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For history lovers, like me, there is something deeply important about following the footsteps of the men and women who came before us. That’s often what compels us to travel, to put ourselves in the place where important things—significant events that shaped the world we live in now—happened.
Here in the Northwest we are especially fortunate. With vast undeveloped stretches of plains and prairies, dense forests and ranges of jagged mountains, much of the landscape is no different that it was when the first explorers moved into the area. Here, you can step into a landscape that, in places, has changed very little since the first people, and later the first explorers, arrived.
That’s why I boarded Un-Cruise Adventures S. S. Legacy in Portland for a small-ship heritage voyage up the Columbia and Snake rivers. This was a bucket-list trip for me. I’ve driven along the Columbia, taken the train through the gorge, flown over it by plane and helicopter. But I’d never explored the area the way it was originally done: by river.
It’s hard to imagine the Columbia River, although known and deeply important to Native Americans, was not discovered until the 1700s. and it was almost another century before a fur trader by the name of Robert Gray first sailed into it and named the fierce river for his ship—the Columbia Rediviva. And that it was still a mystery when Thomas Jefferson commissioned Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery in 1804.
From the moment we boarded the replica coastal cruiser, before we even cruised out of Portland and the greenness of the Pacific Northwest, we were steeped in history. We were met by costumed guides and interpreters and they continued to bring to life the stories of the men and women who settled the area as we moved upriver.
At the first dam, the Bonneville Dam (there would be seven more locks and dams on the journey) we are still surrounded by forest and miles of fertile land rising up to meet mountains that look like giant thorns piercing the low clouds. We leave the ship to tour the dam and fish ladders.
At The Dalles, the end of the Oregon Trail, things began to change. We entered the high desert that covers so much of central and south-central Oregon and Washington. Green gives way to gold.
My husband and I spent hours on the top deck, taking it all in, watching freight trains wind along tracks beside the swift, opaque green water of the river, long ribbons of cargo shuttling goods between ports and cities. The sun was high and hot in an endless blue sky laced with contrails and dotted with fat white clouds.
Each day we saw more and learned more. We read books from the ship’s library and listened as our guides put human faces on the stories of settling of the West, the area’s importance in wars and commerce.
We ate well, gathering for gourmet meals, and socialized well, gathering again for cocktails. We made friends and shared stories with the other passengers, many of whom have led fascinating lives.
We rode jet boats up the Snake River, deep in the gorge that still bears the evidence of the geological turbulence that created it.
We visited Walla Walla, the small city that was once considered the “Paris of the West” delving into the personal stories of the men and women who lived, loved and died there. We tasted the sweet onions that put Walla Walla on the map and the outstanding wines that have reinvented the area and put the wine world on notice.
We climbed the Astoria Column for a spectacular view and visited Fort Clatsop, where Lewis and Clark rode out a stretch of bad weather so miserable it became part of the history of the area.
By the time we’d made the round trip back to Portland—back through the series of locks and dams—like Lewis and Clark, we’d made a journey of discovery.
We live in the Northwest but walking down the gangplank, heading back home, we knew much more about this beautiful part of the country than we did when we’d set out. We’d seen familiar territory with a new view, from the deck of the beautiful ship that carried us, and we’d followed the footsteps of the first people and the wagon trails of those who paved the roads and opened the doors to let us follow.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at email@example.com
Lewis & Clark has taken its show on the road this summer, as construction at Hart Field has pushed them off of their customary practice field. Instead, the Tigers are holding practices at Sacajawea Middle School. To the players are just want to play some football, where they practice makes little difference.
We're told that Lewis and Clark started their journey on this date in 1804.
So, as a sort of tribute, what can you begin today?
You want me to go first? OK. Here goes. Starting today, I am going to drink more water.
Try to top that, if you dare.
(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)
When I opened my eyes, the sun was not yet over the horizon and the weak light it cast was wrapped in the heavy mist rising from the Missouri River. I lay still, warm and bundled under a heavy layer of quilts, watching through the small window beside the bed as the day came into its own. Soon I could see deer grazing in the rolling fields around the other cabins, all, like my own, early homestead shelters that had been moved to the Virgelle Mercantile and refurbished for guests.
