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

Cascadia Cometh

When I say Cascadia, I usually mean the bioregion that comprises the Pacific Northwest’s watershed that also contains a social movement whose flag looks like this:

500px-Flag_of_Cascadia.svg

But in talking to enough geologists and emergency planners, you’ll find it’s also short for the Cascadia Subduction Zone, hundreds of miles of oceanic plate slipping below North America. It formed the Cascade range and its volcanoes, and it also causes the occasional earthquake. And it can produce the rare megathrust quake that we’re due for soon, as I wrote about last month around the 315th anniversary of the last major quake. The key takeaway: Don’t be scared, be prepared!

In less terrifying news, people around here went nuts for the Seahawks. (Locals got pretty crazy in Arizona too.)

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The Conditts — from left, Cameron, Dave, Kara and Shari — stand in front of their Battle Ground home, a beacon of 12th Man pride featuring an illuminated 12 on the roof. Photo by Brooks Johnson 

For a recent Sunday centerpiece, I explored the state of our city-owned industrial park that just can’t quite get going, at least in terms of good local jobs. And for those keeping up with the Cowlitz PUD chronicles, here’s a tangible effect of the political drama.

Another one of my articles made the Associated Press wire, so I’ll let you read about electric cars and some of the county’s under-used, federally funded charging stations… at Oregon Public Broadcasting. 

As you’ve seen from some of those stories, I’m keeping up on that whole do-it-all ethic by shooting many of my own photos. And as of Friday night, I’m a published sports photographer. Weirder things have happened.

Kelso's Kady Bruce drives down the court against Columbia River in the Lassies' big Senior Night win Feb. 6.
Kelso’s Kady Bruce drives down the court against Columbia River in the Lassies’ Senior Night win Feb. 6. Photo by Brooks Johnson 

Obligatory Year In Review Post?

No, it’s so much more.

But do take a look at what the newsroom picked for our top 10 stories this year, a list topped by my handiwork on water, marijuana and the PUD. While I take credit for the story, I wish I could claim the print headline, which read: “The faucet, the bong and the tornado.”

Those issues will remain prominent this year, but I washed them off briefly with a quick dip into Lake Merwin on New Year’s Day.

For an earlier working-the-holidays tale, I invented a new holiday classic through this Christmas with a cop story.

Brian Streissguth gets ready to wrap up his Christmas Day shift after being shadowed by this reporter all morning. / Brooks Johnson
Brian Streissguth gets ready to wrap up his Christmas Day shift after being shadowed by this reporter all morning. Photo by Brooks Johnson

Despite the usual holiday slowdown, Longview was just full of news lately: On Wednesday the city officially bids farewell to longtime City Manager Bob Gregory; the city’s recycling contractor wants to ship its recyclables to Asia; and, possibly my most-shared-on-Facebook story yet, the Nutty Narrows squirrel bridge gets national recognition.

Another big share came from some bad news. Cowlitz County, for its beautiful landscape at the base of the Cascades and the mouth of the Columbia, has an ugly drug problem: The opioid overdose rate is the worst in the state.

More bad news could have turned into positive change, but the story about a Longview couple who died from carbon monoxide poisoning at a hotel – where detectors are not mandatory – didn’t get enough traction, be it unexciting photos or the heaviness of the topic.

That should do it for weekend reading for any of you who have stumbled upon this living document of my career. But it wouldn’t be this close to year’s end without a proper list, so let me present to you a few of my favorite ledes thus far at The Daily News:

Everyone says the same thing: “You’re from North Dakota, you’re used to the cold.” Yeah, well, that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

A paintbrush, a canvas, a kiln: Rosemary Scandale has no need for these mediums. Her art comes to life on bodies, with the settings on her sewing machine permanently set to historical accuracy.

It would be easy to picture Wilbert Winter’s story as a series of sepia-toned photographs. He was a self-taught aeronautics engineer and pilot who met his wife building planes during World War II. A brakeman on Montana’s Great Northern Railroad. A harsh man who never spent a cent on credit in his 91 years.

Jesus came to town Friday in a gray Honda Civic with Oregon plates.

 

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

Pizza in the Newsroom

Must mean it’s election night, and our work as journalists greasing the wheels of democracy has paid off in greasy food.

I covered the closely watched PUD race — an unexpected blowout — and correctly wrote that the money would tell the story of the state Legislature races. (Campaign spending fascinates me more than most, but I did overhear a couple discussing the numbers I put together on local races one weekend afternoon at a winery.)

But voting is just one side effect of democracy. Swallow the pill and you’re bound to get cases of alleged election law violations — the pre-existing condition behind much of the PUD commissioners’ bickering.

