Located in the United States Pacific Northwest, the Columbia River is the largest river in this region; fourth largest, by volume, in the United States. We enjoyed a two-hour cruise on this historic waterway last month.
This is the vessel we were on.
About an hour’s drive east of Portland, between the border of Oregon and Washington, the Columbia River Gorge is a unique 100-mile section of the river.
The river is very wide, and the water is both roiling and sparkling.
We didn’t see many pleasure-craft boats here, no doubt because of the fierce winds; but every day we saw windsurfers and hydrofoil surfers. It’s known as the Windsurfing Capital of the World.
Atmospheric pressure conditions within the Cascade Mountains create a wind-tunnel effect in the Gorge, regularly producing 35-mile-per-hour (56 km/h) winds.
The Columbia River has been a crucial corridor in North America for centuries, providing westward passage that avoids perilous mountain treks.
It is 1,243 miles (2,000 km) long, starting in the Canadian Rockies. It cuts west through the Cascade Mountain Range, empties into the Pacific Ocean.
In 1803, President Jefferson commissioned the Lewis and Clark Expedition to explore the western territory of the country. Also known as the Discovery Corps, they travelled the Columbia River to the coast, and again on their return trip.
In the 1800s this Gorge section of the Columbia River was raging. It was rocky and turbulent, with precipitous drops.
Lewis and Clark, in their dugout canoes, journeyed through the treacherous Gorge. They recorded the Gorge as a “…great number of both large and small rocks, water passing with great velocity forming and boiling in a horrible manner, with a fall of about 20 feet” (October 30- November 1, 1805).
The rapids then were ferocious, later estimated to be Class V–violent, risky, and dangerous.
It was so dangerous that the resident Native Americans never took boats through this section. In fact, they came by the hundreds to watch the crazy explorers navigating their canoes through here.
In some places of the Gorge, the Corps would portage around the rapids; i.e. transport their vessels and gear over land.
Fast-forward over a century; locks and dams were built in this section. Today the Bonneville Dam has tamed the waters, and uses the river’s energy for hydroelectric purposes.
Roads and railroad tracks have been built on both sides of the river, still utilizing the river’s path for passage to the coast.
And tourists like us ride on a triple-decker 119-foot paddle wheeler, a replica riverboat built in the 1980s. The Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler is propelled by two internal diesel engines; and has a single paddle wheel on the stern (rear), and a large, flat bottom.
We watched an osprey on its nest.
Lewis and Clark spotted California Condors here.
Native Americans have fishing nets and platforms along the water’s edge. They catch salmon and other fish here, like their ancestors did centuries ago.
This small island is where the Lewis and Clark Discovery Corps camped.
Thanks for joining me on the Columbia River Gorge, yesterday and today. A wild and wonderful place.
Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander except aerial photo, below.