In the Wake of Lewis and Clark

When I was growing up in St. Louis, the Gateway to the West, our school had yearly outings to the Jefferson Memorial (now called the Missouri History Museum). There we learned about the opening of the west and key events in the development of the frontier with an emphasis, of course, on St. Louis roots. I’m sorry I didn’t pay more attention to the sessions about the journey of Lewis and Clark. Now, some 50 years later, my wife and I were sailing from Portland, OR “in the wake of Lewis & Clark” on CruiseWest’s Spirit of Discovery, shadowing the route at the western-most end of the epic adventure of two extraordinary explorers. This time, I was eager to learn and excited about the educational aspects of the trip commemorating the bicentennial of their trek.

Lewis and Clark’s expedition began in 1804. President Jefferson’s dream was to make peace with the Indians, develop trade routes and build commerce along the Missouri River. The expedition’s task, simply put, was to find a route to the Pacific Ocean. Some 40 years later, Andrew Jackson and the Democrats would promote the political doctrine of Manifest Destiny, believing that the US had a divine mission to expand into the west. Manifest Destiny became the justification for our western migration and its consequences, both good and bad. It is my belief that Lewis and Clark’s journey was the spark that ignited the fire of western expansionism that men pursued for the next hundred years.

Our arrival day began with an afternoon trip to the Portland Art Museum. There we got our first taste of the Lewis and Clark experience and met our fellow passengers. A special exhibit, People of the River, featured Native Arts of the Oregon Territory. The museum’s Native American art is one of the three most important collections of its type. It was an ideal start to our trip. Throughout our cruise we would hear from first rate lecturers, enthusiastic docents and well versed speakers, all adding pieces to the story of Lewis and Clark.


The Spirit of Discovery

Later that afternoon, we boarded the Spirit of Discovery. When we first spotted the ship, we were surprised by its small size. We soon discovered that good things do come in small packages. Although the cabins are basic, they are well laid out with plenty of storage space. The focus of CruiseWest is on eco-tourism, outdoor soft adventure, education and exploration. There are no glitzy shows, no casinos or spas on any of their fleet. Forget about ties, formal nights and pretension. The ship’s environment is passenger friendly, casual and comfortable.

The first three days aboard ship were spent cruising the Willamette River, Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area, the Snake River and Hells Canyon. The last three days found us exploring some of the cities and towns along the route including Walla Walla, the Dalles, Astoria and Ft. Clatsop. Unlike the Lewis and Clark expedition, we comfortably traversed three states and approximately 800 miles of rivers in a week.


A View of the Shoreline

The daily schedule was well planned and, unlike most other cruises, all activities, outings and transportation are included in the price. Every day there was a lecture relating to what we had seen or what was next on the schedule. Dr. Herman J. Viola, Curator Emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution, an historian and expert on Lewis and Clark, traveled with us and led the discussions. He educated and captivated passengers with his stories, insights and opinions of the expedition.

Our days were filled with interesting sights and spectacular scenery. As we sailed, we often gathered on deck and various crew members brought to our attention the wildlife, flora and fauna along the shoreline. We toured the Bonneville Dam Visitor Center and hiked Multnomah Falls. We traversed eight locks and dams, visited the Maryhill Museum of Art, the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center, Columbia Maritime Center and Ft. Clatsop, a reconstructed log fort in the spot where Lewis and Clark spent a miserable winter in 1805 updating their maps and notes.


Inlet near Ft. Clatsop


Multnomah Falls

In the comfortable dining room, the staff was friendly and enthusiastic, perfect for the open seating setting. The tiny kitchen consistently surprised us with the variety and quality of the food. Breakfast included daily specials, along with staples such as hot and cold cereal, eggs and omelets cooked to order and the ever welcome smoked salmon and bagels. Lunch featured two soups of the day, two chef’s selections, plus an array of salads, sandwiches and homemade desserts. Dinner included freshly baked rolls, soup and/or salad, two entrée selections and homemade desserts, including a fresh fruit and cheese plate and homemade sherbets. Special requests were gladly taken for any meal. Weather permitting, there is a BBQ on the Sundeck with hamburgers, hot dogs, baby back ribs and grilled salmon. The menu of local wines and beers was interesting and drinks were reasonably priced. For a one week cruise, the chef serves 240 pounds of seafood, 80 pounds of steak and ribs and he bakes the equivalent of 20 loaves of bread and rolls for every meal.

Cruise Tidbits: The Spirit of Discovery, built in 1976, is 166 feet long and is powered by twin Caterpillar diesels with bow thrusters. It has an eight foot draft, state of the art radar (think fog), 43 cabins and a crew of 21 men and women. CruiseWest offers many nice touches. A hospitality suite at a local hotel was provided for pre and post cruise passengers. Gratuities, taxes and all excursions are included in the price of the cruise. The crew went out of their way to mingle and make us feel welcome. Freshly baked cookies awaited our daily return to the ship and there were several hosted cocktail receptions. Dr. Viola presented the passengers with autographed copies of The Journals of Lewis and Clark. The crews’ commitment to passengers’ welfare is taken seriously. One guest took ill and had to be hospitalized for three days. A crew member stayed with him until he could return to the ship. That’s real customer service.


Entering a Lock

Along the Way: The Willamette River, nearly 300 miles long, is one of the largest north-flowing rivers in the Continental US. Astoria was the first American city established west of the Rockies. Weather-wise, we were in the Northwest; it does rain. Be prepared, get over it and enjoy the voyage. Passing through the Columbia Gorge is a geologist’s delight; the exposed basalt rock formations represent 40 million years of geologic history. The lock at the Dalles lifts vessels 88 feet in one chamber. This equals the total lift of three chambers in the Panama Canal. My favorite stop was the chateau-like Maryhill Museum of Art. Its permanent exhibits include an eclectic mix of European, Russian and Native American art, as well as the unique Theatre de la Mode featuring mannequins and stage sets conceived by Paris’ leading fashion designers and artists, to celebrate the rebirth of the fashion industry at the close of World War II. Outdoors, at the museum, one finds an outstanding sculpture garden, great views of the Columbia River and a full scale replica of Stonehenge.

Maryhill Museum of Art

More on Lewis and Clark: Congress approved a budget of $2,500 for the journey of Lewis and Clark. The final tally was $38,722 – some things never change. The trip west took a year and a half. Their return took only six months, due to the maps written along the way west and a lighter load heading east. This astonishing feat was immeasurably aided by the incomparable Shoshone woman, Sacagawea. Amazingly, during the 863 day, 8,000 mile trek, there was only one death. Several months later, my wife and I floated the Missouri River at Rocheport, MO, where Lewis and Clark and their party had put in shortly after their trek began in 1804. But that is another travel story.

As Dr. Herman J. Viola stated, “It’s in our DNA to explore.” CruiseWest is the perfect delivery system.

Reading Tips: The Journals of Lewis and Clark a National Geographic Adventure Classic and Undaunted Courage by Stephen E. Ambrose.


Portland Art Museum
Missouri History Museum
Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area 
Ft. Clatsop National Historical Park
Bonneville Dam Visitor Center
Multnomah Falls
Maryhill Museum of Art
Columbia Gorge Discovery Center
Columbia Maritime Center

Next Story: Three Terrific Days in Portland.

Happy travels…..

Howard Hian

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