Pioneer heritage, ocean and river vistas, seafood by the boatload—and rain

Pioneer heritage, ocean and river vistas, seafood by the boatload—and rain
Erected in a clearing atop Astoria’s highest hill, the Astoria Column offers visitors an illustrated history of the city along with spectacular 360-degree views. (RICK LOOMIS / LAT)
One of the first travel writers to see the area said, "Ocian in view! O! the joy."

Within a few weeks, however, he was complaining about the rain: "O! how disagreeable is our Situation dureing this dreadfull weather."

Of course, in 1805 William Clark (with his partner, Meriwether Lewis) didn't have the advantages available to modern travel writers in Astoria: no excellent seafood restaurants, no comfy B&Bs and, apparently, no spell-checker.

But Clark's observations remain valid: There is great joy (and awe and fear) at seeing the Pacific Ocean where it confronts the Columbia River, and the weather is still miserable. But that "dreadfull" rain puts Astoria in the company of Ireland's Dingle Peninsula, the north coast of Kauai and the island of St. Lucia in the Lesser Antilles—places where rain is regarded as "liquid sunshine," where the locals respond to the inevitable visitor complaints with, "Of course it rains a lot. How else could it stay so green and beautiful?"

My wife, Janice, and I visited Astoria during a long Memorial Day weekend at the suggestion of our son, Paul, who lives in Portland, Ore., and whose instincts for nifty, thrifty travel destinations we have come to respect.

How could we not like a place with history, scenery and smoked salmon cheeks? With him we made the two-hour drive west from Portland on U.S. 26 through the forests of Clatsop and Washington counties to Astoria, population 9,813, in the extreme northwest corner of the state.

Through unfortunate procrastination on my part (it hadn't occurred to me that Astoria hotels and B&Bs might be booked full on a holiday weekend) we stayed in Seaside, 15 miles south of Astoria on U.S. 101. Thus we commuted 20 minutes each way between our comfortable but characterless chain hotel and Astoria, through villages and woods, past "Elk Crossing" signs and over the scenic, if confusingly named, "Old Youngs Bay Bridge." Sometimes the weather would change two or three times during this short trip.

Weather like that tends to keep people inside, raising the level of the art of conversation. At least that's my theory on why so many of our favorite moments in Astoria were spent listening to its citizens.

At the Columbian Cafe on Marine Drive, for example, as important as eating Uriah Hulsey's deft vegetarian and seafood creations is hearing him humorously catalog the world's shortcomings. The cafe's Nixon bathroom, with its collection of unflattering photos and banner newspaper headlines, is sort of an anti-shrine to the Watergate scandal and Nixon's resignation. Uriah whips up a dandy breakfast too. We loved the apple crepes and the "Broad Street": blue cheese home fries with eggs.

At a restaurant called Someplace Else, owner Lauren Arena likes to come out of the kitchen and talk with her clientele about any one of the many countries she's visited. Although her basic menu emphasizes Italy, her daily specials and travel interests are worldwide. Thus, under suspended Balinese boat kites, we listened to Italian opera, ate Greek spanakopita followed by a dessert of Thai black rice and bananas, and talked with her about Indonesian Komodo dragons while her vacation videos of Malaysia played on a TV at the side of the room.

But the winner of the Wet Afternoon Award is the Shallon Winery, where 77-year-old winemaker Paul van der Veldt talks about dirigibles (his passion), discourses on Astoria history and debunks what he considers the affectations of the wine industry. And he pours samples of his specialty—dessert wines in unexpected flavors. Well, elderberry we might have expected, but I was unprepared for mango, lemon meringue and chocolate orange.

Unconventional as they sound, they all are delicious, particularly the chocolate orange, which Van der Veldt creates with six kinds of chocolate from four countries. It's a bonbon in a bottle. When he gets behind in his work, which is often, he pulls visitors into the back room and continues his lecture while he affixes labels to his bottles, applies their foil tops and gives them a last polishing.

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The skies were merely overcast when we began our Astoria sightseeing. On Coxcomb Hill, the highest point in town (elevation 600 feet), is the Astoria Column, a 125-foot tower affording visitors a grand, orienting view of the area. The viewpoint is itself fun to view. The exterior of the column, dedicated in 1926 and paid for by the Great Northern Railroad, is decorated in a technique called "sgraffito," which involves applying, then scraping away, several layers of paint. Italian artist Attilio Pusterla created a sepia-toned illustrated history of Astoria that begins at the bottom with American mariner Robert Gray's 1792 discovery of the mouth of the Columbia, spirals up through Lewis and Clark's explorations and the story of namesake John Jacob Astor, and ends at the top with the arrival in Astoria of the railroad.

