The Channel Less Traveled
As the S.S. Legacy sails its leisurely journey on the Columbia River, we pass areas where the river is more than four miles wide and other places where it’s only a few hundred yards across. The scenery is stunning as we travel almost a thousand miles from Portland to the country’s deepest canyon in Idaho, then all the way down to the Pacific Ocean before returning to Portland one week later. The variety of climates, landscapes and ecosystems we see along the way is unparalleled. The transitions from one to the next are swift and somewhat startling.
But there is one part of the Columbia River, just east of a city named The Dalles, Oregon, that is like no other. In this place the river splits into two channels creating a large island between the two. This dry land has been named Miller’s Island and is part of the Yakima Indian Reservation. Nobody lives there except a modest herd of deer that are harvested a handful of times annually when members of the reservation visit the island for their hunt.
The two channels couldn’t be more contrasting. The south course is wide and defines a gentle curve at the entrance to the Deschutes River. This channel is very forgiving, allowing for vessels to pass one another with ease. This is the route the barges and larger passenger vessels take. This is the route that most everyone takes. This is the route that the S.S. Legacy chooses to take…most of the time.
But when the sun is bright in the sky, the wind is but a hush, the river level is full and gentle and no other vessels are in the channel, we choose the route on the Washington side.
When conditions are perfect, the captain loves to take us through the narrow chute known as Hell’s Gate. And on this day, conditions were perfect.
The course is tight and twisty, almost as if, instead of a river, we are sailing through a slalom course. The basalt bluffs tower over us on the north side where the railway snakes by on an impossibly narrow shelf just above the water level.
Amtrak’s Empire Builder speeds its way around these bends as it heads from the Pacific Northwest to points east. The two vessels exchange cheery whistles in greeting as they are old friends. The Legacy and the Empire Builder see each other every week on the river.
The train is gone in a flash and the Legacy continues to make its leisurely zigs and zags through Hell’s Gate. The channel is often so close to the shoreline that it feels as though you can reach out and touch the deer on Miller’s Island.
It may seem alarming but the view is deceptive. The captain knows that the channel in this place, though narrow, is plenty deep for the Legacy. All it needs is 10 feet of water to safely make its way through this beautiful area where few others can or will go.
Finally, after an unforgettable 30 minutes, we emerge from the eastern entrance to Hell’s Gate as the two channels rejoin to create the wide, majestic river that we’ve come to expect, with the Maryhill mansion and the Museum of Art smiling down on us from the heights above.
We don’t take this path most weeks but when conditions are just right, the S.S. Legacy will spice things up by taking you places that the others will not or simply cannot go.