Riverboat Cruise Followsby Gary Lee, The Washington Post
Across the regal blue waters of the Columbia River Gorge, Beacon Rock soared skyward. As our paddle-wheel boat chugged along, a few passengers clambered to the top deck for a closer look at the 848-foot monolith.
Two days later we gathered again, in a soft drizzle, as our boat surged with the waves of the river through a sweep of bays to the edge of the ocean. The following morning we traipsed through log cabins at nearby Fort Clatsop National Memorial, a re-creation of the 19th-century Lewis and Clark encampment. Each scene captured the allure of the Pacific Northwest from a different angle and was a landmark in a stirring chapter of America's past.
At the end of their 1804-1806 expedition from Missouri to the mouth of the Columbia River and back, explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark canoed along these waters.
They camped beneath the soaring Beacon Rock, which they named. They made their triumphant sighting of the Pacific Ocean. Fort Clatsop was their home for three rain-soaked months as they prepared for the trip back east.
Two hundred years after the launch of Lewis and Clark's mission, as cities from St. Louis to Astoria, Ore., plan bicentennial commemorations, I joined in the hoopla in another way: by taking an eight-night "Path of the Explorers" cruise tracing the route they followed from the confluence of the Snake and Columbia rivers to Fort Clatsop.
I sailed on the Empress of the North, a 235-passenger stern-wheeler — a diesel-powered boat with the paddle wheel on the stern — owned by the American West Steamboat Co. Our trip started in Portland, chugged eastward on the Columbia to where it meets the Snake, then doubled back to trace the last leg of the explorers' trip. Visits to key historic sites were included, as well as onboard lectures.
Learning on the river
Like many Americans, I knew only vague details of Lewis and Clark's almost 4,000-mile trip: that it took more than two years, involved a constant struggle with nature and played a decisive role in the growth of the United States westward.
I was curious to learn more, and I learned in comfort aboard the Empress, which departed from Jantzen Beach, near Portland.
The new vessel, the biggest and most luxurious among the handful of passenger boats traveling the Columbia, spared us the gritty realities the explorers suffered.
They tackled the river's rapids in rough-hewn dugouts. Our stern-wheeler, 360 feet long and 58 feet wide, featured four levels of spacious cabins, complete with DVD players and minibars. There were two sprawling lounges; corridors lined with historical photographs of the 1897-98 Klondike Gold Rush, Native American art and reproductions of paintings from the Old West; and a dining room decorated with red velvet banquettes and chandeliers.
As a floating history classroom, the cruise did not disappoint. We sailed the same route the explorers took and saw several of the spots where they camped along the way.
Like the explorers, we hopscotched to different stops on either side of the river in Washington and Oregon. (A planned trip down the Snake River, which the explorers traveled before entering the Columbia, was canceled due to high winds.)
Nearly every day we took bus outings to exhibitions devoted to different aspects of the expedition. The driver and guide, Reid Adney, offered a humorous running commentary on the scenery and local culture. Early-evening dinners usually led to spirited discussions among the passengers about Lewis and Clark.
Our first morning started with a lesson on the Lewis and Clark basics. Bill Hottell, a specialist in the settlement of the Pacific Northwest who also leads tours for the Smithsonian, talked about Thomas Jefferson's inspiration for launching the expedition.
The visionary president directed the explorers to find a commercial water route from the Missouri River through the wild and largely unknown Rockies to the Pacific. He also asked Lewis to take stock of the natural resources in the West. Finally, he harbored dreams of bringing the Northwest — then mostly disputed territory inhabited by Indian tribes — under U.S. control.
After docking in the small town of Stevenson, on the Washington side of the river, about 150 miles from the Pacific, we toured the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center. An exhibit illustrated just how hard the Lewis and Clark trek along the Columbia was. During that era, the river rushed at a reckless pace, over deep gorges, dramatic falls and fierce rapids.
Heavy rains pelted the explorers during most of their trip; it took them nearly six weeks to travel from the juncture of the Snake and the Columbia, a distance that we breezed along in four days. And the Native American tribes they encountered were not always friendly. They reported positive encounters with the Clatsop, Nez Perce and other tribes, but tangled with Chinooks.
Later we went by bus to the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center across the river in The Dalles, Ore. A display detailed trade between the Indian tribes and the explorers: The explorers offered beads, buttons, knives and other trinkets in exchange for dried fish, deer meat and sea-otter furs.
Turning to Astoria
As the Empress turned to travel west down the Columbia, the landscape became more scenic and lush. To be sure, much of the ecology has changed since Lewis and Clark passed through. Settlements of Nez Perce, Chinook and other Indian tribes they encountered have been wiped out or starkly reduced. Salmon runs have been decimated by an intricate system of locks and dams. Our last full day started with a bus tour of Astoria, the oldest non-native settlement in the Northwest, established in 1811 by John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Co. and now a riverfront city of old-fashioned homes, antiques stores and restaurants. We ended at Fort Clatsop National Memorial where Lewis and Clark and their expedition members spent the winter of 1805-06. Back on the boat that evening, we dined on lobster bisque and grilled tuna and reflected on our easygoing week — and the explorers' years-long triumphant battle with the odds.
The American West Steamboat Co. offers a seven-or eight-night "Path of the Explorers" cruises along the Willamette, Columbia and Snake rivers. Rates aboard the Empress of the North start at around $1,850 per person double occupancy, although discounts are sometimes offered on select cruises.
There's also a seven-night Lewis and Clark Cruise on the Willamette and lower Columbia rivers.
Contact a travel agent or American West Steamboat: 800-434-1232, www.americanweststeamboat.com
Other cruise companies: Other companies offering small-ship cruises along the Columbia and Snake rivers include Seattle-based Cruise West, 888-851-8133, www.cruisewest.com and Lindblad Expeditions, 800-397-3348, www.expeditions.com
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