Thrill ride leaves history in its wake
Jetboat tour of river 'highways' provides an unusual perspective few people ever see
On a cloudy June morning, the Outrageous Jetboat leaves its mooring near the Salmon Street Springs fountain in downtown Portland and heads north. Despite the boat's name, its passengers seem a civilized bunch: 14 sightseers headed for the Columbia River Gorge.
The boat is a custom tour boat, open to the air, with padded benches along the sides and a canopy top. Passengers can move around, and, if it's not too windy, step out onto the rear deck.
The jetboat is part of the Portland Spirit company's fleet. It's a smaller, faster counterpart to the Portland Spirit that glides up and down the Willamette River on dinner cruises and the triple-decker Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler that plies the Columbia.
At speeds of up to 35 miles per hour, the jetboat can go to Cascade Locks and back, a round trip of 150 miles, and return by late afternoon. It also takes a longer trip, to Astoria, several times a week.
• Rivers were Portland's first highways, and water traffic still has the right of way over everything except trains. The water is high, and the lower part of the Steel Bridge has to be raised to let the jetboat pass. Pedestrians and bicyclists peer down, waiting.
Today's guide is Sam Hawkins, who starts the tour with some friendly patter about the workings of local drawbridges. He offers highlights from Portland's history, including some dubious lore on the Shanghai Tunnels.
The green hills of Forest Park and the green bluffs of North Portland form a backdrop to an increasingly industrial scene. An osprey is visible in its nest atop a crane. Centennial Mills looks almost gothic, crumbling into the river. The green spires of the St. Johns Bridge rise overhead.
Now it's men in orange safety vests who stare at the passing jetboat from the decks of hulking cargo ships with romantic names: Joyous Age, Orient Defender, Lord Byron. The Willamette merges into the Columbia at Kelley Point, and the boat heads east.
Among those enjoying the view are Mary Ann Ogilvy and Raymond Albert, a Canadian couple on the trip of a lifetime. Albert retired at the beginning of the year, and they left home in Ontario in April. They've been traveling across America for more than a month, camping in their trailer, with a motorcycle and a Pomeranian in tow.
• As the scenery changes, the narrated part of the tour mostly ends. As Hawkins rightly notes, the Gorge speaks for itself.
Past Camas, Wash., the boat veers toward the Washington shore, for a close look at the towering basalt cliffs of Cape Horn. A waterfall swings into view, with a vulture hovering high above. The boat passes Crown Point. Everyone holds up cameras to catch Multnomah Falls in the distance; from this perspective, you can't see the highway or the parking lot, and the waterfall appears entirely surrounded by greenery and mist.
Skirting Bonneville Dam, the boat enters the locks to the south. It bobs between two sheer walls, while gates as tall as buildings slowly close behind it. The sky is far overhead. And then, almost imperceptibly, it gets closer.
Riding through the locks, for Charmaine DeWerff, is the best part of the trip. She's visiting from Albuquerque and traveling today with her sister-in-law, Betty DeWerff, a resident of Vancouver, Wash. The two, whose husbands are brothers, are frequent traveling companions, and have taken trips together to Hong Kong and Scandinavia. As a local, Betty says she enjoyed the new perspective of Portland that she got from the river, and going under bridges.
• The jetboat reaches its terminus at Locks Waterfront Café, a café and visitor center owned by the Portland Spirit. Passengers receive lunch vouchers as part of the price of passage.
Even the café has a fine view of the river, which on one occasion, says Hawkins, was enhanced by a blazing fire when a fuel pellet warehouse caught fire on the opposite shore.
'It was quite a sight to eat your lunch by,' he says.
Other than that, he hasn't experienced any mishaps, just sightings of ospreys and eagles, fish, and, recently, sea lions near the dam.
Hawkins has been leading jetboat excursions for five years. His first gig with the company was as a singing waiter on the Portland Spirit. He's more focused on his acting career, and sticks with the jetboat by choice.
'I do this because I enjoy doing it,' he says. 'It's fantastic getting to work on a boat in the summertime in such a beautiful environment, and it's neat to meet people, too.'
The compactness of the boat and the length of the trip encourage camaraderie. On the way back, the wind picks up, and a few people get hit with spray. Clear plastic curtains are zipped into place. Some of the passengers start to fall asleep.
The trip starts to feel more like a real journey.
Of course Portland's waterfront looks different than it did 100 years ago, and different again from 100 years before that. Still, reaching downtown after a full day, there's a reminder of a time when arrival almost always meant stepping from the unsteadiness of water to the solidity of land.