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Will and me partway up Beacon Rock, on the Washington side of the Columbia River.

Will came to visit from Rhode Island for two weeks. Prior to this visit he had never stepped foot into Washington or Oregon. I was delighted to be able to show his virgin eyes my favourite part of the world. On our first day back home after Seattle, the day dawned sunny once more, and that meant we had to get outside and explore!

Beacon Rock beside the Columbia River. Photo by Jen Thomas.

This time we went out into the Columbia Gorge on the Washington side because Will was interested in climbing Beacon Rock. The rock is not only remarkable to see, standing alone like a sentinel as it does, but it also has interesting stories behind its formation and its use as a viewpoint.

The rock is a remnant of a volcano that erupted 57,000 years ago – recently, in geologic time. When the eruption was finished, lava that had filled the core cooled and hardened. Between 15 and 13 thousand years ago, a massive event known as the Missoula Floods sent wave after wave of incredibly high floodwaters crashing to the sea, carving and shaping the gorge that I love today. The water eventually eroded the mountain, leaving only the hard lava core.

In 1805, William Clark described and drew the rock in his journals, and in 1806 his traveling companion Meriwether Lewis gave it the name it still holds today.

They were obviously not the first people to note the rock. American Indians used it as a landmark to identify the last dangerous rapids to negotiate – if traveling by boat – before reaching the sea. The Bonneville Dam is visible from the trail as one climbs the rock.

View from the top, looking east toward Bonneville Dam. For a larger image so you can see the dam, just click!

In 1814, Nicholas Biddle edited the journals of Lewis and Clark for publication. Almost exactly 100 years later, his descendent Henry J. Biddle purchased the rock for $1 and began building a trail. He finished it in 1918. Biddle’s children gave the rock to the state of Washington in 1935 so that it could be made into a state park.

My purpose in acquiring the property was simply and wholly that I might build a trail to the summit.   ~H. Biddle

The trail remains today and is one mile long with 53 switchbacks. There is a small viewing place at the top, 848 feet up. There are great views all the way up, so you don’t have to reach the top for a reward. However, if you do press on (and if you skate over the icy patches we found on the shady west side), you have a 360-degree view from the top.

It looks scarier than it is. But yes, it’s basically a path on the side of a rock.

The view west toward Portland/Vancouver.

There are many many switchbacks that make you gasp for breath.

The solution for gasping is to take photos along the way.

Will climbs a rock staircase onto the viewing platform at the top.

At the bottom of the hill, we next crossed the Bridge of the Gods, which gets its name from an American Indian legend that talks about another Bridge of the Gods found in this same place in the river. If you read the book, or saw the movie “Wild,” with Reese Witherspoon, the character chooses the bridge as her final destination before quitting the Pacific Crest Trail.

On the other side of the river is the state of Oregon. We hit Interstate 84 and turned west toward Portland again. But we had to make another stop. Will’s virgin eyes needed to see the astonishing waterfalls of the Columbia River Gorge. I pulled off the highway exit to Multnomah Falls, one of the most visited tourist attractions in the state of Oregon. It is named after one of the gods in the bridge story I mentioned above.

Multnomah Falls is a familiar sight, but I never tire of it.

Looking from the bridge out to the tourists below and the Columbia Gorge out there in the sunshine.

Sometimes the best view of the falls is from the parking lot, where you can see the whole thing. On this day, the snow and ice confused the view. The Blue Star Highway sign honors US Armed Forces.

We walked up to the base of the falls and Will was duly impressed with the 620 foot falls. “Just like in Rhode Island!” he joked. We hiked up the trail to the bridge you can see in the photo.

By then we were starving, and it was time to indulge in the fare at the Multnomah Falls Lodge. The lodge is gorgeous outside and inside, featuring walls of glass panes so that we could look at the falls while we ate. The lodge theme is maintained inside the restaurant, with rustic and historic decor, and a massive fireplace. The food is always high quality.

Adventuring spirits and bellies sated, we made the long drive back home to Rainier.

