Oh, Columbia

“These roads don’t move; you’re the one that moves.

Last week I started at The Columbian in Vancouver, Wash., just across its namesake river from Portland. It’s not too far down the road from Longview, though it’s certainly a step up in many regards. I couldn’t have done it without all the editors, reporters, readers, professors, family and friends who have helped out along the way. Thank you.

But let’s get right to it.

On my second day I got to experience the “strong personalities” of those in county and local government for an ultimately short-lived public transit conference.

Then I flexed my feature chops for tours of a nearly finished Clark College building and a redone Fort Vancouver visitor center. Institutions love showing off their shiny new things, see.

The open atrium of Clark College's new STEM Building will be glass-paneled like much of the rest of the $39 million building set to open to students next fall. (Brooks Johnson / The Columbian)
The open atrium of Clark College’s new STEM Building will be glass-paneled like much of the rest of the $39 million building set to open to students next fall. (Brooks Johnson / The Columbian)

My normal beat will be small Clark County cities and all the enterprise I can dig up there — like convincing the city of Battle Ground to comment on their city manager leaving, which I had to confirm through the city he’s heading to. Or this widely shared news-obit for “Ridgefield’s grandpa,” Hank Hayden.

My last story for The Daily News, after a week filling in as city editor, was on little Gracie and her inoperable brain tumor.

I know from working in several newsrooms now that this industry is packed with skilled and passionate people. Newspapers may be shrinking and changing, but what we do remains as important as ever. And we’re just as good as — no, we’re better than — the business that preceded us.

Advertisements

If You Live Here

Then you already know this is the biggest thing happening in Longview:

Striking members of AWPPW Local 153 and their families man the picket line outside the KapStone pulp and paper mill in Longview after the union went on strike at 3 a.m. Aug. 27. Photo by Brooks Johnson.
Striking members of AWPPW Local 153 and their families man the picket line outside the KapStone pulp and paper mill in Longview after the union went on strike at 3 a.m. Aug. 27. Photo by Brooks Johnson

The 800-member strike had been a long time coming, and it came on a day I was filling in as city editor. I’ll just say that so far we’ve done a fair and thorough job.

And as the news gods would have it, on Day 1 of the strike the City Council voted to move forward on a new water system, taking the first $300,000 step of what could be a $30 million to $55 million bid to replace a fully functional water system with a little too much silica.

Summer — the season of slow news days — is over.

But it did give me time to do some big-picture stories.

One of my favorite things to report on is ideas. To start a conversation, surprise readers and affect policy. That’s the dream, right?

For example, one idea to reduce the ballooning costs of public defense is to decriminalize driving with a suspended license.

And I took a look at one idea that’s been coming up again and again — body cameras for police officers. Here’s why a quarter of the country’s police forces use them and just five percent of Washington state’s do.

On the justice beat, this murderer’s sentencing was heart-wrenching, and the courtroom was tense over the sentencing of a drunk driver who almost killed two young women and himself in a head-on crash.

Oh, and the sheriff of quaint Wahkiakum County took in a box of plastic explosives from a woman who found them in a storage unit.

On the feature front, I chronicled the drag-racing Gorans family, who took one last trip down the blacktop this month.

I’ll leave you with this photo of a small brush fire north of town while sending thoughts to the firefighters and families affected by the record-breaking fires in this parched state.

A tree erupts in flames during a brush fire on private land north of Kelso. Photo by Brooks Johnson.
A tree erupts in flames during a brush fire on private land north of Kelso. Photo by Brooks Johnson

Where there’s smoke

There’s an early start to what will likely be a brutal fire season in the West, even on this side of the Cascades.

Two officials drove me around one of the area’s larger fires this week — Douglas firs burning as birthday candles for me — and my photos of the trip took the front page Wednesday. Here’s one:

Department of Natural Resources firefighter Jason Hoerner radios area crews at a lookout above the Colvin Fire east of Woodland on Tuesday. Photo by Brooks Johnson

Elsewhere, in my continuing efforts to be Good At Everything, I’ve taken on the cops and courts beat in addition to covering Longview’s government and people.

