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Astoria: The gem of the Columbia

[Photo: AP]

The Columbia River flows beneath this bridge that connects Washington with Oregon, at the town of Astoria.

A treasure of salmon, rainy beauty and maritime marvels converge where the river meets the Pacific Ocean in Oregon.

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 1, 2002

One of the first travel writers to see the area said, "Ocian in view! O! the joy."

Within a few weeks, however, he was complaining about the rain: "O! how disagreeable is our Situation dureing this dreadfull weather."

Of course, in 1805, William Clark (with his partner, Meriwether Lewis) didn't have the advantages available to modern travel writers in Astoria, Ore.: no excellent seafood restaurants, no comfy B & Bs, and, apparently, no spell checker.

Clark's observations remain valid nevertheless: There is great joy -- and some awe and fear -- at seeing the Pacific Ocean where it confronts the Columbia River, and the weather is still (sigh) "dreadfull."

But how could I not like a place that has such natural beauty, essential American history, and lots and lots of salmon?

Besides, weather like that tends to keep people indoors, raising the level of the art of conversation. At least that's my theory on why so many of our favorite moments in Astoria were spent in listening to its citizens.

At the Columbian Cafe on Marine Drive, for example, as important as eating Uriah Hulsey's vegetarian and seafood creations is hearing him humorously catalog the world's shortcomings. (The rest room there is decorated as a sort of anti-shrine to the Watergate scandal.)

At the restaurant called Someplace Else, owner Lauren Arena likes to come out of the kitchen and chat about the many countries she has visited. Under suspended Balinese boat kites, we listened to opera records, ate Greek spanakopita followed by a dessert of Thai black rice and bananas, and talked with Arena about Komodo dragons. All the while, her vacation videos of Malaysia played on a TV at the side of the room.

This is a great place to hang out on a rainy evening.

But the winner of the Wet Afternoon Award is the Shallon Winery, where 77-year-old winemaker Paul van der Veldt talks about dirigibles (his personal passion), discourses on Astoria history and debunks what he considers the affectations of the wine industry.

And he pours free samples of his specialty, dessert wines in unexpected flavors: mango, lemon meringue or chocolate orange. Don't scoff -- it was delicious.

[Photo: Janice Haines]
Tales of Oregon’s history cover the Astoria Column.

It was merely overcast when my family and I began our Astoria sightseeing. On Coxcomb Hill, the highest point in town, is the Astoria Column, a 125-foot tower affording the visitor a grand, orienting view of the area. Its exterior is decorated in a technique called "sgraffito," which involves applying, then scraping away, layers of paint.

A sepia-toned, illustrated history of Astoria begins at the bottom of the column, with American mariner Robert Gray's 1792 discovery of the mouth of the Columbia. The history spirals up through Lewis and Clark's explorations, through the story of namesake John Jacob Astor and ends with the arrival of the railroad.

From the platform atop the column, we saw mostly water, for Astoria sits on a peninsula. Southward was Youngs Bay and the site of Fort Clatsop, where Lewis and Clark's company wintered. To the west, the Pacific Ocean.

And to the north we saw the broad Columbia River, the border between Oregon and Washington, spanned by a spectacular 4.1-mile-long bridge that rises 260 feet at the Oregon end to let the freighters and tankers sail under.

The nautical intersection of the Columbia and the ocean is called the "Graveyard of the Pacific." The label comes from the rough water, capricious weather, shifting sand bars and poor visibility in the drizzle and mist. More than 200 major shipwrecks have occurred in these waters.

Later on that quiet Saturday morning, we walked along the Astoria riverfront. It didn't stay quiet long -- a sea lion climbed aboard a green buoy and barked about his accomplishment for several minutes. Then a trolley car trundled along the wharf.

In the early 1900s, this riverfront was home to 55 fish canneries, factories where crews of immigrant laborers chopped, gutted and steamed the area's abundant salmon, tuna and sturgeon, squeezed them into little tins and shipped them to the world.

In seasons when the haul was great, the smell could knock you out of your spats.

Eventually the salmon harvests diminished and the riverfront got quieter (but better smelling). Logging and then tourism supplanted fishing as the major economy.

The wooden pilings of the riverfront remain, but instead of canneries they now hold coffee houses and waterside restaurants.

Astoria's Columbia River Maritime Museum on the east end of the riverfront has fascinating stories to share. There are fishing boats, nautical gear, an awesome, full-scale Coast Guard motor lifeboat somehow defying gravity to rescue a man overboard in impossible seas.

I took the helm of the USS Knapp, a World War II destroyer whose actual bridge now commands a wing of the museum. Parked in the river behind the museum was the lightship Columbia, which, for 28 years marked the entrance to the river at a point where no lighthouse could be built. Aboard it, I could imagine the boredom, claustrophobia and probably the nausea experienced by its 18-man crew, confined for weeks at a time in this 128-foot-long steel box.

The Clatsop County Heritage Museum, located in the former Astoria city hall, gave us more stories. Robert Gray not only was the first white man to sail into the Columbia (which he named after his ship), but also the first American to circumnavigate the world, trading American furs as he went.

Fur was the area's first commercial attraction, and based on the abundance of pelts in the region, Astoria became the first permanent American settlement west of the Rockies.

On the second floor of the museum we visited a typical turn of the century saloon, recreated here along with a long wooden bar dating to 1895.

