Venturing Out to Discover the Great Northwest – By Paula Olson
East County is full of treasure undiscovered by many. Natural beauty and recreational activities abound, just east of Portland, but with a lot more elbow room.
Apartment buildings have long-since filled in the fields where berry bushes thrived when I was a youngster. And thirty years ago, I could spot bald eagles and hawks en route to PDX before Airport Way became Warehouse-Parking-Lot Central. With growth and development such prices are paid, but heading east on I-84, I can shut off the Joni Mitchell (and now Counting Crows) hit playing in my smoggy head. I inhale freely.
If there is one thing that the Pacific Northwest can boast, it is the Cascade Range. Upon seeing Mt. Hood for the first time, a friend from New England exclaimed, “Wow—that’s a mountain. And it’s right here!” Along with the relatively nearby Mt. Adams, Mt. Jefferson, and Mt. Bachelor, the slopes of Mt. Hood offer recreational opportunities for adrenalin junkies, crunchy earth-lovers, and average Joe naturalists alike. Think snowboarding, downhill and cross-country skiing, Pacific Crest Trail hiking, flora and fauna unique to certain elevations and terrain. Let’s not forget historic Timberline Lodge.
And for those of us who may need to ease back into nature rather than jumping in full force, the Columbia River Gorge offers multiple trails for all levels of day hikers. Many trails reward hikers with views of the river, the mountains, or with thundering spray from any number of waterfalls. There’s even a “drive-by” waterfall for out-of-towners who can’t bear to check their Jimmy Choos at the door—I’m talking about Multnomah Falls that can be seen from I-84, with a gift shop at the base and is a superior up-close waterfall experience without the sweat or grit of a hike.
Departing the bracken wood, it’s a lovely trip to follow the historic Columbia River Scenic Highway. The story goes that Sam Hill, a.k.a. “Road Builder” and son-in-law of a railroad tycoon, found Oregon’s government to be more cooperative than Washington’s, and thus built this road that follows the contours of the land above the river. Wend down this road far enough (to Corbett) and you’ll arrive at Crown Point State Park where the Vista House, completed in 1918 as a memorial to pioneers, offers, you guessed it, an amazing vista of the gorge and an interpretive center.
For those with an insatiable desire to climb the core of an ancient volcano, the gorge aims to please. Beacon Rock, named so by Lewis and Clark in 1805, has a trail all the way up to the top. Henry J. Biddle purchased the rock to build that trail. In 1935 his heirs sold the rock to Washington as a park for one dollar. No joke.
Obviously, there is an abundance of natural beauty. There’s something else I should mention about the region. If you aren’t blown over by it when you stop to take in the superlative sites of the Gorge, you’ll notice it when you look at what’s called “flagging” of the trees. I’m talking about the wind. It can blow so fiercely and steadily that the branches of ridge-top pines grow exclusively on the leeward side. That is the same mighty wind that attracts windsurfers to Hood River where sails, boards, and their wetsuit-bedecked riders dart, flit and fly across the Columbia. It’s the same wind that last year drew sailors to a regatta at Cascade Locks. The region is bustling with neoprene, nylon sheets, Gore-tex® and Thinsulate TM.
If outdoor sporting events weren’t enough to titillate the passion of water, wind, and mountain enthusiasts, historians can run amok in more docile activities in the area. The Oregon Trail, the Barlow Road, the native folklore of the Bridge of the Gods, and the cultural and natural importance of Celilo Falls and its demise cannot be bypassed. Some years after Woody Guthrie warbled about the advances of hydroelectric power for the BPA, the famous Native American fishing site was flooded by dam water in 1957. It was a tragic loss. But fishing is not completely bygone. Rivers that feed the Columbia as she “rolls on” provide ample opportunity for the sport. Hunters and fishers can find local establishments to equip them in their choice of sport.
For those seeking leisure activities, antique shops, farms and orchards of East County lure many. The list goes on and choices are not limited to those who fall victim to any sign declaring “Gift Shop Inside.”
Are Gresham, Troutdale, Sandy, Hood River, or any of the Gorge cities merely quaint and bucolic towns that just ache of rustic provinciality? Hardly. They, too, have their big box stores, outlet malls, community politics and land development polemics. But the towns and their surrounding natural beauty are extraordinary. Let’s not mess it up. If the East County and Columbia Gorge region don’t carefully consider the long-term impact of any economic measures to their unequivocally beautiful areas, the results could be disastrous. Once the lovely face of the region becomes an unnaturally painted lady, it can’t be undone.
In the meantime, this city slicker is beckoned by the breathing room and comeliness of nature just down the highway. And there’s no big yellow taxi on this route.