muriel j smith 120aIt’s all about natural beauty, native Americans, locks, canyons and glorious American history as the American Empress cruises along the Snake River, meeting the Clearwater River on its way to the Columbia River and ultimately the Pacific Ocean camp where Lewis and Clark accomplished their mission for Thomas Jefferson. 

    And simply seeing the names of the two towns on opposite sides of the river, and in different states as well, lets you know how important Jefferson’s explorers heading to the Pacific Ocean are to the area. Lewiston is in Idaho and the county seat of Nez Perce County, named for the native Americans who settled, fished, hunted and freely roamed the area. Clarkson is the city’s smaller twin in the state of Washington, the river being the dividing line. It’s here the Snake River makes a left, goes through some locks, and empties into the Columbia River. Because of the locks, Lewiston, despite being some 500 miles from the Pacific, holds the title of being the farthest inland port on the West Coast, and is Idaho’s only seaport. It’s also the city with the lowest point above sea level, despite the massive and gorgeous mountains that abound. It’s just a few miles past Lewiston that the Snake goes through Hells Canyon, a 10-mile wide canyon that borders not only these two states but Oregon as well.  This is the deepest gorge in North America, close to 8,000 feet carved out of the basalt rock mountains by the Snake River water.

lc heading into lockPHOTO: Entering the locks

  And this is where the locks begin.

     The Empress goes through four locks on the Snake River, all maintained by the US Army Corps of Engineers, all about 100 feet high, and all built with ladders to allow fish to swim upstream for spawning. It’s a fascinating experience going through the locks, watching the Captain leave his wheel house to take up a second wheel outside and adjacent to the side of the ship hugging closest to the snug fitting lock. But there’s the awe of the Nez Perce reservation to enjoy first.

       With their hop Hop-On-Hop Off busses that travel on land as we cruise, ready to meet guests for rides to historic and spectacular sites, the Nez Perce Historical Park is far and away the most spectacular spot in the area. Here it’s easy to learn more of the history of the culture and lives of the Native Americans, both through a well-done video by the National Park Service, as well as artifacts, jewelry, hand-crafted artistry, together with knowledgeable guides and volunteers eager to share this history. A stop at an early 20th century Tudoresque-type home, Bridablik, was mildly interesting, and the stop at a Walmart, and the enthusiasm of some travelers eager to visit it, reminded me the western part of the nation is a lot different from our busy Eastern half!  It’s the biggest shopping area for 150 miles around!

lock closes behind boat

   Traversing the locks is fascinating to a non-engineering mind that can only marvel but not understand how a big boat can be maneuvered into a very narrow space just long enough to hold it, and huge metal doors seal it in at either end for the 10-15 minute falling or rising of the water that enables the journey to continue on the other side of the dams. It’s also here you can see the ladders built along side the dams, making it possible for salmon and others to follow their natural paths and continue their nature course.

lc hells canyonPHOTO: Hells Canyon

This is also the area where we began seeing some of the wildlife that abounds in both desert and mountain settings, along the river and high in the air. Eagle and turkey vulture hang out in tall trees along the river’s edge, cliff swallows seem to follow along the side of the boat, and while they say mule deer graze in the area, it seemed that cattle grazing on rocky and uneven ground were the most prolific mammals around. The land is barren here, compared to the lushness of other areas along the Snake and Columbia rivers, but it is soothing, restful, unforgettable, and not to be missed.

Next:  From Lewis & Clark to the atomic bomb