That has already kept me busy with another death in the county jail, a murderer looking for a new trial 15 years later and our famous local hotelier digging himself into a hole. Allegedly.

There’s also my favorite data-based story so far, a look at the shared costs of the drug problem in the county.

City of Longview employee Ron Pedersen picks up trash and refuse left behind by drug users at Lake Sacajawea, including some small pieces of insulation stripped of the copper wiring it held. Photo by Brooks Johnson

But it’s not all doom and gloom in Cowlitz County, right?

Take the cardboard boat regatta, for example. Or my widely shared look at a year in the legal pot industry.

Then there’s the occasional W from our Cowlitz Black Bears — seemingly only taken after 11+ innings when I cover the games.

See, we have fun.

Speeding on

Like so many cars through Longview’s camera-enforced school zones.

Man, did that story ever strike a nerve. Anytime you can write “the city quietly…” does anything, of course, you’re going to want people to listen.

Not that the city didn’t point some fingers after it was revealed the cameras’ wiggle room for those going slightly over 20 mph had been lowered, bringing in seven times as many $124+ tickets as last year’s average.

Before hundreds of “I swear I wasn’t speeding” stories overflowed my voicemail, I was the go-to reporter for the 35th anniversary of the Mount St. Helens eruption this year, which was a bit of an honor considering it was The Daily News that took home the Pulitzer for its coverage of the eruption all those years ago.

Visitors get a good view of Mount St. Helens — free of its usual curtain of fog and clouds— at Johnston Ridge Observatory on Monday morning during the 35th anniversary of the 1980 eruption.
Visitors get a good view of Mount St. Helens — free of its usual curtain of fog and clouds— at Johnston Ridge Observatory on Monday morning during the 35th anniversary of the 1980 eruption. Photo by Brooks Johnson

I talked with a survivor of the blast, took a look at the mountain May 18 and even live-tweeted the eruption in real time.

Yeah, we own that mountain.

For something completely different, here’s a David vs. Goliath story from a little brewery in Wahkiakum County that was forced by “big bully beer” to change its name.

Then there’s the curious case of the pirate plumbing that led to a $5,000 water bill.

And here’s a story I thought would surely spur many to action, to cause a crowded ballot for elections this fall — the strikingly low number of women in local government.

But all four Longview Council candidates are running unopposed — even a newcomer.

“Elections are expensive,” one councilman told me.

So is apathy.

One Year Later

I hit nearly 400 Daily News bylines in my first year, and I’m proud of every one. Every story and every source has made me stronger, faster, better.

Or so I’m led to believe via the reception of this recent story about the upshot of the state’s renewable energy requirements and the local utility’s moves to meet them. It’s thoroughly detailed yet digestible — maybe like a green energy bar. Take a bite!

The Cowlitz PUD's wind farms in the Columbia Gorge cost the average resident $9 per month — though the power generated there isn't even used in the county.
The Cowlitz PUD’s wind farms in the Columbia Gorge cost the average resident $9 per month — though the power generated there isn’t even used in the county. Photo by Bill Wagner

Earlier, I kept up the heat on the PUD’s recall drama through both a records request and a keen ear.

On the lighter side, I again got to combine my passions of writing and beer by writing about a beer made just for a local, Boston-qualifying marathon. Listen:

The Northwest beer scene is so pervasive you can’t even go 26.2 miles without running into it.

I also got to write about shit — highly treated sewage called biosolids, rather — in this story about their controversial use in pastures in the county to the west, Wahkiakum.

And those school zone speed cameras some call necessary for child safety and others call a cash cow? They made the city a profit of $500,000 last year.

Also, I judged a cupcake contest and wrote about it, NBD.

Workers at a local retirement home held a cupcake-off that was judged by my expert palate — the fire chief's, too. Photo by Brooks Johnson
Workers at a local retirement home held a cupcake-off judged by my expert palate — the fire chief’s, too. Photo by Brooks Johnson

Eastern Glow

I climbed aboard the Oscar B as the first light was breaking in Astoria. The tide was coming in, and this ferry was due upriver. Two seasoned mariners — who knew from the look of me I was an inlander by birth — were headed out on the Columbia River, as they’d done thousands of times before.