Only Multnomah Lodge can make a burger and a gyro sandwich look so good.

View east

View east from Beacon Rock September 2013

Beacon Rock

Beacon Rock February 2013

Scene of the ruined trail this winter. Photo credit: Washington Trails Association.

Scene of the ruined trail this winter. Photo credit: Washington Trails Association.

Sunday I was scheduled for some mandatory overtime, so Saturday Arno and I took the opportunity to try Beacon Rock again. And the trail is open!

We had tried to climb to the top of the rock during the Winter, but a rock fall on January 25, 2013 had blocked the trail. We had a nice day hike anyhow.

On our way out of town, as I waited at a stop sign, still in my Montavilla neighborhood, we spied a tamale vendor on a bike across the street. We pulled over and bought some on a whim. $5 for six small tamales.

I decided to cross the Columbia River into Washington state, and take highway 14 out to Beacon Rock, rather than head east on the Oregon side, then cross Bridge of the Gods like we did in February. Highway 14 is so pretty, and I actively try to avoid the mental boundary that tries to form because of the river. Washington may as well be another country for as often as I go there, and I live about two miles from the border.

frogs in the bathroom

frogs in the bathroom

Portland was blanketed with stratus and damp with mizzle. (Misty drizzle. And yes, that is an official meteorological term.) About 30 minutes east brought us into full sunshine and warmth.

We arrived at Beacon Rock in late morning, and parked near the restrooms because I needed to use them. When I turned to go, I spotted these two handsomes in the stall with me. I started snapping photos and I wonder what the woman in the stall next to me thought I was taking pictures of!

This sign is placed for all the rock climbers and wannbes that leave the trail.

This sign is placed for all the rock climbers and wannbes that leave the trail.

We walked the short length to the base of the rock, and spent a little time looking at the cliffs. Arno spent a bit of energy trying to get me to say that I thought it would be fun to try to scale the face of it…but he didn’t get anywhere with that. (he never does, but he keeps trying 🙂 ) Instead, he admitted that the key point was that HE was excited about climbing the rock.

my rock climbing man

my rock climbing man

It’s about a mile to the top of this solitary rock standing in the valley. It is a basalt tower that formed inside the core of a volcano. As I wrote in my blog this winter, Henry Biddle built a trail to the top just because he wanted to, and I think that’s a wonderful reason. One climbs 850 feet, mainly on switchbacks. The trail is old, but in very good shape, paved and bounded with railings at all points. There are wooden bridges and steps and ramps. The views of the magnificent Columbia River Gorge never stop.

Biddle's trail

Biddle’s trail

An open door, where a locked door had been found on our first attempt.

An open door, where a locked door had been found on our first attempt.

Looking over the edge onto some of the switchbacks we traversed.

Looking over the edge onto some of the switchbacks we traversed.

From the top there is a reasonable 200 degree view of the river. I had been expecting 360 degrees, but to be disappointed would be ungrateful. Gorgeous day! Gorgeous gorge!

We read the information sign talking about how the gorge was carved by the famous Missoula floods, as they carried rocks and icebergs between the two states we now call Oregon and Washington.  Ice dams in Montana burst periodically, 15,000 years ago, and sent catastrophic, otherworldly floods all the way across Idaho and Washington and into the Pacific Ocean. That’s a flood practically beyond comprehension.DSC_0131

Like with the tamales, I was still feeling spontaneous when we reached the bottom, and I suggested we go find some fish to buy.

The Indians in this region have been fishing since the first humans lived here. They have legal rights to continue to fish, and when they have too much, they sell it at little stands along the highway. I’ve been meaning to buy some fresh salmon for years, but I never seem to have the cash on me, or the time to stop. Today was my chance!

Only a few miles down the road, we found a sign “FRESH FISH,” and I pulled off the highway onto a little frontage road toward a long row of camp trailers and rickety wooden stands. I didn’t know how to choose where to go. We walked to one stand with a few people who looked up and greeted us as we arrived. We watched as the man behind the wooden stand expertly filleted a salmon for the two men standing there.

