One day, a kid bought a balsa wood glider at the Astoria Column gift shop and scrawled his name on it. He climbed the 164 steps to the top of the Column, leaned against the railing and sent the glider flying out over the trees.
The next day, gift shop employee Conner Lincoln found the same glider on Scandinavian Cannery Road — 6 miles away.
An estimated 400,000 people visit the Column each year, but the small balsa wood gliders the gift shop sells for a dollar each have their own fan club. People’s eyes light up when they learn about the gliders, Lincoln said. “You’re telling us we can go to the top and throw something off?”
The gift shop sold over 10,000 gliders in July alone this year. Employees might sell as many as 600 gliders on a busy summer day, assembling them to order for waiting customers.
People don’t just buy one at a time, Lincoln said. They buy gliders by the dozen and start chucking them off the Column.
“It’s just such a tradition,” said Lyndsay Vigil, the shop manager. One of her first dates with her future husband was to go to the Column, buy a glider and throw it from the top. She will still, on days when she feels like some extra exercise, drop a dollar in the till and take a glider to the top.
“The glider is so much more than something you can throw off the Column,” Vigil added. “It’s a way to make a memory.”
Once a glider leaves a person’s hands, it can go in many directions.
It might spiral down in tight circles and drop disappointingly close to the Column’s base. It might catch an updraft and go soaring out over the trees and houses toward the Astoria Bridge, where at least one person has reported their car being hit by glider. Or a glider might coast in short bursts, only to land on former Astoria Mayor Willis Van Dusen’s roof.
“The really good flights land on our roof all the time,” said Van Dusen, who lives on Irving Avenue, below the Column.
A T-shirt for sale in the Column gift shop bears an image of a glider and the phrase, “It’s still flying.” But sometimes they come back.
Gift shop employees have seen people run scavenger hunts down the forest trail near the Column, gathering up lost gliders. An older man has sometimes been spotted, off-trail, collecting gliders into plastic grocery bags that he hangs from tree branches for other people to find.
It isn’t clear when the Friends of the Astoria Column, the group that maintains the landmark and its parkland, started letting people throw balsa wood gliders. For years, the city didn’t allow anything to be thrown from the monument.
Van Dusen believes city-approved glider flights started when the city was beginning renovation work at the Column in the early 1990s. Along with details about landscaping and how to open up the view around the Column, they also wanted to address another concern, Van Dusen said. For years, people had been buying balsa wood gliders elsewhere, bringing them up to the Column and sending them soaring.
People also threw other — less buoyant — items from the Column. At a meeting in 1990, the City Council discussed a “rash of bottle throwing from the Column.”
Balsa wood gliders at least were light, biodegradable, and unlikely to do damage to people or vehicles.
“So if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” Van Dusen said. “It went from ‘Don’t throw them,’ to ‘Come buy them.’”
Nowadays, people might still try to toss toy soldiers outfitted with plastic parachutes or different types of gliders with metal or plastic parts. Caretakers and gift shop employees discourage this activity, however. Such items can become safety concerns and environmental hazards, Vigil said.
“We just want to make sure it’s fun, safe and friendly to the environment,” she said. “It’s just a dollar, but then you can have this great experience.”