Dawn Below TriCities


------ The Columbia is a long river. We traveled nine hundred twenty-three miles of the river and its tributaries before we reached the TriCities. We cruised from the glacier-clad peaks of the Rockies in British Columbia, along the pine-covered banks of Northeastern Washington, through the canyons of the Snake, and now into the sere high deserts near the Idaho, Washington, Oregon borders.

------ There are three hundred fourteen miles to go to reach salt water and the mouth of the Columbia. What a river of history, contrasts, and challenges.


------The sun rose on a different river this morning. Behind us is the Snake - ahead the Columbia. We are tied off for the night at the junction. Lewis and Clark spent the night here. So did David Thompson, as he pondered which of the great rivers should bear the name Columbia. The Snake is much the longer, but the volume is greater in the Columbia. Like many before and since, he decided that bigger was better.

The Junction Marker - Half Green, Half Red - Half Snake, Half Columbia

------"We're there, hon," El said with a grin over her morning coffee. "Back into the Main Stream - The 'Mighty River'. Another historic junction in our lives."

------"We've shared a few, haven't we?" I pondered our camps at the meeting of the Yellowstone and the Missouri, the Missouri and the Mississippi, the Tennessee and the Ohio, the Ohio and ol' Miss - the junctions where we shared history with those who had come before.

------We untied our lines and quietly slid out of the cove at Sacagawea State Park and into the last few feet of Snake River. Drifting to the junction, we could feel the tug of the Columbia's flow. The bow swung to port, as though responding to the pull of the ocean. This pull was gravity's urging - we, however, were responding to the urging within us - to see another river, to get to know its beginnings and endings, to be a part of it and more importantly, for it to be a part of us.


------Sometimes it seems there is no logic to the course of a river. David Thompson had a devil of a time figuring out the headwaters of this river. Way up in British Columbia's Rocky Mountains, there is a swampy valley. A river flows northwesterly from the top of the valley, as though heading to Alaska. Another flows southerly, avoiding the high Rockies, and heading toward the US border. Thompson knew the mainstream Columbia was south of that valley and down in what is now the US. Surely, the southerly stream must be the Columbia's headwaters. But, where did that river heading northwest go? He built some canoes, and headed out of the valley on the northwest stream toward the Kinbasket country. After many miles, it took a right-angle bend to the southwest, then another twist and it, too, was heading toward the south through the Revelstoke Valley. Many miles south, it joined another river entering from the east - and he recognized it as the second river of that high swampy valley. The mystery was solved. Since the river that started out to the northwest had the greater volume of water at the junction, he determined it was the Columbia and the other river the Kootenay.

------What Thompson didn't know, was that glaciers had altered the courses of those rivers - not once but many times. Once, the Kootenay was the main stream, but glacial ice deflected the flow of meltwater into the Kinbasket Valley and the water had to find a route out. It found a spillway through a fault zone in the mountains - the right-angle bend in the river - and wore a deep valley in the fractured cleft through the range. So there is riverine logic, but it often takes a geologist to figure it out.

------The Columbia heads toward the southeast from the TriCities. We moved through dawn water following river logic, as though bound for Arizona and the Grand Canyon. The Horse Heaven Hills rose to the west of us, blocking the river's course to the sea. Finally, the Columbia got around that barrier and headed westerly. That turn stopped us.


------It is only a ten mile stretch to the southeast from the TriCities to the bend in the river at Wallula Gap. We had covered eight of those miles when we recognized a northbound boat. They had left our dock earlier that morning. They vectored toward Halycon and hailed us. "Terrible down there," the drenched skipper called over. "Wind's blowing like stink and we got pounded." Water poured off their cabin roof and dripped from his hat.

------It was almost hard to believe, as we gently rocked in calm air, except for the evidence dripping in front of us. "We're heading back in," he shouted as they beat tail back to the north.

------"What'll we do, hon?" Except for ominous waves that seemed to have no source, there was no sign of wind. NOAA weather said there would be winds up to 25 with gusts to 45 in the afternoon with the arrival of a Pacific cold front.

------"Turn around, of course," was El's quick response. "We're out here to enjoy the river, not get the stuffings knocked out of us. Let's head back to the TriCities and wait it out."

------As though nature conspired with El, the wind suddenly began to blow. We could see it sneaking around the point, at the Twin Sisters, in Wallula Gap. "Done," I responded, turning the wheel hard over and putting our stern to the wind.

