Columbia and Snake River Cruise on the American Express

American Empress on the Columbia River
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“Roll on Columbia” was written by Woody Guthrie in 1941. The song may be folksy, sweet and a little simple, but in 2014 this is a very different river -- it offers so much more than I expected!  I’ve been on a number of top ranked European river cruises, and I understand the difficulties of starting a new cruise line and of using an all American crew. So I booked this trip expecting lovely scenery and some relaxing days, but also a few bumps when it came to service, and maybe not much to see and do on segments of the river. I was wrong. 

So let me tell you why.  The American Empress is a large river ship, built in 2003 and capable of ocean travel. American Queen Steamboat Company fully refurbished her in 2014, so she is modern and comfortable, the ‘wedding cake’ design and look of a classic American paddlewheeler, yes, she has a paddlewheel. Cabins are generous in size, most including a comfortable private balcony. Standard amenities include a fridge, Keurig coffee maker, iPod dock and free, if rather slow, WiFi.  There are two locations for dining, plus a show lounge and, my favorite, rocking chairs on the forward deck in prime viewing positions.

I was prepared for dark wood, Americana artwork, intricate wallpaper and carpets as this is, after all, in the style of a classic paddlewheel vessel; however, it was not overwhelming. No Dixieland bands or calliope music, and I found the layout comfortable and pleasant.

The real star is the river, and the variety of things to see and do.  The changing terrain and scenery on this 7-night cruise are amazing. You can go to sleep with views of the Pacific Coastal rainforest, deep green forests of trees and thick underbrush, only to wake up to a stunning landscape of gold and black created by basalt rock formations and cliffs topped by golden grasses, with the only trees to be seen for miles the sycamore, willow, and Russian olive along the river bank.

This is a trip for nature lovers and history buffs, for those interested in the sciences of locks and hydroelectric dams, the secret Hanford nuclear site part of the Manhattan Project, Native American cultures, fruit and wheat production, wind turbines, start up wineries, craft beers and the Wild West.  

The Columbia River inspired Thomas Jefferson to fund the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and you can follow their well documented journey along the Snake and Columbia rivers.  The Oregon Trail is still visible in wagon ruts and pioneer gravesites. The Nez Pearce and other local tribes have interesting visitor centers, and their native attire and artwork are familiar to anyone who watched Westerns. They inspire Pendleton Woolen Mills, with their ‘Made in America’ blankets and fashions, many of which are still loomed in Pendleton, Oregon from local wool.

We in The West are used to volcanic mountain ranges, glacier carving and the shapes of canyons carved by rivers thru the land, but the path of the Columbia has some additional characteristics created by catastrophic and repeated flooding of a large inland sea thru many ice ages. Learning about these massive events at various museums along the way, you begin to understand the reasons for the different vistas you are seeing. But even without an interest in nature or geology, any guest would enjoy the varied scenery of this trip. I saw elk and big horn sheep, many types of deer and lots of birds – including osprey, blue heron, white pelican, various hawks and one bald eagle.

The American Empress showcases Northwest produce and cuisine. On my trip we enjoyed Northwest salmon and seafood, oysters, crab, trout, local figs and honey, marionberry and huckleberry ice creams after dinner, Walla Walla sweet onions, many local apples, pears, and marionberry vodka in the lounge, along with craft beers and local wines, which are complementary with lunch and dinner.

On a special vintners evening, wine makers were on board pouring and discussing their wines. The movie channel on board included films set in the Northwest, and the ‘Riverlorian’ on board gave talks on the history and wildlife of the area.

In each town we docked at, American Empress motorcoaches offered complimentary ‘hop-on-hop-off’ tours. These coaches follow the boat up and down the river; the drivers stay with the coaches, with local historians and guides to fill in the local flavor.  This makes it easy to get an overview of the town and explore a bit on your own, but I would recommend booking some of the optional ‘Premium Tours’ as well.  

The three Premium Tours I did on my week were all excellent and offered a much fuller experience of the area.  Unlike a European river cruise, where the centers of town are along the river banks, in some towns the river bank is more industrial and the towns themselves are small and utilitarian, so the coach trips take you to farther flung destinations.  We visited Timberline Lodge on Mt Hood, which is a charming National Historic Monument built in 1937 at an elevation of 6000 Feet. In late August there's stll glacier skiing, but the alpine flowers were more interesting to me!  As is the craft work and artistic décor. We traversed part of Oregon’s ‘Fruit Loop,’ a scenic orchard and farm region with lovely views of Mt Adams and Mt Hood, and visited glorious Multnomah Falls. Transiting the Columbia River Gorge and not visiting Multnomah is like going to a wedding and not seeing the bride! There may be hundreds of waterfalls which run year round in the Gorge, and although I’ve been many times, I always am struck by the beauty and grace of this one.

Another day we did a new and very good tour to Pendleton. I’d been to this town at least twice before, but seeing it with a local guide and getting the ‘inside scoop’ was a lot more interesting than my previous trips!  We visited the Pendleton Round Up museum, a must for rodeo fans, got a tour thru the factory of Pendleton Woolen Mills, visited an excellent Umatilla Native American interpretive center, and had a nice lunch at the restaurant, which is part of world famous Hamley & Co saddlery and western outfitters. We heard about how repopulating the local stream with salmon has brought mink and eagles and foxes back in to the area… we drove thru wheat fields and past wind turbine farms, classic Eastern Oregon and Washington landscapes.

Also not to be missed is the jet boat tour of Hells Canyon on the Snake River in Idaho and Washington. The American Empress uses a local operator who manages the Nature Conservancy concession in the Wilderness Area. I was here on Labor Day weekend, so there were lots of boats and camping along the river, but also miles of amazing scenery and wildlife. In the summer bald eagles fly out to the coast or to higher elevations to hunt, but as the local salmon run was beginning, we enjoyed the first fall sighting of a bald eagle soaring along the canyon keeping an ‘eagle eye’ out for returning salmon. 

Any river trip is enjoyable as it is smooth moving, relaxing, and the desire to see what is around the next bend, to watch the traffic on the river, to see the birds feeding in the dawn light and the reflection of the sun setting in the evening – any river trip would have this, but the Columbia has all this and so much more!  

I have travelled quite often in the Northwest, I have family there and enjoy the people, the crafts, the art and the cuisine. From Los Angeles it’s just over a 2-hour flight, it’s in the same time zone, and it’s a lovely place for a long weekend or a driving trip. But now, with the American Empress, this becomes a marvelous vacation option! The American Queen Steamboat Company operates trips here from April into November that include a one-night hotel stay prior to boarding the ship, and 7-nights on the river cruise. You can choose to go from Clarkston, Idaho downstream to Portland, or the reverse.

There are other companies and other ships who operate on the Columbia as well. In the past I’ve been on two of the other ships (when they were operated by different owners) but they are not as comfortable as American Queen. I was very pleased with the quality of food and the service levels on this shi,p and while I know and do use the other lines, I think the American Queen needs to be considered by any one wanting to make this voyage.

American Queen exceeded my expectations and showed me I was wrong to think a Columbia River trip would be just simple and folksy – indeed, this is a journey worth taking and offers so much more than you’d think!  “Roll on, Columbia, Roll on!”

Heidi Hoehn