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Sorry, No Postcards

POSTED July 28, 2009 3:44 p.m.
  In Oregon, they say, it rains nearly every day and the residents have webbed feet to prove it. That’s an exaggeration. I’ve just returned from a week’s vacation in Oregon and can testify the overcast sky cleared by noon on five days out of seven and the locals do not have skin between their toes like ducks.

The temperatures were in the low 70s and balmy by my reckoning. The kind of summer weather I was used to while growing up in England.

Every day we checked the Internet to see it was over 100 degrees in Modesto and rejoiced we were out of that heat. It’s good to get away from the familiar rut. Blows the cobwebs away.

My two oldest sons and I congregated at the home of my ex-wife. She lives in Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River that divides Oregon and Washington.

Astoria is a very historical place. It was discovered in 1805 by the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark struggling west from the Mississippi, was named Fort Astoria in 1811 after fur trader magnate Lord Astor and is now recognized as the first European settlement on the west coast.

Reference that rain rumor, Lewis and Clark arrived in December and recorded it rained on all but 12 of the 126 days they were on the coast. They spent six days holed up in wretched weather on the Washington side while they tried to cross the river and named the place “Dismal Niche.” Once they reached the Oregon side, they built a shelter for the winter at a site named Fort Clatsop after the local Indian tribe.

Even the locals admit the weather is unsettled and unpredictable but claim there are two to three months in summer when you can count on several days sunshine in a row.

First a fur trading post, then a fishery and cannery especially for salmon, then an anchorage for ocean going vessels which go up the 1,200 mile river to Portland and beyond, Astoria today is a pretty place rising up steep hillsides full of ornate Victorian houses and gardens filled with flowers.

Two facts that even strangers tend to know about Astoria:

Due to frequent storms on top of shallow water, strong currents and shifting mud banks, it has a very dangerous bar or harbor entrance and has recorded hundreds of wrecks, enough to be dubbed “The Graveyard of the Pacific.” The Coast Guard has a rescue station there and keeps very busy. Just visit the marvelous maritime museum and listen to the recorded voices of its crews describing some of those incidents. The bar and Columbia River have so many changing mud banks, the authorities require every ocean going ship to take on a pilot to cross the bar and then be boarded by another pilot to guide the vessel up the river.

The other well-known item of information about Astoria is Arnold Schwarzenegger made the movie “ Kindergarten Cop” there in a local elementary school. The school is still in use and pointed out from the tourist trolley car trundling along the waterside.

We did all the tourist stuff. That included visiting the 200 foot memorial column overlooking the town — a great place to watch the sunset — having our picture taken against the corroded iron skeleton of a ship wrecked on the beach many years ago and crossing the bridge into Washington to visit forts and gun emplacements built from Civil War times through World War II.

Fort Stevens on the Oregon side is especially famous because a Japanese submarine surfaced offshore there during July of 1944 and fired nine shells at the coast. The fort did not reply. The submarine commander, by the way, was invited on an official visit to Astoria after the war and said if he’d known a fort was there he would never have dared fire on the coast.

First impressions of Oregon for my son Dustin who was visiting for the first time: The roadsides are very clean, the traffic light and moving at a steady, well ordered pace, compared with California. The people are friendly and more relaxed. The landscape is green even at this time of year. It’s largely forest, of course. Oh, and it’s blissfully cool.

Can’t wait to go back.

 

John Branch is editor of The Riverbank News and a staff reporter for The Oakdale Leader and The Escalon Times. He may be reached at jbranch@oakdaleleader.com or 847-3021.

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