I have a talent for brushes with celebrity once-removed, like when I found myself soaking in an Idaho hot springs next to the guy who retrieved the Space Shuttle Challenger’s rocket boosters or the time I met the real Garth Algar at the bottom of an Oregon waterfall.
YOU: “No way!”
One chilly day in October, I did it again. Feeling twitchy after a summer of uncomfortable learning experiences from a few poorly run local hiking clubs (don’t get me started or I’ll use up all my swear words before we get to the main story), I decided that an impromptu road trip was in order. Road trips are the lazy/tired/recuperating hiker’s answer to a change of scenery. And the Nehalem Highway is one of the prettiest routes to get your recommended daily requirement of fall color. I think it was voted Road Most Likely to Be Featured in a Free Bank Calendar.
I headed for Astoria. You remember Astoria, don’t you? All those deep green lawns around the elementary school in Kindergarten Cop? How about the dock where Jesse stole fish to feed Willy before he freed him? Do the Goonies ring a bell? Astoria is so inundated annually by movie nerd pilgrims trekking there to pay homage to the Goonie House that the poor family that owns it finally banned all tourists. No more Truffle Shuffle in the yard, Chunk.
Once I was in town, my inner GPS recalibrated my route towards coffee. No, not Starbucks—coffee. If I wanted my java to taste like burnt marshmallows, there were over a thousand locations to choose from back in Portland. One of the saddest things you’ll ever see is a tourist visiting the Pacific Northwest, the dark roast epicenter of America’s buzz, waiting in a long line at a Starbucks. You’ve got to be kidding me. When in Rome, you visit the Colosseum, not the strip mall.
For gladiator-level history and charm, you can’t beat the coffee shop at the old Bumble Bee Cannery Museum on Pier 39. When I say on the pier, I mean on the pier: The entire structure, parking area included, is perched over the water on a dock as old as time. It’s its own little peninsula (See red and blue roofs below). You can hear the rickety timbers creak and groan as you inch your vehicle along the length of it. If another vehicle approaches coming in the other direction, the whole thing reverberates and you’ll learn just how tightly your sphincter can clench. By the time you get your espresso, you may not need one anymore.
The coffee shop presents a view of an interesting area, nautically speaking. You see, the Columbia River is evil. Well, not so much evil as widely and deeply feared, especially where it empties out into the Pacific Ocean. The unique underwater topography squeezes an average of 265,000 cubic feet of water per second into a narrow channel that focuses the current like a fire hose straight into the Pacific’s angry face. There’s no delta to soften the blow. Meanwhile on the surface, predominantly westerly winds and ocean swells push back in the opposite direction, causing shifting sand bars and dangerous standing waves that would make a pro surfer crap himself. (Imagine two tsunamis playing chicken with each other under your boat while a gale rips your hair off on deck.) To top it all off, a receding tide intensifies the whole enchilada twice a day and impenetrable fog can close in at any time like a cold, wet wall, causing the Coast Guard to blow the whistle and yell, “Okay, everybody out of the pool!” It’s like a mini-version of the perfect storm on a continuous loop.
Everything from scrappy little shrimping boats to cruise ships to humongous cargo vessels several football fields long have to thread this needle every day in the name of commerce (How do you think Red Lobster is able to offer those unlimited shrimp platters?) and they risk pretty much everything to do it. The Columbia Bar, as it’s called, is known the world over as the most challenging water passage on the planet and one of the deadliest sections of the Graveyard of the Pacific. More than 2000 vessels and 700 lives have been lost there and every year claims a few more. Some of them are Columbia River Bar Pilots–highly trained men and women who must board almost every vessel over 100 feet long, night and day, in every kind of weather, just to guide them safely over the bar to Astoria. When the job is done, these folks have to get off again in the same conditions and it ain’t pretty.
Pop a few Dramamine and watch this short video of the U.S. Coast Guard going “Columbia bar hopping” to train. Ride ’em, cowboy.
