Northwest Events Travel


Standing on the dock at Astoria, Oregon’s East Basin Marina, I ponder the mighty Columbia River and the magnitude of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. A familiar, distant barking disturbs my reverie. Turning toward the sound, I spot a sign on the pier, “Danger, Sea Lions on Dock.”
Refocusing my eyes, I made out about a dozen sea lions hauled out and bellowing to high heaven on the eastern breakwater. Very probably their forebearers regarded the “Corps of Discovery” that winter of 1805-06 with an even more robust racket.
Today, this noisy rookery continues to sun as I conduct my own discovery of Astoria, a popular boating destination for mariners both cruising the river and those following the coast north or south. This, the first settlement west of the Rockies, offers an amenity-loaded, boater-friendly destination where boaters can immerse themselves in the history, sights and marine-oriented activities of this great Columbia River port.
“Boaters come here because Astoria’s basins offer a good, safe port,” said Oly Olson, owner of Tiki Charters located at the West Basin. “Most boaters use us as a stopover where they can top off fuel, visit historic sites and find everything they need for their cruise within walking distance.”
Olson’s operation, located adjacent to the Port of Astoria Harbormaster Office at the West Basin Marina, described the waters around the port as providing some of the best sturgeon and salmon fishing on the river. Depending on regulations, the main salmon season runs from late June through September. He also recommended newcomers consider chartering on their first fishing trip, “just to get the lay of the land.”
Around Astoria that translates into understanding and appreciating the power and predilection of the river. “It’s important to not only have good charts of the area, but to ask for local knowledge,” said Olson.
Assistant Harbormaster Jesse Early confirmed Olson’s description when he noted that power boaters come from all over to cruise the Columbia. While some boaters powering down the coast or making deliveries make the 13-mile detour into Astoria for fuel and provisions, most come from “down” river from the Portland area. They stop along the way at historic, attractive and accommodating ports such as Illwaco, Kathlamet and Kalama. All these ports also offer launch facilities for trailerboaters intent on cruising and fishing the Columbia. “It’s a lot like gunkholing in the San Juans or Gulf Islands,” said Early.
Early and Harbormaster Bill Cook suggested that boaters schedule a minimum of two days in Astoria to relax, take in the sights and enjoy the local waters. The harbormaster’s office acts as concierge for visiting boaters by providing excellent maps and tourist information.
In terms of accessing the marinas and navigating this part of the Columbia, Cook reiterated the importance of boaters carrying good charts. Consult NOAA Chart # 18521. “Never cross the bar at maximum ebb,” said Cook, who has been harbormaster for 16 years. “People need to use good common sense, study the currents and tides and if they have questions, contact us for local knowledge.”
He noted that from November through February, boaters need to use extra caution. The Harbormaster’s Office can put potential visitors in touch with the Coast Guard in order to check all the bars.
“I hesitate to give boaters directions because things change all the time and the Coast Guard is the most up-to-date,” said Cook. “It is advisable to use good sense, call us and we’ll tell you who to contact. Beyond that, follow the channel; it’s extra well marked.”
Cook also advised that visiting boaters be aware that there is a tremendous amount of traffic in the channel, especially July and August. Not only do boaters encounter a steady stream of commercial vessels; summer attracts lots of sportfishers. “It is imperative to give tankers, cargo carriers and freighters a wide berth,” cautioned Cook. “Give them the roadway and make yourself known.”
It seems that some boaters think freighters can turn on a dime like a 30-footer, added Cook. Due to the fast current of up to 4 – 5 knots and a tidal range of 10 feet, it is hard to judge the effects of the water. Cook said, “Given these factors in combination with the momentum of a commercial vessel, recreational boaters should not cross a bow unless they are several miles away.”
Boaters are requested to phone ahead for reservations at the West and East Mooring Basins. Upon arrival, boaters find the Port’s two facilities offer a total of 416 slips and year-round monthly or daily moorage. A total of 26 transient slips are set aside at all times, but during the summer season the basins often accommodate up to 80 visiting boats. “We never turn a boat away,” said Early.
