Snake and Columbia River Tour

April 2018

For years we have noticed the sternwheeler docked in Astoria and thought it would be fun to try someday. However we found that it was quite expensive and put it on hold. We decided to revisit the idea as we had a relatively uneventful 5 or 6 weeks coming up in April and May. We found out that they shut down over the winter (no real surprise) and started up a shortened version of their regular cruise in March. This was round trip from Vancouver (our Vancouver, Washington!) to The Dalles and Astoria. However the river cruising was at night and we have easy access to The Dalles and Astoria of course already. So...the travel agent brought up a longer trip of a week from Clarkston to Astoria and back to Vancouver or the reverse. She recommended the Clarkston to Astoria route with an initial night in Spokane. AND….by golly they had some really good deals!

Well the only catch was figuring out how to get to Spokane. It turns out the flights from PDX to Spokane are certainly not cheap on Sundays! So Butch had the bright idea of renting a car one way. Getting and returning cars away from airports is a lot cheaper but unfortunately with Costco you have to have a least one end at an airport. So we checked out some of the rental car companies and set up a rental through Budget for less than 100 dollars. What a better deal is this!!! And no worries about restrictions for liquids and such with flying.

Sunday April 8: Drive to Spokane

We went to pick up our car and found that they had reserved a KIA. Unfortunately Butch could not easily fold himself into the driver’s seat. So….they upgraded us to a van for an extra 7 dollars - well worth it!

Our drive started in pouring rain but this resolved once we drove past The Dalles. Our first order of business upon arriving in Spokane was to find the Costco and gas up. We consider it “our duty” to tour any Costco we come across and often have the side benefit of food sampling. After some difficulties with our phone GPS we finally found the historic Davenport Hotel and got checked into our room. We had a pizza at a restaurant across the street that was a combined sushi and pizza place!

The Davenport originally opened in 1914 and was named for the original proprietor Louis Davenport. It was the first hotel in the US with air conditioning and a central vacuum. It was also where the first Crab Louis was created and served. Fun fact - Butch’s brother Bill worked in the restaurant many years ago. Our room was spacious and the soaking tub was much appreciated. The bed was quite high and required either a run and jump or roll on/roll off technique.

Here are a few pictures from around the hotel common areas:

Who is that cute guy in the lobby area?

Hall of the Doges - a large ballroom designed after the Palace of Doges in Venice.

And the fancy ceiling….

Sitting with the original owner Mr. Davenport

Monday April 9: Drive to Clarkston via the Palouse Scenic Highway

Bags out by 8 am! Then we headed down for a nice buffet breakfast. After breakfast our first order of business was to return the rental car. Well it turned out the Davenport no longer had the free 2 mile radius pickup so we decided to try out my Uber app. It worked like a charm and it was quite fun seeing the Uber cars tootling around on the app.

I went on a self guided walking tour of the hotel. What a grand place!

Then we both headed out the door for a nearby shopping mall for lunch and a viewpoint of the Spokane Falls. Note this was the site of electricity generation in 1887!

After waiting in the “herding area” for a while (we were the last of the last bus) we were off to Clarkston. They took us on a scenic drive on the Palouse Byway. It was interesting and beautiful in its own way and interestingly we have never been on this particular road through Washington. It is full of rolling hills of soft white winter wheat. This is big business in Southeast Asia as it makes noodles which are popular there. Of interest is that since it is grown in the winter (when the little amount of rain occurs) there is no irrigation required. The farmers do quite well as many of them supplement their income by leasing their land for wind turbines. Of course sophisticated equipment that is GPS guided (and air conditioned cabs) are used for the fields. Most of the farmers are part of co-ops and share some of the more expensive equipment and labor.

We arrived as the last bus to Clarkston at our home for the next week. Here is a view of our boat from the bridge.

Home sweet home for the next week!

We embarked to music playing and friendly staff greeting us. Oh and….white Pelicans on the river!

We signed up for the river bar and grill and had a great dinner during the river cruise with lobster and wine! A view along the snake river as we floated along:

Tuesday April 10th: Clarkston - Jet boat tour on the Snake

A few words about Clarkston. This town is across the river from Lewiston, Idaho (get it? Lewis and Clark?). It is the world’s leader in manufacturing jet boats and it stands at the gateway to America’s deepest gorge, Hell’s canyon. The Nez Perce are the Native Americans who have resided in the area for eons and welcomed the Lewis and Clark expedition (after some debate with the elders as to whether welcome or fight them).

