Following Lewis And Clark

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For Franklin Roosevelt, who proposed the Bonneville project in 1933, to those who worked on it and saw it as a way out of economic disaster, and to Woody Guthrie, it was only good news. “At Bonneville now there are ships in the locks,” Guthrie’s verse runs. “The waters have risen and cleared all the rocks / Ship-loads of plenty will steam past the docks / so Roll on Columbia, roll on!” In those years the river was seen as a monster to be tamed. And with this taming has come the ability to power the Northwest and irrigate its fields. What was lost, it seems, was the river: its personality and its teeming fish and wildlife. (And “ship-loads of plenty” have given way to freight cars and trucks of plenty.) Of the Columbia’s 1,214 miles, stretching deep into British Columbia, it has been calculated that only 300 miles run free. The rest is no more than a series of dammed lakes.

This is not to take away from the scenic splendor of the journey by boat or the many ways in which one is brushed by the region’s history. Guided by Special Expeditions’ onboard historian and naturalist Don Fillpot and the expedition chief, Neil Folsom, who sees each cruise as a chance to seek new landfalls for the next one. passeneers are kept busy.

The dam system has meant—for better or for worse—that this will never again be the wild, boulder-strewn river Lewis and Clark knew.

From time to time buses meet the boat at small town landings to carry passengers to local museums, to a winery, and on a train trip where vintage coaches climb the foothills of Mount Hood, past orchards of pear and apple.

On a locally operated jet-boat jaunt (more comfortable and less risky than it sounds) up the Snake River toward Hells Canyon in Idaho, the boat’s young captain proudly told how plans for a dam there were defeated in 1975, when Congress instead created the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, letting the rapids boil and rush forever.

The Sea Lion carries several motorized rubber rafts that allow passengers to explore the shallowest, narrowest river passages. On the Palouse River, a tributary of the Snake that runs into Washington State, fifteen of us set off in two rafts to cruise past a strangely beautiful landscape, carved by the geology of sixty million years ago. Lioncolored basalt outcroppings shaped like huge upended doorknobs or stepped Mayan temples were topped by the wire fences that indicated that up on this utterly remote plateau is grazing land. Low at the water’s edge grew willow and balsam root, canary grass and cattail. Branches neatly stripped of bark drifted by. These were “beaver chew,” and the sharp-eyed spotted the beaver lodge just upstream.

Of Lewis and Clark’s voyage Bernard De Voto wrote, “It satisfied desire and it created desire; the desire of the westering nation.” Even today something similar can happen to a traveler on a small boat on a great Western river.

—Carla Davidson TO PLAN A TRIP