By David G. Molyneaux, editor, TheTravelMavens
Sailors have died, their ships sunk to the bottom, trying to enter the treacherous Columbia River from the west where it empties over shifting sandbars into the heaving Pacific Ocean.
Upriver, to the east, the tempestuous Columbia is nearly as daunting, rushing at high speed over rocks, through desert and canyons.
On a one-week cruise out of Portland, Ore., I floated gently into the Columbia, with barely a ripple of dissent. I snacked on warm crab hors d’oeuvres that afternoon and sipped a gentle, local white wine. Peter Kay, Master of the Vessel, guided the riverboat Spirit of ’98, my home for the next seven nights, into what seemed a placid river.
Attacking the Columbia River
Challenging the Columbia and its tributary, the aptly-named Snake, is a journey with its share of adventure, and for me, a worthy checkmark on life’s bucket list of worldly travel destinations.
This area was spiritual home to proud Native Americans. The mighty Columbia was the river that President Thomas Jefferson sent explorers Lewis and Clark to find.
These are the famed waters that fed Woodie Guthrie’s song:
These mighty men labored by day and by night
Matching their strength 'gainst the river's wild flight
Through rapids and falls, they won the hard fight
So roll on, Columbia, roll on
In their historic 18-month journey from St. Louis, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark braved mountains of misery in and around the Columbia River. In the 200 years since, engineers have built four dams and locks between the ocean and the entrance to the Snake River, 324 miles to the east.
But not tamed.
Placid, these waters are not
The turbulent Columbia runs a current up to 230,000 cubic feet of water per second moving east to west as the river drops two feet for every mile -- compared with the Mississippi River that falls one inch for every mile -- cascading through the mountains toward the sea.
Meanwhile, the wind off the ocean is headed in the opposite direction, so riverboat passengers may see white caps moving one way as the current swirls in the other.
“Last week,” said Captain Kay, as we set out toward the mountains, “we had winds at up to 74 knots (about 80 miles per hour).”
While up to 96 passengers read and relaxed on the four-deck riverboat, Spirit of '98, Kay and his crew fought the currents and the wind. Both are bent on forcing the vessel toward dangers -- rocks, shallow water, and other boats -- as the Spirit of ’98 chugged along the Columbia and later the Snake in a portion of the rugged Northwest where cell phones based on tower signals often say, “no service.”
“This river is challenging,” said Kay, an understatement, during his first meeting with passengers. “You have to watch where you’re at. We disprove, on a regular basis, what the electronic equipment is saying. We use what we call spatial reasoning. It gets real interesting.”
The vessel is equipped with a 350-horsepower bow thruster, used to make quick and serious maneuvers.
“We try not to use it much,” said Kay, “But if you hear something grinding in the middle of the night like it’s in your cabin, just throw a pillow over your head and go back to sleep.”
That was easy for him to say. When I heard that bow thruster late one night, I was ready to strap on my PFD, and start bailing.
(Editor's note: 2010 was the last season for Cruise West as a riverboat company and for the Spirit of '98. But the riverboat, on which I was a passenger, is scheduled to return to the Columbia and Snake rivers in 2013 as the S.S. Legacy, operated by Un-Cruise Adventures. Other competitors on the rivers include American Queen Steamboat Company, American Cruise Lines, and Lindblad Expeditions)
Getaway day, leaving Portland
Passengers gathered at the Embassy Suites hotel in downtown Portland on Saturday afternoon. I found a comfy stuffed chair in the lobby. “Oh, I remember you,” said a fellow passenger as we climbed on a bus for a 10-minute ride to our riverboat, “you were the one who was snoozing in the lobby.” Guilty.
River cruising carries an informality of dress and schedule. Kay had planned to pull away about 4:30 p.m., but some passengers were delayed by late flights, so we remained at the dock for a while, planning to meet them upriver, closer to the airport. We were delayed further by a railroad bridge that wasn’t working. But no one on the Spirit of ’98 seemed a bit concerned about keeping to schedule. Plenty of flexibility, said Kay.
Before dinner, we met in the Observation Lounge for an introduction to our PFD. Our what? Personal Floating Device, also known as a life jacket. Kay warned us to be careful not to trip over the substantial sills (high thresholds) at our doorways. And he reminded us that we were on a working boat, so not to get in the way of deckhands tossing or tying lines.
Heather stopped by my cabin to point out the drawers under the bed for storage, locate the amenities basket that sat on a shelf high above the toilet, and to explain the twisted cord hanging on the inside knob of my door. “It’s a no knock knot,” she said. Stick it on the outside if you want privacy. There are no locks on the outside of cabin doors on Spirit of ‘98, though you may lock your armoire/closet door. I didn’t.
