OREGON—The Trail and the Columbia River
Emigrant Hill lies 5 miles to the east of Baker City and it was from that vantage point that most of the travelers taking the Oregon Trail had their first glimpse of the “Promised Land” for which they had endured countless hardships. It was by no means the end of the trail; their journey still had miles to go in order to get to the fertile Willamette Valley, the actual promised land. With a similar, but much less arduous journey behind us, we too stood on that hill and looked out from the same vantage point.
The Oregon Trail Interpretive Center is located on Emigrant Hill, and it was a beautiful sunny morning when we took it in. The surrounding mountains have snow on their tops. Very pretty. First, we went into Baker City to send our blog, gas up the truck and buy a fishing license for Chris. The following two hours were spent at the Center where we learned quite a bit about not just the ordeals encountered along the Trail, but a really complete history about this part of Oregon.
We’ve been following the Oregon Trail across Idaho into Oregon. The Center commemorates and documents the Trail and all of the people that streamed west in the first half of the 19th century. No exact numbers exist. Somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000 people came west in something like 50,000 wagon. Most had to walk the almost 2,000 miles, usually starting in Independence, Missouri. They were obviously tougher back then. The Center is a beautiful facility run by the US government. There are wagons used by the travelers. Only 4 feet by 10 feet. Much smaller than you’d imagine. But then, they couldn’t take much since wagons had to be dragged up hills and mountains, down into canyons and floated over rivers.
We returned to the CG and hooked up the camper and headed northwest. We stopped in the town of Pendelton and had lunch at the Prodigal Son Brew Pub, then walking it off with a jaunt around town. The stop wouldn’t be complete without a tour of the Pendleton Woolen mill. Raw wool comes in one end and beautifully colored blankets come out the other. Still operated by the same family, the building is over a hundred years old and some of the machinery seemed to be just as old. But they have made updates. Formerly woven by hand, a rug used to take 4 days to complete. Now with computed-operated looms, a rug is produced every 20 minutes. In fact, the newest looms just purchased do the work in even a fraction of that time. They have another facility that makes some of their other products, like the clothing.
Leaving Pendleton, we continued heading north. I-84 soon comes to the mighty Columbia River. From this point on, the interstate will parallel the river as it flows west to join with the Pacific. Across the river is the state of Washington. The topography is pretty barren over there as the land rises up steeply. Pretty empty and desolate for miles. Maybe it looks the same on this side too, although we can’t quite get the perspective on that. The highway stays close to the water and makes for a very scenic drive. We understand that further downstream the river will enter into a gorge, and the road along with a rail line will be squeezed into a very narrow passage. That is yet to come for us.
We ended up at the Deschutes River State Recreation Area campground. It was a very nice change from the parking lot RV resorts we have been using to get out here. Our campsite was on the banks of the river which flows into the Columbia River. It was a very park-like setting. Settlers on the Oregon Trail came to this river and had to decide whether to try and float down the Columbia or cross the Deshutes and take an arduous trip through extremely rugged terrain around Mt. Hood. Not easy choices, and the undoing of many of them. Some decided not to make the choice and settled in the area.
Friday morning we headed further west along the Columbia River. We stopped at the Visitor Center for The Dalles Dam. It is one of a series of dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. It is huge, built from 1952 to 1973. Back in the 1800s there was a series of falls and rapids on this stretch of the river, which prevented river navigation. First they built a canal to go around the obstacles. Next came a railroad. Finally there was the dam. It provides tons of power, water for irrigation and locks for navigation. Barges can go all the way to Idaho. There is a video camera in the visitor center where you can watch the salmon and other fish go up the fish ladders.
We drove through the town of The Dalles and stopped at the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center. We spent a few hours there learning about the history and geology of the area, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Oregon Trail and the region’s development in the 20th century. We attended a raptor talk by a volunteer. She had a live Red Tail Hawk and a Great Horned Owl, both found in the area.
Now we’re headed inland, leaving the Columbia River behind for awhile. We’re headed south from the town of Hood River straight for the imposing peak of Mt. Hood. Rain is forecasted for the coming days and we wonder if we’ll even have a view of that most famous pinnacle. Melinda will be crestfallen if that turns out to be the case. We’ll also be living under more primitive conditions, missing the comforts that hookups can bring. But nothing like the circumstances faced by the Oregon Trail pioneers. And so, we will manage quite nicely. No complaints here.
Chris and Melinda