Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sundays with Steve - Back to the Beach

These Sunday's segments are written by my husband, Mr. Jenny. Here's what he has to say about his posts:

I’ve been writing these weekly stories about life in Northern Idaho, as a youngster and as growing into a young man, primarily for our family. And I'm delighted to share them with you. Just between us, I’m anticipating being cranky when some whipper-snapper who may not even be born yet harasses me in 30 years or so with 'Grandpa, tell me about when you were a boy.' That will probably be after the mad cow disease has set in and erased whatever memory is left. So these are the not-so-dramatic adventures of a Baby Boomer in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.


We talked last week about driving Miss Daisy to the Oregon Coast for several summers, an annual summer trip for my grandmother and her family to escape the heat of the inland Northwest.

That reminded me of a few other summers on that coast, of the MacDonald’s compound at Seaside, the miles and miles of empty sand beaches, my son’s inaugural pee off the top of the Astoria Column, my brother’s honeymoon Volkswagen washed out to sea, that large freighter threatening to swamp our boat, and a few other stories.

Granby and her family that eventually included my mother and her three siblings, began spending the summers at Seaside, Oregon in about 1910. For 25 years the family would ride steamboats from their home in Lewiston, Idaho, cruising downriver 500 miles to the port of Astoria where they would then travel the 20 miles south to Seaside. After the last steamboat ended service in the 1930s, they drove on the primitive highways to the region. Granby spent her contented summers there every year until she died at the ripe old age of 97.

My family joined them for a number of summers in the 1950s, at least my mother and brothers and I. My father would drive us to the Coast, spend a few days, then return to work in Idaho for a number of weeks before fetching us back to prepare for school. Although in later years it was my treat when I could stay home in Idaho with my father, while the rest of the family was at the Coast.

Those summers were pure: My brothers and I spent most days on bicycles, riding the miles-long concrete board walk, visiting the small amusement park on main street, along with the aquarium, bumper car rides, and Leonard’s salt water taffy stand. We were proficient at finding and catching starfish along the beach, Dungeness crab in the surf, and sea horses in the rocks. My parents would often build bon fires in the beach’s drift wood piles in the late afternoons, where we would watch the sun sink into the sea and eat hot dogs cooked on a stick over the fire.

Granby rented several ramshackle houses from Mr. MacDonald every year from about 1920 through 1960, a block off the beach and within easy walking distance of downtown. The houses were arranged facing each other in a compound with a grassy area between them, so the families could have some privacy but which were still fully accessible to all, especially three young boys who had boundless energy and curiosities to match. There was always trouble in the making.

I’ve returned many times to the Northern Oregon coast, an area of the U.S. unique in its beauty and its ruggedness. Mrs. Steve has become a fan as well over the years, and it is still a favorite of ours.

I took my two small children to visit the Astoria Column one year, a 165 foot attraction that commemorates the history of the area, and over-looks the town of the Astoria and the mouth of the Columbia River where it meets the Pacific Ocean.

Son Chris must have been about 4 years old that year, maybe 5; a little young to climb the iron steps to the top of the column, but more than willing to try, in fact, insisting. So we did. The views from the top of the column are spectacular, it sits on top of a hill over-looking the town and the river, the long ocean beaches running 20 miles to the south, and Fort Clatsop just across the way where Lewis and Clark spent their winter on their Louisiana Purchase exploration.

Chris was not interested in the views, or the history, not in the least. He had to go to the bathroom. Ten minutes down the stairs to where a bathroom was open, or over the back ledge where we hoped nobody was below. Over the edge it was. When you have to go, you have to go.

Since we are telling family stories, I am sure that my brother Gordon is still embarrassed about losing the new car on his honeymoon, some 40 years ago. It was a Volkswagon station wagon, and he was mighty proud of it. He had graduated from college and was preparing to leave for medical school, that preparation included marrying the lovely Mary Bales in Boise. All of our family was drawn to the beach, it seems, and it was only natural that he and his new wife would plan a honeymoon on the Oregon Coast. One of the attractions of the beach is that you can drive on it for up to 15 miles or so, and we all did, often. One afternoon he and his bride drove up the beach to an isolated spot, and parked a ways from the sea. While they were exploring the dunes above the beach, Gordon seemed to forget about the incoming tide that pretty quickly swamped that brand new little car. It was 50 yards out into the ocean when he noticed, ran for a tow truck, and managed to salvage the thing. I don’t recall exactly, but I believe he got a new car out of the insurance company, as salt water in engine parts, the interior, and chassis is never a good thing.

A number of years later, It was also with Gordon, three of his daughters, my father and I when the ocean-going freighter nearly swamped us one morning.

One of the long-time activities on the Coast is fishing for wild salmon. When the alarm clock went off at 3:30 that morning in the hotel room my father and I shared, we were ready to fish. We had both downed Dramamine the night before and again that morning. We knew many stories of how rough the water was crossing the Columbia River “bar”, that area where the river meets the ocean. This was a new experience for both of us, and the last thing we wanted was sea sickness.

We met Gordon and his daughters at five that morning on a dock on the Columbia River where we boarded a 30-foot long cabin cruiser owned and piloted by one of Gordon’s friends, a high school teacher from just up-river, Longview, Washington. Gordon and his family lived in Longview, the town where he set up his medical practice after school, and convenient to the coast, of course.

We didn’t have any trouble with sea sickness that day, but the stories were not exaggerated about how rough the water was. I watched waves going by that were two or three times higher than the boat, I was looking up at the top of the ocean, and I did not like that. The girls stayed in the lower cabin of the boat, hanging on as we bounced over the river and into the sea. The boat owner kept assuring us that all was well, that all was normal, and that there was nothing to worry about. I did not like that trip going out, I didn’t mind the roughness of the sea so much, but it was the concept that these huge waves could tip this tiny boat over in a heart- beat that I found a bit disconcerting.

I knew the fishing grounds, some five miles off the coast, would be smoother and we would have a fine and fun morning catching fish. I was wrong. We got to the fishing grounds where we found the swells were just as rough, with passing white caps to emphasize the point. This was the North Pacific after all, it was suppose to be a rough ocean.

Everybody caught a nice salmon over in the next hour, which was the legal limit at that time, and we headed back to the Columbia River and the dock with six fresh fish in the coolers. The ocean had not calmed at all, and as we turned into the river I watched again the waves that were two to three times higher than the boat. The owner seemed comfortable and knew what he was doing, so I relaxed.

Until I spotted that freighter coming up behind us; it was enormous, it was a giant, and it passed us like we were standing still. Obviously the roughness of the water didn’t faze it, as it was steady and amazingly fast through the river water, at least in relationship to our little boat. It passed us on the right going upriver, maybe a close 20 yards away. As the ship’s huge wake bore down on us, our captain turned the little craft into the approaching waves, but left us broadside to the very rough flow of the river. It was a choice: let the freighter’s wake swamp us, or the river-ocean swells roll us over.

We survived without harm, I’m not sure how, and two hours we were eating one of those salmon fresh off a BBQ grill, maybe one of the best meals I had ever enjoyed: Not necessarily for the scrumptious taste, but the adrenalin- rushing experience those fish represented.

(c) 2010 Stephen J. Matlock
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H said...

I'm afraid I don't like fishing (or even fish) anywhere near enough to risk those kinds of waves! I would love a climb to the top of the tower though!! That's my kind of fun.

Pondside said...

What a terrifying experience!
We love the Oregon coast - have camped in the Yurts at Fort Stevens and spent hours walking on the beaches at Seaside and further south. One of our favorite holidays, though, was two years ago when we stayed in a B&B just across the river from Astoria, in Iwaco, WA.