Sunday, August 17, 2014

Astoria Weekend Get away


I am sitting on our balcony overlooking the East basin and the Columbia River at our lovely hotel in Astoria. It is early Sunday morning. My partner has gone off for her final set of softball games and left me to enjoy the morning. A raft of sea lions on the other side of the basin are putting up their loud morning squak and I am watching the 4 anchored large cargo vessels as they start to slowly swing at their anchors through the tide change. It is low tide right now. The mud flats are readily visible just past the little coastal trolley tracks at the river's edge. All of the cargo ships have their bow anchors out and their sterns are pointed at the ocean on the out going tide. The tide started turning 15 minutes ago and I am going to sit here on the edge of sunlight and blog while I watch the vessels slowly rotate 180 degress and point into the incoming flow. The people on the balcony next to me are hidden but I know they are enjoying a similar pleasure as I can smell their cigarette smoke wafting between our private spaces. The smell is light and not unpleasant. I can well remember when I was a smoker and the odd destructive pleasure of a cigarette in your hands while you have that first smoke of the day. A funny thing. Like any other admitted addict, I have to fess up that I have a permenant problem with cigarettes. I haven't had one in 4 years (and 3 years good before that) but I know that if I just smoke one cigarette I will be addicted again and have to go through all of the cravings for weeks before I feel normal again. So I will just smile at the smoky smell and watch my ships drift.

Balcony Morning View.

And what, you may ask, brings me to this little balcony of self reflection on this glorious morning? As with most things these days, it is my lovely kayaking partner. Her softball team had signed up for the yearly tournament in Astoria and she has been bugging me to come with her this weekend for pretty much the entire summer. “Spend a weekend watching you and a bunch of other athletic women play Softball?” I ask. “Sure!!”.

It is actually enjoyable on a couple of levels. I get to sit in the sun. I get to watch my partner out doing her thing. And it turns out that I really enjoy watching softball. I know how to play. I know what is going on. And I get pleasure from a good play, by either team. Just a joy to watch. And you know something? None of the women in this tournament throws like a girl. When I was young, almost all of the women I knew threw like a girl, but at 57, all of the women I see throw like a man; a man with a good arm. (i.e. better than me). Now what is up with that? Am I less sexist, or are girls less girly? (My partner is indicating that there could be a third alternative. I wish she would put that baseball bat away).

For this particular weekend, my partner and I had decided to come to Astoria on Friday night and just stay the entire weekend. We got a room in the same hotel that her team was staying in and I sort of figured we would be doing a lot of team socializing. Didn't quite work out that way. We had some extra time so we enjoyed the drive over. We took the “short cut” through Mist and Jewel. This is a long windy road that goes between 26 (the main route to the coast from Portland) and Astoria and avoids the congestion (and highway) that is Seaside. It also takes you through the Elk sanctuary and we stopped for a bit to enjoy the look of the creatures.

Heard of Elk?

But, because of this we arrived late at our hotel “The Astoria Dunes”. It was a old cheap little beach place under the Oregon Washington Bridge. From the outside, it looked pretty much like I expected; a 2 story strip motel built in the 50s. The parking lot was full (we got the last place) and the NO VACANCY sign was lit. But we had one of the “Good” rooms reserved. A King, No Smoking, River view room. Wow. (Hint: you should expect a little trouble these days if having a No Smoking room is not the requirement for the entire establishment. Smoking on the balcony and such aside). The check-in girl had a couple of people that she had to turn away before she could get us our key. But we had a corner room on the second floor and it looked like it was going to be pretty nice. It looked that way. But it didn't smell that way. It smelled like someone had spilled a bucket of bleach in the bathroom and entry. Now, bleach is not a horrible smell. It is like being in the pool area. But this was pretty damn strong. We opened the windows and door and the sea breeze pretty quickly blew out the air in the little room. But as soon as we closed the door the fumes reassserted themselves. It was bad. I was going to ignore it, but then I started coughing and I realized the chlorine gas fumes were burning my eyes and my throat. It just wasn't tenable. My partner agreed. We grabbed our stuff and went out in search of other digs.

