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Rolling on the river

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PORTLAND, ORE. // We gathered here to begin contemplating rivers -- the Columbia and Snake, mostly, with glances toward Grand Ronde, Yakima, Willamette and a few more.

The Columbia and Snake sorely tested the Lewis and Clark expedition during its 1804-1806 westward mission. The explorers had to contend with rocks, rapids, treacherous gorges and dangerous waterfalls on their way from the St. Louis area to the Pacific Ocean.

The Columbia River ends in the Pacific after churning 1,214 miles. It starts in British Columbia, travels south into Washington and then west along the Washington-Oregon border. Try that with a 55-foot canoe and a few small pirogues.

During our seven days and seven nights we had it easier than the Lewis and Clark crowd, riding on the Empress of the North, a sternwheeler and floating hotel with room for 235 passengers in staterooms rivaling those on oceangoing cruise ships.

Those ships travel the seas. This one would make a 1,000-mile round trip partway up the Columbia River and back -- including a foray more than 100 miles up the Snake.

Our struggles would be no more daunting than those required by stairways and gangways. Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and their Corps of Discovery endured harsh winters, occasionally hostile tribes and a seemingly endless list of chores dictated by President Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson, the nation's premier micromanager, asked Lewis to write down everything he saw, as he and Clark surveyed lands acquired in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase: Determine the longitude and latitude of every landmark. Catalog the species of every unusual plant and animal. Bring back samples of strange flora, fauna, soil and rock. Learn everything about the Indians -- longevity, customs, language, apparel, even the age when babies are weaned. ...

They had a lot to do.

Last fall, on the continuing 200th anniversary of that expedition (1804-06), most Empress of the North passengers put up with nothing more troublesome than their personal aches and pains.

Rivers, of course, twist and turn and change elevation. The Columbia and Snake from the Idaho border to Portland wend their way past steep basalt cliffs and deep-green forests after leaving the improbably dry desert of eastern Washington State.

Those rivers have a tempestuous nature. Therefore, we would encounter dams at eight junctures, passing through locks 16 times, as we went forth and back. For the first 100 miles or so, traffic around us included far more oceangoing freighters than pleasure craft, and the sight of lumber mills, log stacks, factories, container ports and scruffy waterfront main streets appeared nearly as often as pristine scenery.

That's the way it is with rivers 200 years after Lewis and Clark. They work hard producing hydroelectric power and transporting heavy loads. Because the Columbia empties into the Pacific Ocean, it lets seagoing ships venture inland before shallows make them turn around.

Dockside

We were instructed to meet in Portland, so I assumed we would sail the Empress of the North from there.

At a ballroom in the Embassy Suites Hotel, Empress crewmembers issued each of us a number, and when it was called, we were photographed and given an identification card.

I had arrived in Portland the previous day, and I spent one afternoon walking the downtown Willamette River waterfront looking for the Empress of the North. I had imagined it anchored a few blocks from the hotel, drawing a crowd with its filigreed decks and gold-trimmed smokestacks, but there wasn't a sternwheeler in sight. That just goes to show how little I knew about river logistics.

We left the hotel in a series of buses and took a half-hour drive -- over the Willamette, east and north, over the Columbia and into Washington State. Finally we came to a halt at an isolated parking lot in Washougal, Wash. The Empress of the North awaited us down there at the dock, said our driver, just follow the path that leads to the gangway.

For a few, that might have been easier said than done, but eventually everyone clambered aboard and found their staterooms. Further onboard orientation could begin.

Orientation to the river itself would be the major purpose all week long. While the boat backtracked toward Portland and spent the evening tootling on and near the area where the Willamette empties into the Columbia -- in effect, treading water -- I had time to check out the cabin.

The decor of my first-class stateroom, naturally, tended toward Queen Victoria meets Scarlett O'Hara -- a lot of tufted upholstery, tasseled shades, red silk and dark wood.

My stateroom TV added one welcome modern touch -- a big, flat-screen number feeding from a satellite dish and featuring a built-in DVD player. The bath, large for a ship, gleamed with white tile, while a basket held Lord & Mayfair toiletries that twinkled like jewels. Just past the two big, silk-draped windows, my little veranda permitted a sweeping view of all we passed on the starboard side.

In decor, at least, the American West Steamboat Co. has made every effort to disguise the fact that the Empress made its debut only about three years ago. Her sister, Queen of the West, came on line as recently as 1995. Incidentally, despite the company name, the boats' engines run on diesel, not steam.

Dazzling scene

The next morning, we arrived at an enchanting section of river some 10 miles east of Washougal, our starting point, and 20 miles east of Portland. We had traveled slowly against the current and dallied all night for a reason.

Capt. Dale Orgain wanted us to see this part of the journey in daylight. "I would like to welcome you to beautiful Columbia River Gorge," he said over the public address system.

The Empress then entered the scenic highlight of the trip. Here was the area that presumably dazzled Lewis and Clark, and after two centuries it dazzles still: sheer cliffs 800 feet tall, rocky bluffs more than twice that high, the startling monoliths Rooster Rock and Beacon Rock -- storied icons of the Oregon Trail.

My veranda offered only a limited view. I joined the passengers roaming the decks. Something about the air, the sunshine and the landscape had brightened everyone. After a good night's sleep, people seemingly had shed years.

A little before 10 a.m., the Empress entered a lock made necessary by the Bonneville Dam. That presented a different kind of spectacle. The big red wheel on the stern stopped turning, and gates and walls 60 feet high loomed on all four sides, forming a container. The container filled with water, lifting the boat to the level of the river on the east side of the dam.

After about half an hour, a gate opened and we were on our way to the day's stop, which involved nosing into the shore at Stevenson, Wash.

