The North-West Coast by Rail - USA to Canada

The North-West Coast by Rail - USA to Canada

I recently returned from a trip along the north-west coast of the USA to Canada, travelling from Portland, Oregon, through Seattle, Washington, to Vancouver in British Columbia. It was a fantastic journey involving planes, trains, trucks and automobiles, as well as a cable car – and almost a boat ...

This stretch of the North American continent is a truly beautiful part of the world. I began my journey in Portland, Oregon where I made a couple of day excursions – first, to Astoria and Cannon Beach in Oregon, and then, second, over into Washington State to the national park around Mount Saint Helens. Portland is a wonderfully relaxed and laidback city, notable for its many micro-breweries and delicious food stalls, as well as the legendary Voodoo Donuts store. But the main highlight for me has to be the famous and truly vast Powell’s Bookstore. If you are a bibliophile you will almost certainly find yourself truly lost in here, but if so you’ll probably never want to find your way out again, it’s a book lover’s paradise!

Around 96 miles north of Portland, the Port of Astoria is a small city situated at the mouth of the Columbia River, named after John Jacob Astor (1763-1848), who established his American Fur Company here in 1811 to compete with the British Hudson’s Bay Company – he is also an ancestor of John Jacob Astor IV (1864-1912), who famously was the wealthiest passenger to perish when the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic in April 1912. It was also close to Astoria that the Lewis and Clark Expedition wintered in 1805-1806 (I think I’ll save saying any more on Lewis and Clark for future - more detailed - blog post). However, my real reason for wanting to visit Astoria, I have to confess, was in fact rooted a little more closely to the present day … I wanted to visit Astoria because this is where the 1985 kid’s adventure movie The Goonies was filmed! I was nine years old when this movie came out. I remember going to see it at the cinema and loving every minute of it; consequently, it remains to this day one of my favourite films. So it was quite a nostalgic - if a little surreal - moment to find myself standing outside the Walsh family’s house on the very spot where Chunk performed his legendary “Truffle Shuffle” dance! 

Having made this little pilgrimage to childhood memory I then set off in pursuit of the noisy sounds of sea lions which were echoing loudly up the hill from the docks. Here the piers were full of pungent smelling sea lions all basking in the sunshine, with others periodically slipping into the water where they swam with amazing speed and grace amongst the moored boats. 

Leaving Astoria, heading south down the coast road, the next stop was Cannon Beach. This is a truly beautiful stretch of coastline. Here the restless sea was roaring loudly, kicking up a white haze of mist from the surging breakers of the surf, out of which emerged the distinctive ghostly shape of Haystack Rock.

My second excursion out of Portland was to the Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument. I remember learning about the famous catastrophic eruption of May 18th 1980 in geography lessons at school, only eight years after the event. This was a major eruption which was preceded by a series of earthquakes and steam-venting episodes which weakened the north face of the volcano such that it eventually gave way; the earthquake which triggered the blast measured 5.1 on the Richter scale. This exposed the molten layer of magma beneath and the sudden pressure differential released torrents of gas, steam and ash, along with a rapid flow of lava which actually overtook the initial avalanche of overlying rock and debris, also triggering massive torrential mudflows. The resulting environmental devastation left a wasteland of several hundred square miles, raining ash and debris over eleven States, and claimed the lives of 57 people, as well as untold numbers of animals and trees in the surrounding region. Even today many of these dead and scorched trees are still visible standing on the surrounding hillsides; bleached as dry as bone they make quite a stark and eerie landscape in some places. 

Prior to the eruption scientists from the US Geological Survey persuaded the local authorities to close the Mount Saint Helens area and thereby saved many thousands of lives which undoubtedly would have been affected otherwise. The initial eruption column rose 80,000 feet into the atmosphere (compare this to the recent ash plume from Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland which reached around 30,000 feet, causing the closure of the entire airspace of northern and western Europe for several days in early 2010 – if you think of this in terms of the contrails you see overhead from airliners, most long haul flights cruise at an altitude of around 36,000-38,000 feet).

Eventually leaving Portland I boarded the Amtrak Cascades train at Union Station – a wonderful old railway station dating back to 1896. The train journey up to Vancouver in British Columbia (passing through Vancouver, Washington) took 8 hours, and was a wonderful way to see the country as the train travels up to Seattle and then along the coast of Puget Sound. These are the waters - from Oregon all the way up to Alaska - which were explored and charted by George Vancouver (1757-1798), a Captain in the British Navy, in 1792. 

Along the way the train passes under the twin suspension bridges at Tacoma Narrows. This is another place which stuck in my mind from my schooldays as I recall my class being shown a remarkable film as part of a physics lesson on wave frequencies, resonance properties, and elasticity. The 16mm film was shot by a man who owned a local camera shop, and it shows how the bridge began to oscillate in a 40 mile an hour crosswind until it eventually shook itself apart. At the time the newly constructed bridge had only been open for a few months when it collapsed in November 1940. It was eventually rebuilt ten years later, with the second parallel bridge being completed in 2007. There’s a rather striking moment in the film in which a man abandons his car on the bridge and runs to safety. Apparently no one was injured or killed in the collapse, except – sadly – for the car owner’s dog which was so terrified it refused to move and even bit the man when he attempted to pull it from the car in order to try to save it.