Reproduced on a wall are sections of 1896 ordinances prohibiting profanity, driving faster than six miles per hour, cutting wood on Sunday or (in an unsubtle jab at Chinese immigrants) carrying baskets suspended on poles.

At the Flavel House Museum we tasted the upper crust of 19th century Astoria. George Flavel was the first man to be licensed as a river pilot in the Oregon Territory. He parlayed his earnings through real estate investments, becoming Astoria's first millionaire. He spent years planning this Queen Anne-style Victorian house as his retirement home, creating verandas, parlors and a cupola, and specifying exotic woods and tiles from around the world. Sadly, he died in 1893, having lived in his gingerbread dream house only eight years. And never knowing that strangers like us would be traipsing through his rooms, clicking along his wood floors, admiring his nooks-and-crannies design and thinking how our own home really could use a cupola.

The sun was shining when we came out. The sun does shine in Astoria, William Clark's lamentations notwithstanding. When it does, the formidable Victorian houses look positively cheery, and the earth looks reborn. The greenery glistens, accented by school-bus-yellow splashes of the pernicious Scotch broom plant.

But modern weather statistics still support Clark: Astoria's annual rainfall averages 67 inches per year. In comparison, Seattle, renown for its cats-and-dogs climate, gets only 37 inches.

Thus, Lewis and Clark must have had lots of time to chat. We visited Fort Clatsop (which they named after the friendly but hard-bargaining local Indian tribe), located about five miles south of the present-day Astoria. (It's not the original building -- wood rots quickly in a climate like this -- but the National Park Service recreated it from Clark's own plans). The accommodations were not four-star, particularly for the 23 enlisted men, who had to fit into three small, dark bunk rooms. (Shosone guide Sacagawea and her husband and infant had their own space.)

During our visit, volunteer rangers in frontier costume re-enacted a typical task for the soldiers, making candles. They chopped and melted tallow (the original crew likely would have used elk fat) and poured it into candle molds. Both of the captains and some enlisted men were required to keep journals; thus, with little natural light available, candles were essential.

The early explorers ate a lot of elk -- indeed, the availability of game was one of the reasons they chose this location -- but they didn't like it. It wasn't greasy enough. They preferred beaver tail, and particularly liked whale blubber, which they got to taste when their Indian colleagues told them of a whale carcass that had washed ashore.

Yes, they ate beaver tail and road-kill whale, but apparently not much salmon. Possibly it was scarce that year. Maybe they were afraid of it (they'd had a bad experience with it earlier in the trip and suffered agonizing stomach distress). What a pity, for along with Dungeness crab and razor clams (so big that I mistook a fried clam for a fish fillet) the local salmon is reason enough to move to Oregon. We particularly relished the way Josephson's Smokehouse prepares it -- tangy and a bit salty. We created our own breakfast there one morning -- morsels of smoked salmon, halibut and albacore tuna, which we put together with bagels and cream cheese and ate at a table in the back of the store.

Another, more conventional place to enjoy salmon is The Silver Salmon Grille, where you can have it baked, broiled, blackened or poached; stuffed, smoked or sprinkled with sesame.

I figure Clark just was two centuries too early. All he needed was the right remoulade sauce. And maybe a glass of chocolate orange wine for dessert.

"O! the joy," he would have said.

If you go

[Times art]

Getting there: The closest airport is in Portland, about two hours away by car. Service from Tampa to Portland is offered by several carriers, and budget round-trip fares starting at less than $200 often are posted.

Where to stay: Astoria Inn Bed & Breakfast, 3391 Irving Ave. (503) 325-8153. Comfortable Victorian house on quiet street has great river view. Doubles from $60 during the summer.

Grandview Bed & Breakfast, 1574 Grand Ave. (503) 325-5555 or (800) 488-3250. Near museums and restaurants. Rooms from $49; more for private bath.

Red Lion Inn Astoria, 400 Industry St. (off Marine Drive) (503) 325-7373, toll-free (800) 733-5466, fax (503) 325-8727. Modern hotel overlooks river. Doubles from $69.

Where to eat: Columbian Cafe, 1114 Marine Drive. (503) 325-2233. Fish and vegetarian cuisines served in an environment best described as "early garage sale." Do try the hot pepper jelly on your Texas toast. Open daily 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. for breakfast; dinners 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Dinner entrees from $8; total breakfast about $10. Cash or personal check only.

Home Spirit Bakery and Cafe, 1585 Exchange St. (503) 325-6846. Popular local favorite in Victorian house serves hearty fare. Lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; dinner 5:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Fixed price dinner $21.

Josephson's Smokehouse, 106 Marine Drive, (503) 325-2190. Mainly a retail outlet, but with an eat-in area. Several varieties of smoked fish, plus a thick clam chowder. 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. $5 per person buys a substantial serving of smoked fish.

Silver Salmon Grille, 1105 Commercial St. (503) 338-6640. Emphasis on salmon and other local seafood in stylish setting. Lunch and dinner daily. Most entrees under $20.

Someplace Else, 965 Commercial St. (503) 325-3500. The menu is primarily Italian standard, but the daily specials come from all over. Lunch and dinner; closed Monday and Tuesday. Dinner entrees from $6.75; all lunches $4.75.

For more information: Astoria & Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce, (503) 325-6311; Clatsop County Historical Society, (503) 325-2203; Columbia River Maritime Museum, (503) 325-2323; Fort Clatsop, (503) 861-2471.

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