American Cruise Line Follows in the Footsteps of Lewis and Clark

Tracey Teo

Bumping along the Snake River in a jet boat, Dad peered up from the depths of Hells Canyon, the deepest gorge in North America, trying to discern if the creature perched high above on a rocky promontory was a bighorn sheep or a Rocky Mountain elk. 

Lifelong Kentuckians, my parents had never visited the Pacific Northwest, so the unfamiliar wildlife in this ruggedly beautiful but desolate region between Idaho’s Seven Devils Mountains and Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains was both fascinating and awe-inspiring. 

The guided jet boat excursion was our inaugural adventure on American Cruise Lines' nine-day Columbia and Snake Rivers cruise that sails from Clarkston, Washington, to Portland, Oregon, with stops at some of the most scenic spots in the two states. We were following in the footsteps of the 1804-1806 Meriwether Lewis and William Clark expedition, also known as the Corps of Discovery, which set out on a transcontinental exploration of newly acquired land in the American West.  Due to the inhospitable terrain and raging rapids, Lewis and Clark never saw the deepest part of the gorge, which is about 2,000 feet deeper than the Grand Canyon.

I was thankful that unlike the Lewis and Clark expedition that slept in chilly tents in the torrential rain and ate what they could find, we snoozed in comfy beds and dined on specialties such as crab-encrusted beef tenderloin aboard a modern riverboat – the American Jazz.  

My parents turned 80, and that eight-decade milestone inspired me to celebrate by planning their first cruise - but there was much to consider. With so many cruise lines and a wide range of itineraries around the globe, what would best suit their needs? A 3,000-pas-senger ocean-going ship with a flashy casino, a rockin’ nightlife and a zipline was not their scene. A European river cruise was a possibility but was ruled out because a long flight is hard on arthritic joints and recovering from jet lag would be difficult. A domestic river cruise aboard the 180-passenger American Jazz was just what the doctor ordered.

When my parents travel, they tend to revisit the same places, usually in Florida. My goal was to get them out of their comfort zone without actually making them uncomfortable. My dad hesitates to try new things and had expressed reservations about zipping along the Snake River in a jet boat, but he later admitted that it was a cruise highlight.

He drew the line at flightseeing from a helicopter, but I found it thrilling. After viewing Hells Canyon from its depths, this provided the opposite perspective - a bird’s eye view of the contrasting topography carved by the Snake River. Jagged, barren mountains gave way to increasingly verdant terrain and then unexpected patches of scarlet desert flowers.

Unlike ocean cruises that have “sea days” where there are no ports of call, this river cruise featured a new adventure every day. When the ship reached the con-fluence of the Snake and Columbia Rivers near Pasco, Washington, we visited the Sacajawea Historical State Park and Interpretive Center, built near where Lewis and Clark camped in 1805.

The importance of Sacajawea, also commonly spelled as Sacagawea, to the expedition can’t be overstated. With her two-month-old baby strapped to her back, the Shoshone teenager acted as a guide and interpreter. She convinced the Shoshone tribe to provide horses so the party could cross the Rocky Mountains and continue toward the Pacific Ocean.

The presence of a woman and a baby helped protect the explorers from potentially hostile tribes. Clark wrote that Sacagawea signaled “our friendly intentions, as no woman ever accompanies a war party...”

Aboard the ship, a historian held lectures about Lewis and Clark and took a deep dive into Sacagawea’s role in America’s westward expansion.

He also touched on her tragic early life. At age 12, she was kidnapped and enslaved by the Hidatsa, an enemy tribe. As a teenager, she was forced to become the second wife of French-Canadian fur trapper Toussaint Charbonneau.

The beauty of this cruise was that the guests were able to soak up the mesmerizing landscapes of the region while being as active or inactive as they chose. While my parents photographed Multnomah Falls in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge, I hiked along a narrow, winding trail to the top of the 620-foot-tall waterfall, the tallest in Oregon. I was rewarded with a glorious view of the lush forest and the sound of the falls roaring below.

At Cape Disappointment, a 2,023-acre state park in Washington, my dad surprised me by joining me on a short hike to the North Head Lighthouse that over-looks the Pacific Ocean. Unlike the British explorer that named Cape Disappointment (he was trying to locate the Columbia River, hence the disappointment), we were enthralled by the ethereal fog and powerful waves crashing against the rocks. The uphill climb was a bit more laborious than expected, but we took our time, stopping to catch our breath and chat about our favorite cruise experiences.

My parents said that in addition to following in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, one of the things they liked best was meeting other travelers their age who were “enjoying their golden years together, like us.”

If You Go
American Cruise Lines has a fleet of 19 small ships that sail more than 50 itineraries on American waterways. 1-800-460-4518.
Follow Tracey Teo on Instagram @gobigorgohome