During the week, I saw Heather often, because the staff of six that cleaned the cabins also served the meals. They were a friendly, smiling bunch who mixed well with the passengers and seemed to be having their own good time.
Day two, understanding the locks
Not a day to dawdle in bed. By the 7 a.m. wakeup call, at least half the passengers already were at perches inside and out to watch us enter the first Columbia River lock, at Bonneville Dam, 145 miles from the ocean. By 7:20 we were moving toward the lock that would raise the boat 60 feet.
I have cruised through locks half a dozen times on the Panama and Erie Canals, but I never grow tired of the experience.
On the way up the Columbia and later the Snake, lock doors closed, water poured into our chamber and slowly we rose until the level of the boat was equal to the water on the higher level.
Beside us, a heavy torrent of water flowed downstream through the power-generating dams.
Without the system of locks, boats like the Spirit of ’98 would have great difficulty getting around the dangerous rapids, and our trip would hardly be called a cruise.
The three primary attractions to cruising the Columbia and Snake rivers are the eight locks between Portland, Ore., and Lewiston, Idaho; the swift jetboat that carries passengers 80 miles through rugged Hell’s Canyon and back; and any site associated with the expedition of Lewis and Clark from 1804-1806.
“We go places where Lewis and Clark put their canoes aground,” said Kay.
Most passengers on the Spirit of ’98 seemed hungry for lectures on any of these three subjects, and the rangers at Bonneville Dam provided a wealth of information. No one was in hurry to leave.
We learned about the intricacies of the dam, about fish ladders and rotating fish screens, how they are designed to help the spawning cycles of Pacific salmon working their way back upriver to die near where they began their lives, adding offspring and nutrients from the ocean to the local cycle of life.
We learned how baby salmon swim to the ocean tail first, at night.
Bypass corridors at each Columbia and Snake dam divert ocean-bound young fish, collect them and then transport them downstream in barges and tanker trucks, some to hatcheries. The river barges are tagged like a school bus, Juvenile Fish Transportation.
That day was a geography lesson, as we traveled from an overcast morning in a lush landscape with forests of Douglas firs -- 73 inches of rain fall annually at the Bonneville Dam – to a sunny afternoon 100 miles east where we were surrounded by basalt hills and ponderosa pine, the result of an average annual rainfall of 12 inches.
By late afternoon we were in cowboy country. I was late for social hour, as I sat alone on a bench at the aft end of the riverboat, looking west, far behind us down the river, at the huge snow cone of Mount Hood -- a stunning sight I was reluctant to leave and will long remember.
Day three, touring cow town Pendleton, Oregon
Brochure descriptions of cruising the Columbia and Snake Rivers make little mention of bus rides. There are two days of bus excursions on the itinerary, day three from the Columbia River inland to Pendleton, Ore., and day five from the Snake River to Walla Walla, Wash.
Both are a bus ride of an hour or more each way.
A local guide said that the bath in the picture, above, began the night at 10 cents a person, but as the evening wore on, and the water grew dirtier, the price would fall to 5 cents.
Once, there were 32 bars and 18 brothels in a four-block radius.
More savory is Pendleton Woolen Mills, the maker of Pendleton shirts, founded here, as is Hanley’s, oldest saddle company in the United States.
Hanley’s, still going strong, catered a fine lunch (pork, chicken or ravioli) that was more like a dinner, so I joined a group of passengers exploring Pendleton in hopes of walking off some of lunch. In the afternoon, we stopped at the Tamastslikt Culture Center, home of exhibits about local Native Americans before, during and after the invasion (my word) of homesteaders, traders and soldiers.
A serious case of the ugglies
Our afternoon bus took us to the ugliest dock I have ever seen on any cruise, ever.
In the morning, for the bus ride to Pendleton, we had docked on the Columbia at a freight yard in Umatilla, Oregon, which I assumed would be the least scenic docking place of the week. I had yet to see Burbank, Wash.
The sign said: Port of Walla Walla, Burbank Industrial Zone. It should have read: scrap heap.
The tie-up dock sat on the edge of a salvage yard, which apparently was the shortest distance to water from Pendleton. While we were away, the Spirit of ’98 had moved slightly upriver, leaving the Columbia and entering the Snake, which runs east-west from Lewiston, Idaho.
We wasted no time in Burbank boarding the Spirit of ’98 for our evening cruise upriver toward Lewiston. As a crane crushed battered cars into a pile of twisted metal less than 50 yards away, I sat on the top deck and raised a toast to my last moments at the scrap heap. Or so I thought.
