Boomer and I sat out on our small hotel patio overlooking the bay and the Columbia River the last morning we were in Oregon. It was an overcast day and the river was calm. It is not always calm, however, as the mouth of the Columbia River that feeds into the Pacific Ocean can be treacherous. So treacherous that it has earned the nickname Graveyard of the Pacific. 2000+ vessels have met their fate while trying to cross the Columbia Bar since 1792.
The Columbia River Maritime Museum is located a few miles from the coast of the Pacific Ocean along the shoreline of the Columbia River. The building creates a story for you as you approach as the roof shapes mimic waves.
The dangers of the Columbia Bar are address as soon as you walk into the museum with a map of the shoreline surrounding the mouth of the Columbia River. Red lights dot the map, marking each shipwreck dating from 1829 to 2002. It is a haunting reminder of just how dangerous the sea can be.
The Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean creating the Columbia Bar. The bar is about 3 miles wide (4.8 km) and 6 miles (9.7km) long. As the river and the ocean become one large wave and the wind creates a challenging environment for ships trying to navigate their way up the river. In the Crossing The Bar: Perilous Passage exhibit within the museum, it further explains why it is so dangerous with actual video taken from the US Coast Guard and Columbia River Bar Pilots.
The most impressive exhibit in the museum to me was the US Coast Guard Motor Lifeboat 44300. The boat can be seen from outside through the wave shaped window, propped up as though it is charging up a wave. Inside the museum, the boat is staged with a Coast Guard crew attempting to save a civilian. As you walk around the 44-foot long boat (13.41 m) there is an informative film running giving you the history behind the surf rescue vessel. Watching the boat in action put a knot in my throat just thinking about how brave the USCG crews are and how magnificent these boats are. To see this boat in action follow this link. Sorry for the link, but the video is not listed in the public domain so I can’t legally post it on the blog. If you don’t have time to watch the entire 4 1/2 minute video, just jump ahead to the 3:13 time. HOLY F*&% PEOPLE!
As I rounded the corner I entered a room full of different boats… call them vessels if you will. Here I found another lifeboat used by the Coast Guard, however much smaller than the 44300.
The most interesting boat I thought was a small boat that traveled from Japan, arriving at Cape Disappointment two years after the 2011 tsunami. This room also had a fun interactive knot tying display that I will say if you are relying on me to tie your boat to the dock cleat, good luck… your boat will surely drift away.
As I made my way around the museum I learned about the rich history of the salmon canning in Astoria, “piloted” a tugboat, and learned about the USS Shark, a US Navy Vessel that ran around in 1846, another victim of the Columbia Bar. In an interesting turn of events, in 2008 a young girl and her father discovered two cannons from the USS Shark buried on the Arch Cape beach. The cannons are now on display at the museum.
The museum carries on outside with the Lightship Columbia, a mobile lighthouse. This boat is one of 5 named Columbia that had been stationed at the mouth of the Columbia River since 1950 to 1979. After 1979 the Lightship was replaced with an automotive navigational buoy. The boat would anchor off shore approximately 6 miles, providing a beacon for vessels where a lighthouse on land could not.
As I stepped onto the deck of the Columbia for my self-guided tour I imagined what the crew must have felt, being anchored out in the ocean during violent storms and 30-foot waves. The boat’s ability to withstand the waves was described as a bobbing cork. Just thinking about that makes me want to take some Dramamine! Inside I wandered around the narrow hallways, peeking in the doorways of the crew’s bunks, the mess deck, and the oddly large kitchen. The boat would have a crew of 17, with 10 crew always on shift. Although the boat was fairly roomy, for a boat, it would be pretty tight quarters for 17 men.
After I finished the tour of the Columbia I asked about the US Coast Guard boat that was docked next to the Columbia as it appeared to allow tours. The docent for the Columbia did not know if they were offering a tour of the ship that day which was disappointing as that would have been icing on the cake to walk aboard a modern day Coast Guard ship!
If you would like to visit the Columbia River Maritime Museum they are located at 1792 Marine Drive in Astoria Oregon. They are open daily from 9:30 to 5 pm and closed Thanksgiving and Christmas. Ticket prices for adults are $12, Seniors $10 and $5 for Children (6-17), 6 and under are free.