The Columbia-Snake system is one of America’s most important river systems, second to the Mississippi-Missouri in the size of the area it drains. The Columbia River flows 1,200 miles from the Canadian Rockies in southeast British Columbia into Washington, and then forms the border with Oregon on its way to the Pacific. The 1,000-mile Snake River starts in Yellowstone National Park and flows through Idaho into eastern Washington, where it meets the Columbia River.
The two rivers have served as the primary artery for east-west travel in the Pacific Northwest, used first by the Nez Perce Indians and later by Western explorers, fur traders, settlers, military expeditions, and missionaries. Settlers came in increasing numbers in the few years prior to the 1846 Oregon Treaty, and in 1859 Oregon became the 33rd state. Washington, once part of Oregon, was organized as a separate territory in 1853, and became the 42nd state in 1889.
Today, the Columbia-Snake corridor provides a fascinating trip into more varied landscapes than along any North American river. Beginning at the Pacific Ocean breakers, the river mouth near Astoria, Oregon, begins as a broad bay, narrows upriver to a more natural stream, and then squeezes dramatically through the deep Columbia Gorge (www. fs. fed. us/r6/columbia/forest). Thickly forested slopes rise to flanking high cliffs, while melting snow cascades into pencil-thin waterfalls. The river’s surface is turbulent and the winds strong, but a series of dams built beginning in the Great Depression tames the flow into a series of separate pools. Navigation locks lift boats and barges while parallel fish ladders provide a bypass for salmon heading upstream to spawn, as well as for the young heading in the other direction, toward the Pacific.
Beyond the gorge, the land becomes drier, and with the right soil and an ideal climate, vineyards have burgeoned in Washington and Oregon to create the country’s second-largest wine-producing region in the U. S. after California’s. Wildlife is abundant, as hundreds of thousands of birds come to roost and nest, especially in the Umatilla National Wildlife Refuge (www. fWs. gov/umatilla). By the time your ship reaches the Snake River, the land on either side shows few signs of habitation, instead rising from the waterline in layers of basalt laid down millions of years ago, forming multicolored buttes and mesas.
Portland, Oregon, a city of just over a half million (with another 1.5 million in its metropolitan area), is the embarkation city for nearly all Columbia-Snake cruises. The city has kept its local culture better than most, maintaining a vibrant, walkable downtown; preventing major expressways from slicing through its heart; and nurturing local businesses, including the dozens of microbreweries for which it’s become famous. Known as the Rose City, Portland boasts 250 parks, gardens, and greenways, and since 1907 has celebrated the annual Portland Rose Festival (www. rosefestival. org) for several weeks each June, with an extravagant floral parade, music, car and boat races, and visits by U. S. Navy ships.
The city’s core is Pioneer Courthouse Square (www. pioneercourthousesquare. org), whose modern architecture still manages to convey an old-time-city-square feel. It’s surrounded by stores, offices, restaurants, and hotels, and hosts some 300 concerts and other events each year. A half mile to the northwest, in the city’s Old Town neighborhood, the Saturday Market (www. saturdaymarket. org) is a huge draw for its open-air handicrafts, clothing, and jewelry stalls. Nearby, the Portland Classical Chinese Garden (www. portlandchinesegarden. org) is one of only a few in North America, taking up a walled block in Chinatown. Stepping through the gate feels like walking into an entirely different world, with pavilions, bridges, walkways, hundreds of native Chinese plant species, and a teahouse arranged around a central reflecting pond. About 10 blocks southwest, Powell’s Books (www. powells. com) is the world’s largest independent bookstore, with new and used books shelved together in a warren of rooms spread over three floors and a whole city block.
High up and to the west of downtown, Washington Park’s terraced International Rose Test Garden (www. rosegardenstore. org) displays 557 varieties of roses, usually at their blooming peak during June and July and again in September and October. Just up the hill, the park’s 5//2-acre Japanese Garden (www. japanesegarden. com) is one of the finest of its type outside Japan, with walking paths leading among streams, ponds, Japanese flora, and five distinct gardens representing classical Japanese styles. The views of Mount Hood from both the Japanese and Rose gardens are spectacular.
