The Columbia River Gorge is a natural wonder. The Cascade mountain range with mountains 10,000 to 14,000 feet high is cut through by the Columbia River. The mountains range to the north and south and the river runs from east to west, and out to the Pacific Ocean. It is a real “chicken/egg” situation. Which came first? Were the mountains there and the river had to push through them? Or, was the river there first and it continued to carve its way as the mountains rose? Who knows?
Columbia River Gorge
The view, going through the gorge, is spectacular. You are right beside one of the continent’s greatest rivers and on both sides, mountains rise to dizzying heights amongst the clouds.
Then, there are all the waterfalls and small rivers that tumble, flow and fall down from the mountains and into the Columbia; with names like Latourall Falls, Multnomah Falls, Horse Tail, Bridal Vail, Oneonta.
By my time, in the early 1950’s, there was a pretty good highway through the Gorge. Some of it was two lane and some of it was four lane. It wasn’t very often that we saw a car on its roof, or, off the side of the road smashed into a tree. But, these occasional sights did make the trip more interesting, and a bit more frightening.
Often it was raining when we entered the Gorge. The forest at the west end of the Gorge was dense fir, hemlock and cedar. The air coming from the North Pacific Ocean was cool and moist. The sweet and slightly bitter smell of the forest and the organic compost of the forest floor, together with the mossy smell of that big river, made for a heady combination.
By the time we reached about mile post 60, around Hood River, Oregon, there was a noticeable change in the vegetation and the humidity. The east side of the Cascade Mountains is much drier than the west side.
In the early 1950’s the Bonneville Dam was the only dam on the lower Columbia. You know how we humans are. The brightest and most ambitious of us immigrants saw that river and thought that if they put their minds to it, and poured a bit of concrete, they could squeeze a good bit of hydroelectric power out of that river. And, that is what they did.
But, in those days, once you got past Hood River and up near The Dalles, the river was wild. It was a real river. Not a series of lakes like it is today.
Just up river from The Dalles was Celilo Falls. A major river. A major falls. An ancient Native American fishing site.
Ancient Native American Fishing Site
The Dalles Dam flooded Celilo falls in 1957. But, I can remember, as a little kid, stopping with my family, on the way to Grandma’s house, and watching the natives catching salmon at Celilo Falls, as they had been doing for thousands of years.
You know how we humans are. The brightest and most ambitious of us immigrants saw all the salmon in that river and thought they could probably catch them all in a few decades if they tried. Try they did, and almost succeeded in catching them all. But, that too is another story.
After Celilo Falls the river opens up. It is less mountainous and more hilly on the east side of the Cascade Mountains. There were few towns. Other small rivers run into the Columbia, like the John Day River, Hood River, The White Salmon, the Wind River, the Klickitat.
Before all the dams that are in place today, the Columbia was a big, swift river, with sandy beaches, cottonwood groves and rocky cliffs.
About 135 miles up the Columbia from Portland was the town of Arlington, Oregon, a small town next to the river amongst the wheat fields and cattle ranches. This was where we took the ferry across the Columbia River to Roosevelt, Washington.
Ben Flippin’s Ferry
Ben Flippin’s ferry was a tug and barge setup. There were a number of ferries, like his, on the river. There were very few bridges, in those days, so ferries flourished. In addition, the roads on the Washington side of the river were less well developed. So, traveling the Oregon side and crossing the ferry nearest your destination, was a good idea.
Crossing the ferry was its own adventure. The Columbia was a big, swift and very cold river. And, it was, and still is, very windy in that part of the world. When the ferry left the landing, and chugged out into the current, it fell off downstream quite a bit as the current carried it along. After crossing most of the river, the ferry had to chug up the other side to get back up to where the landing was. My brother and I had been told stories, true stories, of people who had fallen off of ferries by acting foolishly, or being drunk. The middle of that swift, cold river was not a good place to be splashing around on your own. We kids sensed the danger and didn’t fuss around on the ferry. But, we really enjoyed the ride, with the wind blowing and water splashing against the bow of the tug and the bow of the barge, and that giant tug boat diesel engine chugging away and puffing out its black, diesel smoke.
