Downriver in comfort
For Lewis and Clark, the fast boat to Astoria would have been a boon
When Lewis and Clark schlepped down the Columbia River in search of the sea, they did it in dugout canoes. There were great hulking tree trunks that sat so low in the water that the dudes from Virginia were constantly soaked.
At one point our lads tried to sneak off with a stylish Indian canoe that they happened to just 'find' on a riverbank but hastily handed it back when busted by the locals.
All this and more you'll learn from your guide on a Lewis & Clark Cruise Tours day trip to Astoria and back. While Meriwether and friends paddled though the lashing rain for months, you can make the 200-mile round trip in a day thanks to the 35 mph top speed of the catamaran.
A standard selection of fanny-packers made their way sleepily up the gangplank and the vessel, about two-thirds full, cast off from behind the DoubleTree Hotel at Jantzen Beach at 7.30 a.m.
Our guide, a Kenny Rogers look-alike, was a trifle lugubrious in his delivery, a fact not helped by the muffled sound system and drone of the engines. But he was local, and he knew his stuff Ñ he filled in some fascinating historical gaps, often quoting the Lewis and Clark journals by heart.
For instance, the dynamic duo and their entourage totally missed the Willamette River. Duh. They paddled right past Sauvie Island without wondering what that large channel on the left was.
Kenny tossed in the occasional eco comment, such as how 'we've messed it up' when it comes to salmon, thanks to fish traps and dams. He also pointed out that the small town of Kalama on the Washington side got its name from Hawaiians who moved there to work in the fur trade, and that the massive container ships we passed were just as likely to contain french fries on their way to China as cars coming from Japan.
The trip affords close-up views of both riverbanks, which are not visible from U.S. Highway 30 or Washington Highway 4. While peering through the picture windows at the quaint town of Rainier, we learned that it has a speed cop who is such a stickler for the rules that he has even ticketed his wife.
If heavy industry is what floats your boat, this is the trip for you. A procession of substations, warehouses and gravel factories were visible on the riverbanks. Also, the Army Corps of Engineers could be seen engaged in its controversial dredging of the river channel.
Our captain, C.J. Collins, allowed a few guests into his cabin for half an hour, where we could observe him radioing various craft to make sure they had seen us. Worryingly, there aren't many rules on the water. 'The worst are the windsurfers,' Collins said. 'Every captain knows they try and cut across your bow to be brave, but they often lose their nerve and fall over in front of your ship.'
Once in Astoria, a bus took us to the 125-foot Astoria Column atop Coxcomb Hill, where the stunning panorama of the mouth of the Columbia capped the epic journey from St. Louis. Because of the currents, Lewis and Clark had a hellish time crossing over to the south bank. Once there it wasn't much more fun as they wintered at Fort Clatsop, which they built from scratch in the rain. The entrance fee to the reconstructed fort is included in the boat trip, and visiting the fort is a good way to pass half an hour.
But with only four hours on land, it was soon time to get back on the bus and hit the town. Admission to the Columbia River Maritime Museum also is included in the fare, as is a morning snack on board.
Astoria is supposed to be an artists colony, but don't expect Florence in the Renaissance. (Don't even expect Florence in Lane County.) In a town where it rains 63 inches a year (twice what Portland gets), you might want to consider a visit to Let It Rain, the local rainwear store, followed by Sambucks, the infamous coffee shop.
Because of the store name, Sambucks' owner, Samantha Buck Lundberg, is being sued for copyright infringement by the Beast of Seattle. You'll laugh out loud when you see the place: It's about 10 feet wide and has as much chance of being mistaken for a Starbucks as the Bowpicker fish and chip shop down the street has of being taken for the QE2. (The fish and chips are top class, by the way.)
Suddenly, it's time for the four-hour ride back home, with more quotes from the journals. The payoff, as with most modern tourism, is that a few hours later you'll be thundering down Interstate 5 in your fuel-injected sedan while Lewis and Clark still would have been debating who gets to paddle and who gets to bail.