Among other things, I had long wanted to sail on the Columbia since family legend has it that it was a forebear who discovered it in 1792. I doubt that that is so, but it would be nice to believe it since its discovery gave the United States a claim to what would, in time, become Oregon, Washington and Idaho, as well as to parts of Montana and Wyoming. And I knew that the great river of the West was renowned for its gorge and cascade and its waterfalls, and the Douglas fir woods that edge it; the bridges that cross it. Even if I had only one day to spend on it, I was sure it would be a happy day - and I was right.
Since the annual repositioning cruise departs from the Cascade Locks, 45 miles from Portland, I met with fellow passengers at 8 a.m. at a designated spot in Portland. We then went by bus to the Locks to board the 160-passenger, three-deck sternwheeler.
The day I sailed was gray, but only occasionally rainy, so I started out at the stern watching the orange paddlewheels churning the gray-blue river waters. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the whistles of these boats regularly resounded along the Columbia as the sternwheelers stopped to pick up passengers or deliver mail and supplies to isolated communities on both sides of the river. The captains of the boats had learned early on that sternwheelers were more practical on the Columbia than sidewheelers. Sidewheelers were fine on the Mississippi and the Hudson, but on the Columbia, which has many tributaries, there was often debris on the main waterway. It could easily damage propellers that then had to be repaired. It was far easier for a sternwheeler to get on and off a sandbar to have repairs made than it was for a sidewheeler.
I watched the paddlewheels for a while. Then I learned that the captain welcomed visitors to the wheelhouse where it was warmer. I suspected that there would be even more to learn there than he was reporting on the loudspeaker. But passengers who preferred enjoying a continental breakfast in the dining saloon were hearing plenty, too, that was being broadcast from the wheelhouse.
Not long after we boarded, the Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler went under the Bridge of the Gods, named for a long-gone natural bridge, and passed through the Bonneville Locks. Until the Cascade Locks were cut from the river’s rocky bottom in 1896, the rapids there prevented steamboats from going up the Columbia above this point. Those locks, however, were replaced when the Bonneville Dam was built in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt era. Soon, along this salmon-rich river, we were seeing the salmon-fishing platforms of the Native Americans. It is even possible, sometimes, to see a sea lion there searching for a fish dinner, too. Then we came to Multinomah Falls that tumble 620 feet down a rocky escarpment and are the highest waterfall plummeting year-round in Oregon. Along the Oregon bank of the river, we could see where, in the summer, a forest fire caused by fireworks had devastated the woods. But, on a happier note, there were ospreys and bald eagles in the air.
Then came Vista House, a much-photographed, large 1916 German Art Nouveau structure built to honor the pioneers who made their way west to Oregon.
Across the river in Washington, we passed Beacon Rock and were told it was actually the lava plug from a volcano, and a high cliff that is called Cape Horn. I left the wheelhouse about then to enjoy a buffet lunch, but was back long before we reached Portland. There, the Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler headed down the Willamette River into the city.
Since we were in Portland, the City of Bridges, we were soon passing under soaring bridge after bridge. Some of these swung open to let boats through. Others were raised to let them pass. Up until the end of World War II, the captain said, the Willamette riverfront had been kept busy with shipbuilding and repairing, but is less active now. It was still daylight when I disembarked from our all-day outing, wishing that it had been much longer.