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Retrace Lewis and Clark’s rugged river route – on a laid-back steamer

By Chris Erskine
Los Angeles Times
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/07/22/13/50/5WbV8.Em.138.jpeg|210
    Al Seib - MCT
    The S.S. Legacy waits for the water level to drop as it sits in the Bonneville Lock on the Columbia River during the return trip to Portland, Ore., as the S.S. Legacy cruises the Columbia, Snake & Willamette Rivers traveling nearly 1,000 miles roundtrip from Portland, on June 4, 2014. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/07/22/13/50/ZAZ7D.Em.138.jpeg|212
    Al Seib - MCT
    The bridge of the S.S. Legacy on the Columbia river near Walla Walla, Wash., during a trip on the Columbia, Snake & Willamette Rivers traveling nearly 1,000 miles roundtrip from Portland, Ore., on June 4, 2014. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
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  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/07/22/13/50/K3mNI.Em.138.jpeg|177
    Al Seib - MCT
    Guests enjoy the view of Mt. Hood in Oregon over the Columbia River in Maryhill, Wash., part of a day trip for guests aboard the S.S. Legacy which is cruising the Columbia, Snake & Willamette Rivers traveling nearly 1,000 miles roundtrip from Portland, on June 4, 2014. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/07/22/13/50/1ggmm0.Em.138.jpeg|198
    Al Seib - MCT

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Portland, Ore. 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 Mt. 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.

The river is the star here, but the personable crew is a close second. One night, they stage a talent show that rivals most comedy clubs.

Sure, there’s a lot of history to swallow in a week, but if it gets to be too much you can opt out of one of the too-many museum trips and spend an afternoon in the hot tub with that thriller you’ve been meaning to tackle. As is the bridge, the ship’s saloon is always open. Most nights ended swapping stories with my favorite fellow passenger/soul mate, “Bloody Mary Bill,” a Michigan farmer who kept everyone entertained on the voyage.

Whatever you do, you’ll end the week with a bit of a wind burn and a thrashing river of good memories. That may be a lot less than what Lewis and Clark left here as a legacy. But it’s an exciting start. So come aboard as we explore the famed Pacific Northwest route from the desert to the sea, in what might be the greatest of all the American journeys.

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