On the Trail of Lewis and Clark in Astoria

The famous Astoria Column. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

The famous Astoria Column. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

“We sell these little balsa wood airplanes you can throw off the top of there.” Our local guide points to the Astoria Column, resting high atop the hillside overlooking Astoria, Oregon. She pauses slightly, then: “It’s the most fun you can have for a dollar since they closed the brothels.”

I began my morning in Astoria aboard the American Queen Steamboat Company’s American Empress with a bracing two-mile hike from the ship to the Astoria Column, led by co-cruise director Lindy.

American Empress at her berth in Astoria, Oregon. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

American Empress at her berth in Astoria, Oregon. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

It’s just one of many on-shore hikes that have been offered this week aboard the American Empress, and it’s exactly what I needed after a day spent aboard-ship yesterday, if only to keep the calories from the excellent turkey dinner last night off.

The entire hike took the ten of us roughly 45 minutes to complete; not bad, considering the thing is straight up the entire way. It’s on paved roads though, so if you’re in reasonably good shape, you’ll find this to be a very rewarding hike.

Our hike to the Astoria Column from the ship...Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Our hike to the Astoria Column from the ship…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

...was mostly uphill. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…was mostly uphill. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Once at the magnificent Astoria Column, guests could admire it from the parking lot, or elect to climb to the viewing platform on the top. In the distance, we could see the surf breaking over the treacherous Columbia Bar – something I’ve never seen on my four previous visits here.

Built in 1926, the Column – like everything else here – commemorates the Lewis and Clark Expedition, but also John Jacob Astor’s Overland Expedition of 1810. It was Astor whom Astoria is named after, and great-grandson Vincent Astor put up much of the required funding for the column. Clever factoid: John Jacob Astor’s son, John Jacob Astor, Jr., perished in sinking of the RMS Titanic in April 1912.

Column details...Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Column details…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

...and the view from the top, looking towards the Astoria-Megler Bridge and the Columbia Bar. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…and the view from the top, looking towards the Astoria-Megler Bridge and the Columbia Bar. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

From the Column, we could either walk back down, or hop on the Hop-on-Hop-off tour – the latter of which I boarded just in time to hear the local guide’s musings on the brothels that used to line the Astoria waterfront at the turn of the last century. “I’m not sure what a dollar got you,” she admitted. “I’m not sure I want to know.” This was followed by the most gregarious laugh I’ve heard from a tour guide. I loved it.

Astorians have a great sense of humour, and perhaps the weather has something to do with that. Yesterday, Astoria was the rainiest spot in the continental United States, with lashing winds, driving rains, and a bit of hail thrown in for good measure.

Today, however, blue skies and sunshine greeted us this morning, coupled with climbing temperatures that had me peeling my layers off and going down to just a fleece and a t-shirt.

The set of numerous films...Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

The set of numerous films…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

...you might recognize Astoria even if you've never been here before. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…you might recognize Astoria even if you’ve never been here before. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

That's just common sense. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

That’s just common sense. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

You might recognize Astoria even if you’ve never been here. The picturesque seaside town has served as a filming location for The Goonies, The Ring, Ring II, Kindergarten Cop, and numerous others.

I first came here on a big-ship cruise in 2005, and fell immediately in love with the town. It’s charming. It’s unique. And wholly irresistible. You’ll find local crafts and artisans selling their wares; coffee shops and brewpubs; seafood restaurants that range from the extravagant to the bizarre. The latter of which is The Bowpicker, a small boat resting atop a trailer on a vacant lot kitty-corner to the Maritime Museum. Apparently, the fish-and-chips are out of this world.

I took the time to patronize the town’s two bookstores and the fabulous Street Fourteen Café, which serves up coffee, pastries, meals and even specialties like hot mulled wine. Locally-sourced breakfast, lunch and dinner are also on offer.

Lewis and Clark Never Had a Bad Day

The view from Cape Disappointment is breathtaking. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

The view from Cape Disappointment is breathtaking. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

This afternoon, I took part in one of the optional, additional-cost excursions American Queen Steamboat Company offers here in Astoria: the four-hour Lewis and Clark Experience.

Priced at $69 per guest, this tour is an excellent choice for anyone interested in the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the Corps of Discovery.

