Adventuring along America’s north-west rivers

The rivers of America's north-west running through Washington state and Oregon form the arteries of epic landscapes and bold discovery routes. Emma Sloley follows in the wake of Lewis and Clark.

Bonneville Lock near Multnomah Falls

Adam McCulloch

Lindblad Expeditions‘ six-night “Columbia & Snake Rivers Journey: Harvests, History & Landscapes” on the 62-passenger National Geographic Sea Lion and National Geographic Sea Bird costs from $6,120 per person, twin share. This includes all meals and excursions. There are 10 departures in September and October 2017 from Clarkston, Washington, to Portland, Oregon, and in reverse.

Lindblad Expeditions is a pioneer in expedition travel and has had an alliance with National Geographic since 2004 to deepen passengers’ experiences.

Of course our captain is called Butch. The confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers, on the border of Washington State and Idaho in America’s north-west, has for centuries been populated by fishermen and dam builders, miners and adventurers and rugged men with names like Butch. The most famous of them were Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, dispatched by President Thomas Jefferson to find an inland waterway across America’s Wild West to the Pacific Ocean. They began the last leg of their legendary “Corps of Discovery” expedition at the mouth of the Clearwater, not far from here, where they first met the Nez Perce tribe and built dugout canoes for the trip to the ocean.

With his missing front tooth, snowy beard and a sense of humour as dry as the cliffs flanking the river, Butch fits this hardscrabble landscape to a tee. He’s bound for Hells Canyon, taking a group of us for a fast ride along the Snake River from the Washington border town of Clarkston. It’s a daytrip before we depart on our mothership, Lindblad Expeditions’ National Geographic Sea Lion, for a more sedately paced six-night journey downstream in the wake of the early explorers.

Mount Hood behind Draper Girls Country Farm.

Some journeys are uncharted. Not this one. Our itinerary has been obsessively mapped and celebrated in American history books since the early 19th century. This is the appeal for many passengers – a trip that brings to life the almost mythical scenes from accounts of the Lewis and Clark expedition. For me, an Australian living in New York City, the Lewis and Clark link is a curiosity rather than a deeply felt connection with my heritage. Even so, from the moment we enter the canyon I feel the power of the region’s epic landscapes, the severe beauty of the rugged contours and the inexorable energy of the mighty Snake River.

“I know just enough about geology to be dangerous,” Butch growls as we begin the 80-kilometre ride to the canyon. The shadows of gigantic carp flicker in the muddy water. A paddle-steamer chugs past, in silhouette against the stark basalt cliffs.

The gaps in Butch’s geological knowledge are filled by historian Dr Bob Gatten, a member of Lindblad’s five-member expedition team. He points out the comb effect on the cliffs known as columnar basalt, and the limestone deposits left five million years ago when this was the Pacific coast. We spot mule deer grazing on sagebrush flats and a flock of bighorn sheep performing acrobatics on rock faces. Butch steers close to the banks so we can examine faint, cartoonish petroglyphs and pictographs drawn by indigenous Americans around 2,000 years ago; the Nez Perce tribe were the first known inhabitants of the canyon, fishing for salmon and famously showing the Lewis and Clark expedition great generosity.

Floating homes in the Lewis and Clark National Wildlife Refuge.

“It was such an epic journey,” says Gatten, a specialist in Lewis and Clark lore. “The first for Americans from the east to the Pacific and back, the insightful and thorough planning, the immense physical challenge that called for great stamina, and the meeting of American and Indian cultures.”

He doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the human consequences of frontier expansion. “Where Lewis and Clark encountered thousands of Native Americans, our trip makes clear how their tribes have disappeared or been greatly diminished by the western sweep of European Americans. We learn so much about our past and present on this voyage.”

The scenery is mesmerising, or maybe it’s the heat rising in a haze this late-summer afternoon. As we approach Hells Canyon, the rocks become flushed with red sumac bushes and at its mouth is a colourful flotilla of inflatable rafts and kayaks, some with canine hitchhikers, some towing blow-up lounge chairs. For a moment we’re at the confluence of three states: Idaho, Oregon and Washington. Early explorers lamented the canyon’s rugged inaccessibility, hence its name – Lewis and Clark ventured only part of the way here before turning back – but these days it’s a relatively gentle ride, the river’s rage diminished by a series of hydroelectricity dams.

American Empress paddlewheeler cruise ship.

