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Cruising the Lewis and Clark route of the Northwest — in comfort

Chicago Tribune
Comfy cruise retraces Lewis and Clark's route in the Northwest

It rained on Friday at the end of our cruise on the Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest. That's not surprising, because it rains an average of 196 days a year here. But the rain added a dimension to the tour that highlights the legendary expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

Standing amid tall evergreens — spawned by some that were there in 1805 — at Fort Clatsop, rain wetting your head and feet, river sounds nearby and a foggy mist rising through the pines, you can almost feel the presence of the two explorers and their Corps of Discovery team. This is the place, a few miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, where the team spent 106 winter days, all but 12 of which were rainy. As they prepared to return East and report to President Thomas Jefferson about their 4,000-mile round-trip trek across the continent, they must have been jubilant about their successes and reaching the Pacific. Even still, they were suffering from colds, influenza and rheumatism, wearing rotting clothes and fighting fleas in their beds that made a full night's sleep all but impossible.

We know this because the time spent at Fort Clatsop was when Lewis and Clark worked on the highly detailed maps and journals that outlined their daily lives and described the new animals and plants that the men had encountered along the way. Maybe the rain was a good thing.

Now, Fort Clatsop is a part of the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, and a re-creation of the seven-room log fort stands where historians believe the original had stood.

The stop at Fort Clatsop is one of the excursions on the Legacy of Discovery cruise on the Columbia and Snake rivers aboard the 88-passenger Legacy, a ship that replicates a turn-of-the-century steamer, complete with Victorian decor and crew in period garb.

Starting and ending in Portland, Ore., this eight-day, seven-night themed trip from Un-Cruise Adventures offers luxury accommodations, upscale dining and daily excursions that focus on the history of the Northwest along the Columbia and Snake rivers, extending to Clarkston, Wash. The trip is ideal for history lovers, of course, but there's enough to satisfy travelers looking only for a relaxing and comfortable cruise in an area of the United States with distinctive natural beauty.

Most of the passengers on my September trip were retirees, but that's not to say they were retiring. The itinerary, while busy, was not physically demanding, and there were no sports or adventure activities. But there always seemed to be a lively group at the Pesky Barnacle Saloon on the lower deck, where signs tell customers to "Beware of card sharps and fancy women."

Alcoholic drinks, as well as excursions and a 30-minute massage, are included in the price of the cruise, meaning there won't be any surprises when it's time to settle your bill. Beyond the excursions, on-board activities were scheduled every day, including yoga and stretching classes, some craft sessions and, nearly every night, a lecture or historical presentation.

The best of those was a theatrical presentation by two crew members — heritage leaders Ryan Downs and Julie Kehr — telling the story of the ill-fated Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, missionaries to the Oregon Territory who worked with Native Americans as well as pioneers in their wagon trains along the Oregon Trail in the 1830s and '40s. Along with their hopes for a new life, the pioneers also brought measles to the Oregon Territory. That contagious disease decimated many of the tribes, and some came to believe that Marcus Whitman, who was also a medical doctor, was poisoning them. On Nov. 29, 1847, a small band of the Cayuse attacked the Whitman mission, killing 13 people, including the Whitmans.

The day after the on-board performance, our excursion was to the Whitman Mission National Historic Site, run by the National Park Service about 7 miles outside Walla Walla, Wash. It's truly the best way to learn about history, combining story with place and hands-on experience. At the site, I walked along a dirt path on the famed trail, a replica covered wagon nearby, and relished the view over the distant hillsides. "Amber waves of grain" and "purple mountain's majesty" got stuck in my head, and I thought about how difficult it was for early Americans to make the long trek to America's West and an uncertain future. Definitely, this was a highlight of the trip.

Another day trip that stood out was a visit to Hells Canyon National Recreation Area via smaller speedboats along the Snake River. The deepest river gorge in North America, the landscape is stunning with the steep desert-like slopes of the Seven Devils Mountains looming overhead. It was a chance to see 7,000-year-old Indian petroglyphs in a beautifully remote and mostly uninhabited area of the United States and to get a look at a few adventurous outdoor types fishing and camping in the wild. Then we went back to the Legacy for cocktail hour.

With all-inclusive food and drinks, you might think the quality could be mediocre. It was not. Fresh salmon was a regular menu item, as you might expect, but beef, chicken, pork and vegetarian dishes were varied, fresh and well-prepared. Meals are served with open seating in the main dining room. Smart travelers moved around and met new folks at each meal, learning, among other things, about the couple from New Zealand and their extended journey to North and South America, the retired teachers' group from New England who travel together every year and the sister duo of Carol and Phyllis who loved to laugh and were standouts at the passenger talent show.

One of my favorite mealtimes, though, was the early-riser breakfast, starting at 6:30 a.m. in the lounge, where strong coffee, mini chocolate croissants and Greek yogurt with fresh fruit were on the self-serve buffet. You could sit outside to watch the sun rise. Champagne was there for the taking, but that was a bit too decadent for me.

ctc-travel@tribune.com

If you go

We booked through AdventureSmith Explorations (877-620-2875, adventuresmithexplorations.com), but you can also book directly with Un-cruise Adventures (888-862-8881, un-cruise.com). For 2015, rates for the Legacy of Discovery cruise begin at $3,195 and do not include airfare to Portland.

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