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.
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."
As a floating history classroom, the cruise did not disappoint. We sailed the same route the explorers took and saw several of the spots where they camped along the way. Like the explorers, we hopscotched to different stops on either side of the river in Washington state and Oregon. (A planned trip down the Snake River in Washington, which the explorers traveled before entering the Columbia, was canceled due to high winds.)
Nearly every day we took bus outings to exhibitions devoted to different aspects of the expedition. The driver and guide, Reid Adney, offered a warm, humorous running commentary on the scenery and local culture. Early-evening dinners usually led to spirited discussions among the cruisers about Lewis and Clark.
After docking in the small town of Stevenson, Wash., about 150 miles from the Pacific, we toured the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center. An exhibition illustrated just how hard the Lewis and Clark trek along the Columbia was. During that era, the river rushed at a reckless pace, over deep gorges, dramatic falls and fierce rapids. Heavy rains pelted the explorers during most of their trip; it took them nearly six weeks to travel from the juncture of the Snake and the Columbia, a distance that we breezed along in four days. And the Native American tribes they encountered were not always friendly. They reported positive encounters with the Clatsop, Nez Perce and other tribes, but tangled with Chinooks, whom they suspected of stealing.
That afternoon, a rainstorm -- the first of several we would have -- swept in. Undeterred, we visited by bus the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center across the river in the Dalles, Ore. A display showed how trade between the Indian tribes and the explorers had taken place. The explorers offered beads, buttons, knives and other trinkets in exchange for dried fish, deer meat, sea otter furs and other objects from various tribes.
Since few if any of the natives spoke English, the bartering would sometimes require hand signals or a complicated train of translation. Clark would relay a message to one of the French Canadian boatmen in English, who would translate it for Charbonneau in French. He would then pass it to Sacagawea, who spoke to another Indian in Hidatsa, a native tongue. The tribesmen would in turn relay the messages to others in their local dialect. The skill of these trading exchanges, a guide explained, turned out to be one of the keys to the explorers' success.
Back aboard the Empress, Hottell helped put the exhibitions in context. "There were many spots along the way where this expedition could have taken a false turn and perished," he said. "The fact that they made it can be attributed to superb leadership, discipline and the fact that every member of the team knew that they were making history. They were determined to succeed."
As the first whites to enter the Northwest territory overland from the east, Lewis and Clark launched a movement of other settlers to make the trek. They were followed by a rush of homesteaders on the Oregon Trail.
Two of the most prominent early settlers were Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, who came from New York to the Northwest in 1836 to introduce Protestantism to the Cayuse Indians, and we visited the area where they lived near Walla Walla, Wash. An on-site interpretive center told the Whitmans' story: how they worked with the tribe for 11 years, encouraged them to begin farming, eventually fell into conflict and were massacred by Cayuse warriors. Standing on a hill, looking down at the Whitmans' grave, the surrounding meadow and the remains of their mission, I was struck by how lonely the region feels, nearly 170 years later.
We also stopped at the estate of Sam Hill, a lawyer and railroad magnate from North Carolina who settled in the Columbia Valley area in the early 1900s. He snatched up thousands of acres overlooking the river around the town of Goldendale, Wash., where he built a replica of Stonehenge and began collecting art for a private museum.
Perched on a hill, the two-story Maryhill Museum of Art was an unexpected trove of art and artifacts: Rodin sculptures, impressionist paintings, a Thomas Hart Benton lithograph and hundreds of baskets hand-woven by various tribes. Such a rich collection of art made me curious to know more about Hill and the other colorful characters from this region of the country.
And the river that came close to stumping Lewis and Clark has been harnessed by an intricate system of locks and dams. The Empress passed eight times through some of the major locks that were built on the lower Columbia and Snake in the last half of the 20th century, including Bonneville, the Dalles and John Day. They are designed to control the river's level and flow as well as capture its force as a source of electrical power.
"This system is what distinguishes the Columbia from the Mississippi and other major rivers," explained David Landis, the ship's acting captain. "Passing through these locks allows passengers a great chance to see firsthand how a contemporary river is controlled."
Our last full day started with a bus tour of Astoria, Ore., the oldest settlement in the Northwest, established in 1811 by John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Co. A port city of picturesque homes, antiques stores and restaurants, it was a place I could happily return to for a longer visit.
We ended at Fort Clatsop. After much discussion about where to spend the winter, the Lewis and Clark troupe decided to take a vote. The balloting would later go down in U.S. history as the first on-record official delegation involving a Native American, a woman and a black.
Using the team members' journals, historians have re-created the warren of log cabins as close as possible to how the explorers built it. The result, one of the most elaborate renderings of Lewis and Clark campsites along the trail, offers a rare insight into how they lived. Two rows of small cabins were separated by a small courtyard. The spacious cabin with a dirt floor where the two leaders stayed was on one side; Charbonneau and Sacagawea's cabin was on the other. The cabins of the other explorers were in between.
"This was a place for the explorers to regroup," a guide explained. "They spent the winter reworking their journals, stocking up on supplies and establishing ties with the local Indian tribes."
Back on the boat that evening, we dined on lobster bisque and grilled tuna and reflected on the week. Impressions of the cruise ranged wide. For Peter Satuloff, a Los Angeles accountant, it catered too much to the older generation and did not include enough active outings. George French and his wife, Pat, of southern Oregon, said it exposed them to a previously unknown natural setting. Howard Robin, a San Diego pathologist, said there had been too much Lewis and Clark to digest in a week.
My own thoughts turned to the explorers and their triumphant battle with the odds. Like them, we had encountered rainstorms, difficult river conditions and high winds that forced a change in our itinerary. Looking around the table, I wondered whether we would have had the backbone to pull off a mission like theirs. Somehow, I doubted it.
The American West Steamboat Co. offers several departures of its eight-night "Path of the Explorers" cruise from April 3 to Dec. 26. Empress of the North rates range from $1,859 to $5,309 per person double, plus airfare. Specials include up to $400 off and free airfare to Portland, Ore., on select April and May cruises. Port charges run $134 extra. Details: 800-434- 1232, www.americanweststeamboat.com. For other inland cruises, see Page P8.
Gary Lee will be online to discuss this story Monday at 2 p.m. during the Travel section's weekly chat at www.washingtonpost.com.
For details on Lewis and Clark sites,