PORTLAND, Ore. — This is the same river route Lewis and Clark took 200 years ago, a 1,000-mile journey along the Columbia and Snake rivers and right up the musket of the American West.
In the milky calm of a Snake River canyon, summer raindrops smooch the mirrored surface; at the mouth of the mighty Columbia, waters first brewed in Canada race for the sea, meeting waves as high as a cathedral.
What’s so great about increasingly popular river cruises? With a maximum of 88 passengers, this fetching little ship is a fine alternative for those tired of massive floating hotels — or seasickness or endless days of open ocean.
More than the sea, a river pulses, every bend a new chapter. We cross gorges and pass 7,000-year-old petroglyphs and stop in dusty former frontier towns that once brimmed with brothels. One afternoon, with Mt. Hood luminous in the distance, hundreds of kite boarders show off for us, like a fleet of polyester butterflies. Pure travel magic.
Our vessel? Un-Cruise’s Legacy, a 30-year-old replica of the late 19th century coastal steamers. Brass fittings. Gleaming wood rails. As clean as a sailor’s spoon.
For eight days we make shore visits to waterfalls, wineries, dams, fish ladders, museums and forts along the way. Back on board, your favorite hangout probably will be the ship’s bridge, which is open to passengers night and day, as the river pilots use a watchmaker’s touch to snug the 190-by-40-foot vessel into one of the eight locks along the way.
The river is the star here, but the personable crew is a close second. One night, they stage a talent show that rivals most comedy clubs.
Sure, there’s a lot of history to swallow in a week, but if it gets to be too much you can opt out of one of the too-many museum trips and spend an afternoon in the hot tub with that thriller you’ve been meaning to tackle. As is the bridge, the ship’s saloon is always open. Most nights ended swapping stories with my favorite fellow passenger/soul mate, “Bloody Mary Bill,” a Michigan farmer who kept everyone entertained on the voyage.
Whatever you do, you’ll end the week with a bit of a wind burn and a thrashing river of good memories. That may be a lot less than what Lewis and Clark left here as a legacy. But it’s an exciting start. So come aboard as we explore the famed Pacific Northwest route from the desert to the sea, in what might be the greatest of all the American journeys.
On the trail of history, culture
For buffs, this Lewis and Clark-themed voyage on the Columbia and Snake rivers is history come to life, with stops at famous forts, battle sites, waterfalls and some pretty decent museums.
We learn how Sacagawea, a 16-year-old Shoshone squaw, served as mediator with distrustful tribes. We learn that the expedition’s frequent courts-martial ended in lashings. That the men preferred the taste of dog over the succulent and plentiful salmon. That the soldiers and frontiersmen took mercury as medicine, and that their journey’s route could be deciphered by traces of the lethal liquid still found near former campsites 200 years later.
I’m no buff, but I soaked it all up. To enjoy this trip, you need only be a fan of glorious scenery – an amazing transition that takes you from Oregon’s temperate rain forests to the bone-dry vistas of western Idaho.
There were times, as fellow passenger Tracy Antonioli said, when we overdosed on some of the cultural stops.
“It’s just a few too many museums,” she said of the six such stops. “In so many naturally beautiful places, we could’ve spent more time in them.”
In particular, Multnomah Falls, where waters pour 620 feet down an amphitheater-shaped cliff face, making it one of Oregon’s most popular outdoor destinations.
And I, as well as several others, could have done without the wineries. The wineries were nondescript, and a winery tour is no longer a novelty, though I do appreciate the effort to mix up the itinerary.
The company that offers this adventure, a new entity called Un-Cruise, runs small-ship excursions from Mexico to Alaska. Travelers in their 20s or 30s might prefer the line’s so-called active adventures that feature kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding and more of a social scene. But the all-inclusive “heritage adventures,” such as the Lewis and Clark journey, have broad appeal, especially for anyone who likes to walk and experience historic trails and sites first-hand.
“The cruise surpassed our expectations,” said Jim Kouracos, a Chicago dentist who took the trip with his 91-year-old dad, Nick. “What really put this over the top was how accessible the boat and shore tours were, as well as the efforts by the crew and staff to create a stimulating environment filled with good food and camaraderie.”