Upon leaving Portland, cruises sail overnight downriver to where the widening Columbia meets the Pacific Ocean and call at Astoria, Oregon, tying up at a pier adjacent to the Columbia Bar lightship Columbia and Coast Guard cutter Steadfast, both of which are open for visitors. The Columbia River Maritime Museum (www. crmm. org) is part of the pier complex, exhibiting the history of Columbia River trade in ship models, drawings, and photographs. Don’t miss the 20-minute walk up Coxcomb Hill to the 125-foot Astoria Column, which dominates the landscape from its 600-foot elevation. Erected in 1926 to mark the location of the first permanent American settlement west of the Rockies, it was designed by New York architect Electus D. Litchfield after Trajan’s Column in Rome. Italian artist Attilio Pusterla created a bas-relief mural that scrolls around the column to depict the history of the town. The views here are extraordinary, both from the top of the column and from the property around it.
How’s this for a metaphor for our current economic times: Trade (or at least cruise trade) on America’s greatest commercial river has all but come to a halt. For perhaps the first time since the early 19th century, there are no river ships offering full-service overnight cruises on the Mississippi or its tributaries—and no one is jumping in to fill the void.
The big blow, of course, came with the shuttering of Majestic America Line in November 2008. By itself, that company accounted for approximately 85% of the overnight river cruise trade on the Mississippi River system, which encompasses not just the Mississippi itself but also the Atchafalaya, Arkansas, Ohio, Tennessee, Cumberland, Missouri, and Illinois rivers (see map on the inside front cover of this book). A further blow came 1 month later when RiverBarge Excursions, operator of the 198-passenger barge vessel River Explorer, announced it was closing up shop due to low demand and rising costs.
Majestic America’s end was particularly troubling because of its history. Though it was only formed in 2006, it was a successor entity to two other steamboat operators, America West Steamboat Company and the fabled Delta Queen Steamboat Company, which traced its history back to 1890 and had as its flagship the great Delta Queen, a vintage 1927 paddle-wheeler that for decades was the only wooden riverboat left on the Mississippi. At this writing, Majestic America’s American Queen and Mississippi Queen were both laid up awaiting a buyer, while Delta Queen was operating on an allegedly temporary basis as a floating hotel and tourist attraction in Chattanooga, Tennessee (www. deltaqueenhotel. com).
Though true "sleep on the boat" overnight service had as of mid-2009 ceased on the Mississippi, many options still exist for day cruises, evening cruises, and even a few pseudo-overnight cruises, with accommodations at a shoreside hotel sandwiched between days on the river. Here’s a rundown of a few of the better options. Due to their brevity, day cruises typically cost between $15 and $30. Overnights range from about $100 to $300.
Organized excursions head downriver to Fort Clatsop (www. nps. gov/lewi/plan yourvisit/fortclatsop. htm), where Lewis and Clark spent 4 wet winter months in 1805 and 1806. A historically accurate re-creation of their fort is on-site. Another stop, the popular seaside resort of Cannon Beach, offers a wooden weathered-cedar shopping district with typical craft-type boutiques.
Longview, Washington, gives access to Mount St. Helens (www. fs. fed. us/gpnf/ mshnvm), the site of the May 18, 1980, volcanic eruption that in minutes reduced the mountain’s height by about 1,000 feet. The drive uphill winds through increasingly scarred hillsides covered in lava, ash, mud, and 150 square miles of destroyed forest to an interpretive center overlooking the cloud-enshrouded mountaintop and deep into a valley wasteland.
Bonneville Dam (www. nwp. usace. army. mil/op/b), dedicated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1937, signaled the first major WPA undertaking by the
• Julia Belle Swain (www. juliabelle. com): Built in 1971 in Dubuque, Iowa, Julia Belle Swain is one of the few authentic steam-powered passenger vessels in operation on the Mississippi. She offers day cruises from Riverside Park in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and also does overnight cruises to Winona, Minnesota; Lansing, Iowa; and Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, with passengers spending their nights at hotels on shore. Occasional multiday cruises sail to more distant river cities, such as Dubuque, Iowa, or Red Wing and Wabasha, Minnesota.
• Spirit of Peoria (www. spiritofpeoria. com): The traditional-style boat was built in Paducah, Kentucky, in 1988 by Walker Boat Yard, and is solely propelled by its large stern paddle wheel. She offers day, overnight, and 2- night cruises, with overnight accommodations at shoreside lodges. She sails from Illinois and Missouri.
• Riverboat Twilight (www. riverboattwilight. com): Built in Jennings, Louisiana, and launched in 1987, this diesel-driven paddle-wheeler offers an overnight riverboat cruise from Le Claire to Dubuque, Iowa, with evening accommodations ashore.
