West Coast…Best Coast?

Pacific Northwest Field Seminar Part 2 

The Oregon leg of the Pacific Northwest adventure was brimming with new adventures, mini lectures, bonding time in the vans and even more awe.

One of the first stops on what could possibly be described as the world’s best road trip was Bonneville Dam, completed by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1937 under the direction of Franklin Roosevelt. The Bonneville Dam is an exemplary site for learning about the complexities of environmental and energy issues. Bonneville provides hydroelectric to hundreds of thousands of homes and has been working to improve their salmon runs and corridors so as to better assist fish migration. Notably, dams can profoundly impact ecosystems and have the potential to affect salmon migration. In our discussion of Bonneville following our tour guide’s enthusiastic speech regarding the dam, the Williams-Mystic instructors guided us to think critically about all facets of the issue.

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What did the salmon say when she ran into a brick wall? Dam!


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Jessica (Maine Maritime ’16) and Chelsea (URI ’17) wait expectantly….


After pausing at the salmon hatchery and the breathtaking Multnomah Falls, we arrived at the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria. Here we learned about the tempestuous Columbia Bar where the mighty Columbia River (some 1,200 miles long) collides dramatically with the Pacific…the sight has been nicknamed “the graveyard of the Pacific” for to its deep history of pulling ships under. Today the Coast Guard hires only the most qualified bar and river pilots to guide vessels across the treacherous bar and through the thin channel. These unsung experts make possible safe navigation and the transport of goods inland on the River. At night, we slept aboard a the decommissioned Columbia lightship, which had been used for decades to mark the bar. 

On the way to our next destination the next morning, we paused at Cannon Beach. Here I will let a photo illustrate the wind because my words would fail to capture the force:

In between the fascinating site visits and accompanying lectures, there was a considerable amount of transit time. “Van time,” like “ship time” takes on a different quality. Hours in the van are prime for learning more about each other and the places we are visiting or passing through. While a few of my peers could be found napping, I refused to close my eyes lest I miss a moment of the glorious scenery rolling by: deep green forests of firs and ferns and dramatic cliffs with white waves crashing and foaming at the base: the Pacific Northwest is like a whole other world. Truly, everything just seems more epic on the West Coast!

We met up with Susan Schnurr (F’06), a PhD student at Oregon State University, who explained the tsunami planning initiatives in Pacific coastal communities. After her presentation, we had a chance to try the tsunami evacuation route by following the signs to high ground. Unfortunately, some in our group were not fast enough to beat the terrifying rush of water that was (hypothetically) nipping at our heels… After this high-octane exercise, we sought refuge in the aquarium where I shared some deep soulful eye contact with the sea otter. Fun fact: one sea otter at the aquarium eats $17,000 worth of seafood annually– otterly expensive!

Then it was back on the road. After driving along the breathtaking cliffs, we paused at the Sea Lion cave, which is in fact the largest sea cave in North America…you enter through a gift shop and walk down the path hugging a cliff to an old elevator that takes you down 200 feet to the cave. As the door opens you are greeted by the loud barking of the hundred or so stellar sea lions that are stretched across the rocks. There is a metal fence between the humans and the sea lions, but the pinnipeds pay no mind to us. This site presents a fascinating opportunity to discuss the tension between private ownership of an ostensibly public access point on the coast. Again, these on-site discussions push us to think critically about complexity on interdisciplinary matters.

sea lion

After the sea lion cave, we visited the expansive Umpqua dunes (some 4,000 acres), which looked like a rolling desert that extends some 3 miles from the ocean. There was an abrupt transition from the evergreens to the sand… quite a sight for someone used to the sloping banks of the East Coast. At the top of a dune, we paused for a fabulous lecture from Professor Marlo Stein (Smith ’17) about dune formation. A light rain came down, but soon it cleared and a rainbow emerged to frame our impromptu class.



I think they were dune for the day…

We then made our way to the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology in Coos Bay for our last couple days on the West Coast. With OIMB as our base, we visited South Slough, the first National Estuarine Research Reserve, to learn about the difficult task of wetland restoration. In the afternoon, we also free time to hike and explore the area…


With Mike leading the charge the next morning, we explored the rocky inter-tidal zone in Cape Arago National Park and found a multifarious world of life clinging to the rocks: starfish, chiton, anemones and all manner of other species I can’t spell. And for the first time in the 20 years of W-M visiting the site, it HAILED! For maybe 12 minutes were all stood like sentinels facing away from the rather large pellets blowing towards us.

Chiton Sophie
Sophie (URI ’18) knows one way to chiton your day!
What the hail! Stu (Roanake ’18) holds proof of the hail storm.


Our time in the Pacific Northwest had been at times wet, at times windy, but every moment had been thoroughly engaging.


After a week or so back in Mystic, I think we are all finally dry. While some of us may still be unpacking from the last trip, we must turn our attention toward that next adventure and packing list. In a few short days, we will be departing for our third and final field seminar in Louisiana…









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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