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Following in the footsteps of early explorers sees John Roberts traversing rivers and getting back to nature.

Long the domain of history buffs and wine lovers, the Pacific Northwest in the United States is a region worth exploring and UnCruise Adventures has tapped the majestic Columbia and Snake rivers to find a thrilling way to do it.

The expedition cruise company offers week-long Rivers of Adventure itineraries between Portland, Oregon, and Clarkston, Washington. I boarded SS Legacy replica coastal steamship in Clarkston, which sits across Snake River from Lewiston, Idaho, at the mouth of the downstream entrance to Hells Canyon, the deepest canyon in North America.

Onboard the SS Legacy

Onboard the SS Legacy

This canyon was the kick-off spot for a week of active adventures with UnCruise. The U.S. based line has specialised in Alaskan adventure cruises for more than 20 years but also offers expedition itineraries in Mexico, Hawaii, Costa Rica, Panama, Belize, Guatemala, Colombia, and, of course, the Pacific Northwest.

UnCruise’s ships carries between 22 and 90 passengers, and SS Legacy is the largest of the fleet. We had only three dozen passengers onboard for our journey, so there was a little more space to enjoy with our new friends in the bar and lounge area or while walking the decks. I especially liked that there was never a wait for either of the two hot tubs.

The ship offers basic, bordering on austere, amenities. But luxury is not the aim on these cruises. The vessel is meant to serve as a cosy home base, and it gets the job done. Small cabins open to a main promenade deck, so you can step right into the wilderness simply by opening your stateroom door each morning.

We started the first morning of the trip with a fresh breakfast and a birdwatching walk along the path adjacent to the pier in Clarkston. Then it was back to the ship to board a speedboat to take us down Snake River past Hells Gate State Park and into Hells Canyon.

These are the lands that Lewis and Clark boldly travelled on their famed pioneering expedition in the early 1800s, the first exploration by American settlers beyond the Continental Divide and into the western part of the U.S. It’s this chapter of American history that traditionally has been the focus of river cruises on the Snake and Columbia Rivers.

UnCruise Adventures has also offered such heritage-focused voyages, but our sailing on SS Legacy gave us a chance to learn about the area in a more active way, going deeper into the wilds to imagine what it might have been like when the region was untamed and undiscovered in 1805.

Our UnCruise guides gave onboard enrichment talks in addition to leading the adventures ashore. We heard about the geology and wildlife of the area, the Lewis and Clark journey, and the culture and history of the indigenous Nez Perce people who have lived in the Columbia River Plateau since at least the 18th century.

The Rivers of Adventure itinerary touches three states – Washington, Oregon and Idaho – and four rivers, with the addition of the Palouse and Deschutes (for rafting).

In Lyons Ferry, Washington, we anchored in a stunningly gorgeous spot at the confluence of the Snake and Palouse rivers to go ashore for a morning hike in Palouse Falls State Park. After lunch back onboard, we went for a long sunset kayak outing in a quiet canyon in the Palouse River.

Biking in wine country

Biking in wine country

The Pacific Northwest is notorious for its rainy weather, but the eastern side of the Cascade Mountain range where we were for much of the cruise is more desert-like, and this made for dry sunny days during our fall trip.

We also sailed into popular wine regions, with stops in Richland, Washington, and Hood River, Oregon, where excursions included bike rides to wineries for tastings.

Yoga and stretch classes are offered on UnCruise Adventures ships, and we joined the sessions to get the blood flowing each day. We also made it a nightly ritual to have a few beers or cocktails (included in your fare) at the bar in the lounge, taking recommendations from our friendly bartender DeeDee.

A talented chef and crew prepare fresh-made dishes, made from local vegetables, fruits, seafoods and meats. A baker also serves cookies, brownies, pastries and breads fresh from the oven.

My favourite days were those when we had the most time off the ship for challenging and fun excursions. On our day in Richland, UnCruise arranged for free bike rentals so we could enjoy some independent biking along the scenic Riverfront Trail that traces the Columbia River.

We also ventured onto the Deschutes River for a thrilling eight-mile white-water rafting trip through Class III rapids. It was an incredibly fun day in the sun, hearing local lore from our resident rafting guide Larry and enjoying a picnic lunch on shore afterward.

Rafting in the Pacific Northwest region

Whitewater rafting on Deschutes River

One more big day of activity followed in The Dalles, Oregon, with a sunrise hike on the Rowena Plateau (we spotted deer roaming the grasses) and up a twisting switchback to Tom McCall Point, where we had views of Mount Adams and Mount Hood. That afternoon was another bike ride; this time along the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail. Back in town, some cruisers sought out cafes and wine bars, while I joined my friends and fellow beer lovers to hunt down a craft brewery. We settled in at Full Sail Brewing Company for a flight to celebrate our exploits.

The cruise ended the next morning in Portland, but first we had one more stop. From the small town of Cascade Locks, we set off for visits to the Bonneville Lock and Dam and Multnomah Falls. As light rains fell during the afternoon, I took a short hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, enjoying one last chance to get into the wilderness and cap off the week of adventures.

Multnomah Falls

Multnomah Falls

The Verdict

Highs: The fantastic food, variety of excursions, interesting itinerary in a lightly cruised region coupled with fantastic service from crew and guides makes this a wonderful experience.

Lows: Cabins and bathrooms are small, making for a tight fit for two. Also, beds are not especially comfortable, and the rooms can feel damp because of the proximity to the outdoors. Active travellers looking for long and challenging hikes, bike rides and kayaking sessions might be disappointed.

Best Suited To: The Rivers of Adventure itinerary is ideal for travellers who prefer the intimacy of a small-ship expedition. This cruise mixes plenty of outdoors activities with programming that helps tell the story of the region.