Twin Sisters

------Back in Richmond, we pulled into the Clover Island Yacht Club. The rest of the day and evening we enjoyed the company of some most cordial folks. We could watch the Weather Channel as sand blew past the clubhouse on winds up to 60 mph and munch good chow at a nearby restaurant. The local folks worked over our charts, giving us good advice about places to tie off, harbors of wind refuge, and tricky shoals. They also shared their 'Clover Island YC Wind Guide to the Columbia' - when the flag flies straight out off the bridge, stay in harbor. One seasoned skipper added, "The wind never stops on the Columbia - rarely, maybe once a month, it slows down, comes up for air, and then starts blowing again. If you waited for the wind to dead stop, your boat would grow moss."

A Columbia Wind Flag

------The next morning, with the flag gently flapping, we headed out again. It was a beautiful morning in Richmond, and the wind was "coming up for air."

Under the Bridges In Calm Air

------The ocean off Oregon is cold. There is a frigid southbound current that flows like a river, carrying ice-melt from Alaska to California. The spinning earth forces this southerly current against the shoreline. The cold water chills the air above. It too is a fluid, and responding to the cold it contracts. Cold, contracted air weighs more than warmer air, so it sinks. This creates more air pressure along the coastline - a high pressure zone, usually just called a 'high' on the weather maps. Inland, the sun beats on the dry hot plains east of the Cascades. A bulge of hot air rises creating low pressure at the surface - a 'low.' High pressure flows toward low pressure, and the huge differential creates a blast of air moving inland every day that the sun shines on the plains.

------There is one pronounced gap through the Cascades - the Columbia Gorge - and the winds funnel daily through this cut with a ferocity that seldom abates during the warm summer months.

------We timorously approached the eastern end of the Gorge - Wallula Gap - and felt the same portentous waves as the previous day. No wind - just waves in an otherwise gently flowing river. Rounding the bend, we hit the blast of the wave-forming wind. Not wanting any moss on Halcyon, we turned her bow into the wind waves that we would buck for most of the next three hundred miles. Ah, it was like the days we lived under sail - 'life at five knots.' Halcyon can plow just about anything reasonable, but to be relatively comfortable she (and we) travel at displacement speeds less than ten knots. So we plowed through Wallula doing five, while the air around us ripped from the giant 'H' on the weather map, along the coast, to the huge 'L' over the plains just east of us.


Sun on the River and Rough Water at Wallula Gap (Spray on the Window)

------The folks at Clover Island YC had suggested we leave harbor at daybreak, when the wind is often the least, and find refuge as the wind accelerates through the day. We respect local knowledge, and it was dawn, but the wind woke up earlier than we did that day. Every morning through the Gorge we were under way early, some mornings using radar to guide us through the marks in darkness, but we rarely caught the wind napping. Dawn light is beautiful in the Gorge, so the early departures were a pleasure. We usually could cruise four to five hours before tying off in a harbor about mid-morning, and hanging out ashore for the rest of the day.


------As the old expression says, 'It's an ill wind that doesn't blow good for someone.' We soon discovered that it blows good for many - all those who like to ride the wind on water. We soon discovered that there is a major industry in the Columbia Gorge based on the wind - kite boarding and wind surfing. The World Championships in these sports are held here, and for good reason. Afficionados can rely on strong winds every day.

------It was marvelous entertainment for us - tied off for the day - watching some of the most skilled wind riders anywhere.


Kite Boarding


Graceful Beauty


------The geologic story of the Columbia River is told in The Columbia Rocks, but we were teachers, and can't resist a few more tales and pictures to continue developing your geologic eyes. Upriver, before entering the Gorge, the landscape is subdued. Flat-lying lava beds, blanketed by wind-blown glacial dust (loess), were modified and shaped by the incredible floods of glacial times.

Upriver Lowlands

------Wallula Gap was a barrier to the floodwaters of glacial times. The narrow gap constricted the flood, and it was often stopped up with icebergs and debris. Floods topped over the confining walls and found release across the surrounding land, ripping and tearing the landscape. As the water receded, ice bergs containing huge boulders became stranded, dumping their lithic burden on the drying landscape. Small creeks and defiles were widened into river courses by the floodwaters, and after the deluge, the small creeks incongruously occupied huge valleys.

------Downriver, the basalts were uplifted and tilted by the forces of plate collision. These higher rock layers became a challenge for the floodwaters.

Uplifted, Tilted Basalts Draped with Loess

------Finding weaknesses in the rock, the raging torrents gnawed downwards through the lava beds, ultimately scouring a deep gorge through the resisting layers.