The ferry, crossing to the north, landed at Roosevelt, Washington. Roosevelt was very small; just a ferry landing, general store, a few houses, and a gravel road up to the asphalt highway. But, when I say highway, I am talking about a narrow, one lane asphalt path that followed the contour of the land. The landscape was a series of rises, swales and small creek beds. The land was covered with sage brush, grease wood and loaded with jack rabbits. This asphalt hill and dale ride was a lot of fun for us kids. Sometimes, whoever was driving, would go fast over the rises and we would feel our stomachs float up like on a roller coaster.
To me, one of the most notable differences about eastern Washington and Oregon, as compared to the west side of those states, was its fragrances. The fine, light, dusty soil had its scent. The rocky outcroppings had their scent. The cottonwood trees and the sage brush had theirs. To this day, when I venture east to the dry steppe lands east of the Cascade Mountains, the scents of that dry territory take me right back to those old memories of my grandparents farm.
I remember one place where the road went down very near the river. There was a rock cliff above the river, a narrow, chiseled rock road bed, and a vertical rock cliff going up the other side of the road. This was a bit scary. There was no room to pass another car. If you met another car there, someone had to back up on that narrow cliff road.
When the river was high, you couldn’t drive through there. The road would be flooded. Sometimes my grandfather would maneuver his car onto the railroad tracks that were above the road, and drive across that stretch on the tracks.
After about 15 miles of this old road adventure, and one more back seat scuffle that would raise the old man’s ire, we’d reach Alderdale.
Alderdale Trading Company Welcomes You
Alderdale was a small town of about 40 to 50 people. It had a general store, school house, grain storage facility and a few houses. It was my mother’s childhood home. It was also a stop for the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway. My uncle Eaf ran the general store and post office there. When we’d arrive he’d give us kids some candy. Also, when the train was coming, and there were no passengers, so the train was not going to stop, Eaf would hang the mail bag on a post by the tracks. As the train passed by someone in the mail car would hang out the window, hook the mail bag with a pole, and pull it in. That was the technology of the day.
From Alderdale it was just about three more miles upriver to Carley, Washington and grandma’s house.
Carley, Washington consisted of two houses; my grandparent’s house and another house that was abandoned.
Grandma’s House: One of Only Two in Carley, Washington
Grandma and Grandpa’s farm was, what we might call today, a long way from anywhere. It was quiet. There was very little or no traffic by air, land or water. The only sounds were of birds, a few livestock, chickens, an occasional coyote howl, and the buzz of rattle snakes.
To get down by the river to Grandma’s house, there was a ritual we had to go through to enter the farm.
We would turn off the asphalt road onto a dirt drive and in a very short distance come to a swinging gate in a fence. The gate was always closed. We drove up to the gate. Someone would get out of the car and open the gate. The car would be driven up onto the railroad tracks. The gate would be closed behind us by whoever opened it. Then, that person would walk across the tracks and open the gate on the other side of the tracks. The car would pass through and that person would close the gate and get back into the car. Then, we’d drive the last half mile or so down to grandma’s house.
The gate ritual, as I call it, is one of my keenest memories of visiting my grandparents’ farm. To the little kid that I was, this gate opening and closing ritual marked the entrance to the magic kingdom, which is what my grandparents’ farm was to me.
RO’s Parents and Grandparents on the Farm
The farm was a place we kids could run free. There were no cars to run us over. There was nobody around to bother us. The air was clean. We were on the farm, down by the river with lots of room to roam. We did have to avoid cornering a rattle snake or digging up a scorpion nest. But, other than that, there was little trouble we could get into.
Sometimes, when we’d arrive, Grandpa would take us out to the machine shed and make pea shooters for us. He’d take heavy wire, put it in the vice and bend it. He’d take a piece of leather and attach heavy rubber bands to it, and then attach the bands to the wire. He’d give us a couple of pockets full of dried peas, and off we’d go.
We’d shoot the sheep, the chickens and everything else but the windows of the house. For whatever reason, the old man pretty much left us to run free while we were playing at grandma and grandpa’s farm. We were at peace in that magic kingdom down by the river.
All Smiles in The Magic Kingdom
And, as I mentioned, if Aunt Jean was there with her family, there’d be more kids to play with. And, sometimes, before we went to sleep, Aunt Jean would read The Bear Story to us.
And, here is how it went…