Columbia River tours a trip through history

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PORTLAND — 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.

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.

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 former 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.

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.

For buffs, this Lewis and Clark-themed voyage on the Columbia and Snake rivers is history come to life, with stops at famous forts, battle sites, waterfalls and some pretty decent museums.

We learn how Sacagawea, a 16-year-old Shoshone squaw, served as mediator with distrustful tribes. We learn that the expedition’s frequent courts-martial ended in lashings. That the men preferred the taste of dog over the succulent and plentiful salmon. That the soldiers and frontiersmen took mercury as medicine, and that their journey’s route could be deciphered by traces of the lethal liquid still found near former campsites 200 years later.

I’m no buff, but I soaked it all up. To enjoy this trip, you need only be a fan of glorious scenery — an amazing transition that takes you from Portland and Clark County’s lush greenery to the bone-dry vistas of western Idaho.

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 paddle boarding 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 first-hand.

“The cruise surpassed our expectations,” said Jim Kouracos, a Chicago dentist who took the trip with his 91-year-old dad, Nick. “What really put this over the top was how accessible the boat and shore tours were, as well as the efforts by the crew and staff to create a stimulating environment filled with good food and camaraderie.”

Indeed, our cruise, in early June, drew widespread thumbs-ups from passengers, many of whom had done river cruises in Europe and the United States (primarily Alaska and the Mississippi).

“Compared to the Mississippi trip, you don’t look at levees most of the time,” said passenger Doug Swanson. “This was changing scenery.”