The man with the fish was named Frank, we found out later. Frank introduced his grandson, Benny, as a guy who was a lot of help around the place. So I asked 10 year old Benny, “What’s the difference between all these places selling fish?” I thought I was going to get an answer along the lines of different kinds of fish being sold, or different prices.

Benny deferred back to Frank, who went on for awhile about the trustworthiness of the sellers, the cleanliness of operations, and the reliability of the fish freshness. While he admitted that he was pretty sure he was related to every single seller out there, he couldn’t recommend any of them except one guy who wasn’t there that day. I suspected he was just trying to make a sale, till at one point in his animated stories, one of the guys buying the fish caught my eye and nodded his head at Frank and mouthed, “Buy your fish here.”

Frank with my $40 salmon

Frank with my $40 salmon. It looks small, but there was a lot of meat on it.

Choosing the fish, getting it gutted and filleted and packed with ice, all while Frank told his many stories, took some time. Arno said later that it reminded him of what Sherman Alexie had said when we went to see him in Portland. Alexie explained that you can’t hurry an Indian. Be patient and you’ll get what you want.

Chanterelles a few days old. What is left after I ate a bunch for supper.


While we waited, the guy buying the fish asked me, “Hey, you want some Chanterelles?” Heck yeah! I followed him to his truck and in the back he had baskets filled with mushrooms he and the other guy had just picked. He scooped as many as I could carry into my hands, and scooped another huge handful for Frank, and we carried them back to the fish stand as the fillets were finally presented to the buyer.

Instead of focusing on me, Frank turned to watch a family that had just showed up. They all looked like they were of western Asian descent. Frank showed them the fish in the coolers while I went to grab a paper towel from the stand to wrap up my mushrooms. Arno told me that while I was gone, Frank had instructed Benny, “Remember, for brown skin, it’s $5 a pound.” I love that he heard that! What a delicious glimpse into the intricacies of commerce.

The brown family decided not to buy, and left. It was my turn to buy a fish. I was still a little suspicious about whether we were at the right place until Frank said, “There goes Green Toes,” as his earlier customers left. “That was his boyfriend with him. He was wearing shoes today, but when he’s in sandals, you can see his green toenail polish.” Frank went on talking about gay men and how uncomfortable he was to have them there, but glad for the business and the mushrooms. That sealed the deal for me. If this gay man was a regular customer despite the obvious problem Frank had with him, then it must be the best fish!

Benny with the dog

Benny with the dog

While Frank cut up my salmon, Benny’s mom Betty came out of the trailer and began talking with us. The dog came out from beneath another trailer. Frank explained that his son was gone fishing and that he was with a friend who had rights to net fishing. “The rest of us platform fish,” he explained. “Our family came in after the dam covered Celilo Falls, so we don’t get the net rights.” (Anyone who lives here soon learns that the sacred falls and fishing grounds were destroyed when The Dalles Dam was built.) I was learning so much standing there in the sun with the buzzing flies. Another Indian at a different stand turned on drum music from his truck stereo and Benny began dancing. They were a fun family.

Frank hadn’t weighed my fish, but suggested $35 and I agreed since Green Toes’ fish was about the same size and he had paid $40. When I pulled out my purse to pay for it, I found that I didn’t have change, and happily handed over $40. If we ate huge portions this was about five salmon dinners for Tara and me, the fish was probably less than 24 hours out of the water, and I had just had an hour of entertainment. It was totally worth the price!

Arno and I found a park by the water in Stevenson, and we ate our tamales and drank some Kokanee beer for lunch. Then we made our way back home and I began barbecuing salmon and zuchinni for supper, and fried up half the mushrooms in garlic and butter.

Beacon Rock near Stevenson, Washington

Beacon Rock near Stevenson, Washington

Arno and I tried to hike up Beacon Rock today but our plans were foiled by a locked gate.