Indeed, our cruise, in early June, drew widespread thumbs-ups from passengers, many of whom had done river cruises in Europe and the United States (primarily Alaska and the Mississippi).
“Compared to the Mississippi trip, you don’t look at levees most of the time,” said passenger Doug Swanson. “This was changing scenery.”
As did most passengers, Swanson’s wife, Clare, gave high marks to the 30-person crew. Service was more than merely efficient, she noted; it was “warm and engaging.”
Days of wonder, serenity and wine
My seven-night cruise along the Columbia and Snake rivers during the first week of June began and ended in Portland, Ore. Here are snapshots from the trip:
Day 1: Leave Portland at dinnertime, north on the Willamette River, then east on the Columbia. Anchor overnight on the river, near Corbett, Ore., about 30 miles from Portland. Comfortable cabin and gentle roll of the ship make for a good night’s sleep. When we awake, we’re in the first of eight locks we will pass.
Day 2: Tour Columbia River Gorge, the only sea-level passage through the mountain ranges that stretch from Canada to Mexico, and a recreational Shangri-La — hiking, waterfalls, fishing. Stops include a private tour of Bonneville Dam, home to locks and massive turbines that generate hydroelectric power. The highlight: the windows that give an underwater, aquarium-like view of the fish ladders that allow salmon to bypass the dam on their way upriver to spawn. Also tour Multnomah Falls, 620 feet of splashy splendor that draws nearly 2 million visitors a year.
Day 3: After cruising overnight, we turn onto the Snake River at about 8 a.m. Scenery, which had been rain-forest lush a day before, is now cardboard brown thanks to the drier and warmer conditions on the eastern side of the Cascades, which block the moisture from the coast. The shore now looks more like the rugged high deserts of the Southwest. Shipboard activities: knot tying, yoga, galley tours. The galley tour is a bust, but the long day of cruising gives us a chance to read, relax and get acquainted with other passengers. Tie up for the night in Clarkston on the southeastern tip of the state.
Day 4: In the morning, still docked in Clarkston, we hear about the Nez Perce tribes, this region’s legendary horsemen who took infants along on rides to teach them the rhythms of a gallop. Depart on jet boats to Hells Canyon, a comfortable but splashy trip across modest rapids and past petroglyphs, old mines, deer and big-horned sheep. Four-hour ride is a window on the Old West and reaches areas inaccessible almost any other way. Back on the Legacy for dinner: leg of lamb cooked just right and a too-dry baklava.
Day 5: Returning west, back down the Snake River, we disembark and visit Ft. Walla Walla, built in 1858 to assist pioneers. Today, cabins and displays tell the story of the settlers here in the Walla Walla Valley. Two winery tours follow, neither impressive. Best stop of the day is the Whitman Mission National Historic Site where in 1847, Cayuse warriors turned against the Methodist missionaries. Story of the deadly attack gives a deep sense of the tensions caused by disease and the tribe’s disappearing way of life.
Day 6: The ship’s chef has quit. Oddly, the food, which had been merely satisfactory, seems to improve. We arrive at a little town called The Dalles for the day, greeted by women in period costume. “At one time, there were 28 brothels in The Dalles,” a madam-type says. Visit Maryhill Museum of Art in Sam Hill’s old mansion. End with a rollicking talent show by passengers and crew: jokes, stories, sea songs, some led by Capt. Dano Quinn.
Day 7: Astoria, Ore., a lovely little slice of New England plopped on the Pacific coast. We tour two historic sites, including Ft. Clatsop, where Lewis and Clark wintered. At one stop, a bald eagle sits atop a tree 100 feet away, preening for our cameras. Later, we explore Astoria and the Maritime Museum, one of the most engaging of the trip because of its life-size displays and harrowing tales of sea life.
Day 8: Back in Portland, we eat breakfast and disembark for home. Crew lines dock to bid farewell to passengers, who are pleased with the diverse scenery and range of experiences on the trip. A dud here and a dud there, but mostly a distinct and attractive voyage, primarily for the over-40 crowd. If Un-Cruise’s Alaska adventures are this well-organized and friendly, sign me up.