Moving Down the Coastline: Part II of the Pacific Northwest Field Seminar

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Multnomah Falls

For most travelers, there is an “Aha!” moment, that instant at which one realizes they have found what they have been seeking, whether consciously or subconsciously. While I cannot pin mine to an exact time or place, I will say that our adventures in Oregon especially exemplified everything I had hoped to find in the Pacific Northwest. We had entered the land of giants, where small signs of humanity attempted to integrate themselves into the landscape.

Our visit to Point Defiance as we drove south through Washington was a turning point in our journey, marking the moment when we were truly confronted with the beauty of our natural environment—made only more magnificent by the contrast of the industry that we had left behind. The sun symbolically emerged for the first time since our arrival on the West Coast, warming our backs and the round gray rocks that lined the crystal-clear water. The trees were almost neon-colored, their vibrant green attracting Nellie, Tenzin, and Kwasi to the steep stretch of forest that rose behind us.

As we sat there, listening to Rich King read an excerpt from our course readers, we were exposed to the chilly freshness of the air tinged with pine and salt that would follow us for the rest of the trip. After a few short hours, we unhappily trudged to the vans, the image of the mountains topped with houses and water hosting tankers fading in our minds as we crossed the border to Oregon.

At Bonneville Dam we learned of the controversy surrounding hydropower and the symbolic salmon of the region. I’ve never seen such verdure as I did at the base of Multnomah Falls, the algae and moss on the trees contrasting the white spray of the second-tallest waterfall in the United States. The path to the top was blocked by the destruction of the bridge by a falling rock the week before—one of the many reminders of nature’s obvious power.

As a maritime studies program, all roads—or, in this case, Highway 101—eventually lead to the sea. After the Falls, we made our way down through the hills and fog to Astoria, a smaller-scale civilization with dilapidated, element-abused buildings on the left and newer complexes lining the Columbia River. We spent the evening learning about the treacherous Columbia River Bar (located at the mouth of this mighty river) and the souls who guide commercial vessels safely over it multiple times a day.  Then it was onboard once again as we revisited the experience of sleeping on the lightship Columbia, a formerly stationed “floating lighthouse” on the Bar (by the time it hosted us, it was docked safely at the pier).

The following day could be characterized by one word: soaking. Apparently rain doesn’t fall in drops in the Pacific Northwest: it comes down in sheets. The morning found us back across the bridge for a brief visit to Washington, where we attempted to see the Bar itself (though it was much less intimidating hidden in fog and pelting rain) before visiting a salmon hatchery in Astoria where we stood in our foul-weather gear as friendly fishermen taught us about the life cycles of salmon. Overall, the salmon were a large focus of our studies while on the West Coast, as they represent a failing resource that was once vital to both the native populations and white newcomers hoping to profit from the untouched land. It was refreshing, however, to understand just how proactive humans can be when faced with such an issue; there was no “hush-hush,” no cover-up, no pretending that life could proceed as normal without a crucial part of the ecosystem. Those we met, from the waiters serving locally-caught fillets at Pike’s Place Market to the fish counters at the Bonneville Dam to the elderly volunteers at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, reminded us time and time again of how magnified the controversy surrounding the salmon fishery has become. It is being discussed, examined, and as a result, potentially even solved.

Read the final installment of Spring ’14 blogger Alex M’s reflection on the Pacific Northwest field seminar this coming Monday!

Author: williamsmystic

A one semester interdisciplinary ocean and coastal studies program integrating marine science, maritime history, environmental policy, and literature of the sea.

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