Words and Photographs by Joel W. Rogers
October 17th 2022 Cape Disappointment State Park.
Once again, my 1999 Subaru and I are doing what we were made to do: drive into that unique American freedom of the open road. I’m about 90 minutes out from my home in Port Townsend, Washington on a mid-October road trip to the Willapa Hills and the Columbia River. I know this route well: south on U.S. 101 with Hood Canal on my left shoulder until the not particularly obvious sign for State Route 108 and the cutoff west through the third growth of Mason County. At McCleary, with its logging history of once giant lumber mills and a rain seasoned architecture, I stopped at Gordon’s Select Market and bought the traditional braunschweiger before joining the Olympia-to-the-Coast U.S. 12.
I set the cruise control at 60 and began to relax. All summer I had not taken this simple step to pack the car with cameras, camping gear, food, wine, the journal and the Washington State DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer, punch the mileage indicator and bolt. It is a singular therapy of leaving the day-to-day complexities behind; I depart knowing the cat will be fed, the e-mails will mount up and beers with friends will come another day. That is the beauty of a road trip: just roll out of the driveway and the adventure begins.
In return I get to I enjoy the complex simplicity of driving my 23-year-old Outback, which is now considered a classic, with 303-thousand miles logged. Most everything, save the engine, has been replaced. The tires are new, windshield in good shape, oil topped off and the sound system works: radio, CDs and cassette tapes.
I plug in a mixed tape from the 1990s and the song “Willin” by Lowell George fills the car with such sweet music: Joy. This classic truck driving ballad is uncannily appropriate for the moment and the free hand I’ve been given. Just short of Montesano and the cutoff to Raymond, singing at the top of my lungs, I feel the trip has been blessed.
I exited U.S. 12 short of Aberdeen and headed west on State Route 107 that runs beside the Chehalis River to meet U.S. 101 again. Turning south, I passed the Artic Tavern promising one day to stop in, and entered Pacific County and the Willapa Hills.
In the week prior, I’d watched the Astoria forecasts and now looked to have two maybe three days of reasonable weather to explore what I considered familiar territory. But this road trip will be different from the simple destinations or curiosities that have launched previous trips. It is being driven by a book entitled: Deep River by Karl Marlantes. Friends had recommended it and the reason came quick: I have never had a book’s plot mirror my life and experiences like this.
Deep River is a fictional story of the Koskis: two brothers, Ilmari and Matti, and their sister Aino, who grew up in rural Finland in the early 1900s. Times were hard as Russia controlled the country. One by one–first Ilmari, then Matti, then Aino– they were forced to escape to America. As I am reading, their birthplace, Kokkola, is named and I turn to Google Earth to find it on the Gulf of Bothnia coast. My maternal grandparents Hanna and Herman Isaacson were also born in Finland, Herman in the town of Malax and Hanna just north in Jakobstad. I discover both towns less than 85 miles from Kokkola. The world of the Koski’s was the world of my grandparents before they too emigrated.
Those Finns already settling in America sent word back to come to Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia River, at one time the largest Finn community west of the Mississippi. Marlantes’s characters arrived around 1900 and settled on the Washington side of the Columbia near the town of Naselle, on the Naselle River that flows west into Willapa Bay. The Koskis were homesteaders in a land of 200-foot trees. They named their stake Ilmahenki which translates to ‘Air Spirit’ and began to clear the land and build a home.
Hanna and Herman met and married in Seattle’s Ballard town, yet another enclave of Scandinavian emigrants, in 1909. In time they owned a 2-story corner grocery store off Leary Way and Herman built a substantial house on 3rd Avenue NW where Hanna made me pulla (cardamom bread) every time I visited.
I became a photographer and writer and traveled extensively in the American West, but of all the many destinations over 40 years, Willapa Bay and Astoria have been favorites. I’ve kayaked Willapa Bay and paddled the track of Lewis and Clark down the Columbia, shot assignments there for the Nature Conservancy, Politico, Sunset and others. But as I delved into Deep River, Marlantes began to educate me to the hard history and social struggle hidden in these hills. I realized I wanted to find the markers of Marlantes’ story, to explore what remains of his character’s world.