Inside the tower we were the ones doing the spiraling—up 164 steps to the platform at the top. To the east, deep green hills. Southeastward, Saddle Mountain (so named for the saddle-like notch in its ridge). In all the other directions there was water; Astoria sits on a peninsula. To the south was Youngs Bay and on the other side of it the site of Ft. Clatsop, where Lewis and Clark's company wintered before their return home.

To the west, the Pacific Ocean. And to the north was the broad Columbia River, the border between Oregon and Washington, spanned by a spectacular 4.1-mile-long bridge that rises 260 feet at the Oregon end to let the freighters and tankers and similar engines of maritime commerce sail underneath.

Clark's joy at seeing the Pacific was premature, incidentally. It was really the mouth of the Columbia he saw—an understandable error, given its breadth and turbulence. The mouth of the Columbia is called the "Graveyard of the Pacific." The label comes not just from the rough water—where ocean swells collide with the longest river on the West Coast—but also the capricious weather, the shifting sandbars and the poor visibility in the drizzle and mist.

More than 200 ships weighing at least 50 gross tons have been wrecked in these waters, where on any given day a captain could encounter his personal "perfect storm." The conditions are so tricky that transiting vessels need two kinds of specialized navigators: river pilots, who, to get their licenses, must know the Columbia so well that they can draw it in detail from memory; and bar pilots, who specialize in getting ships in and out of the dangerous doorway.

As the clouds broke slightly we drove down the hill and walked along Astoria's riverfront on the quiet Saturday morning.

A sightseers' trolley car trundled by on its 2 1/2-mile riverside route. When I looked closely, I saw that it differs from trolleys of old: Rather than taking its power from overhead lines, it tows its own trailer-mounted generator. (The trolley is an accommodation to travelers who arrive by tour boat at the 17th Street pier and need a quick ride to the restaurants downtown.) Tiny pilot boats motored back and forth between the pier and a succession of behemoth cargo vessels making perilous exit into the ocean.

In the early 1900s the riverfront was home to 55 fish canneries, where crews of immigrant laborers gutted, chopped and steamed the area's abundant salmon, tuna and sturgeon, squeezed them into little tins and shipped them to the world. In seasons when the haul was great, the smell could knock you out of your spats.

Eventually the salmon harvests diminished, and the riverfront got quieter (but better smelling). Logging, then tourism supplanted fishing in the local economy. The wood pilings of the riverfront remain, but instead of canneries they now hold coffeehouses and waterside restaurants.

The Columbia River Maritime Museum, on the east end of town, is a show-and-tell center with fascinating stories to share. Perhaps it's because I was raised in Minnesota that I could not get enough of the fishing boats, the nautical gear and the full-scale exhibit of a Coast Guard motor lifeboat somehow defying gravity to rescue a man overboard in impossible seas.

I waited impatiently for my turn to operate the controls in a mock towboat wheelhouse. I took the helm of the Knapp, a World War II destroyer whose bridge now commands a wing of the museum.

Parked in the river behind the museum is the Lightship Columbia, taken out of service in 1979. For 28 years its 1,200-watt light marked the entrance to the river at a point where no lighthouse could be built. We went aboard, and I could imagine the boredom and claustrophobia—and nausea—of its 18-man crew, confined for weeks at a time in this 128-foot-long steel box, being spun by the waves.

The Clatsop County Heritage Museum, a couple of blocks away in the former Astoria city hall, gave us more stories. Again we heard about Robert Gray, who not only was the first white man to sail into the Columbia (which he named after his ship), but also the first American to circumnavigate the world, trading furs as he went.

Fur was the area's first commodity. John Jacob Astor, at his death in 1848 the nation's wealthiest person, made his first big money selling animal skins. Prompted by Lewis and Clark's stories of animal abundance in the Pacific Northwest, he sent explorers there. They built Ft. Astoria in 1811, making Astoria the "first permanent American settlement west of the Rockies." (The drafting of that sentence requires precision, because Astoria's founding certainly postdated Spanish settlements in California, not to mention the centuries of residence west of the Mississippi by Native Americans. But it is the oldest town on the American West Coast to be settled by citizens of the then-infant United States.)

