Wednesday, April 17, 2013

How Deep Is My River? Part 1


Wreck of the USS Peacock at the Columbia River bar, Wikimedia Commons
If you take away the electronics and the air travel, this blue planet is huge. It took Europeans a long time to make it across the wide oceans. The Portuguese wanderer Fernão Mendes Pinto made it to Japan forty years before Columbus discovered the "New World." But it took almost another 300 years before the first Europeans made it up to the Pacific Northwest. Spanish explorers with exotic names began poking around the area in the 1770s, even establishing a base at Nootka Sound (off of what is now Vancouver Island) in 1780. Russians had been nosing around the upper regions since the 1740s, looking for furs. During all this time no one had noticed that a gigantic river was pouring down across a large swath of the North American continent and into the Pacific Ocean. There were a few minor references hinting at such a thing, but nothing definite.

In the spring of 1792 when Captain George Vancouver sailed past the Columbia River in route to Nootka Sound, he put this in his log:

 The several large rivers and capacious inlets that have been described as discharging their contents into the Pacific between the 40th and 48th degree north latitude, were reduced to brooks insufficient for our vessels to navigate, or to bays inapplicable for refitting.
Vancouver’s log, April 28, 1792

During this same period, the Bostonian entrepreneur, Captain Robert Gray, was roaming around collecting furs to trade to the Chinese for tea to bring home to tea loving Boston. He stood off the surf thrashing what he was sure was the bar of a great river for nine days, then gave up, to  try again later. When he met George Vancouver at Nootka Sound, he told him of the great river he had tried to enter. Vancouver assumed it was the same "brooks insufficient for our vessels to navigate" that he had noted in that latitude.

The next month, on May 11, a time when the river would have been at its highest, Gray was able to sound out a channel across the bar using a small sailboat. He entered the river, which he named, the Columbia, after his vessel, the full-rigged, Columbia Rediviva. Gray was able to sail upstream for 12 or so miles before the channel became too shallow. The Columbia Rediviva was an 83' 6" square rigger of 213 tons with a draft of 11 feet. When a replica of this ship sailed up the Willamette some years ago I was impressed with one thing, it seemed very small—especially compared to a medium-sized bulk grain carrier. 
Oregon forests drawn by Wilkes Expedition artist

(Please note for further reference the draft of the vessel was 11 feet and Captain Gray was unable to navigate up the Columbia in May, a time when the spring snow melt and rains swell the waters.)

As I read the account of early explorers on the Columbia River, two things impress me the most: the Columbia River bar was a fearful spectacle, and the river was treacherous—shallow sand bars, shifting currents, and hidden snags from the roots of fallen forest giants submerged in the rushing waters.
The bar was not impassable, but finding a channel was highly dangerous. Imagine: the great, wild, Columbia river rushing into the crashing surf of the Pacific Ocean. Silt dragged down from the distant mountains was piled in a six mile long sand bar where the two waters met in a dreadful roar. In 1841 Captain Wilkes wrote this of the bar:

Mere description can give little idea of the terrors of the bar of the Columbia: all who have seen it have spoken of the wildness of the scene, and the incessant roar of the waters, representing it as one of the most fearful sights that can possibly meet the eye of the sailor. The difficulty of its channel, the distance of the leading sailing marks, their uncertainty to one unacquainted with tem, the want of knowledge of the strength and direction of the currents, with the necessity of approaching close to unseen dangers, the transition from clear to turbid water, all cause doubt and mistrust.
Charles Wilkes, Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition During the Years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842  (in five volumes and an atlas), Vol. IV (London: Wiley and Putnam, 1845).
Astoria drawn by Wilkes Expedition artist

Lt. Wilkes had a special dislike for this bar that destroyed one of his ships, the U.S.S. Peacock, killing some of his men. But it was navigable. The Hudson's Bay Company had been sailing around the area from Fort Vancouver to their outposts in Canada in the S.S. Beaver since 1836. The Beaver came from London around the horn sailing as a schooner. It was then outfitted with equipment it carried aboard to turn it into a steam wheeler. She had an 8' 4" draught, which made navigating the shallow bar channel and the sand bars of the Columbia easier than that of a larger vessel. It may seem too obvious to mention, but the reason the ship went around the horn as a sailing vessel before being turned into a steam boat is simply this: steam engines ate fuel like nobody's business, several cords to go a few miles. Sailing cost nothing, and used no other fuel than the sea biscuits and salt meat fed to the sailors.

The SS Beaver


(Next: The Wilkes Expedition nautical charts of the Columbia and Willamette rivers, 1841)