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A journey through the Columbia River Gorge | Grant's Getaways

The Columbia River Gorge is a timeless place where ancient basalt cliffs rise hundreds of feet above a river that takes the breath away.

CASCADE LOCKS, Ore. — A journey through the Columbia River Gorge is a fine way to enjoy dramatic scenery, views to wildlife and a significant lesson on Oregon history. The heart of the gorge is Cascade Locks, the home port for the Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler. 

There are so many faces to the Columbia River Gorge, for it is a place that’s never twice the same. It is a timeless place where light and shadow dance across ancient basalt cliffs that rise hundreds of feet above a river that takes the breath away for its size and power. 

There is so much, so close and so easy to reach when you visit the heart of the gorge at Cascade Locks; home port for the Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler, where a whistle lets you know it’s time to get moving across the water. 

Folks come from all over to step aboard the Gorge Sternwheeler and Captain Tom makes sure the experience is spectacular. As he likes to say, "It’s the most important part of my job."

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"There are no propellers. No bow thrusters, so it’s all about wind and current. The boat responds the way a paddlewheel boat would have in the 1800’s."

Tom Gramblett stepped aboard the Gorge Sternwheeler in 1982 just after it was built and delivered to Cascade Locks. He worked his way up the ranks to become one of two skippers to guide the Sternwheeler on daily tours. 

He said that sternwheelers arrived on the Columbia River in 1850 during a time when shipping goods and people on the giant waterway was the only practical means of transportation. 

"Stevenson, Washington and Cascade Locks each got their start as gorge portage communities where the movement of freight and passengers around the Cascade Rapids was possible."

The Cascade Rapids was a dangerous and terrible place to run a ship with more than half a mile of frothing rapids, giant boulders and 20-foot drops. 

"Shipwrecks were common," noted Gramblett. He added that the danger and the many wrecks eventually led to the construction of the Cascade Locks with more than 3,000-feet of canal with three giant steel gates. 

When it opened in 1896, it offered easy passage for steamboats delivering food, supplies and people thru the gorge. 

"The area doesn’t grow without it! The ships moved all the farming goods, moved all the people and if you were going to get somewhere in the Columbia River Basin, it was the paddleboat that got you there."

These days, the Sternwheeler is all about recreation, as passengers enjoy unique sights and sounds, including bald eagles, osprey and even peregrine falcons. 

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Capt. Tom said he is always on the lookout for ways to "wow" his passengers, no matter their age. 

He invited young Cameron Norton to climb aboard the captain’s chair and help steer the ship. 

The four-year-old eagerly followed the captain’s orders and sported a big smile while he steered a straight course. 

The youngster’s dad, Jeremy Norton, stood a few feet away and said, “I used to go on this when I was a kid, so to bring my own son out here is fantastic." 

It is a fantastic way to experience the Oregon outdoors; one that invites you to sit, watch the river and the world flow by. 

The Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler operates daily and offers one hour tours all summer long. 

Be sure to follow my Oregon adventures via the Grant’s Getaways Podcast

Each segment is a story-telling session where I relate behind the scenes stories from four decades of travel and television reporting. 

You can also learn more about many of my favorite Oregon travels and adventures in the Grant’s Getaways book series, including:  

"Grants Getaways I," Photography by Steve Terrill 

 "Grant's Getaways II," Photography by Steve Terrill 

 “Grant’s Getaways: 101 Oregon Adventures,” Photography by Jeff Kastner 

 “Grant’s Getaways: Guide to Wildlife Watching in Oregon,” Photography by Jeff Kastner 

 “Grant’s Getaways: Oregon Adventures with the Kids,” Photography by Jeff Kastner 

The collection offers hundreds of outdoor activities across Oregon and promises to engage a kid of any age. 

My next book, “Grant’s Getaways: Another 101 Oregon Adventures” will be published in November.

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