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MIDSUMMER DISPATCH FROM CAPE DISAPPOINTMENT

Megler Bridge seen from Astoria, Oregon crossing the Columbia River with Washington on the far shore 

Weather report for Saturday, June 17th calls for showers with a chance of sun along with some winds that may or may not be gusty.  Well, this is the Pacific Northwest where four days from now the longest day of the year will also be the shortest day of winter. At the Clatsop County Fairgrounds the Swedes, Danes, Finns, Norwegians along with a handful of Icelanders have invited everyone to celebrate Midsummer (Midsommar in Swedish, Sank Hans Aften in Norwegian, Juhannus in Finnish, Jansok in Danish), with a three day festival. After paying five dollars to park and the ten dollar entrance fee you can wander inside a massive shed with its stalls of Norse knick knacks, feast on pickled herring and pastries including real Danish danish, politely watch rather than pillage the performers on the stage and stand at a bar downing rather than sipping an aquavit.  Beer isn’t served at the bar but in a nearby barn - a “barn garden” being a more sensible place to quaff a brew on a cold, rainy day than a “bier garden”. 

 

“They got the Scandinavian Midsummer Festival over in Astoria, but they don’t have any festival for the Chinese and they were here first,” the man announces at a cafe in Ilwaco to no one in particular, including the former owner who gave the business to her daughter who’s now the boss and she’s the employee. In fact, the Chinook Indians were the first followed by the Spanish, Russians, British-Canadians, French and Americans who explored, traded, trapped, logged and fished when they weren’t fighting with each other. In the Nineteenth Century when they started canning the fish caught in the Columbia the cannery owners went to China for their workers and soon there were over three thousand Chinese, almost all men, who worked on the slime lines canning salmon in the wooden sheds perched on piers.  In Ilwaco they lived in cramped dormitories in what was called China Beach.  The shoreland site at the bottom of the hill where we have our cottage is now occupied by a bed and breakfast. After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 the cannery owners recruited Filipinos, Mexicans, and even a machine called the “Iron Chink”, before settling on immigrants from Scandinavia. By 1920 there were almost four thousand Finns alone living in Astoria (The Finns also brought socialism with them and organized the Finnish Socialist Club). Scandinavians not only canned fish they caught them, usually with gillnets slung from small boats with a large sail that made them look more like windsurfers than fishing boats. They were also lumberjacks. With all the fishing, canning and logging Salmon catches having decreased by ninety percent the gilnetting and the canneries are now gone as is much of the old growth forest that have been whittled down by over seventy percent leaving behind decaying pilings along the shoreline and stumps on the hillsides as their tombstones. Despite the decline in fishing, canning and logging the Scandinavians have thrived judging from the crowds at the Midsummer Festival.  

 

No sheds or barns offer protection from the elements at the Astoria Sunday Market the next day as I stroll uphill from the harbor on Twelfth Street past the plastic covered booths and the expectant faces of vendors. Booths of fresh produce, baked goods, T-Shirts, crotchet hats and yarn scarves and even a rack of handmade flannel shirts-in lumberjack plaid   as well as newer editions to the market such as CBD, distilled spirits garnished with all sorts of herbs and spices and wine made from almost every berry that can be plucked from a bush. I pass on the CBD and instead of the distilled spirits, berry wines, carmel coated kettle corn and the honey drenched almonds I decide to sample some Oregon grapes from the nearby Willamette Valley and purchase a bottle of Pinot Noir. I also buy tortilla chips wrapped in a plastic bag that is tied with a piece of twine and sold by a woman who looks like she personally ground the corn on a slab of stone. It’s only after I’ve paid the five dollars that I see a sticker on the bottom of the bag that says it was made in San Francisco.  I’ll have to see how well California chips go with an Oregon wine.

 

I return from Astoria the same way I came, which is the quickest route from there to Cape Disappointment or anywhere else on the other side of the Columbia since the next bridge is fifty mile upriver. The Megler Bridge rises from the Oregon shore in a steel trussed cantilever arching two hundred feet, high enough to allow ships stacked with containers to pass beneath it.  Feathers from the scores of seabirds who crash into it while attempting acrobatic maneuvers in the stiff winds cling to the steel girders that are painted the same shade of green that seems to coat every bridge in America except the Golden Gate. Birds aren’t the only thing that crash on the bridge, since cars are allowed to pass, even though there is less than a foot of clearance between them and the railing and the ice cold Columbia rushing below on its own collision course with the Pacific. Before the Bridge was finished in 1966 a ferry service operated along the same route that the bridge now spans.  Originally, the ferries docked at Ilwaco, but since they could only do so at high tide they were moved upriver to Point Ellice, which is where Megler Bridge now lands on the Washington shore. When I’m back in Baltimore looking out our condo’s seventh story windows at the water of the Inner Harbor wedged between the apartment and office buildings that were recently constructed solely to ruin our view I think of the Megler Bridge. I think of driving up the sweeping ramp that curves from the waterfront to the tops of the Victorian houses perched on Astoria's hillside and onto the cantilevered section of the bridge, from whose crest you can see the broad expanse of the Columbia with the cargo ships starting the last leg of their journey to a dock at Longview, Kalama or Portland. Beyond east bound ships is Mount St. Helens with its summit sawed off by the volcanic eruption in 1982, then to the north the forested hills of Washington on the far shore that stretch west until vanishing at the blunt, basalt headland of Cape Disappointment and finally across the western horizon, separated by the churning waters of the Columbia Bar, is the Pacific Ocean.

 

Manifest destiny ran into the Pacific Ocean and turned to sand.  “Go west young man” ended with men and women in RV and trailer parks, cottages and bungalows strung along the beaches from Mexico to Canada including the twenty eight mile stretch of the Long Beach Peninsula from the butt end of the Cape to the tip at Ledbetter Point. I can’t see the beach or the bridge but I can see Cape Disappointment from The SALT Pub when I look out from a high top table where I’m seated eating a Sockeye Salmon burger.  The rain has stopped for a while and the sun is out for a while and the headland of Cape Disappointment rises in the distance beyond the entrance to Ilwaco's harbor where fishing trollers, charter boats and an assortment of private craft are moored. There’s a man sitting outside on a picnic table in a faded T-Shirt with the sleeves rolled up to expose his tattooed biceps, smoking while talking passionately on his cellphone.  At the table next to mine there’s another man with unruly black hair and an equally untrimmed beard who might be mistaken for a deckhand on one of the fishing boats except for the young girl sitting next to him watching cartoons on an I Pad. At another table next to the picture window sit three older women and a man playing cards and farther down a younger woman stands next to a high top panning the scene with her cellphone. None of the people seated at the bar with their backs to the harbor take any notice, including the man who just a minute before had been sitting on the picnic table but had returned to finish his beer. The stylishly dressed young woman sitting next to him, who would fit in at a Manhattan bar, doesn’t seem to notice him as she sips from her martini while scrolling on her iPhone. 

 

On the first day of summer, the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, there is no rain, hardly a cloud in the blue sky and the wind barely rustles the boughs of the Douglas Firs, Spruces and Hemlocks. I have lunch with some friends and even though two of them have ancestors who immigrated from Norway we eat pizza at a local restaurant. 

In the late afternoon I take in the view from our cottage while sipping my Oregon Pinot Noir and munching on my California tortilla chips.  At the bottom of our hill fishing boats enter the harbor following the channel between Sand Island and China Beach.  In the distance is the Megler Bridge shining across the Columbia River like a fading jade necklace reflected in the late light of Midsummer.

 Tim Wintermute

June 22, 2023

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