The Columbia River Gorge: June 19-22, 2011

(Editor’s note: All of the pictures are thumbnails. Click on each to view it. Then be sure to click the back button to get back to the text or the next image. Don’t “close” the picture — that will cause the whole travelogue to close!)

Now that we’d gotten the Corps from the Snake to the Columbia River, it was time to see more of their final route to the Pacific. The Gorge is certainly one of the most dramatic place to see it. It was created by the geologic battles between volcanos and voluminous floods from Glacial Lake Missoula (see Missoula chapter).

Extending almost 1250 miles from its origin in British Columbia to its mouth at Astoria, Oregon, the Columbia is the nation’s fourth longest river and the fastest-flowing, due to its rate of descent. As such, it has been subjected to major modifications for multiple purposes, including flood control, commercial navigation and power generation. Locks and canals were created a hundred years ago at Celilo Falls and Cascade Locks, both in the Gorge. The Bonneville Dam in the Gorge and the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington were built simultaneously in the early 1950’s after severe flooding two years earlier devastated their respective stretches. There are now 14 hydroelectric stations on the river, 11 in the U.S. and 3 in Canada, generating more hydro power in the States than any other source. Between these and dredging efforts, it has been made navigable from the mouth to Lewiston, Idaho.

No natural resource was more damaged than the Piscean riches of the river. Salmon, sturgeon, steelhead and other varieties swam it with the abundance of bison on the plains. There are many wonderful images, both written and graphic, of Native Americans of many area nations descending on Celilo Falls, where the fish practically swam into their baskets. It was one of the original trade marts, too, with the British and French trappers also taking part. The dams were killers, and despite remediation efforts, including numerous fish hatcheries, the population is a shadow of its former self.

We decided to stay a few days in the region of Mt Hood. Then, while visiting Portland, we planned to drive back down to do the eastern end. So we picked an RV park in White Salmon, WA, directly across from the town of Hood River, OR. We came down the Oregon side and had to cross a bridge that was frighteningly narrow; in fact, we clicked mirrors with a pickup truck traveling in the other direction. It was a real white knuckle ride with the trailer behind, and not much easier for our wide dually truck alone. The campground was very pleasant – a good origin for sightseeing. Rte. 13 on the Washington side has several shallow tunnels in each direction from White Salmon that were marked 13’ 3”. Our unit height is a little over 13 feet. So we knew our exit meant going back across the bridge at Hood River.

We opted to check out The Dalles Dam. The Dalles is the largest city and county seat of Wasco County, its name en français means sluice or flagstone. The area was a sluice-like narrows down river from Celilo Falls until construction of The Dalles Dam submerged the narrows and turned Celilo Falls into Celilo Lake. The Visitors Center is built on the foundation of Seufert’s Fish Cannery. It has a wide variety of exhibits that chronicle the history of the cannery and the area and the building of the dam, its locks and its fish ladder. It also pays a lot of attention to the opportunities and difficulties that have resulted from the changes made to the River – two samples of the motifs are shown below.

In The Dalles, we visited the first of two very informative Gorge museums. A trip through the pretty town (left and right) brought us to the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center/Wasco County Historical Museum. The Center covers the history of the area from pre-historic times into the twentieth century. We were met at the door by a falconer and his charge; they were heading inside for a show later that morning. Inside, we discovered dedicated exhibits on both sides of the tall central corridor. Our first trip was through the earliest days. Upon entrance, we were greeted by a full size Colombian Mammoth, as well as several other ancient animals , including a sloth, in portraiture and comparative skulls of animals then and now. One would even less like to meet a “then” bear; it outsized the “now” black bear multifold. The story of the Ice Age creation of The Gorge was covered, as expected, as were multiple theories on the routes traveled by North America’s earliest people. One certainly supported the theory that Kennewick Man may be European (see Tri Cities story).

The Native American tribes were covered in detail, as was the 19th century incursion of easterners. One exhibit displayed a pioneer family ferrying its wagon across a river. Another bore witness to missionary efforts. A village was displayed, including wharf, cannery, hotel and saloon. The battle of J.J. Hill and Edw. Harriman pervaded the area, as the tycoons fought to bring their respective railroads through the area and on to Bend, OR. A dramatic exhibit shows how Wasco County, the largest county ever in the United States, has been whittled to its current size. Once 130,000 square miles, running from the Cascades to the Rockies, it is today fewer than 2,400 square miles. And there was a model of the Columbia, a merchant ship whose Captain Robert Gray was the first to navigate the entrance bar and name the Columbia River in 1792.

The Lewis & Clark section is quite unique. Rather than focusing on the challenges and rewards of the route itself, it focuses on specific challenges, including the planning and preparation aspects that took Lewis more than a full year. There is, for example, a section on armament and its multiple functions, including hunting, security and signaling. One of Lewis’s more ingenious inventions was the protection of ammunition. He commissioned the preparation of fifty canisters — believed to be cylindrical though none has survived — each made of 8 pounds of lead and filled with four pounds of powder. The ratio was planned; the lead could be turned into just about the right amount of rounds for the canister’s powder to fire. Sealed with corks and wax, they remained waterproof through many rainstorms, canoe swampings and other hazards. Another display logs the rations carried, including portable soup, a precursor to freeze-dried rations. A sister display highlights specifics about the game taken for food by the Corps on the trip, often way too scant. There were countless cases of famine and unbalanced diet with the resultant illnesses. Other exhibits abounded, not the least of which was an inventory of the “promotional giveaways” — medals, beads, flags, ribbons, and more — that the Corps took to flatter the Native Americans into listening to them rather than blocking their passage – or worse!