We began our tour with a drive across the iconic green Astoria-Megler Bridge that is as representative of the city as the Astoria Column. Afterwards, we stopped at Cape Disappointment, with its magnificent view of the confluence of the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean – not to mention the treacherous Columbia Bar that has earned this stretch of water the nickname, The Graveyard of the Pacific. Since 1792, the Bar and its significant currents and waves have claimed over 2,000 large ships, resulting in the loss of over 700 souls.

Cape Disappointment lighthouse...Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Cape Disappointment lighthouse…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

...and the turbulent Pacific Ocean. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…and the turbulent Pacific Ocean. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

From here, we could view the waves crashing against the shore, and hear their thunderous roar, which was so loud it reminded me of a passing freight train. The Cape Disappointment Lighthouse has been identifying the bar and this headland since 1856, and was the first such lighthouse in the entire Pacific Northwest. Amazingly, this occurs just 40 years after Lewis and Clark first explored the region.

Our final destination was Fort Clatsop, where the Lewis and Clark expedition overwintered during 1805-06. This comes with several astrisks: not only is it not the original fort (a 2006 reconstruction after the last one, built in 1955, burned to the ground in the fall of 2005), but it might not even be in the proper location, as no traces of the original fort were found.

Exploring Fort Clatsop...Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Exploring Fort Clatsop…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

...the overwinter location of the Lewis and Clark party. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…the overwinter location of the Lewis and Clark party. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

This isn’t so surprising: due to the rainforest climate of the region, the original fort was already decaying badly by the time John Jacob Astor’s overland expedition arrived in 1810, and would have disintegrated by the mid-19th century.

Still, today’s fort is constructed based on notes and a diagram drawn by the expedition, so it gives a very accurate representation of what life would have been like during the winter of 1805-06 – and by all accounts, it was miserable.

I can't tell where it's colder: out here...Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

I can’t tell where it’s colder: out here…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

...or in here. The damp permeates the wood even in this modern-day reconstruction of the Fort. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…or in here. The damp permeates the wood even in this modern-day reconstruction of the Fort. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

During the Expedition’s time at Fort Clatsop, rain and cold temperatures were the order of the day. With little to do except hunt, write and wait out the winter, the members of the expedition – including William Clark, Merriweather Lewis, Toussaint Charbonneau and his ‘wife’ Sacagawea and their infant son Jean-Baptiste, and the slave York – had to wait until spring to press on.

I loved the tour, as I have a keen interest in the Pacific Northwest and the Lewis and Clark expedition, along with the Astor Expedition. However, to hear the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition told, you’d think this was all fun and games. Jokes are delivered about the weather, and punchlines are laughed-at on cue. I felt like it minimalized just how dangerous, difficult and self-sacrificing this journey must have been.

Sacagawea, immortalized at Fort Clatsop. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Sacagawea, immortalized at Fort Clatsop. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

I also found myself thinking of Sacagawea, pronounced sa-ka-GAH-weah. I wonder if she knows she’s been immortalized, frozen in time, her contributions to the expedition recognized more fully two centuries on. She died at the age of 25, in 1812, shortly after giving birth to a second child. Would she approve of what she sees before her today, or would she lament the loss and destruction of her ancestral land and its way of life?

I like excursions that make you think – and this certainly did that. Overall, it was an excellent excursion that I’d heartily recommend.

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Tonight, it was great to return to the warmth of the American Empress as dusk fell on Astoria. In port until 2200 hours (10pm), some guests took advantage of the extra time to go ashore and have a local beer – perhaps a continuation of the complimentary Astoria Ale Tour that was offered to guests this afternoon.

As for me, I went up to the Paddlewheel Lounge again to work, read, and indulge in some of the Pacific Northwest’s finest brews. And, in doing so, to reflect on and be grateful for the progress that has been made, and the comforts we’ve come to enjoy, just two centuries after Lewis and Clark first arrived here.

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Our Live Voyage Report aboard the American Queen Steamboat Company’s American Empress continues tomorrow with our final stop in Portland, Oregon! Be sure to follow along on twitter by following @deckchairblog.

American Empress - Cruising the Columbia River

DAYPORTARRIVEDEPART
November 20, 2016Vancouver, WAEmbark American Empress18:00
November 21The Dalles, OR05:00Overnight
November 22Stevenson, WA16:00Overnight
November 23Stevenson, WAOvernightOvernight
November 24Astoria, OR19:00Overnight
November 25Astoria, OROvernight21:00
November 26Portland, OR08:0020:00
November 27, 2016Vancouver, WA06:00Disembark
 

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