The Diamond Ray heads on upriver toward Portland.

THE BAR PILOTS’ headquarters is a shake-shingled shoebox located next door to the Columbia River Maritime Museum. The salt air has eroded any color, the roof needs repair, and the sea has ground the neighboring docks down to stumps.

Inside, photos from the association’s 163-year history line the walls. A late-1800s portrait features pilots sporting bushy mustaches and bowlers and wielding telescopes and rolled-up charts like billy clubs—they look exactly like the type of guys who would voluntarily risk their lives to navigate a brutal body of water. Another photo shows the bar itself in all its vicious glory: enormous waves momentarily obliterate the deck of a steamship—ropes extending out of the water and up to the mast are the only clue that a boat lies just beneath the waves.

Down the main hall, past the bunk rooms and lockers, Ralph Siegrist sits in the dispatch room, compiling the day’s list of inbound and outbound ships. It’s 8 a.m. on a Wednesday, and he is alone. The air smells like coffee and stale farts. A tug-towed car barge—which looks like Portland’s US Bancorp Tower in floaties—passes by slowly, temporarily filling the entire bayside window. Beyond that, three other ships sit anchored in the harbor, waiting for berth so they can load their cargo.

This building is the epicenter of bar pilot operations. Whether a ship is headed up the Columbia to Longview, Kalama, or Portland’s Terminal 6—the river’s primary ocean-container terminal—or back out to sea, every international vessel that passes through Astoria first must check in with dispatch to arrange a bar-pilot boarding. Oregon law requires foreign-trade ships to carry a Columbia River bar pilot when crossing the bar. “About the time some captains see land, they start to get nervous,” Siegrist says. “That’s when we usually get the call.”

Captain Johnson shuffles into the dispatch office, sheds his rain gear, and throws himself into a chair. In his oatmeal sweater and slacks, he looks like Paul Newman. He’s been on since 1 a.m., but he wants to listen to the radio before heading home to bed. Every weekday morning, the local public radio station, KMUN, delivers a ship report, updating listeners on incoming and outgoing vessels. Via the muted, smoky tones of KMUN reporter Joanne Rideout, the words “laying telecom cable” never sounded quite so alluring. “She knows her stuff,” Siegrist says.

It’s an anachronistic scene: two men sitting around a hand-crank radio, listening to somebody talk about boats. But labeling these pilots “men out of time” isn’t exactly over the line. Even as a $194 million project to deepen the Columbia’s shipping channel by three feet nears completion—a move that would authorize ships to carry six thousand to ten thousand more tons of cargo than is currently allowed—the bad news has kept pace. In 2004, the Hyundai Merchant Marine line stopped shipping via the Columbia, and the “K” Line, one of two Asian shipping links, pulled out in April. A 20 to 30 percent drop in business across the board has forced the Port of Portland to trim $7.5 million from its budget by, in part, instituting pay cuts and furloughs.

In Clatsop County, home to Astoria, unemployment has nearly doubled, to 8.4 percent in the past year—that’s more than two thousand jobs, and is quite a blow to a place whose very identity rests on shipping. “People still pay attention to the scanners in their house,” Captain Johnson says. “I know that somewhere in town there’s a little old lady waiting by her radio, and I know that it probably makes her feel better to know where the ship she sees out her window is going.” Johnson used to sound the horn whenever he was in the wheelhouse: one long blast, two short—the bar pilot signal that a ship was en route somewhere. But there were complaints about the horn, so he stopped.