Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Traveling East: Road Trip up the Columbia Gorge

Traveling East: Road Trip up the Columbia Gorge

The sign says this is an old church. It is out on "the Slabs" behind our Hotel.

The road east from Portland has been built and redefined many times in the last few thousand years. The first big change was caused by the receding glaciers at the end of the last ice age. The melting waters built up behind an ice dam in Idaho and Montana creating a temporary lake the size of one of the great lakes. Eventually, the water pressure built up and the ice dam melted to such a point that there was a catastrophic failure of the structure. Over the course of a few days, the lake drained and flooded western Washington. The Washington house of representatives was powerless to stop it. The waters swirled around looking for an exit past the mountains to the ocean and eventually carved one through the Columbia river canyon. Carrying the remains of the ice dam and the huge rocks attached to them, the waters scoured through the area cutting the wide and steep valley that we now call the Columbia Gorge. When this torrent hit Portland, it backed up against the local coast range and flooded south into the Willamette Valley. For a time the large valley was under 200 feet of water, with icebergs carrying Idaho boulders bobbing around on the murky muddy surface. As the waters receded, all was left changed. The icebergs in the Willamette Valley left their attached boulders sitting out on the plains as Glacial Erratics; The mud and debris left deep all around. The Columbia, up around the gorge, was scoured clean to bedrock. Large monoliths, like Beacon Rock, the core of and old Volcano, were stripped of their surrounding materials and left bare and wonderful rising out of the river. And that was how the humans found it.

The first local inhabitants used the Columbia River for transportation through the area, but they also made great use of it for industry. Fishing communities thrived in the places where the spawning salmon would be forced into tight, predictable areas. Ceililo Falls and the Cascade Rapids were two of these areas. The fish would have to fight their way up to the most easily jumped section of the falls and the local humans would catch them with ingenious nets and spears. Other mamals also took advantage of the salmon migrations. Many seals and sea lions would swim far up the river to gorge on the plenty of highly congregated fish. The humans would harvest them as well.

Then these two really pale guys and a bunch of their drinking buddies came floating down the river. Bill and Merry (almost Hobbit names) and their band of cronies were not something that the local humans had ever had to deal with. The more insightful of the locals wanted to immediately kill the strangers and take their stuff, but they were dissuaded by other factions and the rather impressive weapons of the pale guys. Why, one of the guys pulled a strange hollow pole out of their stack of stuff and proceeded to use it to throw rocks (very fast rocks) at any number of targets. The damage to the targets was very suggestive of the damage it might do to the locals. Perhaps trading was a good idea.

It is unclear exactly what would have happened if the Lewis and Clark Expedition of Discovery had just disappeared at this point. Probably wouldn't have slowed down things too much. It wasn't long before the next set of humans came wandering on down the newly named Oregon Trail. Down the Snake river they came, and then, where the Snake heads into Washington, they took their wagons across the short cut west to the Columbia and so downstream by boat to the Ceililo Falls. At this point a decision needed to be made. Ceililo Falls are really not that big. In fact, during high water (which happens most years in the spring) the river would rise so much that the falls would be covered and navigable by raft or boat. However, the reason the water rose is that just down river from there is a mighty narrowing of the canyon. The narrowing would cause the river to backup and flood the falls. But that narrowing was deadly during high water. Many of the pale ones drowned trying to take their families through that death trap. Presumably the local humans looked on, wondering what was up with these guys. The other route from these rapids (named by the previous French trappers in their own language “Dalles”) was to head south for bit around Mt Hood and then down route 26 eventually arriving in Oregon City. Many took this southern around route. There as a road that was built and the skiing up at Timberline Lodge is pretty wonderful all year around. Many of the original pioneers were very taken by the stunning views and Friday night Prime Rib in the Cascade room.

A common sight by the early pioneers, first glimpse of Mt Mood.
The route down the river was a bit more daunting. Not a good place to build a road. Various “portages” were built using railroad technology. The rails could be built up on log causeways and (what is a log bridge called?) the cars could be pulled by oxen until someone managed to get a steam engine up the river from the ocean. The steam engines were also put into paddle wheel boats which could bring entire loads of pioneers and their wagons and teams down river. Could they navigate up the Snake all the way to Ontario? Must check.

Still, the railway portages were not very efficient and couldn't carry as much traffic as the steam boats could carry. A water route was needed. At the Cascades rapids (near Beacon Rock) a side passage of locks were built right through the town of Cascades Locks. The town people were not happy about it, but if you go and name your town something suggestive like that you have to expect something bad to happen. This is why you don't find many towns named “Meteor Strike” or “Forest Fire”. The people that live in Tsunami, Oregon, for instance, must be fraking crazy. Back on the Columbia, more locks were needed, and a set were built around Cielilo falls.

