Cruising the Columbia and Snake Rivers with the Columbia Queen
Text by Pat Middleton
Photos by Richard L. Middleton
It was first of all the Columbia River and the inaugural cruise season of the sparkling Columbia Queen that drew us west. What we remember best is the cultural and scenic richness and variety of our journey westward... from the vast forests surrounding Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River to Hell's Canyon and the highland deserts along the Snake River in Idaho.
We also discovered snow-covered volcanic peaks, rocky river chasms, charming fishing villages and a wealth of carefully managed natural resources. Add to the mix a deep historical importance—including legendary mariner and pioneer bravery, and the Bi-Centennial celebration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition’s arrival at the Pacific Ocean—and it was exactly the “Journey of Discovery” promised in the detailed Great American Journeys brochures.
Portland first, the “Rose City”
Our optional arrival the day before boarding the Columbia Queen included an early evening passenger reception/orientation at the Hilton Executive Tower Hotel in downtown Portland. While many passengers opted for a transportation package that included air and transport to the hotel, we hopped on the sparkling new Portland metro, the MAX, for $1.70 each. We exited at Pioneer Square for our first look at Portland. Pioneer Square (shown in the overhead photo of Portland) provided a colorful mélange of flowers, humanity and live music.
The hotel was just kitty-corner from the square—an easy walk, provided you can pull rather than carry your luggage. Our explorations within a few blocks of the Hilton took us to the Portland Art Museum and the Portland Historical Society Museum. Together, they provided a fascinating cultural preview for our upcoming journey on the Columbia and Willamette Rivers.
“Journey of Discovery” aboard the Columbia Queen
Capt Jay Wiek, a native of Oregon with 32 years of experience on America’s rivers, first explored the Columbia Queen when the Delta Queen Steamboat Company brought the sparkling new vessel to the Columbia River in 2000.
“It was immediately clear to me that the Columbia Queen was a vessel that was superior to anything previously available to passengers on the Columbia River. I knew then that this was the boat I wanted to Captain. I resolved that the Columbia Queen would someday be my home.”
Likewise, it was immediately clear to the passengers that roomy accommodations, quality appointments, consistently excellent meals and crew attentiveness to detail would be a hallmark of this journey.
Members of the crew were hand-picked by Capt. Wiek and Keith Bryant, the Executive Chef /Hotel Manager who has 14 years of previous experience cruising America’s waterways. Many of the crew, including the Captain, are natives of the Pacific Northwest. As a crew and hotel staff, they exhibited a passionate desire to provide passengers with a superior American river cruise.
The pre-cruise package provided for a day-long exploration of Mt. St. Helens before boarding of the Columbia Queen just before dinner. This option also includes the pre-cruise evening reception, room, and buffet breakfast at the Hilton Executive Towers Hotel in Portland. Mt. St. Helens is not to be missed if you haven’t already seen it, although cloud cover may prevent visitors from seeing the very top of the still-smoldering volcano. The National Forest Service Interpretive center at Mt. St. Helens is outstanding.
The seven day cruise which followed proved to be a whirlwind of “wows!” courtesy of Capt. Wiek and his inaugural cruise team. Captain Wiek is keenly aware, from his days of piloting passenger boats from Seattle to Alaska, that every passenger has a destination in mind that will make that trip for that individual.
“If the boat couldn’t get to a certain glacier in time, or had to by-pass a town, someone would be disappointed,” he remembered. “I want each of my passengers to experience exactly the Northwest that we’ve promised them.”
For me, those keystone destinations were Mount St. Helens, Hell’s Canyon, and the wave-pounded “bar” at the mouth of the Columbia River. I believe every passenger left the cruise feeling that the pilots, hotel staff, and our highly professional bus drivers were determined that no passenger would be disappointed on their watch. This was was a highly polished inaugural team!!
Each day, passengers had the option of participating in well-narrated shore tours at no additional cost. We traveled by bus through the orchards in the foothills of Mt. Hood, to Lewis and Clark’s Fort Clatsop (America’s newest National Park when combined with Fort Stevens State Park in the Astoria-Warrenton area, and with Ecola State Park, Cape Disappointment, Dismal Nitch and other nearby sites which mark the end of Lewis and Clark’s westward journey).
At the far western portions of our journey, we visited heritage museums commemorating both the Lewis and Clark expedition and pioneers on the Oregon Trail.
We viewed Chinook, shad, eels, and salmon traversing fish-ladders at Bonneville Lock and Dam. We learned to spot specially aerated Corps of Engineers barges that transport salmon fry safely through the maze of 8 power-generating locks on the Columbia River. We had a safely thrilling jet boat ride through the rapids of Hell’s Canyon with several great opportunities to view big-horn sheep at the edge of the Snake River. The Marine Museum at Stevenson introduced us to the life-saving legacy of the life-boat operators at the uniquely dangerous “bar” between the ocean and the mouth of the Columbia River during our visit to Astoria.
We passed tree farms operated by Weyerhaeuser on a 40-year schedule (the founder of Weyerhaeuser was from Rock Island, Illinois), and saw the death zone around Mt. St. Helens…and... well, you get the idea! Our main responsibility as passengers was to rein in our own enthusiasms and determine which one or two excursions we could live without so that we could just hang out on our wonderful boat!!
The inevitable “last day” of our cruise dawned to gray clouds and steady misting rain. Our first rain in 5 days! The few of us who were traveling independently were shuttled directly to the airport where we found our luggage already under shelter and in care of one of our crew members. In our case, a walk immediately out the door and onto the street put us in place to catch the shuttle to our rental car.
Our Journey would continue down the Oregon Coast.
For Capt. Jay, who believes he has piloted more miles on America’s rivers than any other pilot in America, the Columbia Queen is now home indeed.
IF YOU GO on the Columbia Queen
Columbia Queen, Great American Journeys
For reservations, contact your travel agent or phone
800-901-9152 or visit www.GreatAmericanJourneys.com.
Portland, Oregon, Vistors' Association Visit www.pova.com or phone 800.962.3700
Hilton Executive Towers Hotel 921 SW 6th Ave, Portland, 97204
Phone: (503) 226-1611
Travel Notes: We flew into the Portland International Airport with a comfortable 11 a.m. arrival… leaving us the afternoon to explore Pioneer Square and other attractions near the Hilton Executive Towers Hotel before the 5:30 p.m. reception/orientation. The recommended pre-cruise Mt. St. Helens/Hixton Hotel package will make the transfers entirely comfortable. We enjoyed taking the new light rail called MAX, but if you have luggage to deal with we recommend either the air/transport package or that you choose to take a taxi (about $20).. Exit MAX at Pioneer Square for Hilton Executive Towers.
Click HERE to follow our road trip along the Oregon Coast!
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