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Mouth of the Columbia, still a discovery.

No river in the Western Hemisphere reaches the Pacific Ocean with a larger flow of water: near its mouth, it widens to more than 10 miles. But seen from the ocean, this great river

was disguised by so many and such massive sand bars that some of the finest explorers of the 18th century were unable to identify-much less enter-its mouth. Not until 1792 did American sea captain

Robert Gray finally sail past Cape Disappointment (so named by a less fortunate predecessor) to "discover" the Columbia. Today, this region's beaches, bays, forested headlands, and unassuming towns still offer travelers a sense of discovery, though most tend to bypass the area in favor of better-known destinations. That forgotten quality is part of the lower Columbia's appeal. Victorian houses crowd the steep hillsides in Astoria (only a few are elegantly restored). Fishermen's bars, not boutiques, line waterfronts, and commercial boats, not pleasure cruisers, dominate boat basins. After a day's fishing, local families and visitors warm their chilled bones not in hot tubs but in a 50- year-old Finnish bathhouse.

The area nonetheless boasts two of the Northwest's most intriguing-and popular-state parks (both former military bases that guarded the river's entrance),

as well as a national memorial at the site of Lewis and Clark's 1806 winter camp. Three restaurants on the Washington side thrive on a year-round clientele drawn mainly from the metropolitan Northwest.

A growing collection of bed-and-breakfast inns makes attractive use of the region's ample stock of Victorian buildings. This time of year, sportfishermen hoping to hook salmon flock to the harbor at Ilwaco. And upriver, remnants of old fishing towns and the last ferry on the lower Columbia help keep the region's rich history alive.

The hub of this area, Astoria is about 2 hours from Portland, 3 1/2 hours from Seattle. You can see much of the Columbia's mouth on a day's detour from I-5 at Longview, but there's enough to do that you could easily fill a week as well. By September, campgrounds are usually uncrowded, and reservations at inns are

easier to secure. Salmon fishing should be going strong. This month's weather is likely to continue August's mix of sunny days and misty drizzle, so you're always wise to bring rain gear.

The moss-draped pilings and rusting ships along the river actually seem most at home in cool, gray weather, and there's plenty to keep you occupied should you run short of sun: a steam bath, a salmon fillet with cranberry beurre blanc in a quiet restaurant, a good book and a deep armchair at a cozy inn.

Telephone area code for the Washington side is 206; in Oregon, it's 503.

Astoria: grande dame of the Columbia

The oldest American settlement west of the Missouri, Astoria is today an unpretentious, hardworking community whose economy continues to revolve largely around fishing and logging. Almost un-

touched by developers, the town may at first seem unexciting to travelers used to more glamorous destinations, but its genuineness is refreshing.

Astoria's role in Northwest history is best revealed in three excellent museums. Most impressive is the Columbia River Maritime Museum, at the foot of 17th Street. The main gallery houses five historic small craft (this year, you can watch a sixth, a reproduction of an early gill-netting sailboat, being built next door). The 1951 lightship Columbia is docked just outside.

Uphill at 16th and Exchange streets, the refurbished 1904 city hall is now quarters for the county historical society's Heritage Museum. The 1885 Flavel House (Eighth and Duane streets) is a well-restored mansion built by a pioneering Columbia bar pilot and now open to the public. All three museums are open daily

from 10 (the maritime museum from 9:30) to 5.

Shoppers will find some gems along the waterfront. Among them: Little Denmark (125 Ninth Street), a gift shop and restaurant serving pastries, smorrebrod, and other Scandinavian specialties from 9 to 3 Mondays through Saturdays, coffee until 5 weekdays.

A block east on 10th Street, you'll find two small art galleries (one with an espresso bar), a bookstore, and a dazzling vintage clothing shop.

Wander Astoria's hillsides for broad river views and close-ups of Victorian houses, many of which are now labeled with their date and role in local history. Six are now B & Bs; our favorite is Franklin Street Station 325-4314), close to downtown. For a complete list (or other information on Astoria), call the chamber of commerce at 325-6311.

Across the river: salmon and sturgeon, on the hook or on the fork

Tucked just inside the river's mouth, Ilwaco's harbor built a reputation among sportfishermen for salmon. But as salmon seasons were cut back, charter operators turned to the long-neglected sturgeon, available year-round and now the Columbia's top game fish. Sturgeon excursions are especially popular in spring, before salmon fishing starts.

To arrange a fishing trip (or simply a sightseeing excursion), get boat operators' names from the visitors' bureau at 642- 2400; toll-free, call (800) 451-2542 from Washington or 451-2540 from Oregon, Idaho, or northern California.

Even if you don't intend to fish, it's worthwhile to drop by the harbor to pick up fresh seafood or just watch the boats come and go; mornings are the most active. Ilwaco is also site of a coast guard station

where the National Motor Life Boat School is held during the stormy winter months. At the station's dock just west of town, you can see the self-righting boats rescuers use.

Ilwaco and the Long Beach peninsula to the north are home to a small but growing collection of B & Bs. Best known is the historic Shelburne Inn in Seaview (642- 2442). We also enjoyed the Inn at Ilwaco (642-8686), which opened a year ago in a 1928 cedar-shingled church at the edge of town; the sanctuary is now a performance space for summer-stock theater. For more lodging suggestions, call the visitors' bureau (number at left below).

The menu at the Shelburne Inn's Shoal-water Restaurant takes full advantage of local produce. Or try the Ark in Nahcotta (12 miles north of Long Beach) or the Sanctuary in Chinook, both of which also specialize in fresh seafood.

Upriver: little towns, big views

Between Astoria and Longview, the Columbia is mostly the realm of fishermen, tugboat captains, and river pilots; highways on both banks grant motorists only occasional glimpses of the dramatic river landscape. You must make short detours to the old river towns to get a real sense of the place.

The town of Cathlamet now boasts a small bed and breakfast, The Country Keeper (795-3030), as charming as you'll find anywhere. For a list of other area accommodations, including a B & B on Puget Island, call 795-3996.

Cathlamet is a good base for exploring the nearby deer refuge, cycling on Puget Island, or prowling historic Skamokawa. Here, residents are working to restore a turn-of-the-century schoolhouse, which now houses a shop offering local crafts. Skamokawa Vista Park offers picnicking, ship-watching, and quiet camping.
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Title Annotation:Columbia River
Date:Sep 1, 1989
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