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Sunday, February 4, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pacific Northwest: On the Columbia of Lewis and Clark

The Associated Press

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WALLA WALLA - Five tiny passengers in a toy canoe, churning in our imagination through white water toward the Pacific, smiled bravely at us from the gift- shop window of a restored U.S. Army cavalry outpost.

They were doll-like effigies of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the Shoshone Indian maid Sacagawea with her infant son, Jean Baptiste, strapped to her back, and York, Clark's towering African slave. This leather-sewn souvenir, irresistibly purchased at old Fort Walla Walla, summed up for us nine delightful and historically rewarding days on the riverboat Columbia Queen along the route of the 1804-1806 Lewis and Clark expedition.

Our 151 fellow passengers were hardly out of sync with history, shopping for mooseskin moccasins, Pendleton wool blankets with an Indian design, local sweet-onion mustard and marionberry jam at landings along the way.

Not far from here, Clark traded his sword to Chief Yelleppit of the Walla Walla tribe "for a very elegant white horse," as he recorded in his journals.

Capt. Lewis, the consummate haggler on that 8,000-mile journey, bartered brass uniform buttons, copper kettles, mirrors and fish hooks for needed food rations. He once swapped two quarts of "great father's milk" - raw whiskey - for four deer and, in exchange for lancing an ulcer on a chief's shin, acquired 40 dogs. Lewis, who had dined at the White House, preferred dog meat along the trail "to lean venison or elk." He found it "very superior to horse in any state."

That night at Capt. Ken Campbell's gala dinner our appetizer was smoked Pacific salmon, which Lewis and Clark soon grew to detest. Our entree was a choice of prime rib or rainbow trout, which they would have pronounced inferior to braised beaver tail or fricasseed squirrel's paws as authentic Northwest cuisine, especially if fresh-caught by Seaman, Lewis' Newfoundland retriever.

Retracing the end of the route

Riverboat historian Bill Wiemuth enriched our enjoyment of this fascinating itinerary by matching the scenery with scenes out of the eventful lives of the "Corps of Discovery." This was the official name for the intrepid band of 33 buckskin-clad explorers who made it all the way from St. Louis, Mo., to the Oregon coast and back, with the loss of only one life.

Lewis, who was Thomas Jefferson's private secretary, and his old Army buddy Clark kept detailed journals of the plants, animals, rivers, rocks and tribes they encountered along the way. They carried portable writing desks, a precursor of the laptops uncased by some of our fellow voyagers.

Most of their travel was by water, since the president was most interested in their discovering a river route to the Pacific. As the bicentennial of that epic journey approaches, by water is still the best way to rediscover the territory.

The riverboat Columbia Queen made it very comfortably possible for us to join Lewis and Clark on more than a quarter of their journey, the grueling but glorious final stretch between Lewiston, Idaho, and Astoria, Ore.

After dinner, as the Columbia Queen passed through the locks of the Ice Harbor and McNary dams, the ship's company of singers and musicians entertained us with a medley of songs appropriate to the scenery. Included of course was "Ol' Man River," which cruise director Todd Foster crooned in a robust baritone, and "Roll On, Columbia."

Woody Guthrie composed the latter folk classic to celebrate the mighty Bonneville Dam, where through underwater windows at our next stop we watched salmon and steelhead making their downstream migration to the ocean.

For nearly 1,000 miles, up and back from Portland, we negotiated the Willamette, Columbia and Snake rivers. From rustic rocking chairs on deck, we ogled towering waterfalls in the magnificent Columbia Gorge now decked out in large leaf maple crimson and alder gold. We passed through 16 rapids-taming locks that lifted our boat 750 feet above sea level and gaped at the grandeur of snow- capped Mount Hood and the terrible beauty of volcano-torn Mount St. Helens.

We examined covered-wagon ruts in a preserved patch of the Oregon Trail and watched late-season wind surfers daringly trim their sails to the shrieking gusts and unpredictable thermal drafts at Hood River, which now rivals Hawaii as a wind-surfing mecca. Here "the wind blew so violently," Clark wrote.

With ample historic precedent, it rained on us relentlessly in Astoria, where Lewis and Clark spent their final winter at Fort Clatsop and saw the sun only "six times in 106 days."

Shore excursions included

On one of more than a dozen shore excursions included in the cruise ticket, we bounced over rapids in a jet boat down mile-and-a-half-deep Hell's Canyon. We pulled up beside a sheer basalt cliff to examine "petrographs," prehistoric stick men carved into a rock.

We passed the mail boat on its bumpy rounds and were buzzed by a golden eagle. A sharp-eyed lady rancher from Montana espied a Bighorn sheep placidly ignoring us from an overhanging ledge.

Indians sang and danced for us at a cultural center operated by the Cayuse, Walla Walla and Umatillo tribes occupying the Umatillo Reservation in the Blue Mountains near Pendleton, Ore.

The confederated tribes also run the nearby Wild Horse Casino Resort, with 400 slot machines, an adjoining hotel and an 18-hole golf course where the four-pound molar of a 12,000-year old mammoth was recently extracted from a pond near the seventh green.

Long before Las Vagas shuffled its first blackjack deck, the Western tribes were into gambling. In dice games and later at cards with trappers and wagon parties they wagered their canoes, horses, bows and arrows and sometimes their women for axes, rifles, cooking pots and fish hooks.

Toussaint Charbonneau, the French trapper hired by Lewis as interpreter, is reputed to have won his teenage wife Sacagawea in an all-night card game.

Fittingly, the Columbia Queen was built in Jennings, La., as a gambling ship, then converted at a Portland shipyard to a period-piece passenger riverboat with gingerbread fretwork and fake, fold-down (for the many low bridges) smokestacks.

The decor features American Indian hand carvings, yellowing old-time photographs of regional tribal life and a cozy little library with deep leather chairs that Mark Twain might have pinged a spittoon from in his riverboat days.

The 8l staterooms, named for Sacagawea, Chief Joseph, Twisted Hair and other Northwest historical figures, are charmingly furnished with heirloom furniture and Victorian bedsteads covered with Pendleton wool blankets and pillows in colorful tribal designs.

A mahogany grand staircase lighted by a Tiffany glass chandelier sweeps down to the vaulted ceiling dining room which doubles as a showboat theater for the nightly entertainments, including the inevitable, charitably named passenger talent show.

In the Explorer Lounge Bar, directly beneath the pilot house, a large multiknobbed ship's wheel enables small children (and elderly passengers fired up on "great father's milk") to play captain for a spell.

Riverboat romantics may mourn the lack of a stern or even a side paddle wheel to churn up the era when a deckhand heaved a lead line and sang out "quarter twain... mark twain ... "

However, on the plus side, there is no steam calliope on board this diesel-powered craft to annoy the bridge players with "Waitin' for the Robert E. Lee" at every clang of the gangplank.

If you go

River cruise

Fares for the eight-night Columbia Queen voyage, including 18 shore excursions and an overnight hotel stay in Portland, begin at $2,100 per person, double occupancy. For reservations, contact your travel agent, call the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. at 800-297-3960, or visit the Web site www.deltaqueen.com.

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