British capture of the new town during the War of 1812 quickly put Ft. Astoria's fledgling fur industry into Britain's hands, but Oregon subsequently became an American territory in 1848, and then a state in 1859.

The museum also tells a dark story of Finnish settlers in the early 1930s who, having heard that the Soviets were building a utopia in the Karelia region of eastern Finland, naively left Oregon to become part of the new experiment near their homeland. At the end of the long trip, many of them found grim Russian labor camps, and far from being rewarded for their sacrifices, they were shunned as outsiders. Most were never heard from again.

On the second floor of the museum is the re-created interior of a typical frontier saloon, something between the Long Branch of "Gunsmoke" and the lounge on "Cheers." The long wood bar dates to 1895.

The Flavel House Museum gave us a view of upper-crust 19th century Astoria. George Flavel was the first man to be licensed as a river pilot in the Oregon Territory. He parlayed his earnings into real estate investments, becoming Astoria's first millionaire. He spent years planning this Queen Anne-style Victorian house as his retirement home, creating verandas, parlors and a cupola and specifying exotic woods and tiles from around the world.

He died in 1893, having lived in his gingerbread dream house for only eight years, and never knowing that strangers like us would be clicking along his wood floors, admiring his nooks-and-crannies design and thinking how our own home really could use a cupola.

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The sun was shining when we finished our tour of the Flavel House. The sun does shine in Astoria, William Clark's lamentations notwithstanding. When it does, the Earth looks reborn. The greenery glistens, accented by school-bus-yellow splashes of Scotch broom, a pretty but pernicious plant that was ill-advisedly imported from Europe by early settlers.

But modern weather statistics still support Clark: Astoria's rainfall averages 67 inches per year. By comparison, Seattle, known for its cats-and-dogs climate, gets only 37 inches. In a typical year, Astoria will enjoy only 50 days of clear skies but will receive measurable precipitation on 192 days.

We visited Lewis and Clark's Ft. Clatsop (named after the friendly but hard-bargaining local Indian tribe), where the captains and their discovery corps wintered in the woods about five miles south of present-day Astoria. It's not the original fort—wood, even buckskin, rots quickly in this climate—but in 1955 the National Park Service re-created it from Clark's plans.

The accommodations were not luxurious, particularly for the 23 enlisted men who had to fit into three small, dark bunk rooms. Capts. Lewis and Clark shared a room, formally arranged so that even here in the wilderness, enlisted men could enter the officers' quarters only if they first got permission from the posted orderly. Shoshone guide Sacagawea and her French-Canadian husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, and infant child, Jean Baptiste, had their own space.

During our visit volunteer rangers in early 19th century frontier costume reenacted a typical task for the soldiers: making candles. They chopped and melted tallow (the original crew likely would have used elk fat) and poured it into candle molds. Both captains and some enlisted men were required to keep journals of their trip; thus, with little natural light available even during the daytime, candles were essential.

The early explorers ate a lot of elk—indeed, the availability of game was one of the reasons they chose this location—but they didn't like it. It wasn't greasy enough. They preferred beaver tail and particularly liked whale blubber, which they tasted when their Indian colleagues told them of a whale carcass that had washed ashore.

They ate beaver tail and road-kill whale, but apparently not salmon. Maybe they were afraid of it; they had suffered dysentery from eating salmon earlier in the trip. What a pity, for along with Dungeness crab and razor clams (so big that I mistook a fried clam for a fish fillet), the local salmon is reason enough to move to Oregon. We particularly relished the way Josephson's Smokehouse prepares it: tangy, a bit salty, but moist. We created our own breakfast there one morning, choosing among the "salmon cheeks" (a delicacy) and "cod collars." (Do cod even have necks?) We bought morsels of smoked salmon, halibut and albacore tuna, which we put together with bagels and cream cheese.

Another, more conventional place to enjoy salmon is the Silver Salmon Grille, where you can have it baked, broiled, blackened or poached, stuffed, smoked or sprinkled with sesame. Salmon appears not only on the menu, but also in the artwork on its walls and in the crafted metal motifs on its stainless-steel light fixtures.

Clark was two centuries too early. All he needed was the right remoulade sauce. With a glass of chocolate orange wine for dessert, I am sure he would have said, "O! the joy"—and meant it.

Jerry V. Haines is a lawyer in Washington, D.C.