The Columbia Gorge

------Interlayered with the basaltic lava beds are layers of clay and silt - the residue of soils, lake beds, and sand dunes that developed between the periods of lava eruption. These layers, now cut open in the Gorge, create slippage zones in the steep walls. Landslides, some of gigantic proportions, crashed down the sides of the Gorge, sometimes so large as to temporarily block the flow of the river. Some of these slides are still active, requiring annual repair of highways and the railroad line.


Map of Landslides near Columbia Locks and the Cascade Landslide

------Native Americans had a 'legend' regarding the slides. Tyee Sahalee, the Supreme Being, had two sons - Klickitat and Wyeast - who quarreled over who should possess this beautiful land. So he built a bridge, Tahmhnawis, the Bridge of the Gods, across the river, and sent each son to opposite sides. However, they both fell in love with the same beautiful woman - Loowit - and continued their violent quarrels. Their behavior so angered their father, that he destroyed the bridge and turned Wyeast into Mt. Hood, Klickitat into Mt. Adams, and Loowit into Mt. St. Helens.


------There were folks along this river for 13,500 years, say the archeologists. Recent discoveries indicate a longer time interval. Here they gathered for the annual salmon runs up the river, or to snag giant sturgeon from deep holes in the river. The salmon days were social days - times to dance, to court, to compete. Some artists depicted tales from legends painting pictographs on rocks near the river. We cruised slowly to see and appreciate their work.


Pictographs Seen From the River

------Life then, as today, was punctuated with special times. Times of joy, of reverence, of sorrow. We cruised slowly by several burial islands, one marked by a centograph commemorating a white man who was befriended by Natives.


Cenotaph on Indian Burial Island and Indian Fish Net Weight

------Natives fished the river and roamed the land freely for at least 13,350 years. For the past 150 years things have been different. In 1855, after 22 days of meeting, the Natives ceded 30,000 square miles of the best of the Columbia Basin east of the Cascades to whites in exchange for a small rocky, dry, unproductive reservation. The Treaty guaranteed that thefish-dependent Natives could continue fish, with the whites, "at the usual and accustomed places, forever." Those places are gone - under the waters of the reservoirs backed up behind the dams.


Native Fishing Scaffold and Burial Canoe, A Symbolic Memorial for Chinook Chief Comcomly


------The Columbia is a highway for fish. White sturgeon, one of the best-tasting smoked fish we have ever eaten, prowl the bottom and suck up food like giant vacuum cleaners. They are among the oldest (individually and as a species) and biggest (larger than many boats) fish in America. They co-habited with dinosaurs.

------Walleyes were introduced from the Midwest and grow to twenty pounds. Record fish back east are an everyday dinner along the Columbia.

------There are also bass, catfish, crappie, and the shad are so numerous they sometimes plug fish ladders.

------The most famous fishery is Oncorhynchus, the Pacific Salmon. This genus includes chinook, sockeye, coho, chum and pink salmon, as well as steelhead and cutthroat trout. The incredible historic runs of salmon defy belief - tens of millions of huge fish returning from the sea to spawn in their native creeks. Then, the dams. In 1900, 16 million steelhead and salmon - now less than 3 million, and over 90% of those are hatchery fish. It's not just the physical barrier, but also the warm, slow changed river conditions. At great expense, both monetary and biological, the government is trying to re-establish the fishery. This is a subject of heated debate, with about as many divisions of opinion as there are fisherman. Since El and I don't fish and don't live in the Northwest, we will leave the arguing to others.


Commercial Fishing For Salmon


A 'Hog Line' of Recreational Fishers and the Ultimate Fisher


------The cascades and rapids of the Columbia were a hazard to navigation from the earliest days of human habitation. Natives portaged their wooden canoes around the obstacles. Lewis and Clark ran many of those cascades at great risk. Emigrant 'trains' later set off in wagons along the Oregon Trail, headed into a wilderness, guided by their desperate dreams. The last portion of the trip, for many, was a raft trip through the treacherous Columbia River Gorge, before turning southerly to the Willamette Valley. The pioneers portaged the rapids. They had almost finished the eight month journey, on which at least one person in ten died, and they didn't want to risk all so long into the trail. The river was the 'road' for my great-aunt, when as a child, she finished her long trek to Oregon.

