The Lewis and Clark Expedition has excited
the imagination of Americans for almost two hundred years. President Thomas Jefferson
instructed the two United States Army officers to search for a water route though the
continent and learn as much as they could about the unknown interior. During their trek
from the Mississippi River to the Pacific coast and back again in 1803-1806, the
expeditionary force roughly paralleled the courses of the Snake and Columbia rivers. Their
journals describe a three-year journey of hardship and foul weather, particularly on the
Our journey, by contrast, was a delight, relaxing and
educational, and good weather all the way.
We boarded the M/V Sea Lion in
mid-May at Portland's Riverplace Marina on the Willamette River. The 152' ship,
constructed and registered in the United States, would be our home for the next week as we
followed in the wake of Lewis and Clark by ship, jet boat, and zodiac.
The ship's shallow draft and bow thrusters permit the Sea Lion to go where most
cruise ships turn back. Cabins are comfortable, and all are outside. Dress in the lounge
and dining room is informal, and all passengers can be accommodated in one seating at
Indicative of the nature of the cruise, the ship's staff included a historian, a
geologist, and a naturalist. No social director. During cruising, one or more of the staff
were always on deck, commenting and pointing out sights along the bank. They led walks
ashore as well.
As we cruised down the Willamette to its confluence with the Columbia, thence up the
latter, Carlos Schwantes, noted historian of Lewis and Clark and the Pacific
Northwest, presented an overview of the Lewis and Clark expedition, particularly pointing
out where our course would touch theirs. On the afternoon of the first day, we debarked
for a bus excursion, choosing between a visit to the Columbia Crest Winery or a birding
walk in the McNary Wildlife Refuge.
A few miles upstream from Portland is Bonneville Dam. From the dam to a point above the
confluence of the Snake River, the Columbia, properly speaking, is a series of artificial
lakes. The same can be said for the Snake. From its mouth to Lewiston and Clarkston, two
Washington cities that straddle the river at the Idaho border, the Snake is a
In the course of our cruise up the Columbia and the Snake, we passed through locks at
eight dams, with a combined lift of 726 feet. The 105-foot vertical lift at John Day is
the largest in the world. The lock gate of 700 tons looks like a guillotine for giants.
Most locks employ the more common miter doors, which open and close like the two doors of
a formal dining room.
Long before the arrival of Lewis and Clark, the river was home and gathering place. We
saw petroglyphs on rocks just above the water's edge that speak of ancient
inhabitants. Representations of human figures with what appear to be antennae have led to
interesting speculation about the artists. Melancholy abandoned farmsteads of more recent
date suggest a lonely existence. A child's swing hanging from a branch of an ancient apple
tree spoke volumes.
The ship's staff geologist often commented on the geologic origins of the region. Huge
sedimentary boulders, mudstone or shale, at the water's edge on the upper Columbia were
deposited here by moving continental plates about 100 million years ago. Several layers of
volcanic basalt are revealed in the walls of the gorge. Cliffs of columnar basalt that
sweep up from the water's edge are particularly striking. The severe aspect of the gorge
is often softened by hills, some rolling, some sharp and craggy, that appear covered with
At Clarkston on the Snake, we transferred to jet boats for an exciting ride into Hells
Canyon. The desert canyon is reputedly the deepest in North America. The boats glided
across rapids and bounced over rolling white water. On one occasion passengers were
thrilled to see wild bighorn sheep on ledges high above the river. Five minutes later, our
driver brought the boat quietly into the shallows to watch bighorns grazing at the bank.
We had a pleasant buffet lunch on the lawns of the headquarters of the Hells Canyon
National Recreation Area. There are no roads here, a questionable disadvantage. The site
can be reached only by water.
Turning downstream now, we rejoined the Sea Lion and soon anchored inside the
mouth of the Palouse River, which flows into the Columbia from the
Washington side. Zodiacs ferried us to a waiting bus that took us to Palouse Falls and its
deep, sharply-etched canyon. Usually clear and blue, the water at the falls was the color
and consistency of thick chocolate, attesting to erosion from heavy rains in the high
Returning to the river, we boarded zodiacs and cruised upstream. Uplake, actually. The
Palouse at its mouth is part of the lake formed by a Columbia dam. Reeds and marshes
harbored an abundant bird life. In a short stretch of river (lake), we saw orioles,
meadowlarks, red-winged blackbirds, hawks, belted kingfishers, Caspian terns, gulls,
Canada geese, and lots of swallows flying about their adobe nests clinging to the cliff
face and fetching mud at the riverbank. We saw two beaver lodges, but no beaver.
Our zodiac finally reached the head of the lake and the beginning of the free-flowing
Palouse River. The stream, about twenty feet wide, was too swift and probably too shallow
for the zodiacs, and we turned back. The chocolaty flow mixed gradually with the clearer
blue-green water of the lake.
One morning, we were bussed to the heights of Rowena Plateau for a panoramic view of
the gorge of the Columbia. We continued inland through the beautiful Hood River Valley to
Parkdale. The view of tidy spring-green orchards, with snow-capped Mt. Hood rising above
them, was captivating. At the historic Parkdale Grange hall, we were treated by local
people to coffee and tea and forced to choose between half a dozen kinds of homemade pies.
The mixed berry was delicious. So was the apple.
For our return, we boarded vintage coaches of the Hood River Railroad. Half way down
the valley, in order to negotiate a steep slope, the train slowed to a halt at a dead end,
then rolled backward through a switch and down a connecting track. The remainder of the
journey was made in reverse. It seems that this technique was cheaper to build than
cutting switchbacks on the hillside.
Back aboard the Sea Lion, we continued down the Columbia and passed a stretch of
river that is mecca for wind-surfers. The upstream winds here are strong and reliable.
Later the ship tied up at Bonneville Dam,
where we toured
the visitor center and watched salmon and other species swimming through the underwater
viewing windows of the fish ladder. We returned to the ship and cruised downstream,
enjoying the waterfalls that tumble from the heights on the Oregon side.
We were blessed with uncommon weather at the mouth of the Columbia: bright sunshine,
cloudless sky, little wind. Lewis and Clark never had it so good. A director of the
Columbia River Maritime Museum at Astoria gave us a personal tour of this world-class
facility. Later We toured Fort Clatsop, a careful reconstruction of the expedition's
1805-1806 winter lodging. The diarists complained bitterly that the weather was cold and
debilitating, the rain constant. We had sunshine and balmy breezes.
On our last evening, we anchored near the shore between the Columbia's mouth and
Portland. I stood at the rail at dusk, watching the sun set. A Canada goose swam into view
near the ship, followed by a perfect file of fifteen tiny goslings, followed by another
adult. A fitting end to a memorable trip.
To investigate the attractions of the Columbia River, call the Oregon Tourism Division,
(800) 547-7842, and Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, (503) 386-2333. For
information on the Portland area, contact the Portland Oregon Visitors Association, (503)
222-2223. Plan to spend an hour or two at the beginning of your visit in the exhibits of
The Oregon History Center, 1200 S.W. Park Avenue, Portland, (503) 222-1741. For
information on the seven-day voyage described here, contact Special Expeditions, Inc., 720
Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10019, 800/762-0003.