The Columbia River, Transportation Giant

big2_2Last weekend we decided to take a day trip to Astoria, Oregon for a quick getaway. There is a quite a bit to see and do there, but this particular day one fascinating thing was watching all the container ships in the Columbia River. I’ve seen them before, but never so many.

The Columbia River is the biggest river in the Pacific Northwest at 1243 miles long. It starts in Canada, flows south through Washington, then turns west and is the border between Oregon and Washington. There are 14 dams on the river.

Ships coming into the Columbia River have to pass over the bar, which can be treacherous in bad weather. The bar is where the mighty Columbia River meets the powerful Pacific Ocean, creating enormous waves. It is so dangerous that ships must have a Columbia River Bar Pilot (experts in crossing the bar) get on the boat and guide it through the bar.

Once over the bar they then pass under the Astoria-Megler Bridge which was built in 1966 and is 208 feet high.  Upriver the ships also have to pass under the Lewis and Clark Bridge at Longview which is 198 feet high. The Columbia River is 55 feet deep for the first 5 miles, then is 43 feet deep for the next 100 miles or so into Portland, Oregon. Neither of those depths seems like enough when you look at how absolutely HUGE the ships are that are in it!big1_1

About 3600 ships go through the Columbia River every year. Most of the particular ships we saw this day were Articulated Tug and Barges, basically a combination tug boat and barge. The tug can be detached from the barge if needed. I believe we also saw some General Cargo Ships which can carry logs or large amounts of other cargo.

We watched the large group anchored up out in the bay from the dock around the Columbia River Maritime Museum. They were just sitting there, no action, but just fascinating to see so many of them sitting out there lined up. You can see from the amount of red showing above the water that the ships are empty. We assumed they would be heading upriver at some point to load up with cargo. When they are fully loaded and heavy, they sit much lower in the water and the red part is nearly covered.

IMG_2813We went to Fort Stevens and that’s where we saw this ship heading back out to sea. As you can see from the small amount of red showing above the water line, this ship is loaded and heavy. Surprisingly, though, it moved amazingly quick even though it was loaded up.

Watching the boats we wondered – what kind of people worked on the boats, where were they from, where were they going, what kind of cargo did they carry, would we be using any of the items they were bringing in and out? We’ll never know but it was fascinating to see the importance of the great Columbia River as a massive transportation system and the amount of traffic using it.

Categories: Historical, Keatons Out and About, Oregon, Outdoors | Tags: , , , , | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “The Columbia River, Transportation Giant

  1. Nice pics, they make me wanna do a road trip.

    I’m currently researching info for a post on an adventure I had in Astoria. I learned you can track the river ships from the Columbia River Pilot vessel location page: If you want to know who’s crossing the bar, the Columbia River Bar Pilots have a traffic page: You Tube has a lot of footage of what various water craft go through when they cross the bar, including Coast Guard training missions.

    Next time I head up to the mouth of the Columbia, I’m printing out the pages so I can identify the big ships with binoculars as if they were bird species.

    My post will be up soon at:


  2. I spoke to Dispatch at the Columbia River Pilots today and learned that there are 45 total pilots, half of which are actively out there on the water at any given time. Two of them are women.

    I read somewhere that, as of 2009, there is at least one female Columbia River Bar Pilot, too.

    A few years back, I had a hair stylist who’s husband was training to become one. Apparently, it’s an intense process but the pay ain’t bad.

    I’m sticking to land.


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