------As the population of Europeans in Oregon grew in the 1800's, the river became the main avenue of commerce. In the 1850's, mule-powered railroads on wooden rails portaged goods around the cataracts. The need to create safe passage through the river's cascades grew, and, with the advent of steamboats, pressure mounted for locks and canals. In 1876, Congress allocated money for a lock and canal at Cascade Locks. Work was slow and after twenty years a 3,000 foot canal and a two-chambered lock was finally constructed. In 1938, the canal and locks were rendered unnecessary by the rising water behind Bonneville Dam.

Running the Rapids


Cascade Locks - Then and Now

------In 1836, the first steamship crossed the Bar into the Columbia River. This was the Hudson's Bay Company 100-foot sidewheeler, Beaver. The first American steamship, the propeller-driven Massachusetts, entered the river in 1849. With the completion of the Cascade Locks, steamship traffic reached a feverish pitch. By the mid-1880's, more than 200 steamships were churning the Columbia's waters from Astoria to Lewiston. Deep draft sidewheelers worked the lower river to Cascade Locks, and shallow draft sternwheelers worked the middle and upper river from the Locks to Lewiston.

------There was great competition between the steamships, both for speed and quantity of goods carried. It was a 6-hour trip between the Dalles and Portland. The 160-foot sternwheeler, Henderson, was built in 1901. She had a long and distinguished career, and in 1950 was one of two wood-hulled steamships working the river. In 1952, she was in the last steamboat sternwheeler race on the Columbia, against the new steel-hulled Portland. She fell behind, when she lost steam. But, she was cheered on by Jimmy Stewart and the cast of the film, Bend of the River, who were on board. Her crew shunted live steam into her cylinders until the wheel churned at an incredible 30 rpm. She finished the 3.6 mile race a nose ahead of the Portland In November 1956, she encountered heavy swells while towing a grain ship across the Bar. She was forced to shore and declared a loss. In 1964, she was burned to salvage her scrap metal.


The Race Between the Henderson (left) and the Portland. The Sternwheel of the Henderson.

------There are paddlewheel boats today, taking tourists up the river and reliving those golden days of steamboating on the Columbia


Modern Paddlewheelers - The Columbia Gorge and the Queen of the West


------The Columbia is navigable from the sea to Lewiston, Idaho with 26 ports between TriCities and the ocean. Two cruise lines operate excursions up the Columbia and the Snake, as far as Clarkston. All this is thanks to the locks and dams.Four on the main stream, and four on the Snake - BIG locks and big dams - some of the highest lockages in the US. They pond the river into a series of lakes, deepening the water for the towboats that carry commerce up and down the river. They allow continuous navigation, but they do represent a challenge for the cruising boater. Especially on the Columbia, where wind becomes a major factor.


Windsock At The Lock


The Dam and the Lock - Yes, the Gate Lifts Vertically Over 100 Feet!


------Most of the tow boats on the Columbia are standard push boats; shoving huge loads using their 'knees' against the last barge. These tows must pass close to fishermen, kite boarders, water skiiers, and boaters. The strings of barges are massive, up to 600 feet long and weighing more than 15,000 tons. They travel up to nine knots, and require more than a mile to stop. We have described tows and the life aboard of their crews in Towboats, if you want to read more about these skilled and challenging jobs.


Pushing up the Columbia, Past Fisherman Anchored in the Channel

------In the lower river, ocean tugs pull their massive barges with heavy chains and cables to their docks along the river. Boaters must be aware of the long cable linking the tug to the barge. There have been tragic accidents from boats cutting between the craft, tripping on the cable, and being run-down by the enginless barge. These barges are especially difficult to manuever and stop and require especial caution by boaters.


An Ocean Tug Pulling a Barge


------James Hill was a railway baron who built the railroad along the north shore of the Columbia River in 1908. In 1907, his son-in-law, Sam Hill (who had the good co-incidence of sharing the same surname with his wealthy in-law) bought 6,000 acres of land on the bluffs of the Columbia. In 1914, he began construction of a chateau, what he named Maryhill for his daughter, Mary. He intended to live in the concrete mansion. By 1926, it was still unfinished, and Hill had it dedicated as an art museum. He donated much of his extensive art collection to the museum. It finally opened to the public in 1940, nine years after Hill died.

Maryhill, as Seen From the River


Rooster Rock and Beacon Rock


------The last 100 miles, from Portland to the sea, was a mixture of many sights. Huge ocean-going cargo ships, "salties," cruised up the channel. Lumber mills and an abandoned nuclear power plant lined the shores.


