ON THE TRAIL OF LEWIS AND CLARK River cruise traces historic journey -- with none of the dangers and hardships

Friday February 7th 1806.

This evening we had what I call an excellent supper. It consisted of a marrowbone a piece and a brisket of boiled Elk that had the appearance of a little fat on it. This for Fort Clatsop is living in high stile.


-- Meriwether Lewis

The Journals of Lewis and Clark, edited by Bernard DeVoto Lewis and Clark spent 107 days at Fort Clatsop, on a sheltered inlet just inside the mouth of the Columbia River. It was during the winter of 1805-'06 on their historic journey to find the Northwest Passage. It rained 95 of those days.


Their diet consisted of elk, roots and berries, fish and whale blubber, supplemented with dog (a staple they became "extremely fond of"). Occasionally they fared "sumptuously" on beaver.

In two hours I toured a replica of the fort, now a National Memorial administered by the National Park Service. Then I returned to the cruise ship Spirit of Discovery docked at nearby Astoria, Ore., in time for the captain's farewell champagne dinner of king crab, beef tenderloin with poivre sauce, duchess potatoes, green salad and asparagus -- topped off with peach flambe for dessert. Later that night, I went to bed in my cozy cabin to the sounds of soft music piped over the intercom.

For seven days I had been cruising with 44 other passengers along the Columbia and Snake rivers, following in the footsteps -- so to speak -- of Lewis and Clark. Curled up in a comfortable bed at night, I read of their arduous explorations.

Comparisons were inevitable. The magnificent wild and rapid-strewn Columbia and Snake rivers that they navigated in canoes are now tamed by eight dams creating a series of placid lakes.

In 1803 President Jefferson asked Congress for $2,500 to cover the costs of the 16-month expedition; in 1993 you can pay more than that for an eight-day cruise.

And what would Lewis and Clark say to hot cocoa, coffee and tea on a sideboard available 24 hours a day, a library stocked with books and binoculars, and nightly cocktail hours with hors d'oeuvres like crab and artichoke in cheese sauce? What would they think of the Exercycle strategically placed on a landing in front of a picture window -- or of three dozen people sitting in a lounge munching popcorn while watching a video about their expedition?

We set off from Portland, Ore., and cruised upriver to Clarkston, Wash. That's as far as cruise vessels can go, but for an added attraction, we took to noisy, metal-hulled jet boats for another 70 miles through white-water rapids on the Snake River into Hells Canyon, North America's deepest gorge. It's a magnificent landscape -- with centuries-old Indian petroglyphs carved in the soaring perpendicular rocks -- and one that remains relatively unchanged since the days of Lewis and Clark.

By the time we cruised back to the mouth of the Columbia and returned to Portland we had covered nearly 1,000 miles.


The small (maximum 82 passengers), shallow-draft Spirit of Discovery gave us close-up views of the countryside. And what views -- the Columbia Gorge resplendent with steep cliffs and green forests as it slices through the Cascades; the honeycomb-appearing high bluffs of central Washington; the golden, rolling "scablands" of eastern Washington.

One evening about a dozen camera-toting passengers traipsed fore and aft. Ahead of us a full moon rose in a pale lavender sky over a majestic bluff; to the rear a blazing red sunset silhouetted Mount Hood.

But the eight dams and locks (rising a total of 738 vertical feet) took center stage. On our first morning, in a misty-pink sunrise on the Columbia River, nearly everyone was out on deck with hot coffee and fresh-baked pastries as we made our way through our first lock at Bonneville Dam, 40 miles east of Portland.

The crew tied the ship to floating bollards.

"There's a lot of underwater turbulence," said a deckhand. "If we're not tied, we'd be like a pinball machine all over the lock." The 166-foot-long ship, enclosed in a massive gray concrete box, floated 70 feet straight up.

Today, the lake formed by the Dalles Dam inundates the currents of the narrows and the famous "great falls" of Celilo (said to have rivaled Niagara), both formidable navigation barriers for Lewis and Clark. On their way west, they portaged. On their return in April 1806, the river was even higher and they traded their canoes to the Indians for pack horses and traveled overland to the Nez Perce villages in Idaho. We rose slowly through the lock while munching still-warm-from-the-oven white chocolate and macadamia nut cookies.


