Search This Blog

Monday, May 24, 2010

CAPE HORN: What's In A Name?

These are the curiously shaped basalt cliffs of Cape Horn. This is just one of the geographic areas on the Columbia River that has the name ‘Cape Horn’.

Cape Horn as seen from the Bridal Veil Loop Hike 

 The Famous Cape Horn (lower right)     NASA/courtesy of

This is the famous Cape Horn, at the tip of South America. In the 1600s, if you were a ship’s captain but you weren’t part of the Dutch East India Company and you wanted to get to the Pacific Ocean by traveling west, then you had to find a route around the tip of Chile without resorting to the Strait of Magellan. This navigational feat was difficult to accomplish owing to constant storms, high wind, high waves (65 feet) and occasional ice burgs. When sailing ships started doing routes around the cape, there were no maps for what lay beyond it. Antarctica, its existence suspected as early as Captain Cook's 1773 adventure across the Arctic Circle, doesn’t seem to have been seen for sure until 1820.

Wikipedia notes that, “Traditionally, a sailor who had rounded the Horn was entitled to wear a gold loop earring — in the left ear, the one which had faced the Horn in a typical eastbound passage — and to dine with one foot on the table; a sailor who had also rounded the Cape of Good Hope could place both feet on the table. A sailor who had sailed around Cape Horn was also able to brag by showing off his tattoo of a full-rigged ship.”

 Artist’s rendering by Troy

Here I display my anchor tattoo, a traditional entitlement for rounding Cape Horn (Skamania County).

Cape Horn (Skamania County) sticks out (a little bit) into the Columbia River, thereby satisfying the dictionary definition for ‘cape’.

This cape does not share the other cape’s reputation for perilous navigation.

In this image, Cape Horn (obviously to the left), Phoca Rock (next to the red navigation structure) and Beacon Rock (the other monolith like formation)

Though for a novice kayaker, the wind can be perilous enough.

The water runs deep at this bend in the river and peculiar eddies emerge next to the sheer rock cliffs. The water spins counter intuitively. Its character also seems to change, from a bubbly, “Enjoy this warm spring day with me.” to a more sinister “I will well up and grab you and make you disappear.” The shipping channel is close by and the threat of being run over by a barge is reason enough to keep looking over your shoulder in a paranoid fashion. The barges are pushed by remarkably powerful tugboats, but certain laws of physics dictate that by the time a tugboat captain spots a teeny kayak in his/her projected path, there will simply not be enough time to stop.

From this vantage point, the massive cliffs kind of suggest why some people were tempted to call this formation ‘Gibraltar’ (back in the mid 1800s) until you take the trouble to look at a picture of the Rock of Gibraltar, and then…well, not so much.  Incidentally, the Rock of Gibraltar is one of the Pillars of Hercules, beyond which ancient mariners understood there was ‘…nothing further’. On the Oregon side of the river, there are a couple of basalt columns that are actually called, ‘The Pillars of Hercules’ so it appears that early Oregonians and Washingtonians were having a collective failure of imagination for naming geographical features.

I hereby name the pert geographical feature to the right, Nubbin Rock. The shorter feature to the left I will call Sack Rock.

The surreal landscape reminds me of an old movie I saw when I was a young impressionable kid.

 Jason and the Argonauts – Columbia Pictures

If I understand the references made in other historical documents correctly, the sharp columns pulling away from the cliff were sometimes called needles. I suppose that last rock on the right looks kind of like a needle, especially for a fat, chunky, basalt monolith.

Human beings continue to make their mark on the gorge.

…and life continues to look for and fill any available niches.

 Washington’s Highway 14, snaking its way over the cape.

The wind plays a big role in determining whether the paddle to the face of Cape Horn will be enjoyable or not. In a matter of minutes, the surface of the water can go from something resembling glass, to something resembling the ocean.

Phoca Rock as seen on the return trip to Dalton Point. In the background, the rocky outcropping at the top of the triangular clear spot is Angel’s Rest. 

When Lewis and Clark were sitting in Fort Clatsop, bored and disheartened by the never-ending rain, they sat around dreaming up names for some of the things they had seen on their trip down the Columbia. Evidently, Clark had seen seals in the area when passing this 100 foot high rock and ended up giving it the Latin name for earless seals, Phoca. 

I had hoped to get some sunset pictures, but most of the sunset action was not only hidden behind the heights of Cape Horn, but also obscured by clouds in the west. I didn’t make it back to the boat ramp at Dalton Point until after dark.

The next weekend I returned to explore Sand Island and also the sand bar I had discovered in the middle of the river. But the wind was against me.

While I was not always sure of the logic for place names in and around Cape Horn, at least the appropriateness of the name Dalton Point wasn’t lost on me by the time I got back to my truck.

1 comment:

  1. I was once caught in a fast-forming storm on the St. Lawrence River, in a canoe rigged out with a sail and leeboards. Once the leeboards got ripped off by the rapidly swelling waves, control was not so great. Found myself in the middle of the shipping lanes with ocean going liners on each side. It was an adventure that I will never forget.


The Narrative Image NAVIGATION AID

Just a reminder:

All text and images appearing here are protected by copyright (unless otherwise noted), s.d. 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019.