Where the River Ends and the Stories Begin

by Vince Welch on December 16, 2011

Each year around Christmas time, my English-born wife Helen and I make the two-hour drive from Portland to Astoria, where the 1,243-mile Columbia River ends its run to the Pacific Ocean (P.O.). For a couple of days, we exchange the growing tsunami of holiday folly in Portland for the relatively mild shore break celebrations of Astoria. The seasonal weather is almost always suitably gloomy in a British kind of way — fog, grey skies, icy winds, rain squalls, rain showers, rain, rain, rain (roughly 70 or more inches annually) — but the sodden backdrop seems to only enhance the modest spectacle of Christmas lights and the warm golden glow flowing like honey out of shop (and yes, pub) windows. When we can drag ourselves out of the hotel room with river-level views of the Columbia and the freight ships that pass by so disarmingly close to your hotel window you can see the relieved expression of a mariner standing on deck taking a piss, we head for the mouth of the Columbia River, nine miles down river from Astoria.

Over the years, we have hiked and read our way along the beaches, coves and the two man-made jetties of the Great River of the West. The terminus of the Columbia and the landscape bordering it, we have come to learn, is soaked in a rich brew of history, story and myth, in voyages beginning and ending, some literally on the dreaded Columbia Bar, infamous “graveyard of the Pacific.”

Helen continues to accompany me as long as I refrain from mentioning that Oregon’s oldest city (Astoria) was once called Fort George, after the English monarch, until the Yanks took it over and that Captain George Vancouver of the Royal Navy, went right by the Columbia and missed it four years before home-grown Bostonian Robert Grey claimed discovery in 1792. In return, she promises to avoid digs about “empires in decline” and to stop the annoying English habit of ending a declarative or imperative sentence with a question, i.e. “You are not going to repeat the same story again, are you?” or “That anecdote sounds familiar, don’t you think?”

I try not to repeat myself.

Nevertheless …

One of the tap roots of my family tree weaving beneath the rain-soaked streets in Astoria is the story of James and Nancy (Dickerson) Welch, my great-great-grandparents. In late spring 1846, they loaded three sons and their possessions on either an open scow or bateaux and floated 140 miles down river from Oregon City to Fort George (Astoria), becoming the first white family to make a home at the then-disputed trading post. Family photographs and anecdotal accounts suggest that neither James nor Nancy were to be trifled with. The former faced down a British officer who forbade him to build a home (they later became friends); stern-faced Nancy refused to give up an Indian slave girl who sought refuge in her home after local tribes, following custom, wanted to bury her (alive preferably) with her dead master. Two years earlier, the Welches had come over the Oregon Trail and, upon reaching The Dalles, Oregon, in late October, voyaged down the Columbia River, a harrowing journey for the early pioneers. So much so that, when the Barlow Trail around Mt. Hood was opened, pioneer river traffic all but ceased. River-running genes, if you believe in that sort of thing.

Helen and I usually start our merry jaunts on the Oregon side of the Columbia. A visit to Fort Clatsop on the Lewis and Clark River, which enters Youngs Bay downstream of Astoria, was mandatory in our initial forays, not so much now. The historical tourist-trap, minus visitors on a miserable December afternoon, was not without attraction when we learned that the 33 members of the L&C Expedition spend the winter of 1805-06 in close quarters in weather-bound misery without much to eat. Construction of the “fort” began on December 10; they moved in on Christmas Eve. The Christmas supper, one diarist reported, was “just short of grim.” A year earlier, Sergeant Patrick Gass described a more festive scene on Christmas Day: “Captain Clark then presented to each man a glass of brandy, and we hoisted the American flag in the garrison, and its first waving in Fort Mandan was celebrated with another glass. The men cleared out one of the rooms and commenced dancing, which was continued in a jovial manner till 8 at night.”

Another historical location of passing interest on our merry perambulations is Fort Stevens, a military installation with underground gun batteries, bunkers and fine views of the Pacific situated a few miles and 14 decades down the road from Fort Clatsop and now a spacious Oregon State Park. Built during the Civil War, the fort was decommissioned at the end of WW2, but not before being shelled by a Japanese submarine in June 1942. It is a spooky place well-suited for ghost stories, games of creep and hide-and-seek with your children, or, if you are love-sick teenager, a tryst.

Not far away is the South Jetty viewing platform on the Clatsop Spit, a spot to watch local surfers, winter storm waves crash on the jetty and, in fairer weather, cargo ships crossing the Columbia Bar. Rumors, very short stories with one main character and ever-changing plot lines, abound of sightings of Great White Sharks, aka Whitey, Chewy, The Landlord, The Warden — raw material for a short novel.