The next day we transitted McNary, the last lock on the Columbia, then Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental (while eating a lunch of barbecue salmon), Little Goose and Lower Granite on the Snake.

We decided the guillotine-style locks are not as spectacular as the slowly opening swinging doors, which we thought called for music from "2001." About the time we reached Little Goose, though, the locks had become almost routine and we started to joke, "When you've seen one lock, you've seen them all."

For some, even transitting a lock during the night became matter-of-fact. Not me. I woke up every time when the ship's steady humming abruptly stopped and the shuddering reverse thrusters took over and we screeched alongside the lock. Sometimes, if my side of the ship was being tied, this was followed by bright lights beaming into my cabin (because I had forgotten to close the draperies) and the heavy thumping of lines. Usually I went right back to sleep.

It didn't take long to settle into a routine. Most of it revolved around food, starting with an early-riser Continental breakfast at 6, finishing the day with entertainment and snacks in the lounge.

We took shore excursions in buses stocked with baskets of crackers, cheese, fruit and candy. Soon we took up an oft-repeated chant: "We haven't eaten in minutes."

In Washington, after we docked at Pasco, we toured a local winery (more food), the Whitman Mission National Historic Site (an important station on the Oregon Trail) and Fort Walla Walla Park and Museum.


In the town of Hood River, Ore., an old lumbering community that is now a mecca for sailboarders, we walked the streets, shopped and took a two-hour, 17-mile, round-trip ride on the Mount Hood Railroad in restored 1910 Pullman coaches, chugging up a steep grade lined with tall timber beside the cascading Hood River.

At Bonneville Dam we explored the five-level Bradford Island Visitor Center and watched migrating salmon and steelhead through underwater windows while an employee hand-counted the fish as they swarmed upriver through a stepladder.

It is estimated there were from 10 million to 16 million salmon on the Columbia in 1805 (Lewis and Clark wrote about crossing the river "on their backs"). By mid-October last year only 217,000 chinook and 86,000 sockeye had been counted.

A guide took us to the 986-foot-long powerhouse, where we watched the rotating turbine shafts and giant generators from a walkway 85 feet above the floor. Surely, in their wildest dreams Lewis and Clark could not have envisioned it.

And what would they make of the magnificent Maryhill Museum of Art at the eastern entrance of the Columbia Gorge? (At about this same location, Clark had written about the first Northwest trade goods they had seen: " . . . we Saw two scarlet and a blue cloth blankets, also a Salors Jacket.)"

Today, the museum, a Flemish-style chateau built in the early 1900s by millionaire Sam Hill, perches on a high bluff in the Washington wilderness. An incredible collection of art fills the rooms -- the gilt furnishings of Queen Marie of Romania; four dozen Rodin sculptures and drawings; 19th-century French decorative arts; Russian icons, and more than 100 exquisite antique chess sets from around the world.


Three miles down the road Sam Hill built America's own Stonehenge -- a miniature version of its English namesake -- as a memorial to Klickitat County, Wash., soldiers who lost their lives in World War I.

But if Lewis and Clark could come back for a visit, I think they would most enjoy seeing the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, site of the first American commercial settlement on the West Coast.

This fine museum, with seven major thematic galleries, interprets more than 200 years of maritime history -- from fur trade and marine safety to shipwrecks and World War II naval history. It also includes colorful displays of scrimshaw, aids to navigation, ship models, figureheads, steam and motor vessels.

Then the two explorers might want to check out their old winter encampment at Fort Clatsop and the small resort beach towns of Cannon Beach and Seaside, where they went to make salt. If it's not raining.


Spring cruises on the Columbia and Snake rivers depart from Portland every Saturday, April 2 through May 14. The tour operator, Alaska Sightseeing/Cruise West, will replace the cruise ship Spirit of Discovery with the Spirit of Glacier Bay (maximum 58 passengers).


Prices range from $1,595 to $4,195, depending on departure date and cabin selection.

For more information, contact your travel agent or Alaska Sightseeing/Cruise West, Fourth and Battery Building, Suite 700, Seattle, Wash. 98121, (206) 441-8687.