About this same time a couple of interesting technologies were introduced that demanded change to the Columbia Gorge area. The first was the invention of the internal combustion engine. This little machine was light enough to put into a wagon and powerful enough to make that wagon move at speeds heretofore unheard of. (you like that? “heretofore unheard of”). These “automobiles” were great transportation and even greater at impressing girls and so they were suddenly all over the place. The rulers of Oregon got together to discuss this issue. They were not sure what they should do with all of these cars. They were clogging up the few streets in Portland. The cars needed someplace to be and the drivers needed someplace to take the passengers they were trying to impress. Something sweeping and romantic was needed. And they needed to find this something quickly or they wouldn't be able to make millions on the sale of fuel for the vehicles. And so the Columbia River Highway project was born. The idea was that this new road would be built that would wind it's way up the majestic cliffs and waterfalls of the Columbia gorge. Right now, there was just this old steam train railroad running through, and though train traffic could be romantic, the railroad was much too close to the cliffs to actually SEE them at the speeds that trains traveled. But the dang train tracks were sort of in the way and they had priority over the roadway. So the road had to be.... innovative. It had to cling to the side of the cliffs, burrow its way though the cliffs, leap about the base of the cliffs. In short, it had to be fun.

You can still see quite a bit of the old historic roadway. Hell, you can drive on it from the outskirts of Portland to Bonneville Damn. Take a day. Go slow. Stop at each of the many waterfalls. Don't go on a holiday unless you live for traffic jams.

I think it was the holiday traffic jams that finally pissed off the rulers of Oregon again. “Well”, they must have said, “that was great while it lasted. But now I believe it is time that we took advantage of all of that post war highway money and build a bloody great interstate. Something that will make it easier to get to Idaho in case there is a potato shortage.”

In the background, however, another technological revolution was biting into the gorge. The growing number of houses and industry were requiring more and more electricity. The corp of engineers decided that a number of places along the Columbia would be ideal for the building of damns for electricity, better flood control, and better river cargo transportation. The electricity could also be used for the war effort. What do you use electricity for, at home, during a foreign war? You use it to make the lightest, strongest metal in the world. A metal that is so rare when it was used to cap the Washington Monument it was the most of that metal ever assembled, and yet so common that it can be found in almost any state in great supply. Aluminum. Aluminum is not found in nature as anything except the oxidate mineral Bauxite. Bauxite is very common but cannot be refined into the metal aluminum through any process except high voltage electrolysis. So the Ancient Romans didn't have much of this stuff. Because of this, Aluminum smelting plants like to be close to hydroelectric power plants. Just like google computer server installations, both take in huge amounts of electricity and expel important societal needs, like Coke Cans.

Oh yeah, I promised two critical war needs for electricity. The other was making plutonium. Perhaps sometime I will do a blog about [name and location erased by NSA].

Anyway, we needed electricity, so the dams went up. The rapids at Cascade and Dalles were flooded. Even the old locks were flooded in many areas. Barge traffic could now travel from Astoria pretty much to Canada. In fact, these days you can catch a luxury stern wheeler from Astoria to the middle of Washington.

And that is where we have it now. Old Historic and constantly used railroad, Old Historic and eternally used roadway, Aging but still viable lock and lake waterway, New huge and fast interstate. Take your pick. Well, as long as you pick interstate.

On this particular hot summer day my partner and I are traveling east by car to do some sightseeing whilst en route to Ontario (Oregon, not one of the other ones). She is signed up to do some training on infant mental health for the county of Malhuer and I am along to hang out in hotel rooms and look pretty. We plan to stop at the Dalles, Pendleton, and Ontario. We haven't decided how to get home yet.

The Slabs
Our first night we spent at the Shilo Inn in the Dalles. Out the back of the place was a few (preserved?) old wooden buildings and the Dam. The Dam at the Dalles is a strange one. Most dams just go across an opening in the canyon (think Hoover Dam) but this one is more like two low dams that come out from the curving canyon and meet at a corner. So the walls form a bit of a 90 degree 'V' pointed right at the city of the Dalles. And why “The Dalles” by the way? Well, Dalles is French for 'slabs' or 'flagstones'. Dang, I thought it was rapids. Anyway... slabs.... I guess that would be all of the flat rocks that are out on the river. The ones that are now presumably flooded by the dam. Damn. I sure hope Deschutes is more interesting when we translate that. And why are all of these locations getting French names? The main reason was to drive up housing prices when the Pioneers came through because the french sounds so much more cosmopolitan. I mean, what would you spend more money for, a shack in “the slabs” or a dwelling in “The Dalles”? Ok ok. The real reason was that the first white people in the area were the french trappers and they named the rivers for the features they saw. There are currently pushes in many areas to try and put the names back to the local peoples original names. I mean, Mt Hood was named by a British junior naval officer trying to make points with his commanding officer. Wouldn't it be better if we thumbed our nose at the brits and named the mountain back to Wy'East?

