Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Astoria Pre-Nostalgia

I'm about to leave for a 5-day bicycle trip in Oregon. My sweetie and I will catch an early train to Longview in southern Washington. Our first day of riding will take us along the Columbia River and end in Astoria, Oregon, which is almost on the coast. I've never been to Astoria, but I've heard mention of it a lot over the year from family members who would stop there on commercial fishing trips.

In the summers, relatives would tuna fish off the Pacific Coast from Washington all the way down to California. Astoria was one spot to stop and sell fish, unloading their big hauls that were waiting frozen in the hull. On my mom's first summer fishing when she was 16, she got arrested there and taken to jail when a local cop thought she was a runaway. They called her home number and no one answered. That is because, of course, her parents were in Astoria, and had splurged on a hotel after weeks on the water. My mom says she remembers the dubious jail toilet with its shoddy partition wall, and that the guards kindly lent her a book on Australia to pass the time. The police finally got ahold of her parents and released my poor mom before she had to spend the night.

My aunt said on her first summer fishing as a teenager, she was just getting her sea legs and then they'd go to Astoria to wait out big storms. They were fishing 100-200 miles off the coast, so getting caught in bad weather was no joke. Both my mom and her sister said they liked the town but they'd rather be out on the boat, on the water.

The older adults however, welcomed the chance to get off the boat, have a good meal and some drinks, often coordinating with other relatives from Seattle so that their boats were all in port at the same time.

There used to be a lot of canneries along the Columbia, but those were even declining by the time my mom started going to Astoria in the 1970's. The town probably would have become an even bigger economic port if it weren't for the Columbia Bar at the entrance of the river. This natural sandbar/shoal is miles long and apparently a treacherous place to try to get a boat into and a veritable ship graveyard. My great-uncle said he knows guys whose boats have gotten stuck on the bar. "These young guys come in thinking it's no big deal. But you have to have experience, and learn from some one who knows the bar. I learned from my dad."

His dad was my great-grandfather, a first-generation Norwegian-American who spent his whole life on or around the water. He lived on an island in the San Juans, but spent a good chunk of his life fishing salmon, halibut, and tuna in the waters between Alaska and California. He bought his own boat in 60's and then fished for several more decades. He named the boat "Vivian" after one of his daughters, my great-aunt. That boat was the life-blood of the family- bringing in money to support his 7 kids, and the place where the next couple generations would learn to fish. When my great-grandpa retired, the boat was maintained for many years and moored in the San Juans. Then in 1997, the diesel Atlas boat engine died unexpectedly, and shortly after my grandpa passed away after being in relatively good health.

The boat was fixed up and sold to a man who liked that style of fishing boat and wanted to live aboard. And you know where the boat is now? Astoria! So the plan is to try to spot it as we pedal into town tomorrow.

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