The summer morning dawned in characteristic Astorian style, with huge fluffy clouds lying low, obscuring the view. But within minutes of the jet boat's departure on this morning cruise of the Columbia River, the sun was burning holes in the mist, revealing an intensely blue sky. At Tongue Point the forest was so dense it seemed impenetrable. Where the John Day River flowed silently into the Columbia, the morning sun danced on the water's surface, still inky with shadows. A bald eagle soared by, while Caspian terns darted overhead.
Take a boat a few miles up the Columbia from Astoria, and the view isn't too different from that spied by Captain Robert Gray when he sailed the Columbia Rediviva over the bar in 1792 and became the first European to set eyes on this river shore. Nor is it dissimilar to what Lewis and Clark and Corps of Discovery saw, floating downstream at the end of their cross-continental trek 13 years later. It's something every visitor to Astoria should see at least once.
There's plenty to see in Astoria off the boat as well: century-old gun batteries at Fort Stevens, a world-class maritime museum, and flintlock rifles and dugout canoes at a replica of Lewis and Clark's winter quarters. "Astoria has never lost sight of what it is," says Jerry Ostermiller, executive director of the maritime museum.
Ornate Victorian homes line the broad streets; most are still family homes, though several now house B&Bs. Giant container and grain ships still pass so close to the waterfront, you feel you could almost reach out and touch them.
By foot, boat, or trolley
Just getting around is part of the fun. Columbia River EcoTours, which debuted its jet boat trips last year, is the best way to get onto the river and among its wildlife-rich islands and sandbars. For more hands-on adventure, make arrangements with Pacific Wave for a guided sea kayak day trip.
Back in town, completion of the 5-mile River Walk has opened up old Astoria in a way no packaged tour can. It starts at the Port of Astoria and ends at the East End Mooring Basin, passing the working waterfront's fish-packing plants, restaurants, shops, and the Columbia River Maritime Museum. Or, you can hitch a ride on the Riverfront Trolley's restored 1913 streetcar, which follows the footpath.
Whether you stroll or ride, the museum is a mandatory stop, especially since its $6 million expansion this spring. Your first hint that this is no ordinary museum is the Coast Guard motor lifeboat that's perched on the museum's outside wall, seeming to climb a wave. Already one of the most respected museums of its kind in the country, it has added more interactive exhibits and expanded displays about the local fishing and canning industries. The museum reopened on May 11―not coincidentally the 210th anniversary of Captain Gray's "discovery" of the great river of the West.
The two forts across Youngs Bay from Astoria continue to be intriguing destinations on a trip to the lower Columbia. Fort Stevens, guardian of the Columbia River mouth from the Civil War through World War II, is now a huge state park with camping, bike paths, remains of a 1906 shipwreck, a lake, and more. Exploring it all could fill a weekend. Wander the historic military area at your own pace―good signage enhances the visit for history buffs―or get a guided tour in a restored 1954 army truck.
A few miles southeast is a replica of a much older fort: Lewis and Clark's 1805-06 winter quarters. Archaeologists are still working to pinpoint the site of the original fort, but every indication is that it was at or near what's now Fort Clatsop National Memorial.
The fort is one of several local historical sites gearing up for the Lewis and Clark bicentennial, which is bound to bring more travelers to Astoria in the next few years.