We embark on the Sea Lion at Clarkston, a river town whose car parks and shopping malls lend it the air of Any-town America. It’s named for William Clark – and the town across the river, Lewiston, for his expeditionary partner. This is where they began the last leg of their epic journey west in October 1805. We’re 885 kilometres from the Pacific Ocean; it took Clark and Lewis 45 days and will take us six. The immensity of their challenge dawns as we hurtle along. Their team of 33 men left Fort Dubois, Illinois, in May 1804, travelling along the Missouri River through what is now Missouri and Nebraska, crossing the Continental Divide and then descending to the Clearwater, Snake and Columbia rivers. Along the way they encountered grizzly bears, faced insubordination and desertion, and endured food poisoning. Miraculously, only one man died: Sergeant Charles Floyd succumbed to acute appendicitis near what is now Sioux City, Iowa. They acquired two stowaways: a French-Canadian fur-trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau, and his Shoshone wife, Sacagawea, who acted as a go-between with tribes along the way and became a symbol of female resilience and independence. By the time the team reached the mouth of the Snake River, after a brutal few weeks in the Bitterroot Mountains, they were close to starvation. We consider their privations that evening over a dinner of wild steelhead trout and cheeses made by farmers in Tillamook County, Oregon.

Next morning we wake on the Palouse River, a tributary of the Snake, and our schedule is an indication of adventures to come. Just after dawn we pile into five Zodiac-like inflatable boats and our youthful, enthusiastic expedition guides steer a course downriver, pointing out coyotes, eagles and deer along the way. The light is magical, the water so still that the hills are reflected in a perfect mirror image.

Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.

After the sacred ritual of coffee, cookies and mid-morning conversation has been observed back on board, we venture out again, by land this time, to see Palouse Falls, a 57-metre drop into a spectacular gorge carved by the legendary Bretz Floods that swept through some 15,000 years ago. After dinner one of the naturalists shows 2010 footage of Tyler Bradt, a young American daredevil who decided his life wasn’t complete until he’d kayaked over the top of the falls, thus setting an unsurprising world record.

Apart from a few terrifyingly mighty waterfalls, the power of the Snake and Columbia rivers has been largely tamed. The environmental effects of the hydro projects are still controversial, particularly in relation to spawning salmon and sturgeon. The upside for travellers, however, is the surprisingly thrilling navigation of the rivers’ locks – eight on our journey. Overnight we pass oblivious through locks on the Lower Granite and Little Goose dams, but the following afternoon we gather on the bow to witness our slow, precise entry into the aptly named Lower Monumental Dam through a massive stone-sided tank with a guillotine-style gate that wouldn’t be out of place in Tolkien’s Mordor. The ship is locked inside the tank while the water drains, propelling our descent of 30 metres in 20 minutes. We watch as dripping walls rise around us and the decks fall into shadow. Finally, near the bottom, the gate is raised and we sail through.

Linblad Expeditions’ National Geographic Sea Lion on the Snake River, Washington State.

The following day we enter the Columbia River, and for the rest of the cruise we’re following the border between Oregon and Washington. The monumental, arid landscapes we passed along the Snake have given way to the well-watered lush scenery for which the Pacific Northwest state of Oregon is known. A section of river called The Dalles – once cross-hatched by roaring channels dubbed the “long narrows” and the “short narrows” by Lewis and Clark- is our disembarkation point for the day. One of the world’s largest salmon fisheries operated here in the late 19th century. That’s mostly a memory now, but the region remains a breadbasket that produces wheat, fruit and Oregon’s most celebrated crop: wine grapes.

We pile into a bus and follow the historic Columbia River Highway, a 120-kilometre scenic road modelled after the grand touring routes of Europe. From the lofty lookout at Crown Point, a basalt promontory overlooking the Columbia River Gorge, we can absorb the beauty of the river valley, the graceful horseshoe curves of the highway and surrounding hills studded with ponderosa pines, Oregon white oaks and bigleaf maples. The wide ribbon of the river below is flanked by basalt cliffs scarred with geological layers and folds.

The Palouse River in Washington State.

Not all of the area’s curiosities spring from the natural world. On the way to Maryhill Museum of Art we stop at Stonehenge Memorial, a life-sized reinforced concrete replica of the prehistoric English landmark, built as a World War I memorial by a local businessman and visionary named Sam Hill. Earlier, in 1907, he built a Beaux Arts mansion overlooking the Columbia River Gorge, now a museum that houses an extensive, eclectic art collection spanning curiosities from Orthodox icons and Native American artefacts to an entire floor of chess sets. One wing is devoted to original sculptures and drawings by Auguste Rodin. I’m enchanted by a 1945 Théâtre de la Mode exhibit, featuring miniature collections by French fashion houses, among them Balenciaga, Balmain and Cartier.

