Northwest Passage

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 8, 2004

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, a re-creation of a 19th-century encampment surrounded by tall Oregon pines.

Each scene captured the allure of the Pacific Northwest from a different angle. But for us, they were also landmarks in a stirring chapter of America's past. At the end of their 1804-05 expedition from Missouri to the West Coast, explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had canoed along these waters. They had camped beneath that soaring rock (the world's second-highest, after Gibraltar), which they had named. They braved a downpour through the bays at the river's mouth before making their triumphant sighting of the Pacific. The fort 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-day cruise tracing the route the explorers 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, Ore., 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 on-board lectures.

Riverboat trips like this, which allow travelers access to lesser-known parts of the American heartland, are becoming increasingly popular, according to travel specialists. Voyages from New Orleans to Memphis on the Mississippi, as well as jaunts on the Great Lakes, are particularly big draws.

For me, the prospect of learning about a key chapter in America's past and seeing some spectacular scenery made a voyage on the Columbia too attractive to resist.

Not Roughing It

Like many Americans, I knew only vague details of Lewis and Clark's 3,700-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 so one brisk morning last October, there I was, barreling along a highway in a motorcoach as the Cascade mountains in Washington state rose on either side. A copy of "Undaunted Courage," historian Stephen E. Ambrose's account of the Lewis and Clark mission, was in my backpack.

We were on a pre-cruise excursion to 8,364-foot Mount St. Helens. Even from 10 miles away, we could see the gaping crater in the side of the mighty volcano, which last erupted in 1980. A halo of clouds hung above it, trees lay like matchsticks around the mountain and a deceptively peaceful cap of snow crowned the top. In the visitors center a few miles from the peak, we learned how the eruption had bellowed a cloud of ash 80,000 feet high and sent lava flowing down the mountainside, taking dozens of lives along the way. Although it was not on Lewis and Clark's route, the volcano's awesome appearance made it a fitting prelude to the week ahead.

Later that afternoon we boarded the Empress, which was docked at 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 made of Ponderosa pine. 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.

The explorers were sometimes reduced to a diet of dog meat, dried roots and even candle wax. For us, waiters served breakfasts of French toast and omelets, lunches of mushroom soup and spinach salad, and dinners of grilled Pacific salmon, tiramisu and other gourmet treats. The explorers spent their evenings in soggy campgrounds under open skies. We were treated with nightly entertainment, ranging from a mediocre magician to a more inspired soloist belting out Broadway favorites.

Our entourage didn't exactly mirror the Lewis and Clark corps either. Their intrepid team of 33, led by 30-year-old Lewis and 34-year-old Clark, included the teenage Sacagawea, a Shoshone tribeswoman; Toussaint Charbonneau, her French Canadian "husband"; and York, Clark's black slave. My fellow cruisers were mostly couples in their sixties, seventies and eighties. Molly was a sculptor from Los Angeles, and her husband, William, was a former high school principal. Beverly and Lou, perky grandmothers from Denver, had been friends and travel companions since childhood. In all, 70 of us were in a boat that holds up to 235. The late-season launch and scanty advertising had drawn a thinner-than-expected crowd, a crew member explained.

Well-seasoned travelers all, my fellow cruisers might have opted at another time for a week cruising the Caribbean, or touring Normandy or the Cotswolds. Carole Robin, a therapist from San Diego, said she and her husband, Howard, chose this trip because it seemed uncomplicated. "We were thinking of Europe," she said. "But this seemed easier and, frankly, safer." Others echoed that view.

The historical aspect was also a draw. "Over the years, I have spent a lot of time studying the cultures of different parts of the world," said George Carrington, a former intelligence officer from Beverly Hills, Calif. "This seemed like a good way for me to educate myself about the history and culture of a place closer to home."

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