River cruise traces historic journey -- with none of the dangers and hardships


October 17, 1993|By Story and photography By Nancy Hoyt Belcher

Friday February 7th 1806.

This evening we had what I call an excellent supper. It consisted of a marrowbone a piece and a brisket of boiled Elk that had the appearance of a little fat on it. This for Fort Clatsop is living in high stile.

-- Meriwether Lewis

The Journals of Lewis and Clark, edited by Bernard DeVoto Lewis and Clark spent 107 days at Fort Clatsop, on a sheltered inlet just inside the mouth of the Columbia River. It was during the winter of 1805-'06 on their historic journey to find the Northwest Passage. It rained 95 of those days.

Their diet consisted of elk, roots and berries, fish and whale blubber, supplemented with dog (a staple they became "extremely fond of"). Occasionally they fared "sumptuously" on beaver.

In two hours I toured a replica of the fort, now a National Memorial administered by the National Park Service. Then I returned to the cruise ship Spirit of Discovery docked at nearby Astoria, Ore., in time for the captain's farewell champagne dinner of king crab, beef tenderloin with poivre sauce, duchess potatoes, green salad and asparagus -- topped off with peach flambe for dessert. Later that night, I went to bed in my cozy cabin to the sounds of soft music piped over the intercom.

For seven days I had been cruising with 44 other passengers along the Columbia and Snake rivers, following in the footsteps -- so to speak -- of Lewis and Clark. Curled up in a comfortable bed at night, I read of their arduous explorations.

Comparisons were inevitable. The magnificent wild and rapid-strewn Columbia and Snake rivers that they navigated in canoes are now tamed by eight dams creating a series of placid lakes.

In 1803 President Jefferson asked Congress for $2,500 to cover the costs of the 16-month expedition; in 1993 you can pay more than that for an eight-day cruise.

And what would Lewis and Clark say to hot cocoa, coffee and tea on a sideboard available 24 hours a day, a library stocked with books and binoculars, and nightly cocktail hours with hors d'oeuvres like crab and artichoke in cheese sauce? What would they think of the Exercycle strategically placed on a landing in front of a picture window -- or of three dozen people sitting in a lounge munching popcorn while watching a video about their expedition?

We set off from Portland, Ore., and cruised upriver to Clarkston, Wash. That's as far as cruise vessels can go, but for an added attraction, we took to noisy, metal-hulled jet boats for another 70 miles through white-water rapids on the Snake River into Hells Canyon, North America's deepest gorge. It's a magnificent landscape -- with centuries-old Indian petroglyphs carved in the soaring perpendicular rocks -- and one that remains relatively unchanged since the days of Lewis and Clark.

By the time we cruised back to the mouth of the Columbia and returned to Portland we had covered nearly 1,000 miles.

The small (maximum 82 passengers), shallow-draft Spirit of Discovery gave us close-up views of the countryside. And what views -- the Columbia Gorge resplendent with steep cliffs and green forests as it slices through the Cascades; the honeycomb-appearing high bluffs of central Washington; the golden, rolling "scablands" of eastern Washington.

One evening about a dozen camera-toting passengers traipsed fore and aft. Ahead of us a full moon rose in a pale lavender sky over a majestic bluff; to the rear a blazing red sunset silhouetted Mount Hood.

But the eight dams and locks (rising a total of 738 vertical feet) took center stage. On our first morning, in a misty-pink sunrise on the Columbia River, nearly everyone was out on deck with hot coffee and fresh-baked pastries as we made our way through our first lock at Bonneville Dam, 40 miles east of Portland.

The crew tied the ship to floating bollards.

"There's a lot of underwater turbulence," said a deckhand. "If we're not tied, we'd be like a pinball machine all over the lock." The 166-foot-long ship, enclosed in a massive gray concrete box, floated 70 feet straight up.

Today, the lake formed by the Dalles Dam inundates the currents of the narrows and the famous "great falls" of Celilo (said to have rivaled Niagara), both formidable navigation barriers for Lewis and Clark. On their way west, they portaged. On their return in April 1806, the river was even higher and they traded their canoes to the Indians for pack horses and traveled overland to the Nez Perce villages in Idaho. We rose slowly through the lock while munching still-warm-from-the-oven white chocolate and macadamia nut cookies.

The next day we transitted McNary, the last lock on the Columbia, then Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental (while eating a lunch of barbecue salmon), Little Goose and Lower Granite on the Snake.

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