Forging a watery path where Lewis and Clark trod

  • Article by: CHRIS ERSKINE , Los Angeles Times
  • Updated: July 11, 2014 - 4:45 PM

River cruise provides scenery and surprises throughout its course.

In the milky calm of a Snake River canyon, summer raindrops smooch the mirrored surface; at the mouth of the mighty Columbia, waters first brewed in Canada race for the sea, meeting waves as high as a cathedral.

This is the same river route Lewis and Clark took 200 years ago, a 1,000-mile journey along the Columbia and Snake rivers and right up the musket of the American West.

What’s so great about increasingly popular river cruises? With a maximum of 88 passengers, this fetching little ship is a fine alternative for those tired of massive floating hotels — or seasickness or endless days of open ocean.

More than the sea, a river pulses, every bend a new chapter. We cross gorges and pass 7,000-year-old petroglyphs and stop in dusty frontier towns that once brimmed with brothels. One afternoon, with Mount Hood luminous in the distance, hundreds of kite boarders show off for us, like a fleet of polyester butterflies. Pure travel magic.

The company that offers this adventure, a new entity called Un-Cruise, runs small-ship excursions from Mexico to Alaska. Travelers in their 20s or 30s might prefer the line’s so-called active adventures that feature kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding and more of a social scene.

But the all-inclusive “heritage adventures,” such as the Lewis and Clark journey, have broad appeal, especially for anyone who likes to walk and experience historic trails and sites firsthand. Our vessel: Un-Cruise’s Legacy, a 30-year-old replica of the late-19th-century coastal steamers. Brass fittings. Gleaming wood rails. As clean as a sailor’s spoon.

For eight days we make shore visits to waterfalls, wineries, dams, fish ladders, museums and forts along the way. Back on board, your favorite hangout probably will be the ship’s bridge, which is open to passengers night and day, as the river pilots use a watchmaker’s touch to snug the 190-by-40-foot vessel into one of the eight locks along the way.

Our cruise, in early June, drew widespread thumbs-ups from passengers, many of whom had done river cruises in Europe and the United States. “Compared to the Mississippi trip, you don’t look at levees most of the time,” said passenger Doug Swanson. “This was changing scenery.”

The river is the star here, but the personable crew is a close second. One night, they stage a talent show that rivals most comedy clubs.

Sure, there’s a lot of history to swallow in a week, but if it gets to be too much, you can opt out of one of the too-many museum trips and spend an afternoon in the hot tub with that thriller you’ve been meaning to tackle.

Like the bridge, the ship’s saloon is always open. Most nights ended swapping stories with my favorite fellow passenger/soul mate, “Bloody Mary Bill,” a Michigan farmer who kept everyone entertained on the voyage.

Whatever you do, you’ll end the week with a bit of a windburn and a thrashing river of good memories. That might be a lot less than what Lewis and Clark left here as a legacy. But it’s an exciting start.

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