Washington: Boating on the Columbia River

It’s strange going back to a place you haven’t seen in 25 years. There’s a weird sense of sameness and yet everything is so different. Size has been contorted by memory. Things seem smaller or bigger; farther or nearer. So it was in Longview, WA, on the banks of the Columbia River.

Back in the day, when I served my time in Longview, WA, I was known simply as the Irish girl from Willow Grove. My Frenchification of the local Les Schwab tyre outlet got a few laughs. I’m sure poor old Les would have had a laugh, too, at having his name pronounced ‘lay’. My irritation at the wanton misspelling of the word ‘Unsoeld’ on a billboard in a field I thought was for sale made people rightly wonder at my naivety.  Politician Jolene Unsoeld didn’t win that year either. And my complete lack of understanding of how unions worked left many wondering what planet I’d come from.

The location: A temporary project office in a peroxide plant.
Scenario: I wanted to hang a clock. I had a nail but needed a hammer. I saw a man with hammer walking by outside and asked him if he’d hang it for me.
No, ma’am. I’m an electrician. You need a carpenter.
No. I need a hammer and you have one.
Sorry, ma’am. I’m an electrician. You need a carpenter. This is a union site.
Okay. So, may I borrow your hammer?
No, ma’am. You’re not a carpenter.

Yep – them were the days. Driving through Longview I noticed that the bar I’d worked in for four shifts was now a grocery store. My old stomping ground, Henry’s, was no more. The paper mill I once temped in had a different name. But the Nutty Narrows Bridge for squirrels was still there. Lake Sacajawea Park looked bigger and better than I remembered. And the Columbia River was still as majestic as ever.

Captain TJ took us out on the Doris Marie one day, starting out from where he has her moored at Willow Grove, my old ‘hood. The view of Longview from the water is quite different from what you see from the road. Always one to prefer nature over industry, it was strange that I caught myself not complaining about how the massive production plants had ruined the view but rather marvelling at  the amazing brains behind their steel structures. We were dwarfed by the massive ships waiting patiently to be called to dock to take on their load. They came from all over the world to this small city on the banks of the Columbia River. The logs fascinated me then, and still fascinate me now. The salmon were in and lots of people were out fishing. We anchored for lunch and watched as successful fishermen filleted their fish. It was a curious sight to see so much nature at work in the shadow of so much industry.

Overhead stretched the great expanse of the 1930’s Lewis and Clarke bridge. Back when it was built, it was the longest and highest cantilever bridge in the United States. [I had to look up that word – cantilever – and if you don’t know, it’s a long projecting beam or girder fixed at only one end.] Originally a private toll bridge, the tolls were removed in 1965 when the bridge had paid for itself. About halfway across the bridge is the state line between Oregon and Washington [Make a note – Oregon has no sales tax so the price you see is the price you pay.]

We were staying in Rainier and the view of Longview across the Columbia River at night was quite something. It’s a city that never sleeps. Through the night, ships are loaded and unloaded and readied to sail back whence they came. The beeps of reversing forklifts at the Port of Longview carry over the night air and the glow of the lights makes it all seem a little unreal.

As one of the first ports in the state of Washington, the Port of Longview has long prided itself on its hard working labor force and deep roots in the state’s blue-collar industries. A collection of hardy longshoremen, millwrights and other laborers and operators who work hard and play hard, thinking up custom solutions and innovations that ultimately help businesses thrive.

One of those hardy longshoremen is still a good mate and the stories he tells would make a great book, if he’d ever get around to dictating one. Back in 2011, when the local union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local Number 21, was embroiled in a fight against union-busting, President Dan Coffman spoke at an international labour solidarity rally in Chiba Japan sponsored by the Japanese Railway Workers Union Doro-Chiba. It was an example of how small the world really is and how our similarities outweigh our differences. I remember the boys at Local 21 as a fine example of the power of unions and the community spirit they engender. I learned good lessons there, despite the hammer thing.

That day, on the Columbia River, so many thoughts floated through my head. I thought of where I’ve been, of what I’ve done, of what life was like when I lived here. I thought about the people I’d met 25 years ago who still number amongst my closest friends today. I thought about new family and dogs and log houses and all sorts of stuff. And isn’t that what travel is about – to take you out of where you are so that you can fully appreciate what you have.

The Columbia begins its 2000-km (1243-mile) journey in British Columbia (BC) and enters the Pacific Ocean near Astoria, Oregon. There, the infamous Columbia Bar, a shifting sandbar, has laid claim to many ships.

Since 1792, almost 2000 large ships have sunk, in and around the mouth of the river. Because of these extreme tides, howling winds, and pea-soup fogs, the Columbia Bar has acquired its rightful reputation as the Graveyard of the Pacific.

The day we were on it, the river was calm and beautiful as it neared its journey’s end. Quite a timely trip, I thought.

Interesting reading

The story behind the Nutty Narrows Bridge

Facts and old photos of the Lewis and Clark bridge construction be sure to scroll down to see it all….

Story of the ILWU 2011 events

Graveyard of Ships in Popular Mechanics 1954



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