And now for the fun news. Do you know what the 2nd weekend in August is in Astoria? Well, it turns out it is the Astoria Regatta, but never mind that. Because every weekend in August is Something in every little town on the beach. This weekend was the Regatta in Astoria, but it was beach volleyball in Seaside and the Fraking Summer everywhere else. No rooms. Not just no rooms but “laugh in your face at the suggestion “ No rooms. So, it is 11:00 on a Friday night and we are on the coast and we don't have a place to sleep. We decide to go back to Portland for the night and try again tomorrow.

Which is what we did. Turns out we could get a room for Saturday night in a really nice place (Hampton Inn and Suites) in Astoria. More money. Less noxious gasses. And I get to blog to the lovely barking of the sea lions.

From experimental evidence I now know that the “lovely barking” of the stellar sea lions is not confined to any special time of the day or night. They are perfectly happy to put up one hullabaloo 24 hours a day. It is sort of a reassuring and natural sound, though. Certainly didn't have any trouble getting to sleep last night, even with balcony door open to let in the night and the barking.

So. A weekend watching women's softball. My kayak partner and I figured I could only do so much of that and so we put my Journey up on top of her new little Subaru and brought all of my adventure gear to the beach. Had to bring more gear than I usually do because I was going out alone. Had to bring my solo adventure gear. That mainly means bringing a good paddle float (to assist in getting back into the boat I just flipped over) and my pump to clear the cockpit of water after re-entry. I also brought my dry suit, but it turned out to be just too nice a day to wear it.

One side of the road is Softball
The other Side of the Road is the river.

I watched the first half of the first game. My partners team was doing OK. Down a couple of runs but plenty of time to catch up. My partner was playing second and I got to see her make a couple of good plays. But then it was time to go. We have this “places to Kayak in the North West” book and it said that a place to paddle was on Young's River, which just happens to be that water right beside the softball field. There is a public ramp at the Astoria Yacht club that is just 100 yards down the road. So I took the car and the boat and went on over there.

Astoria Yacht Club

Cool Old Gill Net Boats. Note all of the little tubes sticking up
Hey, that is Saddle Mountain !!

A guess that the Astoria Yacht Club must have been something 50 or 100 years ago, but today it is just the name of the road that leads on down to a small senior center and a pier with an ancient fleet of gill net boats moored. And a ramp. I loaded up my kayak and set off up river. The tide was in it's last hour of ebb so the current was going up river and I just sort of coasted inland with it. As with most places that people have been on the Columbia, there are a lot of pilings in the water. (Previous to this writing I would have called a Piling a Pilon. But I now know that a pilon is not a telephone pole driven into the mud to build a pier or other structure but rather a canonical loaf of sugar). They gave me something to judge the water current. Perhaps a knot? Pretty fast at any rate. I also had the wind starting to pick up a bit and blow on my back. Sending me faster and faster away from the landing. At one point I found a rather cool ship wreck. A wooden hull. Perhaps a barge. Wood planks tied together with iron rods. I also found a few strange moored rafts. They had all of these weird plastic pipe parts that stuck straight up in the air. I realized that the mooring at the ramp (where all of those gill net boats were) had the same kind of structure. What is going on with that. I think they are some sort of device to assist in commercial oyster farming. But why would they be built into the commercial fleet dock? Need to do some research and report back here.

Report back: I could find NOTHING. Nothing that looked like these things in the pictures.
Oysters? Clams? Alien Breeding Grounds?

All of this is vaguely interesting but more and more I began to realize that I just wasn't having very much fun. I was out kayaking and doing what I love to do, but I was lonely. It seems that in the last year and a half I have grown out of the habit of solitude. I wanted my partner along. I wanted someone to talk to. Someone to share with. Someone to pull my ass out of the water should I do something silly and capsize my boat. I just wasn't comfortable with myself out there on the large water. I should note that I am Ok sitting here right now alone on the balcony. But then and there I just wasn't that happy.

And I wasn't sure when high tide was. Was I going to be working against wind and tide to get myself back to the car? I am thinking I was. So I turned around.

This is my ship wreck.

Astoria Column. About as close as I got this weekend.