So I got out the DeLorme, found a magnifying loop and cruised the map of the Willapa Hills. I knew Marlantes gave the town of Naselle the fictional name of Tapiola and the Naselle River, Deep River – author’s license. But I did not know that just over the ridge on the south slope to the Columbia was, to my surprise, the real Deep River. Its headwaters come off of Deep River Hill, elevation 725 feet, and flow for 7 miles into tidewater. It was time to pack.
Just short of Raymond, U.S. 101 cuts through a rare remaining stand of mature firs and cedars. I stop and take pictures of trees not unlike the ones Matti felled. Back in the car, I cross over the Willapa River into Raymond with its gap-toothed downtown and the Weyerhaeuser sawmill, then past the river town of South Bend and along the eastern shore of Willapa Bay. The shoreline is convoluted, the road curving around one forested headland then deep into a salt marsh filled inlet then over a bridge, a string of bridges, over the Bone River, the Niawiakum, the Palix, the Nemah, and then the Naselle. I was close.
That night I camped at Cape Disappointment State Park and pre-dawn, drove roughly 30 miles, first on U.S. 101 along the Washington side of the Columbia then inland on State Route 401 to State Route 4 and Deep River. The sun was still behind the low Eastern hills as I began to cross over the long tidewater-wide bridge. I slowed, driving the right margin looking downriver. And I stopped, put the flashers on and grabbed the camera. It was a pink dawn, just enough moisture in the air to tint the morning light. The scene glowed, the river bending around a forested shore, a diked low country. There, with a gill net boat fishing right in the bend, was Deep River. You could drive half-way across America and not get as perfectly timed an image as this. There be magic here.
I crossed over and turned up a dike road following the eastern bank. There were small farms, old pilings that once anchored mill-bound log rafts, a few wee homes atop the dike, crowded with a Northwest accumulation of pick-ups, beached boats and firewood under the odd blue tarp. After a mile or so, and four miles from the mouth of the Columbia, the road and the river meet a small bridge. That and a few houses scattered on either side is what’s left of the town of Deep River. Here the broad tidal river suddenly narrows and turns into a set of small streams draining a branching set of narrowing valleys with side roads named by Finnish pioneers: Wirkkala, Parpalla, Torppa Road. I take the road to the right.
Now Marlantes wrote about the oldest brother, Ilmari, building a 20′ x 40′ church and there on W. Deep River Road, tucked up against a valley side hill is the 1902 Deep River Pioneer Lutheran Church measuring 20′ x 40′ with an upright steeple. After renovation was underway, the steeple was rebuilt, and arched windows re-silled and framed. But inside it was just as described in the book, notable for its humble pulpit, faded, pale green walls and simple pews.
I continued up valley until I literally had no river and, confronted with no trespass signs, returned to State Route 4 and continued east towards Grays River to explore. Down one road, turn around, take a picture, make a Braunschweiger sandwich, watch a Heron, back in the car, down another road, I worked the area until late afternoon before heading for yet another Deep River marker: Knappton.
As the Koskis proved up Ilmahenki, Ilmari blacksmithing, Matti logging and Aino trying to organize the loggers, on Saturday they’d hike the ten miles through the forest to Knappton where a large timber mill was expanding. To increase its volume and profit, the owners built nearly the entire operation on pilings sunk into the Columbia shore. There the loggers and mill hands could meet up with the young women, many of whom worked at the mill and log camp kitchens and dining rooms to feed them. And they would dance.
Knappton was the Koski’s one respite from working seven days pre-sunrise to sunset. Driving south on State Route 401 I followed the Koski’s trail in the book through the woods to the present-day Columbia River and a forest of rotting pilings. What remains of Knappton stretched nearly a quarter mile around a slight point and out 100 to 200 yards from shore. Today it is just pilings and a emplaced rock which once featured a metal plaque most likely memorializing it. As I returned to the car, I am filled with a fondness for the scenes set in Deep River of Ilmari and Matti (awkwardly) and Aino (boldly) mixing with the workers, with the people dancing, drinking, flirting, fighting before they hiked back in darkness to Ilmahenki and another work week. It is as if I am there.
Seat belt on, Corelli on the CD player, I quickly got in the west-bound lane and headed for Cape Disappointment and camp. In the morning, I woke with weather arriving and a satisfying sense of accomplishment. I packed up and once again passed the Artic Tavern heading home. A good trip, 499 miles in total, but I was only halfway through the 713-page saga of Deep River. Yes, there will be more road trips.