The art nouveau Vista House, atop the Crown Point promontory in Oregon, offers stunning views of the Columbia River Gorge. | Larry Geddis / Alamy Stock Photo
Imagining America's Past
We stopped at the Crown Point promontory over the Columbia River Gorge and assembled on the granite steps of Vista House, a 1918 octagonal stone observatory perched more than 730 feet above the river. A volunteer greeted us, but I heard only about every other word of his talk—I was drawn to the edge of the rocky tor. I closed my eyes and imagined the explorers—Lewis; Clark; Sacagawea, the young Lemhi Shoshone woman who proved their friend and interpreter; and Charbonneau, her French-Canadian husband—celebrating their Beacon Rock discovery.
Everything we saw and learned fed my curiosity to explore more. The next morning, we docked at Astoria, founded by American fur entrepreneur John Jacob Astor in 1811, and I joined my cruise mates back on the bus for a drive across the Astoria–Megler Bridge, back into Washington. At the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, part of Lewis and Clark National and State Historical Parks, the weather was perfect—if you wanted to experience what the Corps found when members paddled their canoes along the Columbia’s north side. It was November 1805, and they had had days of rain, wind, and waves pounding against the shoreline. Our ranger confirmed that the rain goes sideways here, driven by winds that make it hard even to stand up.
From the interpretive center on Cape Disappointment, we could see the Columbia River’s entire mouth where it opens into the Pacific. A popular myth is that the place got its name from a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition after he found no ships waiting for them. For me, the weather said it all. I looked out through large, thick windows at the breakwater and saw the waves, pushed by today’s storm, breaking over the rocks; yes, the rain this morning was going sideways. For the Corps, conditions were dismal enough that after two weeks of camping, the expedition headed for what is now the Oregon side of the river. Here, they found fresh water, firewood, trees for constructing a fort, plenty of game, and a break from the harsh weather at the river’s mouth.
Our bus pulled up to a Fort Clatsop replica in Fort Clatsop National Memorial. Life was basic, the ranger explained. It took less than a month to build the fort, and Corps members moved in on Christmas Day 1805. They stayed nearly four months. In the fort’s seven rooms they slept, ate, and stored provisions, including furs and elk meat. One room contained a replica bed big enough for Sacagawea, Charbonneau, and their young son, Jean-Baptiste.
Life Aboard a Columbia River Cruise
By contrast, my journey was almost shamefully cushy. The American Empress is no Corps of Discovery keelboat. The ambience is country club casual, and no formal wear is required. The staff went out of its way to make guests feel comfortable. Don’t be surprised if you’re greeted by name by the second day. Some 82 staff members support a maximum of 224 passengers, along with four captains, two of whom must always be on duty in the pilothouse when the stern-wheeler is moving.
Most meals are served in the Astoria Dining Room, and the top-deck River Grille offers continental breakfasts, a lunch buffet, and casual dinners. The kitchen staff reached out for fresh ingredients from local farms. Breakfasts included apple-wood–smoked bacon and steamy and hearty steel-cut oatmeal. At lunch and dinner, the creamy mushroom soup and smoky tomato soup were some of the best I’ve ever tasted, and entrées included seared lamb chops and trout crusted in hazelnuts.
At every town where the American Empress docks, the ship offers hop-on, hop-off stops, allowing passengers to explore the downtown or main feature of each historic community. Guests also may sign up for premium shore excursions that cost extra, such as the $69 Lewis and Clark Experience or the $125 Zip Lining Adventure.
Staff members provided evening entertainment in the Show Lounge: singing, dancing, and performing comedy routines—a bit unpolished, but fun. A four-piece combo performed tunes ranging from 1930s big band to 1960s pop. At Fort Clatsop, the Corps members would have spent their evenings sitting around a fire, mending their clothing, writing in their journals, and preparing for the next day’s needs. I almost felt guilty thinking about that.
On the last day, we headed into the Portland shipping channel, where we shared space with vessels from all over the globe. Many, like the freighter to my left flying a Greek flag, were taking on a load of wheat—to come back as Chinese noodles, we were told. We tied up to massive wood piers and began to depart down the gangplank. I couldn’t help thinking about Clark’s joy-filled journal entry about reaching Beacon Rock and finding he was close to the end of his quest. I’d come to the end of my personal journey, following the Corps of Discovery to Fort Clatsop.
Could I have followed Lewis and Clark into the wilderness, not knowing if I would ever return? I’d like to think my new passion for wanting to see what is just over the ridge, wondering what is just around the bend, would be enough for me to say yes.
Mike Harris is the author of Olvera Street: Discover the Soul of Los Angeles and founder of OldWestNewWest.com.
Top photo: A paddle boat cruises up the Columbia River. I Neil Lockhart / Alamy Stock Photo
Your AAA travel agent can help plan and book your trip. Visit your local Auto Club branch, call (800) 814-7471, or go to AAA.com/explore.