Day Four, zipping through Hell’s Canyon
The Snake River starts at 9,500 feet near Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. It flows 1,036 miles before joining the Columbia River near that scrap yard in Burbank, Wash.
From Burbank, we cruised upriver about 140 miles to the deepwater port on the border of Washington and Idaho. Clarkston, Wash., is on one side of the river. Lewiston, Idaho, is on the other. This is where the Clearwater River joins the Snake, and where Lewis and Clark camped in the fall of 1805 on their way west.
In the morning, we walked off one boat, the Spirit, and onto another. Captain Nate’s 42-foot jetboat -- one of two chartered vessels -- would zip us south, farther up the Snake through Hell’s Canyon, where the river flows freely for about 100 miles in the deepest gorge in North America.
Nate’s jetboat needs a depth of only 14 inches of water, but still, he says, you have to know where the rocks are, especially when you are traveling 40 miles an hour.
As we jetted south, Idaho on our left, Washington, then Oregon on our right, canyon walls rose and the occasional signs of habitation diminished. We saw grazing elk and mule deer. Soon, we began skirting white water rapids and making what seemed to be dare-devil moves.
Nope, said Nate. “I know every rock in this river.”
We stopped twice for a break and once for a buffet lunch in a long, satisfying day, aware that a jetboat or a canoe are about the only way to see Hell’s Canyon, which for some travelers is another tick on the lifetime bucket list.
Day five, mules and wine in Walla Walla
After the day at Hell’s Canyon, we made our turn that evening from upriver to downriver, and began our run back toward the Pacific Ocean some 465 miles away. Through the night, the Spirit of ’98 motored with the current of the Snake, through four locks. Sometime before our wakeup call, the Spirit docked, so passengers could get off after breakfast and board a bus for a day in Walla Walla.
I slept well, but awoke with the sound of machinery I had heard before. We had returned to the dump. I wrote a ditty to the tune of “Back in the Saddle Again,” which we sang at breakfast at my table, over the occasional crunch of the car smasher.
“Back in the scrap heap again.
Back where the Snake nears its end.
Where the buses come to greet us. For hours they will seat us.
Then back in the scrap heap again.”
On to Walla Walla we went, where a museum exhibits machinery from the days of mule teams that pulled combines for harvesting grain, as many as 33 mules hitched together with wood and chains.
A more gentle harvest followed at a vineyard where we tasted a local red and white, followed by a fine lunch at a restaurant open only for us in Walla Walla. Back on the bus, again, we headed to the river.
Days Six and seven, to the ocean and Fort Clatsop
By Thursday, a full day of river cruising, most passengers knew each other and all the nooks on the vessel, especially in the lounge, which serves also as bar, shop, game room, and site of early morning continental breakfasts.
Each evening we gathered in the lounge as we waited dinner -- described fist, in detail, by manager Luis Moreno, who never faced a course he couldn’t praise -- and later as we digested it, learning more about each other.
We ranged from a rancher in South Dakota and an attorney in North Carolina to several professors, including an Illinois man who is an expert on wheat production. Most passengers were retired, some married, some traveling with friends, one family of mother and children and spouses, all adults. I guessed we averaged about 70 years old.
Though we had passed through eight locks on our way upriver, locks on the way downriver continued to grab everyone’s attention. Captain Kay would pull into a chamber with walls on three sides. Then, what appeared to be a guillotine, like the bladed contraption the French used to sever heads, would fall slowly behind us to make a fourth wall. Water would pour out below, and the boat would drop, visibly stone by stone until we reached the water level below, when the door in front would open, and we would rejoin the river.
“How much did we pay for that?” I asked Captain Kay. “We don’t,” he said. Congress allots money to run the river’s dams and locks. “You see the cracks in the locks leaking water?” asked Kay. “Tell your Congressman that the info structure needs some love.”
We shared one lock chamber on the Columbia with a barge carrying scrap that looked familiar. I recognized several of the smashed cars from the salvage yard in Burbank -- another reminder of the Columbia River’s role in the local cycle of life.
We tied up downtown, in the old fur trading city, next to the outstanding Columbia River Maritime Museum, which details the history of man’s battles with the Columbia, some successful, some so much a failure that a graveyard of ships lies where the river meets the ocean. The museum runs captivating film footage of ships trying to overcome the sandbars and enter the Columbia.
Next to the museum is Columbia Lightship 604, on which a crew of 17 worked rotations of two to four weeks as a floating lighthouse for the Columbia River from 1951 to 1979. I could only imagine bobbing like a cork in that ship for two weeks.
Fittingly, we spent our day in Astoria in the rain.
David Molyneaux, blogger and editor at TheTravelMavens.com, wrote a version of this article for CruiseCritic.com.