Portland, I Love Ya, But I Want to Go Home

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“I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain…”

One more 6:30 a.m. wake-up alarm. It’s been a long week for this non-morning person.

I didn’t intend to disappear from my website. During a week on the Columbia River, our UnCruise ship traveled through major “No Service” areas for two-thirds of the week. Stunning remote parts of our country that you probably don’t know even exist. And no phone service, either. Great if you want to be off the grid.

It was only about one week ago I boarded the S.S. Legacy. The Legacy is a handsome, steamer-like, very small ship owned by UnCruise Adventures that cruises up and back from Portland, Oregon on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. An incredible cruise experience to some of the most far-flung areas that a ship can venture into in the Lower 48.


My third time on this exact itinerary and I knew what to expect for internet and phone service. I planned to have articles ready to upload during those few minutes when I could tether my phone to my computer. Really I did.

That’s the most frustrating part of keeping a up-to-date blog…always having internet access. Rather…always assuming you’ll have internet access, even when you know better.

So our week on the two rivers was terrific. It’s an itinerary, ship and cruise line that I heartily recommend. Unfortunately, the weather and an idiot teen turned a beautiful week of sunshine and clean air into a literal firestorm.

Before Hurricane Irma overtook the headlines, maybe you heard about the Eagle Creek fires that were raging through Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge. All it took was one stupid kid to light a fire cracker in the dense, mountainous forest near magnificent Multnomah Falls.

The nearly 100-year old visitor center was almost destroyed by the upcoming fire. If you’ve ever gazed up at the purple-hued, 600′ waterfall, you’ve also walked past the 1925-era visitor center/gift shop.

We had just spent a leisurely morning at Bonneville Dam and Multnomah Falls. Back on S.S. Legacy, we looked forward to an afternoon cruise on the river. Our only “sea” day. As we slowly cruised upriver, the air quality began to change. Smoke from fires that blazed in Oregon and Washington converged and nearly obliterated the surrounding mountains, including always snow-capped Mt. Hood.

But onward we forged, determined to stick to the original itinerary. The next day would bring a four-hour jet boat ride on the Snake River, flanked by 4,000-ft canyon walls.

The air took on a yellow-ish tint, while acrid smoke became less noticeable as we became more enthralled with wildlife sightings.

We were to spend almost the entire week engulfed in smoke so thick that even at high noon, the sun glowed like a ruby red orb.

It was when we started our downstream run towards Astoria that we heard the news of the Eagle Creek fire near Multnomah Falls. I have no idea how authorities caught the teenager who was responsible for the fast-moving blaze.

On our second downstream day from the Snake River, we received news that the raging fire had jumped the Columbia River and was now burning on the Washington side as well. Thousands of acres were burning. Six subsistence farms would lose their entire winter crop. Zero percent contained.

It was about now that we also received word that Hurricane Irma was a powerful Category 5 hurricane with Florida in the crosshairs.

Cruising through the fires

Captain Lyman announced a special meeting in the lounge after dinner. This scenario instantly reminded me of being on a Europe river cruise during high or low water. The captain gathers everyone after dinner and explains an impromptu disruption of changing river ships.

This time, there were no other ships to board. Only buses would help in an emergency to be our only way out of the burning gorge. Nothing was guaranteed…it was a wait and see situation.

Shore excursions proceeded on schedule; 7:30 a.m. breakfast followed by boarding the tour bus promptly at 9:00 a.m. Face masks and eye drops were offered for those who needed or wanted them. A far cry from the usual free sea sick pills found on ocean cruises. This was all totally weird.

When word was sent from the Coast Guard that they would allow us to pass through a 20-mile security zone where no personal marine vessels were allowed, we had another briefing. The condition for passage was that all passengers were to stay indoors. Falling embers were a very real hazard. No one complained about the two-hour moratorium on going out on deck. You didn’t want to anyway…the air quality was so poor that it was tough to breathe.

As we entered the no-cruise zone at 8:00 p.m., I gazed out my cabin window and began to count wildfires. Bright orange flames cast their glowing reflection on the river. At 23 fires, I stopped counting. Crew members wearing industrial-style gas masks passed by my window as they patrolled the decks. Water hoses were at the ready should any sparks or embers land on the ship.

By 10 p.m., the Captain addressed us over the in-cabin PA system. We were in the clear and heading for Astoria. Winds had shifted too, bringing a clean, crisp ocean breeze to push the smoke eastward. We could finally step outside and take a deep breath.

Diagonally across the USA, Hurricane Irma dominated the news. Airports in Florida were going to close before Saturday’s flights from Portland could reach the sunshine state. Since I don’t fly, when I read that Amtrak’s last train south from either New York or Florida were also canceled, I panicked. Suddenly, I was thrust into the same uncertainty as flyers; an emotion I had always managed to avoid. There were no flights into Orlando that would arrive before the airports closed.

So here I wait in Portland, ready for my series of trains that will slowly get me home to Florida.

Thanks for bearing with me during my few days of absence. To all those affected by the horrific fires in the west and the devastating results of Irma and Hurricane Harvey, too, I hope you can rebuild and return to your former way of life very soon.

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