Cruising the Columbia River

The 73-stateroom Queen of the West
The 73-stateroom Queen of the West

“Good morning fellow historians,” boomed the NPR-like voice. Instinctively I rolled over to hit the snooze button. The voice continued, undeterred by my unsuccessful attempts to silence it. Frustrated, I continued to flail around in search of the coveted snooze button, only to send the contents of my bedside table crashing to the floor. Like the energizer bunny, the voice kept on going and going and continued to rattle on about the Umatilla and Walla Walla tribes. Reluctantly I sat up, rubbed my eyes and assessed the situation.

At some point I realized I wasn’t at home. Indeed, I was aboard the Queen of the West, cruising along Oregon’s Columbia River. The voice was coming from the ship’s intercom, not my clock radio. In spite of this frustrating first encounter with the voice, I grew to love it over the next seven days. It belonged to ship historian, Junius Rochester; whose daily lectures, insightful musings and morning vignettes made the history of the region simply come alive.

As you might have guessed, the Queen of the West is not your average cruise ship. Built in 1994, this paddlewheel riverboat has just 73 staterooms, including two that are wheelchair accessible (numbers 109 & 111). Each accessible stateroom has a level entry, wide doorways and a bathroom with a roll-in shower. The bathrooms do not have a 5X5 turning radius, but there is certainly enough room for a wheelchair-user to enter and back out of the bathroom. Although cozy, these accessible staterooms fit the bill for many wheelchair users.

And then there are the shore excursions! Not only are they among the best I’ve ever taken, but they’re also the most accessible.

All the shore excursions (which focus on the history of the region) are included in the cruise fare, and they are conducted on lift-equipped buses owned by the American West Steamboat Company.

Due to the retractable bow ramp on the Queen of the West, she can (and does) dock just about anywhere; and wherever she docks, the buses are waiting. It’s a very accessible way to explore the area.

On our first shore excursion we docked near Hood River and visited the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center and the Wasco County Historical Museum in The Dalles. These two museums are located side by side and present a comprehensive historical view of the area.

The Columbia Gorge Discovery Center features interpretive exhibits about the geology, wildlife, vegetation and ancient ways of life along the river; while the Wasco County Museum focuses on the early inhabitants of the county. Outside there is a living history park and an interpretive trail. The museum buildings offer barrier-free access, and the level trail is composed of hard-packed dirt. The whole complex is very nicely done access-wise.

After a short drive along the Columbia River Gorge, we returned to the ship for lunch. In the afternoon we visited Bonneville Dam, Multnomah Falls and then returned to the ship in time for happy hour.

Another day we docked near Pendleton Oregon and visited the Pendleton Rodeo Grounds for a western show. I was expecting a rodeo demonstration, but instead we saw a wild west show with lots of singing and comedy. The show was held in an indoor arena with level access and plenty of wheelchair seating up front.

One of my favorite stops was the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute, just east of Pendleton. This interpretive center tells the history of the Oregon Trail from the view of the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla tribes. There is barrier-free access throughout this very well done museum.

Actually, Tamastslikt is more of a living history museum, as in addition to the permanent exhibits, the tribe elders are on hand to share their memories with visitors. The highlight of the day was the afternoon dance performance at Tamastslikt.

We also covered the natural history of the area with a visit to Mt. St. Helens volcano. After docking in Longview, Washington, we traveled up the mountain to the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center. Putting this all into perspective, this entire area was completely devastated by the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens. It was ground zero. Gladly today there is rebirth to the area, a rebirth that can be seen on the nearby Winds of Change Trail.

Our final port of call was Astoria, Oregon, where we docked right next to the nicely accessible Columbia River Maritime Museum. Our morning shore excursion included a brief driving tour of the city and a chance to visit the museum in the afternoon.

So, although my Queen of the West experience got off to a rocky (and somewhat disoriented start), in the end, it was an excellent (and very accessible) experience. If you enjoy historical lectures, beautiful scenery and shore excursions that have nothing to do with shopping outlets, you’ll love this cruise. It’s a far cry from big ship cruising, and in my book, that’s a very good thing.

If You Go

American West Steamboat