Random Piece of Advice: When traveling in rural America and staying at quaint little hotels. Never get the cheapest room. Always spring for the king size bed upgrade. Just saying.

Deschutes River Park

Saturday Morning my partner and I wheeled out of the slabs and headed east. Our plan was to stop at the mouth of the Deschutes river at a park there and do a hike up the river. Get some exercise, break up the drive, provide rich and new blogging fodder. That sort of thing. One central flaw in our plan turned out to be the heat. It was already 90 degrees when we got into the car and by the time we had drove the 20 miles up to the Deschutes river recreational area, it was like 95. 95 and hot hot hot sun. If you got into the shade, it was OK, but there turns out not to be much shade out on this hike.
We were loading up our packs (we had gotten a lot of bottled water at the Fred Meyer in the Dalles) when a local ranger came up to us. He just wanted to say hello and make sure were weren't trying to camp where we were standing. We told him that we were going to hike the river trail and then head up the hill to Ferry Springs.

“Wow.” he said, “That is quite the Hike. Be careful of rattlesnakes. They have been all over the place this season. Even coming down into the park, which they never used to do. Oh, and ticks. The ticks are EVERYWHERE. Stay out of the high grass.”


Turns out it is easy to stay out of the high grass. Just stay down by the river where it is cool and completely overgrown with Blackberry brambles and Poison Oak.

So. Here we start off. 100 degrees now in the scorching Noon sun. A little bit of shade down by the river but I REALLY hate poison oak (and it was ubiquitous). But it turns out we had a mild selection of trails to consider:
  1. The River Trail, which I will call “The Poison Oak and Dead Fish” trail. This summer's ghastly heat and lack of rain has heated the river to a point where the salmon are dying. They are dying and floating to shore and you can smell them up and down the rivers. I was wearing long pants and a long shirt for sun protection, but this would also work ok for poison oak protection. But my parnter was in cute shorts and low socks and I could see her ankles swinging through that trecherous green stuff. She isn't particularly afraid of exposure to the stuff but it was driving me crazy. I really wanted to pick another trail.

  2. The Middle Trail. (The Snake and Tick Trail). This one went through what would have to be the definition of “high grass”. Once again. I was wearing appropriate protective clothing. My partner, it turns out, is much more afraid of ticks than she is of Poison Oak. Our conversation on the way showed the problem. She has had a lot of experience with ticks on her person and those of her children. For me, it has been all about encounters with Poison Oak (and it's evil sister, Poison Ivy).

  3. The Trail. (The Hit By Bike Trail). This is a converted railroad right of way. Wide, rocky, easy to talk. Easy to zoom down much too fast on a trail bike. Very hot with the reflection of sun off of the gravel.

  4. The high Trail (the much too hot to actually consider trail) Perhaps that was where the snakes were.


    We opted (well, I led down) the middle trail. The trail book I had consulted for this hike assured me that this trail was lovely with wild flowers and cool breezes during the spring. It didn't recommend hiking it in the summer. I think the author could have been a little more clear. Don't Fucking Hike it in the Summer! There. It was very hot. Very dusty. It did afford some lovely views of the Deschutes River but, did I mention it was hot and dusty?

Rattle Snake Rapids

By the time we had reached the half way mark (where the Middle trail climbs up and intersects the Trail) my partner was VERY hot and very dry. I think she was border line heat exhaustion. Did I mention that I was wearing a long shirt and pants? Usually in a situation like this, I would be just dripping sweat. Water would running down me in streams. But today, I was essentially dry. I had consumed almost 2 liters of water and yet I wasn't all sweaty. Evaporation. It was so hot and dry that the water of my body was evaporating as fast as I cold sweat it out. My theory is that my long clothing was distributing the water and helping me to cool more efficiently and so I wasn't in trouble with the heat. Or perhaps it is just my families tendency to sweat like horses that was protecting me. Anyway, my partner wasn't looking so good, but I knew that it wasn't in her to cancel our planned adventure. So I did it. I nixed the High Trail to Ferry Springs and started us back down the Trail to the car (the Air Conditioned Car). The views of the river were still lovely. And we did see some wild sun flowers that were an exciting counter point to the brown of the dead high grass and sage. At one point, the old railway trail crossed the little trickle of stream downhill from the presumed Ferry Springs. My partner soaked up the stream in her bandana and dowsed herself good. It made her feel a lot better. It was so hot that the water I was carrying in the side pockets of my day pack were almost too hot to drink. Not very refreshing to pour on your head.


And we saw this thing:
What the hell is it? A Cow Washer?

I will say this about this hike: I am going back in the spring to see the flowers and not bake my sorry ass.

Coming up next: The exciting Drive To Pendleton !!

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