Rolling on the river

Inland routes bring history alive -- no open seas required

Cruises 2006


PORTLAND, ORE. // We gathered here to begin contemplating rivers -- the Columbia and Snake, mostly, with glances toward Grand Ronde, Yakima, Willamette and a few more.

The Columbia and Snake sorely tested the Lewis and Clark expedition during its 1804-1806 westward mission. The explorers had to contend with rocks, rapids, treacherous gorges and dangerous waterfalls on their way from the St. Louis area to the Pacific Ocean.

The Columbia River ends in the Pacific after churning 1,214 miles. It starts in British Columbia, travels south into Washington and then west along the Washington-Oregon border. Try that with a 55-foot canoe and a few small pirogues.

During our seven days and seven nights we had it easier than the Lewis and Clark crowd, riding on the Empress of the North, a sternwheeler and floating hotel with room for 235 passengers in staterooms rivaling those on oceangoing cruise ships.

Those ships travel the seas. This one would make a 1,000-mile round trip partway up the Columbia River and back -- including a foray more than 100 miles up the Snake.

Our struggles would be no more daunting than those required by stairways and gangways. Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and their Corps of Discovery endured harsh winters, occasionally hostile tribes and a seemingly endless list of chores dictated by President Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson, the nation's premier micromanager, asked Lewis to write down everything he saw, as he and Clark surveyed lands acquired in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase: Determine the longitude and latitude of every landmark. Catalog the species of every unusual plant and animal. Bring back samples of strange flora, fauna, soil and rock. Learn everything about the Indians -- longevity, customs, language, apparel, even the age when babies are weaned. ...

They had a lot to do.

Last fall, on the continuing 200th anniversary of that expedition (1804-06), most Empress of the North passengers put up with nothing more troublesome than their personal aches and pains.

Rivers, of course, twist and turn and change elevation. The Columbia and Snake from the Idaho border to Portland wend their way past steep basalt cliffs and deep-green forests after leaving the improbably dry desert of eastern Washington State.

Those rivers have a tempestuous nature. Therefore, we would encounter dams at eight junctures, passing through locks 16 times, as we went forth and back. For the first 100 miles or so, traffic around us included far more oceangoing freighters than pleasure craft, and the sight of lumber mills, log stacks, factories, container ports and scruffy waterfront main streets appeared nearly as often as pristine scenery.

That's the way it is with rivers 200 years after Lewis and Clark. They work hard producing hydroelectric power and transporting heavy loads. Because the Columbia empties into the Pacific Ocean, it lets seagoing ships venture inland before shallows make them turn around.


We were instructed to meet in Portland, so I assumed we would sail the Empress of the North from there.

At a ballroom in the Embassy Suites Hotel, Empress crewmembers issued each of us a number, and when it was called, we were photographed and given an identification card.

I had arrived in Portland the previous day, and I spent one afternoon walking the downtown Willamette River waterfront looking for the Empress of the North. I had imagined it anchored a few blocks from the hotel, drawing a crowd with its filigreed decks and gold-trimmed smokestacks, but there wasn't a sternwheeler in sight. That just goes to show how little I knew about river logistics.

We left the hotel in a series of buses and took a half-hour drive -- over the Willamette, east and north, over the Columbia and into Washington State. Finally we came to a halt at an isolated parking lot in Washougal, Wash. The Empress of the North awaited us down there at the dock, said our driver, just follow the path that leads to the gangway.

For a few, that might have been easier said than done, but eventually everyone clambered aboard and found their staterooms. Further onboard orientation could begin.

Orientation to the river itself would be the major purpose all week long. While the boat backtracked toward Portland and spent the evening tootling on and near the area where the Willamette empties into the Columbia -- in effect, treading water -- I had time to check out the cabin.

The decor of my first-class stateroom, naturally, tended toward Queen Victoria meets Scarlett O'Hara -- a lot of tufted upholstery, tasseled shades, red silk and dark wood.

My stateroom TV added one welcome modern touch -- a big, flat-screen number feeding from a satellite dish and featuring a built-in DVD player. The bath, large for a ship, gleamed with white tile, while a basket held Lord & Mayfair toiletries that twinkled like jewels. Just past the two big, silk-draped windows, my little veranda permitted a sweeping view of all we passed on the starboard side.

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