17 November 2012

The North-West Coast by Rail - USA to Canada

I recently returned from a trip along the north-west coast of the USA to Canada, travelling from Portland, Oregon, through Seattle, Washington, to Vancouver in British Columbia. It was a fantastic journey involving planes, trains, trucks and automobiles, as well as a cable car – and almost a boat ...

This stretch of the North American continent is a truly beautiful part of the world. I began my journey in Portland, Oregon where I made a couple of day excursions – first, to Astoria and Cannon Beach in Oregon, and then, second, over into Washington State to the national park around Mount Saint Helens. Portland is a wonderfully relaxed and laidback city, notable for its many micro-breweries and delicious food stalls, as well as the legendary Voodoo Donuts store. But the main highlight for me has to be the famous and truly vast Powell’s Bookstore. If you are a bibliophile you will almost certainly find yourself truly lost in here, but if so you’ll probably never want to find your way out again, it’s a book lover’s paradise!

Around 96 miles north of Portland, the Port of Astoria is a small city situated at the mouth of the Columbia River, named after John Jacob Astor (1763-1848), who established his American Fur Company here in 1811 to compete with the British Hudson’s Bay Company – he is also an ancestor of John Jacob Astor IV (1864-1912), who famously was the wealthiest passenger to perish when the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic in April 1912. It was also close to Astoria that the Lewis and Clark Expedition wintered in 1805-1806 (I think I’ll save saying any more on Lewis and Clark for future - more detailed - blog post). However, my real reason for wanting to visit Astoria, I have to confess, was in fact rooted a little more closely to the present day … I wanted to visit Astoria because this is where the 1985 kid’s adventure movie The Goonies was filmed! I was nine years old when this movie came out. I remember going to see it at the cinema and loving every minute of it; consequently, it remains to this day one of my favourite films. So it was quite a nostalgic - if a little surreal - moment to find myself standing outside the Walsh family’s house on the very spot where Chunk performed his legendary “Truffle Shuffle” dance! 

Having made this little pilgrimage to childhood memory I then set off in pursuit of the noisy sounds of sea lions which were echoing loudly up the hill from the docks. Here the piers were full of pungent smelling sea lions all basking in the sunshine, with others periodically slipping into the water where they swam with amazing speed and grace amongst the moored boats. 

Leaving Astoria, heading south down the coast road, the next stop was Cannon Beach. This is a truly beautiful stretch of coastline. Here the restless sea was roaring loudly, kicking up a white haze of mist from the surging breakers of the surf, out of which emerged the distinctive ghostly shape of Haystack Rock.

My second excursion out of Portland was to the Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument. I remember learning about the famous catastrophic eruption of May 18th 1980 in geography lessons at school, only eight years after the event. This was a major eruption which was preceded by a series of earthquakes and steam-venting episodes which weakened the north face of the volcano such that it eventually gave way; the earthquake which triggered the blast measured 5.1 on the Richter scale. This exposed the molten layer of magma beneath and the sudden pressure differential released torrents of gas, steam and ash, along with a rapid flow of lava which actually overtook the initial avalanche of overlying rock and debris, also triggering massive torrential mudflows. The resulting environmental devastation left a wasteland of several hundred square miles, raining ash and debris over eleven States, and claimed the lives of 57 people, as well as untold numbers of animals and trees in the surrounding region. Even today many of these dead and scorched trees are still visible standing on the surrounding hillsides; bleached as dry as bone they make quite a stark and eerie landscape in some places. 

Prior to the eruption scientists from the US Geological Survey persuaded the local authorities to close the Mount Saint Helens area and thereby saved many thousands of lives which undoubtedly would have been affected otherwise. The initial eruption column rose 80,000 feet into the atmosphere (compare this to the recent ash plume from Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland which reached around 30,000 feet, causing the closure of the entire airspace of northern and western Europe for several days in early 2010 Рif you think of this in terms of the contrails you see overhead from airliners, most long haul flights cruise at an altitude of around 36,000-38,000 feet).

Eventually leaving Portland I boarded the Amtrak Cascades train at Union Station – a wonderful old railway station dating back to 1896. The train journey up to Vancouver in British Columbia (passing through Vancouver, Washington) took 8 hours, and was a wonderful way to see the country as the train travels up to Seattle and then along the coast of Puget Sound. These are the waters - from Oregon all the way up to Alaska - which were explored and charted by George Vancouver (1757-1798), a Captain in the British Navy, in 1792. 