Located two miles apart on Astoria’s waterfront, the two basins provide 30 and 50 amp shore power, potable water and slips for craft up to 100 feet. Most visiting boaters prefer the West Mooring Basin due to its location and host of amenities. Situated just west of the Astoria Bridge (Hwy. 101) and adjacent to the Red Lion Inn and restaurant, the West Mooring Basin provides complete fuel and marine sewage pumpout facilities, secured showers and washrooms, a fish cleaning station, trash disposal and launch ramp.
The West Mooring Basin is also within easy walking distance of shopping, liquor store, marine retail and downtown core. Another great advantage is the Astoria Riverfront Trolley that operates throughout the summer and provides free, scheduled transportation up and down the waterfront. Utilizing the trolley, boaters can access the downtown, the three-mile-long River Walk trail, 6th St. Viewing Platform and Maritime Museum. “Boaters love the trolley,” said Early. “They ride it downtown to hit the sights, restaurants and stores.”
For those who managed to sidestep breakfast at the popular Pig ‘N Pancake restaurant near the West Mooring Basin, boaters should consider walking or riding the trolley to the 6th St. Pier for some serious eating. I can personally attest to the calorie content and taste at both Gunderson’s Cannery Café and Riverside Dining & Desserts.
Gunderson’s is housed in a century old cannery and owned by a fourth generation Astorian. Blessed with the best views of the river in town, the café is famous for its chowder, fresh bread, halibut burgers and legendary lime prawns. I can also vouch for the La Bamba Apple Pie. This indulgence is made up of at least 13 layers of sliced apples!
Next door, Riverside Dining tempts visitors with its Clam Digger’s Clam Chowder, Bloody Mary Shrimp Gazpacho and Chicken ‘N Herbed Dumplings. For those interested in trying something different, the restaurant features buffalo meatball chili on Oregon Trail corn cakes!
The historic Astoria waterfront affords visitors with many highlights. Among some of the “must see & do’s,” boaters need to explore the Columbia River Maritime Museum near the East Mooring Basin. The museum is currently undergoing a $5 million renovation which will expand and enhance the only nationally accredited maritime museum on the Northwest Coast.
The museum features a remarkable collection of fishing, pleasure and rescue craft. New exhibits, slated to open in 2002, will include hands-on displays that explore the history of the “Great River of the West,” the fishing industry and lifeboat exhibit, Semper Paratus.
Boaters will be interested in shopping for crafts, produce and wares at the Astoria Public Market. It runs every Saturday from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. starting May 1 through October. Vendors operate about 20 booths at the market located near the purple Ocean Beauty Seafoods building at Ninth Street and Marine Drive in downtown Astoria.
Astoria holds a full schedule of festivals and events. Among the most marine-oriented, boaters will be attracted to the Astoria-Warrenton Crab & Seafood Festival held the last weekend in April. They will also want to attend Shanghaied in Astoria, a melodrama produced every July and August that has fun with the town’s waterfront history. In addition, the annual Astoria Regatta Festival, which celebrates the region’s maritime heritage, runs the second week in August.
I am thrilled to have spent several days exploring Astoria’s colorful waterfront. I delved into the history of the area and found that the Lewis & Clark Expedition is alive and well at nearby Fort Clatsop, the site of the expedition’s awful Northwest winter. I managed to consume prodigious amounts of seafood at the city’s excellent waterfront eateries and learn a lot about the river’s maritime scene at the Maritime Museum. After snooping about the Port of Astoria West Mooring Basin, I can heartily recommend this comfortable, safe and welcoming marina.
Suggested by Harbor Master Bill Cook and Assistant Harbor Master Jesse Early
Schedule a minimum of two days to explore Astoria’s Waterfront and historic sights.
Capitalize on the harbormaster as concierge – the office provides maps and information.
Carry good charts – the river can be tricky. Consult NOAA Chart # 18521.
Never cross the bar at maximum ebb.
Use good, common sense. Study charts and tables concerning tides and currents.
Call the harbormaster for local information. He will give you a contact number for the Coast Guard.
Please call ahead for slip reservations.
Trust the channel buoys – the river is well-marked.
Give tankers, cargo carriers and other commercial vessels a wide berth.
Do not cross a ship’s bow unless several miles away.
Ride the Astoria Riverfront Trolley – the free trolley provides easy access to the entire waterfront.