Another side effect is the sheer passion for the process, of course:

A Longview reporter makes his first trek to the state capitol in the state capital, Olympia. Photo of Brooks Johnson by Brooks Johnson
A reporter makes his first trek to the state capitol in the state capital, Olympia. Photo of Brooks Johnson by Brooks Johnson

Let’s turn now to international issues: I recently spent a good deal of time on the phone with the good folks of Longview, Alberta, whose courtesy was greater than the view from their windows facing west.

And in sports: My first time in the press box begot a nailbiter from a local team otherwise guaranteed a loss.

Finally, don’t miss the newest chapter in the Longview Water Chronicles, including the Great Kalama Taste Test that I emceed.

You Take the Good, You Take the Bad

And there you have another month blown by like so many leaves loitering in the breeze.

September ended with a first for me – the Associated Press picked up my story about the state compensating a Longview man for a decade of wrongful imprisonment, so I’ve had my biggest audience yet.

And was I ever happily surprised when I saw Ashtown Brewing had framed my story on their year anniversary and the state of beer in the city. Hey, any excuse to write about beer, a statement which luckily comes city editor-approved.

A recent Sunday centerpiece I was warned would “open a can of worms” on Longview’s troubled water was highly read and, being a story on water, highly commented upon.

Oh, and did I mention I went hunting for a bear (attack site)?

Bear attack victim Jerry Hause leads a team of state fish and game wardens through the backwoods he was hunting before an angry bear chased him up a tree and bit and scratched his leg. Photo by Brooks Johnson
Bear attack victim Jerry Hause leads a team of state fish and game wardens through the backwoods he was hunting before an angry bear chased him up a tree and bit and scratched his leg. Photo by Brooks Johnson

It’s a good life.

A Century of Stories

If each of my Daily News bylines represented a year, that is.

Now that I’ve hit 100 stories (and counting), I find I’m introducing myself less and building an institutional knowledge that, with the departure of our last veteran reporter last month, is more important than ever.

Some of my most-praised writing so far came while I was in the woods celebrating the end of my first quarter-century. The story of a model airplane, a father and a daughter could have fallen flat, but I think I propped it up with What It’s Really About: Love.

But one of my most consistent hits has been covering the public utility, who didn’t have many nice things to say about The Daily News at a 7 a.m. meeting that didn’t go unnoticed.

Then again, the comments really flood in with even a mention of Longview’s new water supply.

When I’m not busy holding local governments accountable, I’m chasing down the newsy angles of 15-year-old baseball.

The Schereville, Ind., 13-15-year-old team came to Longview for the Babe Ruth World Series in August, but stayed on Mayfair Lake north of town thanks to a wealthy friend from Kitsap County. Photo by Brooks Johnson
The Schereville, Ind., 13-15-year-old team came to Longview for the Babe Ruth World Series in August, but stayed on Mayfair Lake north of town thanks to a wealthy friend from Kitsap County. Photo by Brooks Johnson

And this month I’m helping keep the Friday Night Lights on by helping the sports desk with football coverage.

In other news, the new J Mascis album is great, I’m terrible at fantasy football, and the Avett Brothers put on a great show on the eve of my one-year anniversary with my wife — though Seattle’s The Head and the Heart did one better the week prior.

On the Cover of The Daily News

To the tune of, well, you get it.

I’d say I’m as rooted in my new job as the hops vining up the side of my house, and the clips keep climbing likewise.

My official beats now are the city of Longview (where I get to do stuff like this); Lower Columbia College (graduation tomorrow); and Cowlitz PUD, our ever-scandalous public electric utility (here’s this month’s quagmire).

It’s fantastic getting to meet people I might otherwise never even see — like Dr. Fuesler —and be the mighty check on governments that, even at the local level, have plenty to hide.

And then there are the squirrel bridges:

The Longview Sandbaggers and Squirrel Fest mascot Sandy B. McNutt unveil Longview's fourth squirrel bridge during opening ceremonies of the 2013 Squirrel Fest. Photo by John Markon.
The Longview Sandbaggers and Squirrel Fest mascot Sandy B. McNutt unveil Longview’s fourth squirrel bridge during opening ceremonies of the 2013 Squirrel Fest. Photo by John Markon.

It’s a strange place, Longview.

Of course I’m still working toward getting my byline on the cover of the Rolling Stone (see what I did there?) so I popped out a review of the ramblin’ Jonathan Warren and The Billy Goats for the Indy this week, alongside Bozeman, Mont.’s surprisingly solid Panther Car.

In other news, Americans are using the word “nil” with increasing frequency, though experts predict a drop-off by mid-July. Cheers.