Van Go: Fort Stevens Sojourn
By Julie Snyder
Shafts of mist-filtered sunlight shot through the rusty, perforated hull of the Peter Iredale, a once-proud English sailing ship. Shadows checker-boarded the sand that had imprisoned the four-masted steel bark since 1906 when a mighty southeast wind and strong currents rammed the vessel aground on Clatsop Beach.
I was nearly alone in my sunrise encounter with the ghostly skeleton. Even the ocean hadn’t yet made an appearance, the surf audible but invisible in a shroud of fog.
A mile inland, my husband, Joe, was sleeping in our camper, Van Go. Our pandemic summer was on the wane, and we had grabbed a few days before the Labor Day holiday to explore Fort Stevens State Park. A thumb of land anchoring the mouth of the Columbia River, the park marries thirty-seven-hundred acres of forests, meadows, wetlands, dunes, and beaches into nature nirvana.
On this, my first early morning walk of our trip, I considered the miles of broad beach that laid in both directions. South of the shipwreck, vehicles were allowed on the sand. I veered north, car-free and carefree, striding in the direction of the Columbia River four miles beyond. A foamy fringe left by lapping waves was my trail of breadcrumbs in the morning mist.
After a few miles, I retraced my route, following sand dollars like small stepping stones, until the ship’s rusty rib signaled a return to my starting point. No longer deserted, the skeletal remains of the Peter Iredale had attracted a curious crowd with cameras.
Had the calendar read October 1, those beachgoers would be brandishing shovels instead of cameras and scurrying the sands in search of dimpled “shows” where clams have extended their necks toward the surface. The shipwreck is eternally sand-bound, but razor clams are seasonal.
Nearly all of Oregon’s razor clam bounty is harvested along the eighteen miles of beach south of the Columbia River. But we were in the middle of the annual six-week conservation closure that affords newly-set young clams the chance to settle into their beach turf. Clam digging was verboten.
I expect that razor clams weren’t top of mind for the Peter Iredale’s red-bearded captain, H. Lawrence. When he and his crew were rescued, he stood at attention, saluted his ship, and said, “May God bless you and may your bones bleach in these sands.” He then turned to his sailors with a bottle of whiskey and implored them to have a drink.
Neither bone bleaching nor whiskey had much appeal to me at that hour, but coffee did, and I hustled back to Van Go through the sea pine-rimmed dunes to put on the kettle.
“Not exactly an intimate camping spot,” said Joe as we sipped coffee fireside and watched the parade. Big dogs on leashes, small dogs in strollers, little people on midget two- and-three wheelers with streamers, teenage boys with rad helmets and speedy cycles, moms, dads, grandmas and grandpas poking along on the loops ringed by campsites.
Fort Stevens is akin to a small town with nearly four-hundred lodging options, from campsites and tent sites to yurts and deluxe cabins (the latter two were not open because of the pandemic). Camp hosts keep the peace. There’s firewood for sale, restrooms with showers, and centers for recycling and trash. And the population is a loyal one. We met countless folks who returned at the same time every year.
We broke away from the parade to fix breakfast. Our bowls of raisin bran seemed sad as the fragrance of bacon wafted from a nearby campsite.
“We need to take our camp cuisine up a notch,” I said.
“At least to the breakfast meat level,” said Joe.
The day and the setting beckoned us to bike. Temperatures in the seventies, blue sky, no wind, relatively flat paved paths. All boded well for our first outing on bicycles in several years.
I had recently parted ways with my twenty-year-old, drop-handlebar, red Trek with toe-clip pedals. After two hip replacements, my body rejected the required riding position. I traded it for a campground cruiser—a Cannondale with upright handlebars and a cushy seat. Joe’s bike is comparable (though his seat has even more padding).
Off we spun on our two-wheeled lounge chairs along a nine-mile network of mostly shaded, mostly level paths lined with Scotch broom, sword ferns, and blackberry bushes. Geriatric biking maybe, but we had great fun. Who cares if five-year-olds on pink Princess mini-bikes whizzed past us? There was some small satisfaction on the other end of the age spectrum—at least one of us had been alive when Fort Stevens was still an active military base.
Fort Stevens Military Reservation safeguarded the mouth of the Columbia River from unwanted intrusion between the Civil War—when British and Confederate sea raiders threatened—and the end of World War II. However, the soldiers couldn’t protect ill-fated ships from running afoul of the Columbia Bar, where the mighty river collides with the Pacific Ocean in massive, standing waves.
The Bar and its environs have claimed more than 2,000 ships and many more lives since the late 1880s, earning the moniker “Graveyard of the Pacific.” Fortunately for modern sailors, a team of skilled Columbia River Bar Pilots is at the ready to board vessels and guide them safely through the tortuous waters at the river’s mouth.
Fort Stevens’ military heritage was on full display along our bicycle route. Decommissioned in 1947, the fort has relaxed into life as a historical park. Most buildings have been reduced to their foundations, but gun batteries and bunkers have survived, haunting monuments to another era. Sadly, the military museum and underground battery tours were on pandemic-hold, and Fort Stevens in its prime was left to our imaginations.
Perhaps the fort’s peak performance came in 1942 when a Japanese submarine surfaced just off the coast. The vessel fired seventeen shells on Fort Stevens, the first military installation in the contiguous U.S. to come under fire in World War II. Following the attack, thirty-four miles of barb wire was strung along the coast and around the fort to stave off an invasion that, fortunately, never occurred.
Our history lesson on two wheels fired up our appetites. We pedaled over to my sister and brother-in-law’s campsite for dinner. Like us, when Covid-19 canceled foreign travel plans, they detoured to car camping. Considerably more skilled at campfire fare than are we, they served up savory salmon burgers and fresh-from-the-farmers’-market corn and green beans.
For dessert, I pulled out a classic—s’mores—those too-sweet, toasted (in my case, charred) marshmallows sandwiched between two squares of graham cracker. Wiping off our sticky fingers and faces after indulging, we all agreed—no more s’mores until next summer.
On our last morning, I bypassed the beach to walk around Coffenberry Lake, a sliver of fresh water adjacent to the campground. Formed decades ago, when rain and snow collected in a shallow pocket between the dunes, the lake has no inlets or outlets.
My peaceful wander followed a narrow dirt path through a forest of spruce and hemlock draped in moss. In a few hours, the lake’s solitary spell would be broken—warm temperatures would lure dozens of campers to the sapphire waters for boating, swimming, and fishing.
When I returned to our campsite—after chatting up the owner of an adorable golden doodle puppy named Maverick—Joe was brewing coffee. After a lazy morning, we drove to the six-mile-long South Jetty at the mouth of the Columbia River. There, boulders the size of washing machines trap and contain shifting sands to make the ocean-to-river transition safer.
Nearby, grasslands frequented by elk were framed by the ruins of a wooden trestle that carried trains to the jetty construction a century ago. Alas, no elk lingered in the deep grass. We peeked in at the Wildlife Viewing Bunker in hopes of spotting seabirds, but they’d flown the coop.
As then did we, adding Fort Stevens State Park to Van Go’s list of “we’ll be back” destinations.
Julie Snyder lives in Portland, Oregon. As a writer, editor and publisher, she’s contributed to a variety of lifestyle, in-flight and travel publications, and produced award-winning catalogs for Backroads travel company. Among her passions are animal welfare, walking, travel and the Green Bay Packers.