The view from the Bumblebee Cannery is the aftermath of all that–or just the beginning. Right outside the window, huge container ships, tankers, and bulk freighters loiter around with their engines idling, waiting for the tide to shift and these pilots to switch out. It’s like a dentist’s nervous waiting room on a titanic scale. (Get it? Titanic? Sorry.) You can lay bets to who will be next while you sip your drugs from the warm safety of the coffee house. If they roar to life and chug east past Tongue Point, a Columbia River Pilot is likely taking them upriver over a hundred miles away to a frenzy of unloading at the Port of Portland or Vancouver. If they head in the other direction, well, cross your heart and hope to…not die.
Once the caffeine was safely stored in my Type A-B Personality, I moseyed outside to smell the air. Something wreaked. Well, it was noisy and it wreaked. One pier over, an entire dock was nearly being submerged by an enormous throng of pudgy sea lions. They were hooting and hollering like a Rammstein mosh pit. I had to see this. I drove over, parked in my second feet-away-from-a-hefty-insurance-claim spot of the day, grabbed the digital, and headed for the commotion.
Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted something that triggered my brain to sing the old Sesame Street song “One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn’t belong….”Well, blow me down, it’s the HMS Interceptor! The Black Pearl didn’t sink her after all. Barbosa is gonna be pissed.
Actually, this was the Lady Washington which merely served as the HMS Interceptor in Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl.
Ships can be actors, too, and the Lady‘s been in high demand. The RLS Legacy in Disney’s Treasure Planet took its design from her, Captain Hook sailed her in Once Upon a Time, and Macklemore danced around on her deck like the white boy that he is during his “Can’t Hold Us” music video. Remember when Worf walked the plank after his promotion in Star Trek Generations? That was her.Today she was flying the Rogue Brewery colors in the wake of some sort of beer fest she was commissioned to attend. She was only at port this evening by chance, staying over one extra day to avoid a storm on her way down to her winter berth in Long Beach, California
I couldn’t be granted permission to come aboard but my camera was. I handed it up to a crew member (all volunteers sail her!) and told him to take a photo of whatever he wanted, just to show me what it looks like from his vantage point. Now we know how a real lady looks on her day off: ship shape.I wondered if the captain ever ordered one of the volunteers to go ashore and bring him a cappuccino. “Step lively, matey! Two sugars or I’ll tar yer hide!”
In my excitement, I almost forgot about the sea lions but there they were, still bellowing and honking like a New York City intersection. The dock they picked to laze upon was sunk so low in the water in spots that all you could see was flippers and fur. Males would stake out a dozen feet or so of prime territory and try to keep their harem in it but the ladies had things to do. Somebody was always sliding off into the water for a food run or rearranging herself in Nap Position. Much shuffling ensued and constant negotiations were necessary. When individual seals would bob back up to the surface again and announce their intentions to rejoin the party, the decibels escalated.I imagine the conversation went something like this:
Harry the Seal: “Yo, Phil!”
Phil the Seal: “What do you want, Harry?”
Harry: “Move over, I’m coming up there.”
Phil: “Screw you, Harry, I ain’t movin’.”
Phil: “I have teeth, too, you idiot. We ALL have teeth.”
Harry: “Yeah? Well, you stink. I’m gonna tell everybody how much you stink. Hey, guys!, Harry stinks like fish butts!”
Phil: “You stink more. Nobody wants you up here.”
Lucy the Seal: “Shut up, the both of you. We’re napping.”
But it sounded like “OORT! Ort, OOORT, snort, ORT, growl, ORT, OOOORT! Ort? ORT, snarl, snort, grrrrr–OORT? OOOOOOORT!”
How did Sparrow sleep through all that noisy crap when he was at port? Oh, right: rum.
I did the best I could with a point-and-shoot at sunset while the temperature dropped faster than seagull scat. When the blurred images became as much a result of my shaking body as the low light levels, I decided in favor of my truck heaters and turned around. The rumors about wet sea air being the coldest-feeling air on the planet? All true.
A fanfare of crepuscular rays signaled the end of the day. I pointed the truck towards Portland, aimed the heater vents directly at my face, and thanked my lucky stars I wasn’t sleeping on the frigid Columbia River tonight. I ain’t a seal.
October 9, 2007