Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 22, 2017

© Carol Clemens

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A free wheeling getaway

Board a Mississippi-style paddle wheeler for a week of grand Western scenery

The Columbia River is the Titan of the Pacific Northwest. It emerges from the wings of the BC Rockies, then performs a wild jig north and west, then south across the border before heading west out to the Pacific. However, it’s no longer the ferocious river it used to be, thanks to 14 dams that produce more hydroelectric power than along any other river in the US. They also make the Columbia a river that can be cruised.

I love a river cruise. It was probably seeing The African Queen as a kid in the 1950s that did it. American Cruise Lines' old-fashioned paddle wheeler Queen of the West plies the Columbia from Portland, Oregon almost to the Idaho border. It’s not an imposing distance, less than 600 kilometres, but it fills a week with much to marvel at and culminates with a roaring trip through Hells Canyon in a jet boat.

In keeping with the company's small-is-beautiful cruising mantra, the Queen — the first overnight passenger paddle wheeler built in the West in 80 years — carries a maximum of 120 passengers in considerable comfort. Cabins are among the most spacious in the industry. Two thirds feature private balconies. All come with flat-screen satellite TVs and DVD players. There's wireless Internet throughout the boat for those unable to unshackle themselves from the 21st century.

Four decks offer panoramic viewing of the wide open vistas. The dining room and public areas are handsome, courtesy of a multimillion-dollar facelift earlier this year. Riverboat gastronomy comes into play with three-course dinners of varying success. The emphasis on West Coast fish and seafood is laudable: look for local mussels, steelhead trout and wild Columbia River sturgeon, while carnivores can fall back on Angus striploin and fingerling potatoes. The largely affordable wine list proffers the remarkable products of the Pacific Northwest — Riesling, Syrah and even a muscular Merlot.

How the West was won

As river cruises go, the Columbia differs from the pristine wilderness of the Peruvian Amazon, the antiquity of the Nile, the otherworldliness of Burma’s Irrawaddy or the rush to industry of the Yangtze. Here the accent is on scenery, culture and camaraderie, a factor much enjoyed by the largely senior contingent of passengers.

Experts join the cruise to deliver talks on local character and lore. Columbia River history has much to do with the travails of Pacific Northwest explorers Lewis and Clark in 1806. But bold though they were, their exploits actually pale next to those of David Thompson, the intrepid Canadian who became the first man, in 1811, to pursue the Columbia from beginning to end. Or his heroic Métis wife Charlotte Small, who covered three-and-a-half times the distance travelled by Lewis and Clark.

"History" hereabouts translates as conquest. A visiting speaker representing the Nez Perce First Nation is candid about the mistreatment of her people. The Nez Perce were literally “pierced noses,” so named by French trappers. They proved invaluable allies of the Lewis and Clark expedition, but it did them little good when their lands were seized and they were driven to war in 1877. American troops surrounding a sleeping Nez Perce village were ordered to fire low into the tepees to kill as many men, women and children as possible.

Our voyage began in Portland, Oregon, a city lately emerged as a gastronomic flashpoint on the coast, celebrated for excellent, diverse, affordable restaurants. Its street-food scene is so innovative, Vancouver is attempting to repeat its success. My wife and I could have used a few extra nights in Portland just to eat.

For book-lovers, Portland inspires shrine-like reverence as the home of Powell's Books. Occupying an entire city block, it ranks as the largest new and used book store in the world. The store has more than one million volumes on its shelves. And even then, it doesn't accommodate mathematics, sciences, computing, engineering or construction, which have a building of their own.

Out of Portland, there was an optional side excursion to Mount St. Helens, the mountain that literally blew its top 30 years ago, sending volcanic ash and steam almost 25 kilometres into the sky and unleashing the biggest landslide in history.

Ascending falls

Next the Queen swept into the Columbia Gorge and some of the journey’s most spectacular scenery. Roughly 128 kilometres long and 220 metres deep, it's the only sea-level route through the Cascade Mountain Range. Designated the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area, it's also protected from developers who would cap its heights with monster homes for the ultra-rich.

The Dalles was the spot at the end of the Oregon Trail. It was here that pioneers confronted the daunting choice of rafting down the Columbia or making their way west across the Cascades through the Barlow Pass. Either choice was fraught with danger. Some chose neither, stayed put and had no regrets.

At the Bonneville Dam, we turned our attention to a working salmon ladder, an ascending series of steps and pools that once proved so successful in slowing down spawning salmon, it nearly led to the their extinction. Now the ladders work for the fish and we watched salmon battling their way upstream through subterranean windows.

The boat pauses for Oregon’s number one tourist attraction, Multnomah Falls. In a natural rainforest setting emerald with mosses and lichens, the falls breaks into an upper falls plunging 165 metres and a lower falls of 21 metres. A footbridge crosses above the lower cascade. Gawkers make their way up the trail for the lofty perspective, but it’s the panorama from ground level that bedazzles eye and camera.

From the decks of the Queen, we saw mountains and rainforest fade to a parched geology of toasted hues, the sagebrush country east of the Cascades. It looked like a set from a John Ford western, John Wayne or James Stewart riding tall. Kite surfers were zipping across the river like dragonflies. The snowcap of Mount Hood, Oregon’s highest mountain, loomed large in the backdrop.

From Star Wars to cowboys

We moored at Umatilla and bussed to the sleepy town of Pendleton, which is mostly known for the Pendleton Round-Up, one of the best rodeos in the American West. The Lusty Men with Robert Mitchum and Susan Hayward was shot here in 1951, with the Round-Up as backdrop. Locals like to talk about the movies made in the area, including 1953's The Great Sioux Uprising.

The man to talk to is Ron Demsey, who holds court at the Boots Leonard Gallery on Main Street. Demsey, who doubled as a Stormtrooper in Star Wars, sells cowboy duds and looks the part — not hard to do when you’re six foot seven. The hombre also comes from Sidney, Nova Scotia.

The climax of the Queen's up-river voyage is an optional day on Hells Canyon, a particularly dramatic stretch of the Snake River. At 2436 metres, it’s the deepest gorge in the US. Nowadays jet boats capable of skimming a river on a couple of inches of water are the preferred mode of travel. The full-day excursion takes passengers about 100 kilometres into the canyon. “The water flow is the equivalent of one-and-a-half miles of railcars passing you every three seconds,” says a captain.

The ride is less than Hellish, but the rapids deliver the thrills. The boat rolls violently. At times, it feels like it’s flying clear out of the water. Passengers positioned at the rear — the prime camera position — may be in for a soaking.

By this time, the rhythm of river cruising has settled in. It’s become normal to collapse at 10 PM and rise at 6AM for sunrise. It's something that calls for a measure of contemplation beyond the urgencies of the young: the old guys are out there with long lenses and an appreciation for simple grandeur.

As first light strikes, the world drifts by in three golden bands of river, land and sky. A painted toy of a train makes its way across the land against high bronzed hills. Time for a big breakfast and plenty of coffee. Then a plunge into a fat book. Or a snooze. That’s riverboatin’.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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