The next day, we traveled up the Washington side to the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center in Stevenson. Very different from the Wasco Museum, it was equally informative. The River runs by, and a 2+ story glassed section looks out on it. Soon after admission, one comes upon a a reproduction of a combination petroglyph (rock carving) and pictograph (rock painting) of Tsagaglalal (pronounced Za-ga-gla-lal and meaning She Who Watches. The image is the official logo of the Center. Her story is a haunting legend. Chief of the Wishram, she faced Coyote, who told her that the world would change and women would not be chiefs much longer. Because she had taken such good care of her people, he turned her into a rock so that she could eternally watch over her people. (Everybody know who Coyote is??)

The primary function of this Grand Gallery is to house enormous exhibits, the largest of which is a reproduction of a 1880’s McCord fish wheel. As the canneries demanded more and more input, as many as 70 of these devices were used on The River to literally scoop up salmon and deposit them in baskets. Next to it is a display of the alternate, more laborious efforts used by the indigenous people for many earlier years. Adjacent to the wheel is a 1921 Mack logging truck, a tribute to a contributing industry that survives today. Next is a Corliss steam engine, one of many built to power sawmills. Finally, in the rafters, is a 1917 Curtiss Jenny bi-plane, which served as a WW I trainer and later as a mail carrier.

But the big stuff was just the beginning. The Center is laid out to not overwhelm and encouraged tarrying, and it works. A quick look at several other exhibits, one of which is an old wagon on which were positioned wooden models of half a dozen area forts, a sculpture and rug celebrating the L&C mission, the race for claims, and the fur industry.

Other exhibits also caught our attention. One, provided by Japanese industrialist and collector Iwao Kajima, displays the goods of the hordes of Japanese who migrated across the Other Pond to the Pacific Northwest — and heavily into The Gorge — where they contributed their skills and backs to the building of the region beginning in the early 20th century. One of the highlights of that collection is a pair of commemorative plates of Tsar Nicholas II and the Tsarina, Alexandra, granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Another is a stunner: the largest collection of rosaries in the world, numbering nearly 4,000, collected by the late Donald Brown, founder of the nearby Skamania County Historical Society. It’s on display in what is called the Spiritual Quest section of the Center. And in the lobby is a 1919 Cunningham “inside-drive limousine,” which carried a price tag of $7,458. I ran that through an inflation calculator and it would be a steal today at just under $98k!

After leaving the Center, we took in neighboring sites to the west, including a drive along the Bonneville Dam. Having seenThe Dalles Damup close, we did the “been there done that” tour. A few more miles and we were at Beacon Rock. A out-of-place tower along the riverside, Beacon Rock is 848 feet high. It is the solidified core of an old volcano; the mountain itself has worn away. Captain Clark saw it from afar and arrived there on October 31, 1805. Today ambitious people climb it.

Turning back east, we drove down a little below Bonneville to cross the Bridge of the Gods. The “modern” bridge was built in 1926. After Bonneville was installed, it had to be raised because of the lake behind it. It crosses to Cascade Locks, Oregon. A thousand or so years ago, a giant landslide actually blocked The River and backed it up way into Idaho. Eventually, the force of the water eroded the passage, leaving a stone bridge that later collapsed as well. Left behind were dangerous rapids, described by the Corps of Discovery as water passing with great velocity forming (sic) and boiling in a horrible manner with a fall of about 20 feet. The rapids were eventually made passable by the Cascade Locks in 1896, and, like Celilo Falls, they were later tamed by the nearby downriver dam. The Native American legend that gave the bridge its name is exquisite; among other things, it defines the existence of all the major mountains in Washington and Oregon. Details on request!

We swung down into Cascade Locks. In addition to an historic section of the original locks, there was a marina, a restaurant, and the wharf for the Colombia Gorge sternwheeler that takes tourists between the marina and Portland. It also had a small L&C Memorial Park containing a hideous life-size statue of Sacajawea. She was no teenager and totally glam, posed in a short, slit skirt showing plenty of thigh. The only saving grace was finding Pomp in the usual Native American pouch on her back with her hand reaching over her shoulder to him. Oh, and Seaman stood by to protect her. Not our favorite rendition.

I did one additional visit — to the little museum in Hood River. It had a number of interesting displays, including the process of commercial apple polishing! But the one that fascinated me the most was hair weaving. This was not the process of beautifying your head but rather the art of using hair to make no end of diverse objects. Examples are shown below.

Finally, we could not leave The Gorge without mentioning its favorite sport: wind surfing/kite surfing. There’s a guaranteed wind down the corridor daily, sometimes relatively light but often a real gale. On any given day, anywhere from dozens to hundreds of boards and sails — and folks with a lot more strength than I –can be found colorfully scudding up and down and back and forth.

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