I don't think I ever got to the river proper. I was still out in the larger and pretty much exclusively tidal part of the bay. Strangely Empty of people out there. I saw one little motor boat and a cormorant. Strange. I did get a pretty good workout on the way back to the ramp. Wind in my face and the tide just coming to a turn. I arrived back at the yacht club right at slack high.

Turned out to be good timing. My partner had just finished her second game and the team was heading over to the pizza place that was right across the street from the landing.

She had a good story. A little after I left they had a couple of deer come down out of the woods and wander over onto the playing field. The players had to actively chase the deer off the field before they could continue play. Pretty funny. In Portland it often happens that a dog will wander out on the field (I mean, there is a BALL out there) but in Astoria, it is deer. And overhead, a bald eagle.

Softball Deer Hunting

And now we are in Astoria.

Astoria is a historic and quaint little community that is still trying to figure out if it wants to be a commercial port or an artist colony. Perhaps commercial port is putting it a big strongly. This town has guarded the entrance to the Columbia for a couple of hundred years and the pilots that bring all of the Portland shipping cross the infamous Columbia Bar come out of here. There is a rather nice merchant marine museum downtown that talks about this activity. Right now, out my window, I can see 4 large Grain or other bulk cargo vessels (not car carriers or container ships). I don't know why they are sitting at anchor. More research to do.

Astoria was founded as a fur trading town by John Astor. I found this one site that goes into great detail about the city in highly suspicious grammar. I suspect it was a site built for a high school project or some such as the prose tends to wander around the topic something like a flow of consciousness. You know, when your teacher asked you to write 200 words about the history of Astoria and you wrote: “Astoria has a rich and varied history. Rich because of the rich things that happened there and varied because of the various things that happened there in their rich and varied history”.

Regardless of all that it seems to be a general theme that Astoria is the oldest permanent (white) settlement west of the Rockies and was indeed established by John Astor as a center for the then thriving fur trade. In it's heyday it seems to have been something of a North West Monterey with it's own cannery row and fishing business. I don't understand where all of the fishing and canning for the Pacific ocean went. It seems that there are a lot of old towns that used to be canning towns and are now places with decaying wharves. Where is all the canning? I seem to still be able to get cans of tuna and salmon at the grocery. (Answer: Alaska) Now a days the waterfront of Astoria is taken up by a burgeoning tourist trade. There is an entire historic hotel built out over the water on old wharves and further up-river Rogue Brewery has taken up residence on a different historic wharf. There are also several new chain hotels (one of which we were staying in) and the maritime museum.

We took a little nap before dinner. We were wakened by a little rumble and a lot of bell ringing as the Astoria Street Car came rattling down the tracks below our balcony. There is an old rail line (and walking trail) that runs along the entire riverfront of Astoria. The natives have a single car electric trolley running on it. The eastern most stop is right by our hotel. The tracks go on, but they are blocked and the trolley stops here and lets people off to walk out on the pier to the Rogue pub and meeting house. It is a historic trolley that looks a lot like the old electric trolleys they have running in San Francisco. They don't have the overhead wires up here so they have a little auxiliary car in the front (back?) that has a quiet and clean generator of some sort (perhaps Natural Gas?) that supplies the power for the electric train. A cute little thing. $1 a ride ($2 for the entire Day !!). I want to ride.
Astoria Street Car (evidently not named "Desire")

We walked out the pier to the Rogue public house. Rogue is a well established micro brewery in Oregon. They have won many awards for their beer (I like “Dead Guy IPA”) and their meeting houses are fun and rustic burger and brew joints. My partner had a house made Root Beer and I enjoyed one of the afore mentioned Dead Guys.

View From Rogue

As we were walking to our car we had a treat, out on the river was a stern paddle wheeler making its way up the Columbia. I had seen that boat when we were driving through town. I remember thinking, “where did that guy come from”. A stern wheeler is a flat bottomed river boat. It sure didn't come up the coast from California. That would be a recipe for disaster. So I looked it up. The American Empress is a paddle wheel cruise ship that plies back and forth up the Columbia (and Snake) river. Starts in Portland, goes down to Astoria, then upriver to the Dales and Tri-city area. A one week trip each way. $4K. Could be fun but seems a bit pricey.