By the time I was up and dressed the coffee was ready in the kitchen of the old Mercantile building. I poured a cup and the steam rose from the mug in my hand as I walked back outdoors out to take photos.
After a breakfast of whole-hog sausage and baked French toast, washed down by pots of hot coffee, in the company of others there for the guided fishing and canoeing trips offered by the Mercantile’s sister business, The Missouri River Canoe Company, we gathered our gear and took the short ride down to the canoe launch.Once our canoes were loaded we paddled away.
This stretch of the Missouri River is shallow this time of year, no more than a couple of feet deep in some places. We made steady progress, paddling hard enough to get where we were going but stopping whenever something caught our attention. The beauty of September in Montana is that the summer travelers have gone back to work and school. We had the river to ourselves, but we were not alone. Deer splashed across inlets and an eagle sitting on the branch of a tall Cottonwood tree studied us as we passed. Farther along, a silent, watchful Coyote, camouflaged in the tall grass, turned his head to follow our progress down the river.
Soon, warmed by the sun and the exercise, our jackets came off. There wasn’t a cloud in the wide blue dome of the sky and only an occasional gust of wind worked against us as we paddled.
I listened as our guide, a genuine Montana woodsman who makes his living guiding, hunting and trapping along the river, talked about Lewis and Clark’s journey along the same route through what is now the Missouri River Breaks National Monument. It was, he pointed out, with the exception of the occasional barn or fenceline and the grey-green Russian Olive introduced by homesteaders as a way to shelter flimsy cabins from the relentless wind, essentially an unchanged landscape. Soon, at a bend in the river, the eerie Hoodoos and white sandstone cliffs so unique to that portion of the river, the aptly-named White Cliffs stretch, came into view. One more thing checked off the list of places I need to see before I die.
After a couple of hours we pulled our canoes onto a pebbled strip of beach and stopped for lunch, digging into the sandwiches and fruit like we were starving, as though we hadn’t eaten a massive breakfast that morning. As we ate, I thought about something one of the group had said the night before. He’d been telling a story and mentioned a particular day— a special day—as one of the thirty or so he actually remembered of that particular year. I’d never really thought about it before but he is right. Most of the 365 days of work and worry, scheduled appointments, hurried commutes and eat-at-your-desk lunches, blend into a blur. Not much stands out. But, once in a while, there are moments that stay with us forever, etched into memory. They are special enough to share.
We packed up the scraps left from our meal and pushed away from the shore, paddling on down the river. More white cliffs and narrow coulees. More photos. More memories.
At the end of the trip, gathering our gear and hopping back into the van that would carry us and the canoes back to our cars at the Mercantile, I let what I’d seen and done replay in my mind. From the moment I opened my eyes and let them rest on the fog-softened view, to the last spectacular mile of Missouri River wilderness before we pulled our canoes out of the water, the day was special. It was a day worth holding onto and, in that way, worth sharing.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Multiple choice: If, almost 200 years ago, explorers Lewis and Clark had worn T-shirts during their journey, what would have been printed on those shirts?
A) "I'm With Stupid."
C) "Do Me."
D) "Willie Nelson Tour, 1803."
E) "Missouri Breaks Fun Run."
F) "Question Authority."
G) "Big Sky Conference Champs."
H) "Bull Shirt."
I) "If Sacajawea Ain't Happy, Ain't Nobody Happy."
J "I've Fallen And Can't Reach My Beer."
K) "I Went All The Way To The Pacific Ocean And All I Got Was This Stupid Shirt."
L) "Guns Don't Kill People — Mountain Lions Do."
I can see being ambivalent about Lewis and Clark if you are native. But it seems like everyone else in our part of the country ought to be able to cite a favorite theme in stories spun by the expedition.
Me? No contest. It's the accounts of the explorers' introduction to grizzly bears.
I've always loved that. You can picture those guys shaking their heads and saying "What is the deal with these western bears? You shoot 'em three times and they just keep coming!"
Well, until roads, housing developments and our need to extinguish every trace of wildness shoved them into a corner.