Shore excursions arranged by the steamboat operators are included in the cruise price and handled with dispatch. After lunch, we boarded buses, and half the group went to Multnomah Falls and half to the Bonneville Dam visitor center. We would take turns so as not to overwhelm either attraction. My bus and one other went to the dam first.

Guide Robin Norris of the Army Corps of Engineers met us with extreme enthusiasm and declared, "I'm going to give you a talk on how our generators work, and it is not going to be boring, OK?"

She was true to her word. In its descent from Canada, the river builds up enormous power. In most places, the Columbia is no more than a mile across. When it approaches the Pacific Ocean at Astoria, Wash., the river widens to an average of four miles but still manages to push its fresh water 12 miles out to sea.

"The water shoots out like it's coming from the nozzle of a hose," said on-board historian Dan Peterson.

"We needed the water to be safe for navigation," Norris told us. "The water was very treacherous. We wanted to get control of that and, whoa, by the way, we can get some electricity out of it!"

Bonneville Dam holds back 60 feet of water and parcels it out to the river below through slats that turn gigantic turbines. That feat of engineering was fascinating, but the passengers found the fish ladders even more intriguing.

Salmon born in freshwater streams alongside the Columbia swim out to the ocean and live there from two to five years, until it's time to spawn and die. For that, they feel compelled to return home to fresh water and somehow scale the dam that stands in their way.

At Bonneville, the fish swim through a sort of maze, gradually making their way over the top. "We don't want them to spend extra time using up their energy here," Norris said. "They need to use it to get all the way home."

Through a large window, we could see the fish wiggling around the fences as they ascended the dam. At another window, an employee counted every fish and recorded its species. "She has to note how many fish are coming by and what species they are, so the Fish & Game Department can set fishing limits," Norris said.

"We want those dead, stinky fish in our streams, because they're bringing in nutrients from the ocean. Each spring, we get a lot of nutrients sluffing off and getting pushed off to the ocean with the snowmelt runoff. This is how we get things back inland. The wildlife eat the fish and go back into the forest and fertilize the trees, so we're spreading those nutrients back up the chain."

Going ashore

Between the various shore-excursion guides, onboard historians and knowledgeable bus drivers, our days were filled with fascinating facts and intriguing lore. After Bonneville Dam, I hiked up to a Multnomah Falls viewing platform on a switchback trail.

Back on the boat, our evenings proved less enlightening, but jolly nonetheless. My well-traveled dinner companions, Rick and Loie Polinsky of Four Seasons, Mo., declared this was one of the best of their many cruises.

"Our Mississippi River cruise was on a smaller boat than this," Loie said. "We'd go to a lot of these small towns along the river, and the people didn't seem to know the Civil War is over. You want to shake them and say, 'You know, that was a long time ago.'

"Here, I'm really pleased. This has been a lot of fun so far, and the amenities are really top-drawer."

In the Golden Nugget show lounge, variety acts backed by a versatile little house band kept boredom at bay: country and western one night, a "salute to the divas" (Midler, et. al) another, a tribute to the tunes of the '50s on yet another. We saw a passenger talent show (no American Idols there) and a couple of modest variety acts featuring the crew.

One later shore excursion included a visit to the Whitman Mission (scene of a fatal American Indian uprising), Ft. Walla Walla (a cavalry post until 1910) and tastings at Walla Walla's Three Rivers Winery.

On another day, we took a jet-boat ride through Hells Canyon on the Snake River (fast but smooth; bighorn sheep-sightings on the starboard side). On our return, heading toward the Pacific, we paused for a bus excursion to Mount St. Helens Volcanic National Monument and a rare, clear-day view of the entire north face.

The expedition

After that, we slowly made our way back, past now-familiar dams and through locks, until we reached Astoria, Ore.

We toured nearby Fort Clatsop, where the Lewis and Clark expedition made its westernmost encampment from Dec. 30, 1805, to March 22, 1806. A reproduction of the fort had burned down only a few days before our visit, but that wasn't important. We were standing where those great historical figures stood.

Rex Ziek, who for the past couple days had been regaling us with stories of the grueling labors and harsh conditions of the Lewis and Clark expedition, stood near the fort site and described the winter they would spend there before backtracking to St. Louis and their starting point.

They built dormitories. They hunted elk and butchered the animals on the spot. They sought out edible plants. As far as hardships go, it was more of the same.

But they were a hardy bunch, Ziek said, carrying the genes of pioneers who had survived even more difficulties on the American frontier.

"I feel as if I'm walking on hallowed ground," one woman remarked.

That evening, we covered 120 miles, eastbound to our starting point in Washougal. And on the last morning, buses took us into Portland, once more, a river town that the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery passed on their way home.

Robert Cross writes for the Chicago Tribune.

IF YOU GO

River cruises tend to be more expensive than the average ocean cruise, because shore excursions usually are included in the price and ship capacities are limited.

For a mid-October American West trip such as mine, called "Path of the Explorers," the rates this year will range from $2,919 to $4,699 per person, based on double occupancy. My first-class stateroom with a veranda will cost $3,589 per person in 2006; $4,489 for a single. Add $134 per person for port charges.

The company offers river cruises of various kinds from February through December. Empress of the North sails Alaska's Inside Passage from May through September and spends the rest of September cruising Puget Sound before returning to the Columbia/Snake rivers in October.

For more details and schedule, contact American West Steamboat Co., 2101 4th Ave., Suite 1150, Seattle 98121. Call 800-434-1232 or visit americanweststeamboat.com.

Cruise West also sails this area. Call 888-851-8133 or visit cruisewest.com.

[ROBERT CROSS]

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