Then we drove into town for dinner.

Did I mention that Astoria is Old? Perhaps not European Old. Perhaps not even east coast old. But there are a number of buildings with 1800's in the dates and the general feel of downtown is one of that old american downtown that I like so much. Like walking down main-street at Disney land.

Lots of art stores. And tonight was the Art Walk. So we went to look at a number of little artist shows while listening to live music and having people offer us free wine and cheese. The art was pretty amazing. I saw a number of reasonably priced works that I was tempted to pick up for myself or gifts. Then I remembered my closet full unhung art. Still haven't quite finished the two single household blending..... Need to come back here sometime earlier in the day because a lot of the interesting nick nack shops (the ones that didn't have “art” per se) were not open this late in the evening. We also found ourselves a very fine restaurant. One of many to choose from. I had salmon.
Salmon Art. On the wall in the restaurant.

Want to talk a bit about something I saw on the sidewalk downtown. There were a lot of metal plates and such on the sidewalk that I associate with having something under the city. Like basements for delivery of goods and such. And next to the plates would be 4x8 foot concrete slabs with thick pieces of exotic glass embedded in them. The glass was green or purple or blue, though most were purple. I wanted to think that they were some sort of old functional lighting for basement scheme, but the purple glass was just too dang pretty for that. Damn, yet more research.

Purple Glass Vault Lights.

I found a few sites that talk about these lovely “vault lights”. They are indeed a feature to provide natural light to a basement. They used to be very common and are now more of a historic feature. I find the science of the glass pretty interesting. It used to be common practice to add manganese to the glass to counteract other impurities and make the “green” glass more clear. But over time and exposure to UV this will cause the glass to turn the wonderful purple color that I saw on the streets of Astoria. I love it when I find some little thing whilst out exploring and when I do a little research I find that the little thing has a long involved explanation in history and science.  (Editor's note:  He also loves it when he finds a way to use the word 'whilst')

And it was a patriotic Full Moon, to boot.

We got back to our room and we were just starting to wind down for the night (and watch an episode of “True Blood” on Amazon) when someone starting shooting a shot gun out our window. WTF? That was quickly answered by the distinctive report of several rounds fired from a lighter caliber pistol. At first I was very concerned (jumping out of bed type of concerned) and then I figured it out. Fire Works !! We hurried outside. Sure enough, Regatta weekend comes complete with some very nice fire works. They were going off just a few hundred yards away on a rock jetty that extended out into the river. We had a wonderful view from our Balcony. Boom Boom Boom. It even shut the sea lions up (for about half an hour).

Which brings us up to the time I am writing the main part of this blog while I sit on our Balcony and watch the tide change. The tide change in a big river is pretty impressive. Think about it. There are two big forces of nature, Tide and River, meeting out there and for a while one is going to overcome the other. So I sat and watched the large moored ships swing at anchor. It looked like this:




After my partner's game,  we did walk out on the huge river breakwater, that creates the protected mooring areas, to see the Sea Lions. They have their own little floating dock and just lay out there barking at each other. It was a waterfront area that caused me some consternation. It was large protected area with a very overdone and expensive breakwater (you could drive a semi tractor trailer out there, for gosh sakes) but all of the boats moored were ancient hulks. Where do the rich guys park their yachts? Not here. Not at the Astoria Yacht Club. Must be a place I haven't found yet.

So what is going on here? Several of the Sea Lions had clear Numbers burned or cut into their backs. Why would this be? Who is doing this? (ah: That explains the trap too)

That cage back there is a trap for branding.

Interesting Boat. No Idea what it carries. (evidently lumber)

This is the break water.
Some of the old boats out there in the anchorage.

As a closing note, I will say that we drove back on Highway 30 which sort of goes along the Columbia back to the Portland area. On the way there we passed through half a dozen little communities that were set up on little tributaries to the mighty river. Tributaries that sure looked like they would be great for starting places for future adventures. Some islands out there in the Columbia that may need camping and exploring by the Action Adventure Team.


  1. Great blog Jon, so much fun to read and very well written.

  2. Hey Anonymous, thanks for reading my blog, I always appreciate comments, especially ones that like my writing !!