The trail held such promise

The trail (built in 1918 by Henry Biddle) held such promise

Columbia River Gorge from a height

There is no equal to the majestic view of the great Columbia River Gorge from a height. …but what is that? A door?

A locked door

A locked door, preventing would-be trespassers, wishing to pretend ignorance of the “closed trail” signs.

We parked and bought a season pass anticipating future hikes. A public service announcement to anyone heading this way: buy a pass at the trailhead! The Internet says there is no fee, but you must have a parking pass. A car next to us had been ticketed. Signs were clearly posted that the trail was off limits due to a rock fall in the winter. There were also notices that not all of the climbing faces were open. We walked round the barrier, and, finding the trail nothing but inviting – and noting the official Park vehicle parked across the road – remarked aloud that we would only be investigating the accessibility of the climbing wall.

I had hoped to find the rock slide and pick my careful way through it, and beg forgiveness should the Park official come after us. It was my first trip to Beacon Rock, and I eagerly anticipated ascent.

We checked the climbing wall, noticed some hardware fixed and waiting for one of Arno’s future attempts. Then, with no one about, we continued up the beautifully maintained trail. Around a couple turns we were able to see that there was no danger of us choosing to break the rules. The steel gate was chained and locked and there would be no passing it.

My purpose in acquiring the property was simply and wholly so that I might build a trail to the summit  –Henry Biddle

Don’t you love that quote? Mr. Biddle has my complete understanding! I suppose I’ll climb his trail another day. At the bottom of the trail again, we saw from the map that we were at the trailhead of another short hike to tiny Ridell Lake, and we went there instead. The day had begun grey, cold, and windy, but along the trail we were sheltered from the wind and the sun broke free. Soon we were warmed and delighted by the views of Beacon Rock, which we never would have found otherwise. I took the photo above.030

We heard a crash in the trees nearby that sounded as if it had been made by an animal as large as a deer, and both of us stopped in our tracks and listened. We caught no sight of the source of the noise until I looked at the sharp impressions in the mud at our feet, which confirmed that it had been a deer. We spotted wild daffodils as well – just 020about to bloom! And the sun lit up a gorgeous fungus on the cut end of a log along the trail. Click the photos to enlarge the images.

Beacon Rock was known as an important landmark to Native Americans, who called it Che-che-op-tin, and it was first described in English by William Clark (half of Lewis & Clark) in 1805 and again in 1806. It was formed in the core of a volcano when molten basalt erupted. The Columbia River, and perhaps the famous Lake Missoula floods, wore away the outside of the small volcano, and left this striking wedge of rock for us to enjoy a thousand years later.

Looking toward Oregon. See the PCT sign in shadow on the right.

Looking toward Oregon, the PCT sign on the right.

We stopped before returning home along the Bridge of the Gods because we wanted to see how pedestrians would cross the great Columbia. There was no footpath, but it was clear the Pacific Crest Trail came out at this place. Further, the sign across the entrance to the bridge also declared it to be part of the PCT. Arno pulled out his magic phone and soon had the answer from the Internet: hikers walk across the bridge and pay a 50 cent toll like everyone else. The speed limit is 15 miles an hour, so that makes up for the apparent danger of having no safe place to walk other than in traffic.

a flocking of shocking pink

a flocking of shocking pink

Hungry by this time, we went into Stevenson for lunch and had a lucky find at Big River Grill, approved by the Sturgeon General, where we had scrumptious salmon cakes for an appetizer and could hardly settle on what to eat since nearly everything on the menu sounded perfect.  Across the street, the Class of 2012 had flocked the Skamania County Courthouse.

Just to be sure that we had the information correct, Arno asked at the tollbooth as we left the bridge, and it was confirmed that people were allowed to walk across the bridge.

We stopped at Cascade Locks on the Oregon side for photos of the bridge, with picturesque snowy peaks of southern Washington in the background.

Arno at the Bridge of the Gods

Arno at the Bridge of the Gods

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