Sooner or later, and after a holiday refreshment stop back in Astoria, Helen and I cross over the Columbia River on the 14-mile Astoria-Metzger Bridge into Washington. Fourteen miles? At the highest point on the bridge, I slow down, a brazen act of stupidity, given the holiday traffic, to catch a fleeting glimpse of the river mouth in the distance. It is difficult to resist drawing analogies, making song or poetry out of the geographical end of a river, but I do. Stick to the facts and they will stick to you, for a while anyway. To understand the unique features of this particular river mouth, I offer my patient wife a sled full of general Columbia River trivia: largest river flowing into the Pacific on the west coast; fourth-largest (by volume) in the U.S.; drains a 260,000-square-mile basin consisting of seven states, 13 recognized Indian reservations and one Canadian province; tributaries include the Kootenay, Kicking Horse, Canoe, Wood, Kettle, Pende Oreille, Spokane, Okanogan, Yakima, Walla Walla, Umatilla, John Day, Deschutes, Sandy, Willamette, Cowlitz, Kalama, Lewis, to name a few; 14 dams on its main stem, whose hydroelectric power aided the development of the atomic bomb at Hanford, Washington during WW2; nearly 2,000 shipwrecks (and 1,500 lives lost) on the Columbia Bar; in prehistoric times, estimated number of annual migration of spawning salmon and steelhead: 10 to 16 million.

Helen has been known to catnap on the long journey to Washington.

What makes the river mouth of the Columbia so treacherous and interesting from a hydrologic, as well as a story-telling, point-of-view, however, is a combination of factors specific to the immediate geography: a river current that varies from four to seven knots (five to eight MPH); prevailing west winds and Pacific ocean swells; and perhaps most importantly, the lack of a river delta, which usually serves to dissipate the energy of any river debouching (one of a few French words I like to pronounce) into the ocean. The river then behaves like a fire hose. When conditions are right, say a storm at sea combined with an incoming tide and ferocious winds that meet a river with nowhere to go but marches straight over the shallow, ever-shifting sand bars, well … you get the picture. From this unforgiving body of water that sinks vessels of all sizes have sprung tales of ghost ships and sea monsters with names like Colossal Claude and Marvin.

On the Washington side of the river, Helen and I amble along the North Jetty, which runs like a ruler into the Pacific for two-and-a-half-miles. The path atop the jetty is remarkably flat and the illusion of walking out to sea — pelicans, gulls and grey clouds overhead and the Columbia River a dozen vertical feet below — is both strange and compelling. On January 7, 1925, Amos Burg rowed his canoe Song o’ the Winds along the rocky barrier in an attempt to reach the Pacific and claim bagging rights as the first individual to complete a continuous transit of the Columbia, source to mouth. He had started his voyage in October and spent 73 days on the river. Upon reaching the end of the jetty, Burg capsized and had to be pulled from the surf by a rescue boat. One reporter claimed that running rapids [for Burg] was nothing compared to crossing the bar in a canoe.

A short drive from North Jetty lands us at Lewis and Clark National Historic Park. It is always a pleasure to escort Helen to the scene of another historical English misstep. I don’t have to remind her (but I do) that in 1788, after missing the entrance to the Columbia, English explorer John Meares dubbed the prominent headland on the Washington side of the river Cape Disappointment. It is also the location where the Lewis and Clark Expedition first sighted the Pacific Ocean.

Perhaps the most enticing storyline/place we encounter at Cape Disappointment and the mouth of the Columbia River on our hikes is one, although rooted in the past that looks to the future. The first “art installation,” of The Confluence Project, a collaborative effort of Pacific Northwest tribes, civic groups from Washington and Oregon, artists, architects and landscape designers, including Maya Lin, creator of the Viet Nam Memorial in Washington, D.C., was dedicated in May 2006. It is one of seven sites (some still under construction) stretching 300 river miles from the Pacific Ocean to Clarkston, Washington, which weave the stories of the Chinook people with those of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, with few words and an abundance of narrative space, where point-of-view is complimented by views with many points; where land, river and ocean are not only backdrop and setting, but active shaper of character and action; where parallel plot lines bend and weave; where fact and imagination meet to form myth and story.

It is at times like this that I am fortunate to have Helen at my side. All these stories, written on page and in space, pulse through the river landscape into my sensory imagination and send me round the mystical bend, bound for my own private oceanic consciousness. The good Englishwoman, however, always rows me back to shore, to the lights of Astoria and a pint of Christmas cheer.

(Needless to say, Rivermouth readers should go-a-googling The Confluence Project and make plans to visit the mouth of the Columbia, preferably in the warmer seasons along the Oregon coast.)


A river is a natural watercourse, usually freshwater, flowing toward an ocean, a lake, a sea or another river. In a few cases, a river simply flows into the ground or dries up completely before reaching another body of water; a cyber location where fresh- and saltwater stories, anecdotes, history, opinions, breaking news, obituaries, community exchanges, and, OK, an occasional (but civilized) rant of a river nature meet and mix; the place where the flotsam and jetsam of river life collect.

Vince Welch is a former professional river guide, long-time MG contributor and author of The Doing of the Thing: The Brief, Brilliant Career of Buzz Holmstrom. He continues to run rivers throughout the West with his family and other ancient mariners and is currently completing biography of Amos Burg. He lives in Portland, Ore.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }