Columbia River Bar Pilots: A job like no other

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Mouth of Columbia River at Astoria

Shortly after my dad died I received a phone call at work from a staff person with the Oregon Board of Maritime Pilots. For the first minute of the call I assumed that this man was calling to offer his condolences about Dad. For, after all – it was widely known that the men and women working as river and bar pilots “blew” Dad away with their courage and bravery. Yet, after the moment had passed – and I regained some degree of emotional stability – I learned the call was merely seeking technical assistance as related to the work of the river and bar pilots. As I identified myself as Dick Montgomery’s daughter, the caller paused – he had worked with Dad years before, but hadn’t yet heard of his passing. He only got my number by first reaching out to someone else who simply happened to know my job involved assisting callers with workplace safety and health questions.

To me – it was, yet another of life’s synchronous moments, a theme that subtly pervades the pages of my recently acquired novel. For a short time in a few meetings spent with this association, and some pilots, I felt Dad hovering nearby… how thrilled he would have been to know his daughter was involved in a project related to people he loved and work he admired. If dad had been braver – okay, a lot braver – and a better seaman (yep, and a much better seaman) he might have loved to have been a river bar pilot. But no, it wasn’t his nature, and instead – next best – he was thrilled to be able to write about them. And share their stories.

Last week while visiting the Columbia River Maritime Museum prior to sharing my book at the Astoria Library, I was most eager to visit the exhibit about the bar and river pilots. Watching a short video created by several sponsors, including the Port of Portland, I muttered to myself as I wondered…. did Dad have a hand in this?

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Pilot boarding ship – image credit Bill Wagner, The Daily Astoria (posted on Astoria Riverwalk).

Piloting our rivers first became a major concern in Oregon in 1846 when an unqualified seaman offered to assist a ship across the treacherous Columbia River Bar, an area known as part of the “Graveyard of the Pacific,” where more than 2000 ships have been lost and greater than 700 lives lost. The ship was grounded within twenty minutes, leading to appointment of the first pilot board by the Oregon Territorial Legislature in December, 1846. For many, the piloting profession may be considered the ultimate job in the career of a mariner, with extensive experience and training required prior to full licensure. Pilots are supported by professional organizations such as the Columbia River Pilots and the Columbia River Bar Pilots. The Columbia River Pilots are licensed to pilot the 320 or more Columbia River nautical miles from Astoria to Ports in Longview, Kalamazoo, Vancouver, Portland, The Dales and Pasco, as well as 13 miles of the Willamette River from downtown Portland. Columbia River Bar Pilots board inbound vessels at the Columbia River Entrance Buoy, navigating the ships beyond the Astoria-Megler Bridge, where they are then turned over to a river pilot.

Should you head out to Astoria and watch the video at the maritime museum – crashing waves, pilots climbing between boats in weather sometimes stormier than any non-mariner can imagine – make sure you also walk along the Columbia Riverwalk. Gaze at the passing ships, crossing under the 4.1 mile long Astoria-Megler Bridge, admire the plaques shouting out history facts back from the time of steamboats and ferries, and our river and bar pilots. Stare out past the outline of the grand Columbia, and into the glorious Pacific Ocean.

If you’re not heading to Astoria any time soon, join pilots Ken Roth and Deb Dempsey and almost experience it yourself:

 

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