We were up early to get ready for the jet boat excursion and voila a breakfast was delivered to our stateroom. Well….apparently someone put the wrong stateroom on their order and since they couldn’t figure out who ordered it we got to have it! By the way - a very nice feature of our little room was the Keureg coffee maker.

We were unusually lucky for the seating in our jet boat as we were just after the cutoff for the first boat and thus were able to sit right smack in front. The captain’s name was Butch (now that will be easy to remember) and his assistant’s name was “Joe Bob” - no kidding! We were dressed for the cold and rain but it turns out that the boat was enclosed and heated for warmer weather. Unfortunately our camera could not focus well through the plastic windows but did fine on the front glass windows. Highlights included animal sightings of osprey, mule deer and a big horn sheep. We also stopped at a place with well preserved petroglyphs.

Nice osprey!

A snack stop was along the way for coffee and cookies and a chance to stretch our legs at the Idaho Garden Creek Preserve. This was originally a working cattle ranch.

Beautiful hills by the river

We were a little disappointed as there was not enough time for going up far into Hell’s canyon where the gorge is more narrow and steep. Also the jet boat didn’t do any exciting speeding or turns and was really more like a sedate bus ride (appropriate for the elderly group?). We did go far enough such that the road ended and homes or vacation cabins thereafter lived “off the grid” and were only accessible by boat. They had pump houses for getting river water and in the case of our lunch stop location generated their own electricity from a flowing stream.

Our boat captain had to turn us around to be sure and get us off the boat by 12:30 pm. The bus driver on the other hand was under the impression that the pickup time was 1 pm. So….this meant that many seniors were stranded near the parking lot with no seats or restrooms. Of note though Costco was in view from above the lot!

The restaurant on the boat remained open an extra half hour to accommodate the returning seniors. Unfortunately the bread was stale and the service was slow. From here on out we will probably choose the buffet upstairs instead for lunch and breakfast.

For the afternoon our river boat cruised down the Snake River. We transited several locks in the range of 100 feet high! Here is our initial route heading to Richland:

Sun on the hill with a faint rainbow above….. beautiful!

Getting ready to exit our lock

Our “Riverlorian” Laurence Cotton gave an overview talk of the entire area (Lewis and Clark, animals and nature, the Oregon trail, etc). We attended a Veteran’s meet and greet (including a free drink!) and also the Showtime presentation of music across America. There are some talented singers and dancers on this boat. We had a late dinner schedule at 7:45 pm but enjoyed it thoroughly. And of course we were pretty much ready for bed after that.

Wednesday April 11: Richland - Hanford B Reactor tour

Today was a most interesting tour of the Hanford B Reactor in the Manhattan project national park..

But first lunch as the workers used to experience…..

I learned in some detail the process of plutonium production at the plant. It is made from cores of uranium that release neutrons that are greatly slowed in speed compared to nature by the outer carbon covering (graphite) in the reactor. This allows them to be absorbed by some of the uranium to form plutonium (a man made element). It takes some number of days depending on the location of the core (happens slower on the edges) for optimal plutonium concentration. At that point the new uranium rods are pushed in through the aluminum pipe and the old is “pooped” out the back to eventually be moved to the area where the plutonium is separated from the uranium.

Here is the front of the B reactor where the action happens

A diagram of the reactor - note the carbon skeleton upper left

The whole process creates lots of heat and is cooled by a water sleeve from water pumped from the nearby river (part of why this site was chosen). There are safety rods that absorb neutrons and control the rate of the reaction (or entirely shut it down if needed). Here is a overview map of the Hanford site:

Photo of the B reactor area Jan 1945 (the reactor building is between the two emergency water supply tanks).

Of interest a Russian inspection team periodically tours the site to make sure there is not any sneaky production of plutonium occuring. They apparently are more interested in playing golf and going to restaurants than spending a lot of time at the plant. They have disassembled the water intake pumps to “prove” it is no longer active.

Note the lids are off on the water intake sites

In the control room. Look who is in charge. Uh oh, I hope I am not supposed to be doing something important!

The whole building project was coordinated by Dupont and was quite a gigantic undertaking to build involving more than 50,000 people. Very, very few knew what they were actually building or working on once operational as it was all very top secret. This was an ideal site as it had the Columbia river nearby (again for cooling), had access to large amounts of power from the dam and was a relatively isolated area. Unfortunately it involved evicting some homeowners and Native Americans. It created a huge community of workers and the town of Richland was laid out with housing (the “ABC” house plans that are still in place today). The housing (or barracks) at the site were segregated racially and by sex (even for the married couples). Some couples resorted to living in trailers.

