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Columbia and Snake River Cruise of the Pacific Northwest

Following the Path of Lewis and Clark


A river cruise in the Pacific Northwest on the Columbia and Snake Rivers is a fascinating river cruise itinerary. In addition to the fantastic natural sights along the rivers, passengers learn about the Lewis and Clark expedition of the early 1800's and share diverse activities ranging from eclectic museum tours to jet boat rides.

Authors Note: This cruise was done with Cruise West. Although this cruise line is no longer operating, other cruise lines such as American Safari Cruises, Lindblad Expeditions, and American Cruise Lines sail similar itineraries.

Arrival in Portland for Columbia River Cruise

Downtown Portland, Oregon
Downtown Portland, Oregon (c) Linda Garrison

We arrived in surprisingly warm, sunny Portland around 11 am on a Sunday morning in late September and were met by the friendly Cruise West representative at baggage claim. She was meeting other groups, and soon we were all on the bus to the Embassy Suites Hotel in downtown Portland.

Cruise West provided a secured meeting room at the hotel for us to store any carry-on gear we didn't want to have the bus take directly to the ship on the Columbia River. Having this central meeting place allowed us to explore downtown Portland while Cruise West was getting the Spirit of Discovery ready for boarding. Most passengers flying in were met at the airport, and many of those driving parked at the Embassy Suites while we were on the cruise.

Half-Day in Portland Before Boarding Columbia River Cruise Ship

Pioneer Court House in Downtown Portland, Oregon
Pioneer Court House in Portland (c) Linda Garrison
Mom and I picked up a map of downtown Portland from the front desk of the hotel, and we were off exploring. First stop--lunch. We made a few inquiries and decided a nearby Irish pub sounded good. After a delicious shepherd's pie, accompanied by a glass of Guinness, we were recovered from our flight.

The unusually large lunch led to the need for a good walk, so we spent a couple of hours strolling the downtown area. Lucky for us, there was a large weekend outdoor market near the river that occupied most of our free time. It's always fascinating to visit markets when traveling; it gives you a good sense of the interests and activities of the locals, even in the USA.

Columbia River Cruise Embarkation in Portland

Cruise West Spirit of Discovery
Cruise West Spirit of Discovery (c) Linda Garrison

Returning to the hotel around 3 pm, we started to meet some of our cruise mates. Most of the 77-passengers on the Columbia and Snake Rivers Cruise were American or Canadian couples middle-aged or older. There were a couple of multi-generational family groups (grown children with their parents) like my mother and I.

Two buses transported us to the ship, which was docked on the Columbia River in nearby Vancouver, Washington. The captain and hotel manager greeted us as we boarded the ship. Our baggage was already in the cabin. We had a short get-acquainted meeting, followed by the mandatory safety drill. We still had plenty of time to unpack before dinner.

Sailaway from Portland

Cruise West Spirit of Discovery Dining Room
Cruise West Spirit of Discovery Dining Room (c) Linda Garrison

Before dinner, the captain took the small ship down the Columbia to the Willamette River, so we saw some of Portland from the river before he turned the ship around and we headed back upstream. The early evening was clear, and we saw both Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens from the deck. I had never seen Mount Hood without its traditional snow cover, so it really looked different.

After dinner, we had a short overview presentation of our upcoming cruise in the lounge. By the end of the presentation, I think we were all ready for bed.

Bonneville - Our First Lock on the Columbia River

Bonneville Lock at Dawn on the Columbia River
Bonneville Lock on the Columbia River (c) Linda Garrison
Our exploration leaders, Teresa and Chelsea, had promised a 6:45 am wake up call for those who wanted to be on deck for our passage through the lock at the Bonneville Dam. Each cabin has a speaker that you can turn off if you don't want to be disturbed. We were a little surprised when we were awakened at 6:15, but quickly determined that due to high winds, we were going through the lock earlier than expected.

Many of us gathered outside on the deck (some in pajamas) to go through the first of eight locks we would pass through twice (upstream and downstream) on the voyage -- four locks and dams on the Columbia and four on the Snake River. It was windy and only 52 degrees, but watching the sunrise was a magical way to start the day.

Tour of the Bonneville Power Plant and Dam

Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River
Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River (c) Linda Garrison
After passing through the lock, we docked near the Bonneville Dam Visitor's Center. By 9 am, we were off the ship for our 1.5-hour tour of the Bonneville Lock and Dam, which was very interesting. We learned about the history of the dam, saw fish moving up the fish ladders, and went inside the power plant.

The Bonneville Lock and Dam is a national historic landmark built between 1933 and 1937. It was the first federal locks and dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Bonneville is named for Army Captain Benjamin Bonneville, who was an early explorer who charted extensive sections of what later became the Oregon Trail.

The visitor's center has a nice viewing center for watching fish navigate the fish ladders. The tour also included a visit inside the dam, where we saw the fish-friendly turbines.

Multnomah Falls near the Bonneville Lock and Dam

Multnomah Falls near the Columbia River in Oregon
Multnomah Falls near the Columbia River in Oregon (c) Linda Garrison
At 10:30, we boarded two buses for the 5-minute ride to the Multnomah Falls, a 620-foot waterfall located right next to I-84 near the dam. We only had an hour at the falls, which allowed enough time to walk up the trail to the bridge, but not enough to climb the 1.3 miles to the top. The hike to the bridge was strenuous enough for most of us, and the view from the bridge of the pool below the falls and the Columbia River in the distance made us forget our pounding hearts and heavy breathing. The Multnomah Falls were quite beautiful, and an excellent start to our voyage.

Returning to the ship, we were delayed for about 15 minutes by a ship passing through the lock, but we arrived just in time for lunch.

Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area
Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (c) Linda Garrison
After lunch, we resumed cruising up the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. The weather was windy, but was sunny and warm. The scenery was spectacular, and Mount Hood was visible in the distance. As we slowly moved upstream, the riverbank changed from green to brown as the climate became dryer. Geologist buffs would love seeing the rock layers and volcanic formations, and I snapped dozens of photos of the everchanging scenery. Our exploration leaders explained that the rainfall drops about an inch each year for every mile we moved upstream. By evening, the area we were in receives less than 10 inches of rain per year.

Watching the Wind and Kite Surfers on the Columbia River

Columbia River Wind and Kite Surfers
Columbia River Wind and Kite Surfers (c) Linda Garrison

The windy Columbia River Gorge makes it a favorite of windsurfers and kiteboarders, and they provided a terrific acrobatic show for us as we sailed near Stevenson, Washington. We had always heard about the wind at Hood River, but sometimes the "flying" conditions are better near Stevenson. I couldn't believe how high off the water the kiteboarders could go!

By dinner, the winds had calmed down, and we had a delightful dinner of either fish or Cornish game hen, accompanied by butternut squash soup, chef's or Caesar salad, and mixed squash and zucchini. I skipped the cherry chocolate mousse, but couldn't resist a "light" lemon sorbet for dessert.

Roger Wendlick, Lewis and Clark Historian and Memorabilia Collector

Roger Wendlick, Expert on Lewis & Clark Expedition
Roger Wendlick in the role of George Drouillard (c) Linda Garrison
After dinner, our guest speaker, Roger Wendlick, an expert on the Meriweather Lewis and William Clark expedition, gave his first presentation. To make his program more real, he assumed the role of George Drouillard, a hunter and interpreter who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their expedition. Roger even dressed the part, and he proved to be an excellent story teller.

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