• Belle of Louisville (www. belleoflouisville. org): Built in 1914 in Pittsburgh, the Belle of Louisville is a National Historic Landmark vessel that operates day sightseeing and dinner cruises along the Ohio River, from downtown Louisville, Kentucky.
• Natchez (www. steamboatnatchez. com): The steamboat Natchez is another traditional classic, also operating under old-fashioned steam power. She offers day cruises from New Orleans, boarding at the foot of Toulouse Street in the French Quarter.
• Creole Queen (www. creolequeen. com): Also sailing day cruises from New Orleans, Creole Queen is a traditional-style paddle-wheeler powered by very untraditional diesel engines. She was built in 1983 in Moss Point, Mississippi.
U. S. Army Corps of Engineers to create a safe passage through the Cascade Rapids. The dam created 48-mile-long Lake Bonneville, and its hydroelectric plants generate enough power to light 40,000 homes. The visitor center screens a slide film showing the dam under construction and describing how the salmon fish ladders work.
Upriver, the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center (www. gorgediscovery. org) exhibits the area’s history and geology, revealing how the Columbia Gorge was formed by violent volcanic upheavals and raging floods, as well as the building of the Columbia River Scenic Highway, which leads to Multnomah Falls. An exhibit illustrates how Lewis and Clark equipped their expedition.
About 6,000 feet up the slopes of 11,245-foot Mount Hood stands Timberline Lodge (www. timberlinelodge. com), a timber-and-stone hotel hand-built in 1936 and 1937 by unemployed craftsmen hired by the WPA. It was dedicated in September 1937 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The view is north to 12,307-foot Mount
Adams, part of a line of volcano-formed mountains that include Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier.
At The Dalles Lock & Dam, an excursion crosses the river to Maryhill Museum
of Art (www. maryhillmuseum. org), set high above the river in Washington. A Midwestern Quaker pacifist named Samuel Hill, son-in-law of James J. Hill of the Great Northern Railroad, established the museum in the late 1920s. It now exhibits Russian Orthodox icons, Rodin sculptures, a collection of 250 chess sets, Queen Marie of Romania’s royal regalia, miniature fashion costumes on stage sets, and Native American clothing, baskets, and weapons. Four miles east of the museum, just off Washington Scenic Route 14, is a full-scale replica of Stonehenge built by Sam Hill as a monument to Klickitat County soldiers who lost their lives in World War I.
Stops in Pendleton, Oregon, may include a visit to the grounds of the annual September Pendleton Round-Up (www. pendletonroundup. com) for a presentation of rodeo riding, country music, flintlock rifle firing, and other activities. In town, Pendleton Underground (www. pendletonundergroundtours. org) is an odd tour centered around a huge warren of tunnels dug by Chinese laborers in the 19th century. The Chinese lived and ran businesses here entirely underground, while some areas of the complex were used as bars, opium dens, and, later, Prohibition-era speakeasies. Elsewhere in town, the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute (www. tamastslikt. com) presents a variety of Native American traditions, including dancing, drumming, and storytelling. Exhibits include horse regalia, war bonnets, bows, and demonstrations of saddle making. Nearby, the Fort Walla Walla Museum (www. fortwallawallamuseum. org) exhibits a collection of carefully restored and re-created historic buildings that include a schoolhouse, doctor’s office, railroad station, and houses arranged in a closed compound. Other buildings house farm equipment and a fire engine once drawn by a 33-mule team.
Finally, after passing through four Snake River locks and dams, your ship reaches the end of deep-water navigation at the border towns of Lewiston, Idaho, and Clark – ston, Washington, 465 miles upriver from the Pacific Ocean. From here, an all-day jet boat ride heads into Hells Canyon, Idaho (www. hellscanyonvisitor. com), a National Recreation Area. The Snake River starts out sluggish, but soon becomes a fast-flowing stream of twisting rapids with 20-mph currents. The high bluffs and mountains on either side increase in height, creating a canyon 7,900 feet deep—1,900 feet deeper than the Grand Canyon. Passengers are likely to see bighorn sheep standing still on rocky ledges, mule deer down by the water, eagles and osprey overhead, and Nez Perce Indian petroglyphs depicting bighorn sheep inscribed on the flat rock surfaces. LINES SAILING THESE ROUTES Cruise West (p. 325), Lindblad Expeditions (p. 335), and American Safari Cruises (p. 324) offer cruises here in the spring and/or fall.