The hull of the Diamond Ray plows towards Astoria.

UP ON COXCOMB HILL, the highest point in Astoria, the rain is turning to sleet. The temperature is dropping; clouds are balling up like fists. The threat of worse to come and the potential for an icy slog back down to town is enough to drive away the few tourists milling about at the foot of the Astoria Column. The 125-foot historical landmark stands 600 feet above sea level; its 164-step staircase winds all the way to the top, affording, by far, the best views of the Columbia River and its tumultuous exit to the sea.

The 1,290-mile Columbia begins in Alberta, Canada, and runs down past towns like Revelstoke, Shelter Bay, Nakusp, and Castlegar, and then through Washington State to form the 309-mile border with Oregon. North of Portland, the Columbia meets the Willamette River, then veers northwest and on to Astoria, where it empties into the Pacific at 265,000 cubic feet per second, a force that’s been compared to that of a fire hose. Throw in Astoria’s reputation for fog and occasional hurricane-force winds, and it’s easy to understand why, when charting the mouth of the Columbia in 1841, the explorer Charles Wilkes said, “Mere description can give little idea of the terrors of the bar of the Columbia; all who have seen it have spoken of the wildness of the scene, and the incessant roar of the waters, representing it as one of the most fearful sights that can possibly meet the eye of the sailor.”

The Chinook Indians are thought to be the first to navigate this slice of treachery. Then came Robert Gray, who “discovered” and named the river in 1792. By the mid-1800s, expertise in navigating the mouth of the Columbia had become a life-and-death necessity, so the Oregon Territorial Legislature formed the state’s Board of Pilot Commissioners. More than a dozen pilots have died on the job since pilots, now regulated and licensed by the Oregon Board of Maritime Pilots, began navigating these waters in the 1790s. With fourteen dams and two main jetties now stabilizing the channel a bit, the bar’s tenure as a ship-eating monster is mostly over. The job is no less dangerous; the pilots—who are required to have an unlimited master’s license, which takes ten to fifteen years to achieve, along with two years as a captain—are now trained to react to the bar’s temperament. The channel is six hundred feet wide and forty-three feet deep in most places. Ships are upward of nine hundred feet long and can sit forty feet deep in the water, leaving three feet of wiggle room. The pilots have to know just how and when to wiggle.

These days, the biggest challenge isn’t physical survival as much as economic: the pilots need to keep bar traffic flowing as efficiently as possible. On average, forty million tons of incoming cargo worth $18 billion crosses the Columbia bar every year, making its way to log ports like Longview, and to burgeoning auto hubs like Vancouver, and to Portland, where cars, break-bulk steel, grains, and potash alone contribute $693 million a year to the local economy. Oregon is also the country’s seventh-largest exporter per capita, sending out more than ten million tons of grain and other cargo, and more than four hundred thousand automobiles. When Columbia River ports and pilots compete with much of the West Coast for business, and to some extent with the Mississippi River, the pressure is on. “Competitive shipping is critical,” says Captain Robert Johnson, a twenty-one-year bar veteran. “There are very large sums of money involved, so there is pressure to keep the bar open, but not at the expense of safety.”

In 2007, a sea storm blowing at sixty-five miles per hour shut the bar down for three days. And on January 9, 2006, fifty-year-old Kevin Murray, a bar pilot for less than two years, lost his footing while trying to transfer from a 609-foot outbound log carrier to the Chinook, the bar pilots’ other boat. He fell into the water and couldn’t be rescued. His body was recovered two days later, seventy miles up the coast. Murray’s widow, Lori, sued both the owner of the boat from which he was trying to disembark and the owner of the Chinook. They ultimately settled the matter out of court. So when Captain Johnson says, “Around here, the edge is something we can expect to face,” he’s not beating his chest. He’s stating a fact. “I can lose a ship if I make a bad decision out here, and there are very few other places in the world where that can happen. But that’s why they call us. If you had brain cancer, you wouldn’t go to a heart surgeon.”