River Dreams: Sternwheeler's Deck
by Ann Terry Hill
A room with a kaleidoscopic view. Mount Hood, Mount St. Helens, Multnomah Falls, Hells Canyon, wheat fields and the bridge over the Columbia at Astoria passing by as the Empress of the North, a paddlewheel river boat, majestically glides through the Willamette, Columbia and Snake rivers.
You don't have to leave your cabin to experience this grand scenery, but the activities on board and the shore excursions on this seven-day cruise are so appealing, practically everyone on board participates.
River boats ply the waters of these three rivers from spring through late fall. Here's a chance to view your own backyard from a new angle. I've seen these boats for years cruising up and down the Columbia and wondered what the onboard passengers saw and how they spent their days. Curiosity got the best of me and for one week in April, I enjoyed the almost pristine view of the rivers that Lewis and Clark must have had. Of course, we had to transit eight locks to make the journey.
But this adventure is so accessible for people in the Pacific Northwest it's sometimes overlooked. From the Columbia River Gorge to the Columbia Plateau of Eastern Oregon and Washington, to the Snake River in Idaho and back downriver to Astoria before docking in Portland a week later, the cruise offers a unique look at the Pacific Northwest not possible to see from the freeways.
Although it was built in 2003 with a totally modern engine, public rooms and cabins, its lacy exterior, complete with paddle wheel and a capacity to carry 225 passengers, calls up images of times long gone by when these boats were a main method of travel as the discovery of gold in Idaho in the mid 1800s opened up river traffic to the interior.
Early river travelers and certainly Lewis and Clark didn't experience the luxury we enjoyed. Because the Empress of the North spends much of its time in Alaska during the summer months, the interior decor is inspired by the opulent splendor of Imperial Russia. Rich reds and golds greet passengers entering the Romanov Dining Room. All the spacious cabins have a Victorian feel, most with huge windows and private verandas to enjoy the incredible views. Skimming through the waters, the scene changes with almost each revolution of the paddle wheel.
My traveling companion, Hazel (a buddy since college) and I had no prior experience with river boating. We joined about 175 other passengers, from New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, Washington California and Texas - but only discovered two other passengers from Oregon.
The natural wonders of these three great rivers - the mountains, the wildlife and the on-shore foliage, which the incredible spring weather made even more splendid - awed this savvy bunch of travelers, many of whom had traveled worldwide. The hills were like lush green velvet. It's awesome to be reminded of what natural treasures surround us.
We really had no idea of the adventures awaiting us. Hazel, always prepared, had brought along three books and the DVD of "Delovely," the Cole Porter story, plus an extra bottle of wine to while away the hours as we cruised.
She only managed to get through one chapter, the wine remained unopened and although she tried to entice me to watch the DVD every night after dinner and Greg Lupton's piano-singalong in the Paddlewheel Lounge, I was relaxed and content, and quite happy just to fall asleep, lulled by a gentle rocking of the boat.
The pace on the rivers melts stress. Shades of showboats of old, the nightly dancing and singing of Eric Hadley and Lindy Eller in the Golden Nugget Showroom, made you think Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson, musical stars of the 1950s classic movie "Showboat," would be the next act. Many of the guests aboard joined 92-year-old Fred Knez and his wife Margaret, Arizonans who were celebrating their 66th wedding anniversary, and danced each night until the orchestra played its last tune, "The trip I'm on now is my favorite one."
Leisurely breakfasts, lunches and four-course dinners fill the time between shore excursions and on-board lectures. Daytime activities end just in time to enjoy noted cookbook author Sara Moulton's All-American cocktail hour with hors d'oeurves. Her mini-Reuben sandwiches (about an inch square), proved to be my Weight Watcher downfall. Yet, for those determined to exert some dietary control, portions can be ordered in the dining room and a choice of light breakfasts or lunches are served in the Calliope Bar and Grill. Who could resist the William Clark Filet or the Meriwether Lewis Lobster Tail offered in the dining room the last night on board?
This trip, which concentrates on the footsteps of Lewis and Clark along the Snake and Columbia rivers from Clarkston, Idaho, to Astoria, transits eight dams and 463 river miles each way. Going from sea level at Astoria to an elevation of 738 feet on the Lower Granite Dam and Hells Canyon on the Snake River, the geologic changes are astounding. One passenger described the jet boat ride up Hell's Canyon as "being in God's private rock garden."
With the help of Pat Workman, onboard historian, passengers were educated about the various wonders and the importance of the fur traders, gold miners, ranchers and frontiersmen who settled the Northwest.
The inclusion of shore excursions were an unexpected bonus. Stops at Stevenson, Wash., at the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center, offered insights into the Gorge one doesn't get driving through it. One day was devoted to Pendleton, where passengers were entertained in the Underground, the Pendleton Woolen Mills and lunch at Hamley's Slickfork Saloon. The "Wild & Wooly" image of the town was spotlighted. Blue Mountain Wildlife gave a close-up and educational presentation (including rehabilitated owls, eagles and osprey) at the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute on the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
The outdoors and nature preempted everything else when we jet-boated over No. 3 Rapids up the Snake River. Certainly, no McDonald's or Starbucks here. Many of the cabins on shore are accessible only by boat, but we noticed one cabin, with no inside plumbing, was on the market for $425,000.
Several days later, we visited Mount St. Helens and were once again reminded of the power of nature. The view of the crater from the Visitor's Center is magnificent and shows how much wildlife and foliage has returned since that fateful day in 1980. You can only imagine the devastation. The impact of this volcanic explosion is brought home by a documentary film shown on board the buses as we return to the boat.
Astoria and a visit to Fort Clatsop, where Lewis and Clark wintered before returning East, was the final leg. How surprised those two explorers and their crew would be to see the area as it is today; a bustling river town with ocean-going vessels.
Lewis and Clark took more than two years on their journey. They spent months in the Northwest and on these rivers. Unfortunately, we only had one week, but the impact was as mighty as the rivers we traversed. Like Lewis and Clark, we were guided by an All-American crew. But unlike Lewis and Clark, our only hardship was unwrapping the individually saran-wrapped home baked cookies offered as daily treats, and, of course, not being able to stay awake to watch "Delovely."
Editor's note: The cruise ship Empress of the North, damaged when it grounded in Alaska's Inside Passage May 14, arrived at the Ketchikan Shipyard in Ketchikan, Alaska, Monday evening for repairs, according to Majestic America Line. Most of the passengers on the cruise that ran aground have rebooked for a later sailing. Scheduled cruises on the Columbia and Snake Rivers on the Queen of the West and the Columbia Queen remain unchanged. For a limited time, Majestic America Cruises is offering this trip on a two for one basis. Call (800) 434-1232 or visit their Web site for details on this and on any of their other river cruise offerings and their Alaska sailings.
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs