The Slow Life

Rolling on up the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest
Published in the March 2011 issue of Canadian Geographic Travel


“Don’t be afraid to ask me anything,” Captain Pat said over the roar of the diesel engine as he pulled out of Clarkston, Washington, and gunned it toward the neighbouring town of Lewiston, Idaho. At the helm of a 13-metre aluminum jet boat that pumped 60 tonnes of water under its belly every minute, the captain’s mission was to pilot us up the Snake River through the placid waters of incongruously named Hells Canyon. “We get some funny questions,” Pat Schweiger continued, his voice projected through a speaker system, his eyes shielded by a pair of aviator glasses. “My favourite is, ‘How old is a deer when it turns into an elk?’” He paused for effect. “We’re still working on that one.”

Three times each week, Beamers Hells Canyon Tours makes the 92-year-old mail run through a gorge where bighorn sheep outnumber people 10 to 1. When Captain Pat is not delivering mail, he’s one of the skippers on about 100 annual sightseeing trips. “If you poke around here as much as I have, you’ll find seashells, fossils, all sorts of weird stuff,” he said as we zoomed past bright red swathes of young sumac and corrugated basalt ridges. At one point, he pulled the boat close to shore. There, in the algae-covered rock face, were the faint markings of petroglyphs. Geologists reckon they are about 6,000 years old.

It was day three of a languid six-day Lindblad Expeditions cruise, and we were taking a side trip to a spot that even our private yacht-sized ship, the National Geographic Sea Bird, couldn’t reach. Departing from Portland, Oregon, we would sail 1,440 kilometres up the Willamette, Columbia and Snakes rivers, and, briefly, down the Clearwater. Much of the way, we had Oregon on one side and Washington on the other, as if they were a pair of fraternal twins. Our route retraced the journey American explorers Lewis and Clark took in the early 19th century — back when the salmon numbered in the millions and these rivers were, as our on-deck naturalist, Berit Solstad, put it, very different.

We were travelling more comfortably than Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, of course. No campfire cookouts of fried squirrel like the grub Lewis raved about in 1803. Our dinners were leisurely three-course affairs with local salmon one night, halibut another, washed down with pinot gris from the Washington vineyards we sailed past. But the trip would also be an education in how these rivers had changed since President Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark on the two-year exploration that opened up the Pacific Northwest. Massive dams such as the Bonneville (made famous by its first employee, Woody Guthrie, who wrote songs such as “Pastures of Plenty” to promote it) transformed the Columbia from a secluded outback to a hydroelectric superpower, with the attendant perks and perils.

Our side excursion through the more pristine Hells Canyon made it easier to imagine how the Columbia might have looked had the industrial era not arrived on its shoreline. It was late fall and the trees had turned a fluorescent yellow. In one peaceful spot, a white-haired man in hip waders held his fishing pole high over his head with balletic control. Occasionally we passed vacation homes, even an Arabian horse farm, but mostly the canyon was quiet and unpopulated. Were it not for the jet boat and the clicking of our digital cameras, you could almost picture the place as it was just after Ice Age floods carved this canyon.

“On the left we have some really interesting formations,” Captain Pat announced, pulling me out of the past. Passengers swivelled in their seats, cameras poised. “We call them rocks.” They were, in fact, basalt columns formed by volcanic eruptions millions of years ago. On one such “rock,” an osprey glowered down at us.


The sun was low in the sky the Saturday afternoon when, two days earlier, we’d left the marina in Portland, and soon it was dark. We quickly reached the city’s double-decker Steel Bridge, its frame etched against a charcoal sky. An Amtrak train rolled over and was gone. Cars zipped along the highway bordering the river. Briefly, there was traffic in almost every direction.

After the train passed and the bridge lifted, we slid under. All was quiet save for the ambient chatter on deck and the white noise of water as it scoured the side of the ship. A flock of Canada geese skimmed the river going downstream as we sailed upstream. They arced over a ridge in a line — not a V— and were gone.

For much of our journey, a dialectic formed in my mind between the industry of the river and the surrounding, almost Martian hillside, a mottled high desert produced by volcanic flows and the crunching of tectonic plates. I’d embarked with the idea of sailing into the wilderness — a naive notion since the Columbia is, in reality, a marine superhighway that feeds Oregon’s biggest port. Fourteen dams span its width. Interstate 84 runs alongside much of the cruise route. As we passed through eight locks on our way up and downstream, the natural and the manmade were rarely out of sight. On one side were hills quilted with vineyards; on the other, the neon signs of service stations and fast-food restaurants. We often travelled neck-in-neck with transport trucks until they disappeared around bends in the highway.

Before heading below deck the first morning for a buffet breakfast of eggs, sausage and pancakes, I glanced starboard and saw a handful of white wind turbines sitting like sentinels on the top of a ridge, their arms slicing through low-lying clouds. The windmills here are largely symbolic; the river’s dams produce roughly 9,500 megawatts of power, more hydroelectricity than any other single waterway in North America. In the early 20th century, power-hungry aluminum factories and canneries popped up along its banks. You can still see the round vat-like buildings of former maraschino cherry plants in Astoria, Oregon. These days, Google has a data centre the size of two football fields in The Dalles, Oregon. Computer servers, it seems, are the new aluminum.

By day four, we had made our way past Washington wine country, up to Clarkston, and turned around for our descent. We’d passed through at least one lock overnight. I know this because I woke at 5 a.m. to the sound of metal bumping against concrete as deckhands tied the boat to buoys. I crawled back into my warm bunk in a tidy, narrow cabin and pulled up the covers.

I re-awoke an hour and a half later and discovered that we were nestled in a bay, the sun round in a cloudless sky. The computerized screen in the lounge read out our coordinates; another tiny box announced “ETA: never.” It turned out to be a quirk of the satellite map, but it said something about life on a river. Time seemed to pause the moment we embarked, giving us a sort of spatial weightlessness, even as we were in perpetual motion.

By now I had eased into the rhythm of cruising, which included de rigueur pre-dinner cocktails and brief lectures by the onboard historian and naturalist. My mornings usually started with a double espresso while reading the news, a printout digest of the New York Times’ top stories that came in by satellite. Keeners went up top for a short outdoor stretching class as the sun rose up over the mountains. After breakfast, cruise director Jen Martin laid out the day’s schedule, which typically featured an hour or two on land, be it kayaking in a deserted bay or driving to the infamous scablands of Washington or mountain biking down into the town of Hood River, Oregon. It was a balmy, dry November and I took to tanning on the deck with a macchiato and a novel. There was no need to see as many sights as I could, like a weary tourist in a new city — the ship brought the scenery right to me, a real-time nature documentary.

At Lower Monumental Dam, however, we entered the lock in three zodiacs for a close-up view, the cruise ship following behind. On the shore were grain elevators of wheat bound for Asia. We bobbed as the water level dropped over 10 minutes from 164 metres to 133 metres. Two engineers peered down at us from high up and Solstad, the naturalist, said, “We’re like rubber duckies to them.” When the guillotine doors of the lock lifted, we were met with a spray of water as we breezed through the opening back onto the river.

The benefit of retracing our route was that the scenery we’d passed during the night on our journey upstream we could see on the way down. “Take a look out the window,” Martin said after we’d passed into a lusher, wetter landscape west of the Cascade Mountains. “There’s something you haven’t seen in a long time. Trees.”

That evening I headed to the bridge to hang out with the captain, David Kay, and his first mate, Lucy Boyce, a red-headed Alaskan who grew up on fishing boats with her father. She started as a deckhand and worked her way up the ranks. Her task that night was to navigate yet another lock, this time in a darkness so black all I could see were the blinking lights of the ship’s navigational equipment and lights from the monolithic dam in front of us.
The boat clicked along at 11.8 knots, but it felt like slo-mo. Boyce’s eyes flickered between instruments. “This is speedy for us,” she said cheerily as John Lennon sang “Imagine” on the radio. Boyce sailed the Sea Bird toward the famous Bonneville Dam. The lockmaster was waiting for us. “I’ve got the back door open and the green banana on for you, chief,” he radioed. The deckhands reported our position back to Boyce: 10 feet, 5 feet. Then, “You’re about five feet after it now.” She backed up. Piloting even a small ship takes such focus that the world beyond the shoreline virtually fades out of existence. It is a kind of active meditation.

The captain hung back in the shadows of the bridge, quietly observing as Boyce maneuvered the boat into the lock, a small triumph for a young sailor.

“You be careful going downtown,” the lockmaster said as we departed.

“Will do,” Boyce replied. “We’ll see you on the flipside.”


We arrived in Portland before dawn on day six, a Friday. The darkened city seemed to float by us. The river was calm and quiet, but the city was already glowing with the tail lights of cars and trucks moving along the bridges and highways like toys in a child’s model town.

I stood in the deck and stared up at the stars. Soon it would be light, the city would wake up from its slumber, we would disembark, and time would start up again.

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