But, for the last miles on the river, nature seemed to conspire to paint a tableau of beauty. Rural scenes replaced the urban bustle of Portland. The wind "came up for air," and a stillness and peace prevaded us and the river.


Calm Beauty


------"Mere description can give but little idea of the terrors of the bar of the Columbia; all who have seen it have spoken of the wilderness of the ocean, and the incessant roar of the waters, representing it as one the most fearful sights that can possible meet the eye of the sailor." - Commander Wilkes, U.S. Navy, ca 1860 (who lost his ship on the Columbia Bar)

------More than two thousand ships, and over 200 large vessels, have sunk on the Columbia Bar since 1792. More than 700 persons have lost their lives in those frigid waters. Mariners refer to the Bar as the "Graveyard of the Pacific". High seas, winter storms, strong westward river flow against frequent strong westerly winds, and shifting sandbars make this one of the most dangerous areas to shipping in the world. During winter storms, wind-driven ocean swells often reach a height of 20-30 feet at the entrance of the bar.


Map of Large Ships Lost on the Bar, and a Ship, Crossing the Bar

------El and I cruised out to Buoy 9, just short of the beginning of the Bar passage. We had an outgoing tide and a rising westerly, so, lacking experience and skill for crossing the bar, we headed back. On our return, we were passed by a Bar Pilot boat. There are twenty Columbia River Bar Pilots, who board ships and guide them across the Bar. Federal law requires all ships to carry a bar pilot for the seventeen-mile crossing. We were told that the pilots must meet the highest licensing standard for pilotage in the US.

Columbia Bar Pilot

----- While in Warrenton, near the mouth of the Columbia, we saw Coast Guard vessels and helicopters from Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment, the “Pacific Graveyard Guardians. ” It is the largest Coast Guard search and rescue station on the Northwest Coast, with 50 crew members. The station has five search and rescue boats, including three vessels designed for operations in heavy surf conditions. They are capable of being rolled over by breaking swells and will re-right themselves with minimal damage.

----- Commonly known as Station Cape “D”, station crewmembers respond to 300-400 calls for assistance every year, the most active rescue station in the country. The station’s heaviest workload occurs during the months of early June through mid-September, when many recreational boaters cross the Bar in search of salmon and bottom fish. El and I listened, at the Maritime Museum in Astoria, to the recorded radio transmissions between the Coast Guard and a sinking vessel on the Bar. The fear and panic in the voices from the boat crew and the last words from the vessel before the fatal sinking were a poignant reminder to us of the dangers of the "Graveyard of the Pacific."


Coast Guard Rescue and Vessels -- Columbia River Maritime Museum, Astoria

----- Cape Disappointment is the headland on the north side of the Bar. It was first charted as ‘San Roque’ by the Spanish explorer, Bruno Heceta, in August 1775. Heceta recognized this was probably the mouth of a large river, but, his crewmembers were too weak from scurvy to explore the entrance.

----- In July 1788, Lieutenant John Meares of the British Royal Navy used Heceta’s navigational charts to locate ‘San Roque.’ Lt. Meares was unable to find the river entrance among the myriad shoals so he renamed the headland, Cape Disappointment. Several years later, in May 1792, the American Captain Robert Gray first crossed the bar with his ship, the USS Columbia Rediviva. The river was named for his ship, in honor of this first passage.-

USS Columbia Rediviva - Maritime Museum

----- Cape Disappointment Light marks the north side of the Bar. It was constructed at the headland and illuminated in October 1856, making this the oldest operational lighthouse on the Northwest Coast. It was originally illuminated by whale oil.


"Ocian in view! O! The Joy!"

----- We had finished our journey of over 1,200 miles. We had been on the Columbia's water for a month and a half, from the glaciers of the Rockies to the Bar, and like Clark wrote almost two hundred years before, "O! The Joy!" Salt spray splashed through the forward window as we slowed our engines. It was a moment of quiet appreciation. We rose and fell in the swells, on the edge of the Pacific, with Cape Disappointment off our starboard quarter. "Time to head to port, hon," El said in a soft voice, "It's not our time to cross the Bar."


Crossing the Bar ---by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Sunset and evening star, And one clear call for me!

And may there be no moaning of the bar, When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep, Too full for sound and foam,

When that which drew from out the boundless deep, Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell, And after that the dark!

And may there be no sadness of farewell, When I embark;

For though from out our bourne of Time and Place, The flood may bear me far,

I hope to see my Pilot face to face, When I have crossed the bar.

(09 - 04)

Top | Home