Along the way the train passes under the twin suspension bridges at Tacoma Narrows. This is another place which stuck in my mind from my schooldays as I recall my class being shown a remarkable film as part of a physics lesson on wave frequencies, resonance properties, and elasticity. The 16mm film was shot by a man who owned a local camera shop, and it shows how the bridge began to oscillate in a 40 mile an hour crosswind until it eventually shook itself apart. At the time the newly constructed bridge had only been open for a few months when it collapsed in November 1940. It was eventually rebuilt ten years later, with the second parallel bridge being completed in 2007. There’s a rather striking moment in the film in which a man abandons his car on the bridge and runs to safety. Apparently no one was injured or killed in the collapse, except – sadly – for the car owner’s dog which was so terrified it refused to move and even bit the man when he attempted to pull it from the car in order to try to save it. 


When it was first built the original bridge, which was nick-named “Gallopin' Gertie” by its construction workers, was the third longest suspension bridge in the world. Its 1950 replacement was the first suspension bridge design to be tested in a wind tunnel and also the first to incorporate hydraulic dampeners in its design. Since its completion it has withstood several major earthquakes. The collapse of the first bridge has since become a classic case study which has informed and altered subsequent bridge design technology and still gives cause for scientific debate. 

After Tacoma there was a wonderful view of Mount Rainier. Like Mount Saint Helens this too is a stratovolcano. These are tall conical shaped volcanoes built up of layers (strata) of hardened lava, pumice, and volcanic ash. They are sometimes called ‘composite volcanoes’ due to the manner in which they grow by accreting layers upon layers. They are also prone to sudden explosive eruptions – other famous stratovolcanoes include Krakatoa in Indonesia, Vesuvius in Italy, and Mount Fuji in Japan. Mount Rainer is considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes on Earth given its type and its location in close proximity to large areas of population – Seattle, for instance, is around 55 miles away.

Finally arriving in Vancouver at Pacific Central Station at almost midnight, I spent the following week exploring the city; visiting the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, which has a magnificent and extensive collection of Haida and other First Nation peoples’ art; strolling around Stanley Park, watching the seaplanes taking off from Burrard Inlet; as well as taking a tour of the Molson Brewery. Two day trips of particular note were to Grouse Mountain and to the old Britannia Mine, both to the north of Vancouver. 

Grouse Mountain, some 4,000 feet high, is a popular ski resort in winter it’s also famous for the “Grouse Grind”, a steep two mile hiking trail to its summit. I cheated though and took the cable car up to the top. The day I went inclement weather had begun to set in and so it was a happy surprise to find the cable car suddenly emerging through the unbroken cloud layer to reveal that the top of the mountain was all blue skies and sunshine. At the top of the mountain there is an enclosure where two brown bears, rescued as orphans when they were young, have been raised. I was lucky to find these grizzly bears playfully lolling about in their pool; both were very active, play-fighting with one another rather spectacularly. I seem to have taken so many photos of this very captivating David Attenborough-like view of them, up-close and personal, such that the sequence of shots play almost like a stop-motion animation on my camera! 

The old Britannia Mine has now been converted into a museum, and may well be familiar from The X-Files – which, like so many other locations in and around Vancouver, formed the backdrop to various episodes of the famous cult Sci-fi television series from the 1990s. Copper was discovered here in 1888 and was mined until 1975. Back then the only way to reach the mine was by sea and so the small town which grew up to facilitate the mine must have had quite a pioneer-like atmosphere, now of course it can easily be reached by road. At the museum they take you on a tour into the mine itself riding on one of the old miner's trains, where they then demonstrate how the copper was extracted using different types of drilling equipment over time. They then explain how the ore was processed before it was shipped out across the whole world. The mine itself is huge with passageways running for miles deep into the hillside at a number of different levels extending well below sea level. Our tour guide was a former miner who had worked in the mine for his entire career and so he was able to give us a very clear picture of what that kind of working life had been like, and what had followed after the closure of the mine. Once all the machinery and the processing plant had been shut down in the 1970s the water run-off from the tunnels began to accrue and concentrate levels of acidity and subsequently this began to poison the water off the coast of Howe Sound. A water treatment plant has since been built in order to deal with this problem by reducing and maintaining the levels of contamination, which in itself is quite a feat of engineering.

Sadly, because of the change in the weather I wasn’t able to take a boat trip as planned out into the Georgia Strait to go whale watching – but, one could probably spend a lifetime exploring here, there’s so much to see and do in this part of the world amidst such spectacular natural scenery. I was very sorry to have to leave after what was only a very brief visit. Still, this just means that there’s plenty to go back and explore properly at some point, after all, we never get too old for another adventure!

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