Sunday, July 19, 2009

Falling for Oregon

July 16

Columbia River Gorge (mile 7,400)

We dedicated today to exploring the Columbia River Gorge via our nation's first scenic highway. The Columbia River Highway was built along the most scenic stretch of the Columbia River Gorge in 1913-1922. It features dramatic switchback climbs up two bluffs, providing panoramic views of the river some 700 feet below, and its lowland segment passes the largest concentration of high waterfalls in North America.

Because the road was built to accommodate the limitations of cars of the time, it has a maximum grade of only about five percent, and the switchbacks have a minimum radius of 100 degrees. These qualities make the road attractive to bicyclists. It is very unnerving to share a narrow two-lane road that has no shoulder with bicyclists, who could be around any turn. Between worrying about hitting a bicyclist and worrying about being hit by a car rounding the next curve while passing a bicyclist, I was a nervous wreck on the hilly sections of the road. And, I wasn't even the one driving the car.

We stopped in the colorful and quaint town of Hood River. The town is a tourist's delight of over thirty brightly painted restaurants and coffee shops, plus about that many businesses specializing in outdoor sports, all spilling down a steep mountainside to end at a section of the Columbia River known as the world capital of sail boarding and kite boarding.

We picked up artisan sandwiches at a bakery in town, then headed to the river to watch the wind sports. A class of about twenty people was learning to sail board in a sheltered cove, and about a dozen more people were on the beach or in the water without boards, just working on mastering their kites in the stiff winds blowing across the river. About five people were flying across the river on kite boards, and it was a thrill to watch them. Closer to shore, we got a kick out of watching a five year old boy learning to wind surf on his own little sail board—his mom had a leash on the board she used to pull him back to her when he lost his grip on the sail or lost his balance.

Next stop was a visit to the Bonneville Dam and Fish Hatchery, where we ate lunch in a little park next to a quiet stream by the Fish Hatchery. Then we learned more than we ever thought possible about in vitro fertilization and hatchery raising of salmon, and we watched through a window to see fish swimming up a fish ladder beside the dam. The window was next to a similar window in a room next to us, where a fish counter sits all day long and counts what she sees swimming by. Is there a more boring job?

We skipped the tour of the power house and exhibits on hydroelectricity, because we were eager to get to the main event—the waterfalls.

The scenic highway rolled through hillsides covered with firs and ferns. Every few miles there was another beautiful waterfall to pull over to see, and lots of trails to walk to different vantage points to admire the falls, or enjoy the woods.

The tallest of the falls is Multnomah Falls. At 620 feet, it is the second highest year-round waterfall in North America. (For comparison, Niagara Falls is 176 feet.) Its height is indeed breathtaking, but even more amazing is how the water falls--as a delicate misty veil--so that the stream that leaves the pool at the bottom of the falls is a mere trickle. We wonder if Multnomah will make it through August. How long can it be dry before it no longer qualifies as a "year-round" waterfall? Is just a little dribble over the lip of the rock ledge enough to qualify as a waterfall? So many philosophical questions are raised by the wonders of nature and our human need to classify and label them.

We stopped at every opportunity, admiring the falls, the verdant green forest, and the many wildflowers around the falls trails. Further down the road, we hiked in to the vigorously churning Bridal Veil Falls, where we soaked our feet in the chilly water until they were numb (about five minutes).

The scenic highway comes to its climax at Crown Point, a promontory overlooking a vast swath of the river. Here the highway designers crowned the point with Vista House, perhaps the most elegant highway rest stop ever built. In addition to serving as a rest stop, its architect intended it to be "a temple to the natural beauty of the gorge." It is a highly photographed building, and is something of an iconic image for the Columbia River Highway. But, it falls short of the architect's vision. We walked inside the big empty rotunda, and couldn't figure out the point of it. The temples to the natural beauty of the gorge are best found in nature, rather than in a building sitting on top of it all, it seems.

We wound our way down from Crown Point on the last twists and turns of the scenic highway, then hopped on I-84 to drive back to Hood River for dinner. It took us five hours to get from Hood River to Crown Point on the road less traveled, and less than an hour to whisk back on the Interstate. If we had made this trip on interstates, we'd be home by now. If we had made this trip on interstates, it wouldn't be this trip.

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