The Oscar B leaves a sleepy Astoria in its wake en route to Puget Island on the Columbia River Friday morning.
The Oscar B leaves a sleepy Astoria and many a moored ship in its wake en route up the Columbia River on Friday morning. Photo by Brooks Johnson

One was obviously better at talking to the river than talking to others, and the other was less than revealing about the namesake of the boat, his father.

Dave Schmelzer talks about past river adventures while co-piloting the Oscar B up the Columbia River on Friday morning. Schmelzer, a retired tugboat pilot, took turns guiding the ferry with the son of the real Oscar B, Gary Bergseng. Photo by Brooks Johnson
Dave Schmelzer talks about past river adventures while co-piloting the Oscar B up the Columbia River on Friday morning. Schmelzer, a retired tugboat pilot, took turns guiding the ferry with the son of the real Oscar B., Gary Bergseng. Photo by Brooks Johnson
Gary Bergseng said his father devoted his life to the ferry, the only Columbia River crossing between Longview/Rainier and Astoria.
Lifelong Puget Island resident Gary Bergseng, 67, said his father devoted his life to the ferry, the only Columbia River crossing between Longview and Astoria. Photo by Brooks Johnson

So the sound of the engines and the bark of sea lions provided the soundtrack to much of Friday’s trip delivering the new Puget Island-Westport ferry, one of few Washington/Oregon routes remaining on the river — and the last of the Lower Columbia ferries.

It was a routine trip for the pair of retired river pilots, but for me it was an opportunity, a way to craft poetry out of the historical record that may well be referred to in 50 years when yet another ferry takes its place.

A typical view of the sea lion-speckled river ahead Friday morning as the Oscar B made its way to Puget Island. Photo by Brooks Johnson
A typical view of the sea lion-speckled river ahead as the Oscar B made its way home. Photo by Brooks Johnson

Back on dry land in February, Longview got a new city manager and found out its golf course manager was sleeping in the clubhouse.

And then there was the curious case of one man trying to reason his way out of a camera-trap speeding ticket — with science!

Back again to the water, a stink is being raised about the stink that could be caused by protections for smelt limiting the city’s ability to flush a man-made lake in the heart of Longview. (Yes, it would smell worse than the paper mills when it rains.)

Finally, one medical marijuana patient stands up to what he calls a “hostile takeover” by the recreational pot industry and the state Legislature.

Marijuana
Levi Godwin fears his medical marijuana garden will soon shrink should a bill being considered by the state Legislature change the way medical marijuana is regulated. Photo by Brooks Johnson

A Christmas Story Prologue

Bob Pollock raises his arm to calculate the height of a tree on a hillside in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest on Saturday.
Bob Pollock raises his arm to calculate the height of a tree on a hillside in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest on Saturday. Photo by Brooks Johnson

The morning I met the Pollocks, I woke up to find someone had gone through my car outside my home overnight. My wife’s too.

That left me shaking my fist pretty hard at Cowlitz County as I drove to the Oak Tree in Woodland early Saturday morning to meet my hunting party.

My vitriol only lasted the drive, as a warm welcome and a seat at the table of eight melted the fresh ice around my heart. I felt like part of the family, not an intruder on a cherished tradition. They were as curious about me, a native North Dakotan walking far from home, as I was of them.

By the time I was back at my car at the end of the day, I had forgotten why my owner’s manual and a few old cassettes were scattered around the passenger seat — true Christmas spirit had reigned.

I hope this story spreads some of that spirit and does well by the memory of Dick Pollock, a longtime reporter and editor here at The Daily News. A big thank you and a Merry Christmas.

Enjoy the story.

Fresh snow weighs on trees and covers a forest road as the Pollock family heads into the backcountry on their annual Christmas tree hunt Saturday.
Fresh snow weighs on trees and covers a forest road as the Pollock family heads into the backcountry on their annual Christmas tree hunt Saturday. Photo by Brooks Johnson