After returning we listened to a lecture about the Oregon trail by Laurence. It was well done as it brought the experience to life as he quoted various people who made the difficult journey. Then to a show, dinner and bed!

Thursday April 12: River Cruising to The Dalles

Today was an easy day as our sternwheeler made its way from Richland to The Dalles. Here are the maps of our route:

There were lots of things going on during the day. We heard two Lewis and Clark lectures and played BINGO and blackjack. And….I won twice at bingo including the grand prize of 120 bucks! However our luck was very poor at Blackjack as we had an extremely lucky blackjack dealer. Oh well…..can’t win them all!

Friday April the 13! The Dalles

Butch turned on the air last night - somehow his sleepy mind worried about oxygen in the cabin! I headed out for a short hike to the Rock Fort Camp of Lewis and Clark along the river. It was quite helpful to be with our Riverlorian as he pointed out the actual site just up a small hill to the side of the public site.

Later we went on the hop on hop off bus around The Dalles. The first stop was the the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center museum for an interesting film about the geology of the area. This was specifically about the repeated raging floods through the area that occurred approximately 12-15,000 years ago (the Missoula floods) as glaciers melted and the huge ice dam periodically drained the massive glacial Lake Missoula. There was also some displays about the Native Americans, early settlers and a live raptor exhibit (including our favorite, the owl).

About The Dalles - there is a large Google facility! In the early days this was a wild town with lots of saloons and brothels. It is a very important cherry growing area. There are some nice murals in town:

I then went to a stop at the Fort Dalles museum. This is located in the hills above the town in an area where some large old homes were located. The museum is located in the former fort’s Surgeon’s Quarters and contained displays of pioneer and military artifacts. The grounds also had a collection of old wheeled vehicles and a log building of the Anderson Homestead built by a Swedish immigrant in 1895. This gave me an idea of the living conditions of early immigrants to the area. The Swedish were quite skilled in building log cabins as this is what they used for homes in their native land.

Finally a visit to Old St Peter’s catholic church, now used for a variety of other functions.

Beautiful marble interior!

Upon our return we saw a film about Frederick Olmstead: Designing America. He was important for designing parks - of note Central Park in New York. Then we went to the usual evening activities of watching a show and of course eating a multi-course meal.

Saturday April 14th: Stevenson

First off a walk for me along the river to a site where the kite boarders take off. It is great that each town along the river has walking and biking paths.

We had a great tour of the Pilot House with Captain Ron discussing how the boat runs, the navigation system and so on. He was very informative and we found it quite interesting! He was the youngest captain on the river and used to run some of the barges up and down the river. About the boat itself - it turns out that the big wheel on the stern does in fact contribute about 2.5 miles an hour to our speed average total of 13 miles/hour. The boat has a very easily maneuvered rudders for steering. It is actually made as an ocean going vehicle also but at this time strictly does the river cruising. Since we are of course heading downstream our fuel consumption is less as compared to going back upriver. He discussed some of the safety features (like the heavy doors that slam shut to isolate flooding of any given compartment). He also pointed out that while the ship is underway no more than 2 persons are allowed in the Pilot House to minimize distractions.

We went on the hop on hop off bus in the afternoon. We stopped at the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center with the huge replica of the fish wheel close to the entry. We also stopped at the Bonneville Dam to check out the fish ladders but didn’t see much happening there! Apparently we are a little early for most of the salmon heading upstream.

The highlight of the day was dinner in the upper restaurant with the beauty of the gorge gliding by us. We both opted for the lobster and Butch received TWO!!! He earned some points with me by splitting his extra lobster with me. The scenery was beautiful but of course we did not have any sort of camera with us.

Sunday April 15: Astoria

It really felt as if we were home today with our house in Ilwaco not far from our boat. It was quite cold - BRRRRR! We just rode around on the hop on hop off bus and also visited the maritime museum. I wasn’t really aware that some of Astoria was originally built on pilings over the river. After the second large fire the town was essentially moved back on the river shoreline instead.


All and all we had a great experience traveling on a river boat in our own backyard. We learned quite a bit and thoroughly enjoyed the educational lectures by our Riverlorian Laurence Cotton. We were the only travelers from the northwest on the boat as most of our fellow travelers were older and from the eastern or midwest part of the US. The food and entertainment were outstanding (though the music was oriented more to “older folks”). A month later and the weather would have been warmer and prices higher!

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