Sunday, October 31, 2010


The Northwest Trip: Part Deux

When we joined the Columbia River I expected a change in topography but if anything the terrain grew even more barren.  Fritz put his finger on it when he said that with such a vast amount of water running through it, you would expect SOME degree of vegetation.  Part of the barrenness, I think, is due to the fact that the Columbia isn't actually a river any more except in the westernmost part of it as it gets ready to slam into the Pacific in an area of great turbulence and treacherousness for navigation.  The many dams along the Columbia to the east of Portland, Oregon have turned it into a series of placid lakes -- the bleak terrain seen above is actually the top of a cliff that once dropped to a shore that probably sustained a lot of riverside vegetation, now all submerged.

I knew, of course, about the tremendous amount of electricity generated by all those hydroelectric dams, but had no idea of how much wind-generated electricity is produced on the Columbia's banks as well.  We sailed past thousands of wind turbines.

We traveled for two days past sights like this; I've seen pictures of the Negev Desert that look like this (without the great river, of course).  I had never known what a desert eastern Washington State is.

We docked to visit a couple of places in Oregon, one of which was a wind farm.  It could have been fascinating but the expected exec from the company had failed to appear at work that day and a secretary who really had no technical info was left to try to answer questions.  Also the hard hats that were supposed to be in the equipment shed for us so that we could walk out among the turbines had been removed for some reason and were nowhere to be found.  We felt very sorry for her because she was doing the very best she could and was clearly embarrassed by the situation.

Fortunately a technician showed up and was able to give at least some information on the size and weight of the equipment (the above blade is 65 feet long, made of steel, balsa wood and fiberglass and weighs a ton or so), and the fact that the turbines have to be shut down during hours of non-peak usage because the grid can't take all the electricity flowing in from the dams and the wind farms at less than full peak demand.
We also visited the little town of Condon whose Historical Society has a small but fascinating collection of buildings, several housing a museum of the area and the Oregon Trail settlers as they moved onto the land.  The three women who ran the museum (one dressed and acting somewhat like the town floozie who historically had operated out of the antique barber shop on the museum grounds) and the quality of the collection helped made up for the failure of the wind farm visit.

Above is the interior of a mid-19th century chuck wagon, equipped to feed herders and harvesters out in the fields. 

And an actual "prairie schooner", the Conestoga Wagon of a family that had come out from St. Louis all the way to Oregon.  They and their oxen hauled this over the Rockies and a couple of other mountain ranges as well.

A bit further west as the terrain was becoming a bit greener around and at the foot of the cliffs, we visited the Maryhill Museum, actually a sort-of reproduction of an Italianate Palazzo in poured concrete (walls, floors, everything) built by a rather eccentric man who didn't actually live in it much but who installed some significant collections.

There's a superb gathering of Rodin sculptures, Native American art of the region, and a few surprises like a major collection of 12" high wire figures with heads, dressed in miniature early 1950s Paris fashions.  There were 75 or so of these figures arranged against backgrounds created by well-known French artists that had been toured around Europe and America after World War II in an (ultimately successful) attempt to restart the French haute cutoure industry after a period of severe deprivation.

The builder had somehow become a great friend of Queen Marie of Romania and there is a large collection of furnishings from public rooms in one of her palaces, the above being a corner throne from a reception hall.  One of her ceremonial gowns with a train measured in yards is also on display, all of it given personally by her, and when the Museum opened to the public, she attended the dedication ceremonies.

Dawn with the moon still still high in the sky and low clouds over the land -- this is one of my favorite pictures from the whole cruise.

The fish ladder at the great Bonneville Dam. The fish were meant to go leaping from level to level as they scaled the ladder to the lake above the dam but they soon found the little tunnels that connect the bottom of each compartment of the ladder to continually flush out silt, and they now prefer to make the ascent totally under water.

                                                          View inside the fish ladder

                                                   The great generator hall inside the dam.

I feel like a visitor in my very own home! I've been up and down the Columbia a million times in my life -- in fact we're getting ready to drive to Boise again in a week....right through where these pictures were taken. I can't believe how many wind turbines have popped up in the last years. I love it! And the water from the Columbia River is used for vegetation....but it's piped up on top of the hills, to flat land, where the fields are. Potatoes, onions, wheat. Your ventures are through what I would call one of the world's greatest places.
That does sound like an enviable river journey. Your remarks on the barren shores remind me of our unforgettable trip down the Niger from Timbuktu to Mopti in Mali - again, extraordinary to think of a replenishing source of water in such an arid, barren country.
Will: Pardon me for saying so but you seem to have confused east and west on the west coast. Doug has done the same thing occasionally, he sees the ocean and assumes it is east. There are no dams to the west of PDX on the Columbia and the desert is in the east and central Washington. Also, much of the country you were travelling through was scoured by the Lake Missoula floods at the end of the last ice age and all the topsoil and huge amounts of bedrock went down the river. Much of the land is just bare basalt without any soil.
What a lovely trip. It's such a beautiful part of the country.
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