native American,” said Sparks. “So, I can only imagine that if you lived on the reservation, and looked up at the blockhouse each day, it would be intimidating; it definitely had a dominant position on this side of the hill facing the reservation.”
The original blockhouse survives in Dayton, Oregon where it’s being restored as centerpiece of a city park and you can visit it anytime.
Even three generations later, Confederated Tribal Spokesman Eirik Thorsgard said Fort Yamhill provides a memory that remains strong.
“The Fort is not just a place of subtle hostility for us, but it’s also a line of protection.”
Thorsgard said that the irony of Fort Yamhill is that the military presence was despised and yet without it, the people who were brought so long ago might not have survived.
“Reservations are probably the biggest detriment to the Indian people,” noted Thorsdgard. “But they were also our saving grace for if we hadn’t been placed on reservations we may have gone the way of the dinosaurs.”
In fact, the Grand Ronde Tribes partnered with Oregon State Parks so that al of the stories from those days will be told at historic parkland that connects you with enduring Oregon history.
“The history of Fort Yamhill is not just the tribe’s history,” said Thorsgard. “It is the state of Oregon and really part of the nation’s history, so it is important for everyone who calls Oregon home today to fully understand and appreciate the past.”
TIP OF THE WEEK – FOREST GROVE SANTA
Anyone who crosses paths with the “Forest Grove Santa” is sure to find their holiday spirit on this Outdoor Tip of the Week.
Mickey Johnson has loved woodworking as long as he can remember; especially holiday projects that bring a smile.
His “work” starts in July: when tools come out and Johnson’s imagination travels to the North Pole.
“I built the first sligh ten years ago and each year I’ve added a few more pieces. I buy lights on half price sale and then spend the next year trying to figure out what I’m going to do with them. Eventually, it fill up the whole yard.”
If he had his way, Johnson said his Christmas would be up everyday.
Not just for a yard sized “Seasons Greeting,” but something more important to him.
You see, ten years ago his daughter was diagnosed with leukemia, but thanks to OHSU and a new cancer drug, she is in remission, feeling well and her prospects are good.
“Right now she is ten years clean – she has to take a pill everyday, but no side effects or anything like that.”
Johnson wanted to give back and his idea seemed right at home for a retired drama teacher who used to design and build sets for hundreds of local high school plays.
He built a sleigh, found a costume and became a Santa.
Now, each evening before Xmas, he warms the cold winter air with his good cheer and he greets all who stop by his Forest Grove yard.
“I wear long johns and fleece pants under the suit – if it’s really cold, I’ll put a couple of toe warmers in my boots.”
Rain, snow, hail – even windstorms – he’s been through them all the past decade.
“People come, bring their kids and sit them down on Santa’s lap and take pictures. We have a big sock here and folks can leave donations for the Leukemia Society. This is my little contribution – whatever we can do helps a little bit. This is a good way for paying back for what they’ve given us.”
It is “pay back” that might help other children; a personal “thank you” that lives year round with the Forest Grove Santa.
You can visit the Forest Grove Santa on evenings, Dec 19-23 @ 1901 Willamina Avenue in Forest Grove, Oregon.
You’ll want to bundle up against the cold when you go aboard the Jewell Wildlife Area Hay Wagon to feed the herd of Roosevelt elk.
On a recent December daybreak, cold and crisp and quiet conditions greeted the visitor across the 700-acre Jewell Meadows (this is one part of the expansive Jewell Wildlife Area,) but the otherwise silent morning came to life when the hay wagon came into view.
Despite the mercury holding steady at just seven degrees, the morning hay wagon shows up on and the 200 elk that live quickly respond.
Refuge manager, Brian Swearingen says the morning feeding is a regular winter event across Jewell Meadows – the feeding keeps the elk here rather than foraging across nearby private agricultural lands.
“Okay folks,” whispered Swearingen. “This hay comes off in little flakes and if we could drop a flake off every ten feet or so that would be perfect – the tractor will tow the wagon slowly across the field and we’ll feed two bales of the hay to the elk this morning.”
We were on the western fringe of the refuge; an area where approximately 25 bull elk spend their time together. Brian noted that this group is referred to as the “Bachelor herd.”
“The bulls use so much energy during the breeding season from September thru early October that they can go into winter in real poor condition. So, they’re trying to regain that energy and fat reserves to make it through the wintertime.”
Some of the bulls in the Jewell herd are massive animals that tip the scales at more than 800 pounds – with antler spans of five or even six feet.
On this particular day, there was another sound on board the feeding wagon – as Dean Crouser’s camera made the tell-tale ‘click-click-click” of auto mode as he snapped shots with his digital camera that had a 200mm zoom lens attached to it.
Dean sported a mile-wide smile on his face and beamed, “I’m a native Oregonian and I’ve always been proud to be an Oregonian - this is one more thing that makes it such a cool place to be. This is just another little gem.”
Dean Crouser is a wildlife artist who searches for Oregon wildlife in “everyday moments” – the times that many of us take for granted.
This day marked his first wintertime trip to Jewell Wildlife Area and he was a bit like a kid in a candy store – so many photo opportunities were presented in front of him from the cozy confines of the feeding wagon – because the elk were feeding just 20 yards away.
“I am looking for just the right light,” he noted. “The contrast of the dark and the light with a bull’s head turned to where it’s in the shadow; a real dark tone but his back is all lit up and a nice yellowish orange. Like that one right there.”
It’s the sort of stuff that has long stirred Crouser’s imagination:
“It really is the stuff that I’ve seen and done nearly all my life in the northwest. Elk are kind of the cherry on top of our big game animals in Oregon. Yet, across the country there aren’t a lot of places that have them. They’re pretty special.”
Crouser travels across Oregon – often corner to corner – and his work reflects the adventure and inspiration and wild moments that he has seen.
While his work begins with a camera (on this day he will take more than 400 photos, but only a handful will be used as reference models,) all too soon, paintbrushes and watercolors take over in his Gresham, Oregon studio.
“I do not strive to replicate the animals. It doesn’t have to be accurate from the standpoint of what an elk really looks like – now, a lot of people really like to paint that way, almost photo-realism but I have no interest in doing that – I appreciate people who can, but I have no interest in doing that.”
Crouser has had many interests in his life and he has set many records too. Like the NCAA Track and Field Championships that he won back in the early 80’sat the University of Oregon. A few years ago he was inducted into the University’s Hall of Fame.
Despite his athletic successes, he said that he’s been painting since he was ten years old. It has grown into a passion for his home state that he likes to share with others.
“Elk and deer are obviously intelligent animals and it’s pretty neat to watch their mannerisms and feeding activities and then – especially with elk – how the bulls and younger bulls determine their hierarchy. That’s what makes Jewell pretty cool. Anyone would love to go out and see it – even for an hour. How could you not? It’s incredible.”