Aboard the American Empress: We wake to fog in Astoria

A hillside of bright lobelia fronts the mansion of George Flavel in Astoria
A hillside of bright lobelia fronts the mansion of George Flavel in Astoria

ABOARD THE AMERICAN EMPRESS-Monday night on the Columbia River—Our morning curtains opened to nothing but bright fog today. Allegedly our boat had arrived at the historic town of Astoria, Oregon, where the river meets the ocean in a never-ending contest of wind and waves. The paddle wheeler was quiet and safe, but we couldn’t see a thing through the haze.

After breakfast, sunny details quickly began to emerge through the atmosphere, and we boarded one of the American Empress’s free hop-on, hop-off buses. At 15-minute intervals the three vehicles left for a 45-minute circuit of the town’s major attractions.  We stayed on for a complete round trip in order to decide where to hop off the next time around.

Astoria was named for John Jacob Astor, the nineteenth century tycoon who founded the seaside town as a shipping point for his fur business, although he never lived there. The best-known and wealthiest man in town was George Flavel, who started out as a bar harbor pilot. His nineteenth century Queen Anne style house survives intact, and is a dramatic example of what big money could buy in those days. The cost for us to tour the mansion was fully covered as it was for several other points of interest served by the buses.

The underwater “bar” separating the river and the ocean is still one of the most dangerous locations for navigation in the world, and other bar pilots like Flavel are still much in demand. The waters offshore here are known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific” since thousands of vessels have sunk in the contest of waves produced by the mighty river meeting the relentless ocean.

No wonder the U.S. Coast guard has based one of its most important bases and a training school here at Astoria. Even today, with all modern technology aiding seafarers, the Coast Guard makes between 300 and 400 rescues a year on the unruly waves hereabouts.

Wisely, our modest paddle-wheel boat tied up for most of the day at the same dock used by the the Coast Guard cutters.

4/20/15

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