In contrast to the austere, rugged grandeur of the Snake River, our adventures in Oregon’s north-west reveal nature tamed and riches cultivated. We continue through the Columbia River Gorge to Hood River, a town known for its artisanal produce, microbreweries and vineyards. The drive to Draper Girls Country Farm along the aptly named Fruit Loop takes us past farms and orchards and fields where alpacas graze, past roadside signs for huckleberry milkshakes and just-picked pears. It’s as twee as can be, but we’re charmed by these intimations of a gentler, more innocent (and possibly fictional) time. Draper Girls Country Farm is a model of sweet Americana: wild gardens, hay bales, hyperactive goats, a farmstand piled with pumpkins and apples and squash and goofy hand-drawn signs, and the owner and two of her daughters dressed in plaid shirts and beanies. Sunflowers nod in the breeze; Mount Hood rises like a symbol of hope on the horizon. On the way back to the ship we stop at Multnomah Falls, a stunning, two-drop waterfall straight from a fairytale.

Benson Bridge over Multnomah Falls.

Life on the Sea Lion is defined by soothing routine: the wake-up call by the dulcet-toned expedition leader Larry Prussin, a stretching class on the top deck before breakfast, morning and afternoon expeditions followed by cocktails and an entertaining recap of the day in the lounge before dinner, then a presentation by the expedition team before bed.

Meals are hearty and unfussy – comfort food such as clam chowder, grilled salmon with potatoes, a pie one night made with apples from the Draper farm. Regional Oregon wines are a highlight – my solid favourite is a pinot noir from the Willamette Valley. The galley team sources produce along the way: smoked salmon from Josephson’s Smokehouse in Astoria, Oregon; herbs from an organic farm in Duvall, Washington; cheese from Tillamook Dairy – craft beers by Oregon brewers Full Sail Brewing and Deschutes Brewery are popular. We dine at long communal tables, so no one is a stranger for long. I’m drawn to a couple from Portland around my parents’ age, Brian and Linda, “a couple of native Oregonians taking a trip through our own backyard”. They’re typical of my fellow passengers: well-educated baby boomers, youthful in spirit, interested in history and active pursuits, and partial to shipboard cocktail hour.

View from Crown Point.

The Sea Lion cuts a jaunty navy-and-white figure on the rivers, its shallow draught perfect for these waters. There are 31 cabins on three decks, sleeping a maximum of 62 passengers, with a restaurant, a lounge that forms the social hub of the ship, and open observation decks at stern and bow. The cabins are unremarkable in looks but each is a masterclass in clever design, accommodating two singles or a double bed, an ensuite and plenty of storage in a wardrobe and under-bed drawers in a space not much bigger than a cubby house – small ships sometimes have the feel of a childhood sleepover. Cabin windows frame views of forest and mountains. Even when we’re traversing a river so narrow and shallow in parts we could conceivably wade ashore, it’s exciting to wake to the sound of water slapping the hull and birds overhead, miles from where we went to sleep.

Palouse Falls.

By the time we reach the mouth of the Columbia River it’s so wide it could be the ocean. Seabirds wheel overheard, calling plaintively. In fact we’re not far from the sea as we sail towards the town of Astoria and the final leg of our journey. The blue skies of previous days have faded to a blanket of gray and a fine drizzle. As if to send us off with a grand gesture, a humpback whale appears off the bow at breakfast, followed by the sleek heads of a sea lion and a harbour seal.

Our final expedition takes us on land through a moody landscape of Sitka spruces, wood-shingled buildings and old-school diners on the way to Fort Clatsop, which houses a replica of the wooden barracks used by Lewis and Clark’s expedition. They spent a damp winter here heading into 1806 before tackling the long return journey east.

Ace Hotel, Portland.

For modern travellers, however, there’s the city of Portland to explore before the journey home. A compact downtown and efficient public transport system mean it’s entirely possible to register Portland’s pulse in just one perfect day. We check into the Ace Hotel, one of the city’s incubators of cool. We’re early, so we stake out a spot on a lobby sofa alongside a relaxed assortment of locals busy with their personal devices or goofing around in the vintage photo booth, and gravitate next door for lunch at Clyde Common. This gastro-pub founded by ambitious locals Nate Tilden and Matt Piacentini is known for its refined comfort food and excellent cocktails. The Common embodies what I think of as the Portland aesthetic: a kind of casual suavity at pains to convey that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Communal tables fill the loft-like space, with bare bulbs overhead and swathes of canvas pinned on the walls. The menu is intensely seasonal: a bowl of marinated tomatoes with cucumber, apricot-saffron gel andbacon powder; coho salmon with puffed wild rice, fennel and cured roe; sturgeon with fermented plum jam and roasted carrots.

Next day we take a long walk to the Japanese Garden, an oasis in the city’s West Hills designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma and considered the finest outside Japan. Later, famished, we head downtown to the food trucks of Pioneer Courthouse Square and what’s possibly the country’s best coffee. And finally to Powell’s, the legendary bookstore that occupies an entire city block. There’s a big collection of titles dedicated to the region’s rugged roots, to its fabled tribes and the adventurers who forded rivers and dreamed of taming the Wild West. After a week fording these rivers, I feel I don’t need the romantic escapism of those stories. I’ve already lived them.

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