ABOARD THE M/V OSCAR B — Sea lions dotted the river ahead like sprinkled black pepper as a stiff February breeze waxed over the boat.
“No wonder there aren’t any smelt,” veteran mariner Dave Schmelzer remarked from the pilot house.
Fellow skipper Gary Bergseng blew the boat’s horn as he passed the home of his friends who live near the old Brookfield cannery.
The maiden voyage of the Oscar B was wrapping up ahead of schedule. The last ferry route on the Lower Columbia River will persevere.
Oscar B docked at Puget Island just before 9:30 Friday morning and was greeted by a handful of islanders who came down to see the new $5.7 million ferry arrive.
Its welcome included a final farewell to the Wahkiakum, which had been in service nearly every day since May 30, 1962.
Bergseng knew the start date offhand early Friday morning, as he well should — he piloted the old ferry for many years with his brother, and they both had taken over from their father, Oscar.
The namesake of the new ferry, Oscar Bergseng put the Wahkiakum into service and often worked seven days a week transporting cars and trucks from Puget Island to Westport, Ore., and back, day and night. Bergseng died in 1985.
“He devoted pretty much his whole life to the ferries up there, and very seldom took a day off,” said Gary Bergseng, 67. “It’s an honor for me to able to be run it up, it’s meant a lot to me.”
He and Schmelzer were picked to guide the boat up the Columbia to finish its delivery journey from Puget Sound. The Oscar B was built by Nichols Brothers Boat Builders on Whidbey Island and sailed to the Columbia by sea last week. It had been tied up in Astoria for a week waiting to make the last leg of its journey on its due date.
The ferry sailed free of its parking spot Friday just as the dawn’s first light was breaking through the clouds up the storied river.
It was a different river than the Chinook Indians settled, more tame than the one Robert Gray struggled with in the 1790s, and different still than the one Oscar Bergseng knew.
His son had no trouble guiding the wide and flat ferry up the river channel, which was largely empty of other maritime traffic. Gulls circled, and talk often turned to the familiar curves of the Columbia as the ferry pierced its quiet surface en route to a new home.
With a rising tide and able guides, the Oscar B made great time.
Peter Williams, the foreman on the boat for Nichols Brothers, rode up the river with the skippers, answering questions about the onboard technology he had installed that Bergseng and Schmelzer were just getting to know.
When asked what was different between the old and new pilot houses, Bergseng said with a laugh: “Everything.”
The new boat, 40 feet longer than its companion with nearly twice the vehicle capacity, also comes with an improved pilot house and bathrooms and ADA accessibility.
Trading turns at the helm during the three-hour trip, Schmelzer pointed out fishing spots and other landmarks along the Lower Columbia. He’s retired from a long career piloting Foss Maritime tug boats.
“He’s been in just about every kind of boat there is,” Bergseng said.
Aside from piloting the old ferry, Bergseng, a lifelong Puget Island resident, ran the river pilot taxi in Astoria.
He still fills in for the Wahkiakum ferry when needed, and with a recently renewed license he’ll probably continue to help out.
Just as the Oscar B arrived at Puget Island, the Wahkiakum was departing for Tongue Point for storage while its fate is decided. With a turn of the wheel, it headed downriver, leaving more than 50 years of continuous service in its wake.
But with the Oscar B, its memory is safe.
Contact Daily News reporter Brooks Johnson at 360-577-7828 or email@example.com.