The Columbia River Gorge

Sunday, April 13, 2008 -- Along the Columbia River near Vancouver, WA.

Over the eons of time the Columbia River, which drains over 250,000 sq. miles of mountainous area in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Western Montana, and parts of Southern Canada, cut a path through the Cascade mountains on it's way to the sea. It's the only water route through the mountains in the Northwest and the average flow of water is an amazing 200,000 cubic feet per second. The Columbia Gorge, as its called, is about 80 miles long and as much as 4000 feet deep. Not just a grand scenic spectacle, it's also an area loaded with history.

The Northwest has supported human civilization and culture for at least the past 13,000 years -- the oldest of any area in the United States. Native peoples, whose ancestors originally crossed the Bering Strait from Asia, settled here first before slowly spreading around the rest of the Americas. The Columbia River Gorge provided many benefits to these peoples, including an abundance of fresh water, food, and a reasonable climate (as long as they liked rain and clouds). Eventually, the people that liked sun and heat moved to Arizona, and those that liked clam chowder moved to New York.

Sunday, April 13th, Dar and I trekked east into the Gorge to get re-acquainted with some sites we hadn't seen since living out here in the early 90's. Led by our theme of exploring the Lewis & Clark Trail, the focus was on landmarks noted in the journals of the Corps of Discovery. First on the list was the Gorge overlook at Cape Horn, right on Hwy 14 along the Washington side of the Columbia. By definition a cape is a large steep point of land that juts out into a body of water, and Cape Horn matches that description. It's a great place to get an overview of the Gorge from an elevated point.

Just off Cape Horn, thrusting out of the water about a third of the distance across, Phoca Rock sits there very much like it was 200 years ago when Clark made note of it as they paddled downriver on their way to the ocean.

Next on the agenda was Beacon Rock, a large monolithic hunk of andecite over 800 feet high that sits right along the Washington shore of the river. It's the central vent-plug of a small ancient volcano, the crater walls of which were washed away by the Columbia ages ago. L&C first noted this landmark on November 2nd, 1805, calling it "beaten rock" (probably due to it's rough, weathered appearance) on their way west in 1805. But on their way back east the following spring, it became "beacon rock" in their journals, as they probably used it as a beacon of sorts to measure their progress up the river. This was the point along their journey where they first started noticing the effects of the ocean tide in the river, giving rise to heightened spirits by knowing they were close to their destination. The trail to the top of Beacon Rock is relatively easy and we'd done it numerous times in the past. It's still a neat accomplishment and the views of the Gorge are Gorge-ous.

From Beacon Rock it's only a short drive to Bonneville Dam. It's spring and melting snows are quickly filling the Columbia River System. The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) manages that system to minimize flooding and maximize their ability to generate electricity from dammed up pools of water during dry periods. On this day, as you can see on our pictures, they were spilling a lot of water.

Just upriver from Bonneville is the Bridge of the Gods at a particularily narrow point on the Columbia. In the 1700's, a massive landslide -- referred to as the Bonneville Slide -- actually plugged up the river for a period of time, creating a "bridge" of debris. It didn't take long for the river to clear much of the slide debris and continue flowing. But this is the area that L&C called the "great shute" -- an portion of the river filled with rocks and rapids too rough for canoes. They had to portage around these spots.

Crossing the river on the steel structured bridge, man's replacement of the original Bridge of the Gods, we returned to the Portland area on the Oregon side of the river. There are dozens of waterfalls along the high walls of the Gorge on this side, many of them hundreds of feet high. The largest of these is Multnomah Falls -- 620 feet high. The best time of the year to see these falls is spring, of course, as water is plentiful and the views dramatic.

The thought-exercise during the day was to put ourselves in the shoes of the L&C gang, imagining what they saw -- native, unspoiled, wild, without any man-made modifications to the natural state -- and trying to imagine what they thought. At this point in their journey they'd already been through many very tough times and the journey itself had taken far longer than they thought it would. But they were also excited by the sense that the ocean, their destination, was near, and passed through this area quickly.

Both Dar and I are getting into this Lewis and Clark thing. Reading the journals of the Corps of Discovery and seeing landmarks they refer to is, in a small way, like being with them on their journey.

What a journey it was. And what a journey it is.