A New Light on the Old West

When we think of cowboys and indians, it's all too easy to recall those gun-toting heroes of the old west purging the dusty plains of trouble-making savages, dodging arrows and riding off into the sunset. If there was ever a tired old cliché, that has to be it.

It may also seem unusual that a small ship or adventure cruise could bring you close to this part of the world, but Cruise West's Northwest Passage itinerary delivers you into the midst of Oregon Country, the scene for its own particular brand of frontier spirit. Our vessel, Spirit of '98, carries 100 passengers up the vast Columbia River toward the lesser tributaries of the Snake, Umatilla and Walla Walla Rivers, all the while retracing the paths of early explorers like Lewis and Clarke and recounting their interactions with the local tribes.

My first encounter with native American culture was meeting the elderly father of my tour host in Wrangell, Alaska. A respected tribal elder of the regional First Nation tribe [Tlingit] or as they were once called, Eskimos. I learned about their strong connection with the land, hunting traditions and resilient family structures. I also couldn't help but notice the many parallels with our own indigenous cultures' experiences with European settlers.

This once isolated NW corner of America has been something of an anomaly in the country's development and expansion. After the controversial Louisiana land purchase at the very beginning of the 19th Century, the US Government under Jefferson, formed the Corps of Discovery to find out just what they'd got themselves into. Two young military officers, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, were chosen to command the motley crew and find a path to the Pacific.

The journey of this intrepid pair and their cohorts is taught to every American school kid from year one onwards. Often downplayed in the telling is the significance of the American Indian tribes in their ultimate success. In particular a young native woman recorded as Sacagawea, often led the party through some of their most difficult moments and certainly helped smooth their passage through tribal lands.

Consequently, thanks to the skill of native interpreters and the benevolence of the tribes, Lewis and Clark were able to complete their mission and open the gates for western migration. The rest of the story for the tribes does not have such a happy ending. Thanks to some double-dealing by the newcomers and diseases like smallpox and malaria, the native tribes suffered enormously. Any lingering disputes were resolved at the point of a gun.

The strength and integrity of these people who populated the land some ten thousand years before the European arrival was demonstrated to me in just a few minutes when local Nez Perce arts council chairperson, Angel Sobotta, came aboard for a short talk. She spoke with such eloquence and elegant authority that the small audience was transfixed. We learned as much about her pride in her significant ancestors as her little family and young children. Even though she must have given this talk many times, her voice still quivered at the mention of her late grandparents that helped her recover and preserve the endangered traditions. Her message was clearly one of peace and reconciliation, and not just for her people alone, but for all the planet.

This retelling may sound emotive and melodramatic, but when travel companies talk about the now proverbial “transformational and experiential” products sought out by the new wave of adventure travellers, it's hard to imagine something more effective and genuine than these encounters.

Fact File:

Established over 60 years ago by founder, Chuck West, the company that bears his name is one of the most ambitious adventure cruise lines around. Beginning in Alaska, Cruise West now offers itineraries as far afield as in Japan, Mexico, Antarctica and the Galapagos. The Seattle-based line just announced its most comprehensive sailing yet; the Voyages of the Great Explorers, a 335-day circumnavigation of the world.

Cruise West offers three variations within its Columbia and Snake River products, each visiting a different mix of natural and man-made sights.

The Northwest Passage is seven nights and eight days Portland to Portland. Prices begin at US$2999 per person which covers taxes / port charges / fees and onboard services.

Bookings can be made with any travel agent through a network of local sales representatives.

For a comprehensive catalogue, see www.cruisewest.com

Ship Details:

Vessel: Spirit of '98

Cruise Line: Cruise West

Star rating: 3 Stars

Max Passenger Capacity: 96

Entered Service: 1984, refurb 1995

Facilities: All cabins have private facilities, some have minibar. Bar/library/lecture room, dining room, sundeck/outdoor dining, exercise machine, Internet, elevator

Getting There: V Australia flies daily to LA from Sydney and now three times per week from Brisbane with easy domestic connections through Virgin Blue. Fares from Australia to Portland start from $1299 return. For full conditions and promo fares, see www.vaustralia.com.au

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