Story by Andrea Gross; photos by Irv Green
I’m standing on a narrow footbridge, surrounded by moss-laden trees and listening to the rumbling sounds of Oregon’s Multnomah Falls. Looking up, I peer through the mist to see more than a thousand gallons of water per second cascading down the 620-foot falls that many consider to be the most beautiful spot in the entire 80-mile Columbia River Gorge.
Officially the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, which parallels the river from The Dalles in the east to the outskirts of Portland in the west, consists of 292,500 acres in southern Washington and northern Oregon. It’s possible to speed through it in an afternoon — a quick look here, a photo stop there — but it’s better to explore it more leisurely, whether cruising on a paddlewheeler like those that plied the Columbia River 150 years ago, or by driving along the aptly-named Historic Columbia River Highway.
We opt for the former, deciding to let the captain do the steering while we do the viewing. The ship, Queen of the West, operated by American Cruise Lines, is the oldest ship in ACL’s fleet but it was renovated in 2011. The standard staterooms are small, but that’s okay. We’re not here to lounge in the stateroom but to ogle the scenery, and it is magnificent — 4,000-foot tall cliffs, towering mountains, abundant vegetation and more waterfalls than in any similarly sized area of North America. Why, there are more than seventy waterfalls just on the Oregon side of the river.
From our balcony we look across the river to see the two highest mountains in Washington, Mount Rainier and Mount Adams. Here, on this side, are the two tallest peaks in Oregon, Mount Hood and Mount Jefferson, as well as Mount St. Helens, which is easily recognizable because it has no peak at all.
St. Helens quite literally blew its stack in the spring of 1980 when a massive eruption sent 1300 feet of mountaintop into the valley below. More than 200 square miles of vegetation were scorched, turning once lush forest into a barren moonscape. Today, thanks to extensive salvage and recovery efforts, green again covers the hills. While all of these mountains are active volcanoes, it’s been 150 years since Mount Hood erupted, and the U.S. Geological Survey says an explosion is not imminent.
We learn more through a combination of daily excursions and on-board lectures. We hear about Gorge geology and step inside a mock volcano at the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center, see Indian artifacts and a raptor show at the Columbia River Gorge Discovery Center, and visit a fish hatchery at the Bonneville Lock and Dam, which is a complex that in addition to the hatchery and fish ladder includes a spillway dam, powerhouse and navigation lock. Taken together, the center improves navigation along the Columbia, provides electricity to the Northwest, and supports a fish production program that helps maintain the population of fish that otherwise would have been reduced by the construction of the dam.
On-board experts give daily presentations, and it’s here that American Cruise Line excels. We’re on a specially-themed Lewis and Clark trip, one that highlights the adventures of the first American expedition to reach the Pacific Coast. Those days come alive as the resident lecturer, Todd Weber, dressed in authentic pioneer clothing and bearing a case full of personal artifacts, gives daily programs that are educational, entertaining and truly excellent. By the time we go on the excursion to the Lewis and Clark outpost at Fort Clatsop, we are thoroughly immersed in the history of the Northwest.
We had come to the Gorge because we’d heard it was beautiful, and it is. But we left having learned that it offers much more than a place to ogle and hike. It’s a place where we could glimpse the geologic forces and historic events that have made the Northwest what it is today.
That’s a lot to accomplish in only eighty miles.
For more information:
www.americancruiselines.com — American Cruise Line offers eight-day trips through the Gorge on their 120-passenger paddlewheeler, Queen of the West. Check their website for information on their new, updated riverboat that is scheduled to debut next year.
• See NAPKIN NOTES for more about the Columbia River Gorge and ways to enhance your Northwest travels.