In just its first hour, the Portland Spirit's newest cruise has already revealed an array of eye-popping scenery, much of it inaccessible to the landlocked traveler. A ship towering stories above us sits in the second-largest dry dock in North America. A bald eagle briefly swoops by as we near Sauvie Island. Cranes that hoist containers to shore line the Willamette, looking like rows of steel brontosauruses.
But that is not what anyone on this tour has come to see.
The view that really gets my fellow passengers excited comes after we hang a right onto the Columbia River—and it's about to unfold on our boat.
"I'll be bringing out my gun case that does not have any guns in it," says Farrah, the voyage's guide. "It has something better you can pass around."
She heads to the bow, pulls a black, rectangular chest out from under the bench seat and unsnaps the lid. A couple across from me exchange an anxious glance and visibly shiver with anticipation. Farrah lifts what appears to be a large stone from the case and turns around to reveal it's actually the footprint cast of the Pacific Northwest's most fabled resident: Sasquatch.
Depending on what type of passenger you are on this sightseeing tour, the sights themselves aren't necessarily the main attraction. Sure, the Bigfoot Explorer ($98 per person) buzzes you past the Gorge's greatest hits, like Multnomah Falls and Beacon Rock. But the objective isn't just to admire the landscape. We're actually hot on the trail of the elusive man-ape, along a corridor that's historically been rife with sightings.
The jet boat has been part of the Portland Spirit fleet for 15 years, racing thrill-seekers up and down the picturesque ravine dividing Oregon and Washington. But it wasn't until this spring that the company decided to transform the trip into a Bigfoot safari. So far, it's proven exceedingly popular—most of the Saturday trips have sold out, according to the marketing director of the Portland Spirit, and the Bigfoot merch has become by far the company's biggest seller. It's a change that also delights Farrah, who works the rest of the year as a middle school teacher, since it allows her to pepper onboard history lessons with stories about the 'Squatch.
"As far as Bigfoot goes, we haven't seen him yet," she says after checking in passengers at Salmon Street Springs Dock. "But all the signs are here."
A glance around our 40-foot water-skimming torpedo reveals my 12 cruisemates appear to be your run-of-the-mill tourists with floppy sun hats and Nikons slung around necks. Observe a little more closely, though, and that's when I notice the "Cryptozoology Society" tank top, more than one key chain with fobs in the shape of the creature dangling from backpacks, and a camera strap that proudly proclaims "I Believe."
Clearly I'm sharing this boat with the Bigfoot faithful.
Before we launch on one of those classic overcast summer mornings in Portland, I survey a map to our out-and-back destination of Cascade Locks displayed near the open-air stern of the vessel. Outlines of Bigfoot mid-amble are stamped across the twisting, blue route indicating all the places where he's allegedly been spotted. I don't know if anyone actually expected to see Chewbacca's long-lost cousin during the course of this seven-hour—yes, seven-hour—trip. Surely, the sound of the boat's 900-horsepower engine would send it sprinting off into the woods.
Instead, we learn about the documented sightings in more detail from the trip's other guide, who actually isn't onboard with us—Cliff Barackman, who for years documented his treks deep into the wilderness researching possible signs of this missing link on Animal Planet's Finding Bigfoot, narrates through noise-canceling headphones. Now living in Portland, where he chose to relocate to be as close as possible to Bigfoot Country, Cliff tells us his passion for tracking down the bipedal beast has taken him to five continents and 46 states.
"Once, and only once, I saw one," he says on the recording. "Maybe I'll convince you that there's more to this subject than mythology and legend."
Bigfoot casts the size of Shaq's forearm aren't the only show-and-tell pieces hidden on board. As we breeze below the neo-Gothic arches of the St. Johns Bridge, Farrah passes around a pamphlet that acquaints us with Bigfoot's kin in other countries, creatures with names like "orang pendek" and "yeren," as well as a book with plastic sleeves holding copies of newspaper clippings describing sightings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
"Some persons who have been drinking mountain dew, manufactured in the neighborhood of Nicktown," reads one article from an 1888 edition of the Indiana Weekly Messenger, "report that they met a wild man in the neighborhood of Mehafley. They report him as being 10 feet high, and covered with hair and his tracks in the sand measure 16 inches. That Nicktown whiskey must be terrible stuff."
Along with the archived news samples, the books contain an inspiring photo of Cliff holding binoculars and squinting with determination into the distance, with a dazzling blue sky and dense forest as the backdrop. It's an image that casts him as part Bear Grylls, part Indiana Jones, and his fervor makes you half-hope that a Sasquatch will trot out of the brush and wave at us from the banks of the Columbia.
It doesn't happen. There was the time three sasquatches attacked a miners' cabin near Mount St. Helens. Though sasquatches normally are nonconfrontational with humans, Cliff believes they were provoked by one of the men who fired a gun at one of them earlier that day. Then there was the fifth-grade field trip to Latourell Falls—a student caught sight of Bigfoot up on the cliff and everyone, including the chaperones, turned to look. The creature, realizing it was exposed, dropped to the ground and, Cliff says, probably belly-crawled away. Perhaps most impressive are the now-legendary Silver Star Mountain photos. Snapped in 2005 by a hiker from Vancouver, Wash., the images show a shadowy figure on a snow-covered peak that appears too large and apelike to be another backpacker. It's considered among the more compelling recent evidence from the area.
We eventually dock at Cascade Locks, where people pose with the trip's mascot—a wooden carving of Bigfoot with a pissed-off expression on its face—and lunch at the Locks Waterfront Grill, which also sells Sasquatch-themed mugs, shirts and socks.
On the return trip, a few more surprises are in store for us: recordings of supposed Bigfoot howls, moans and growls, which mostly sound like the wind. But Cliff translates this communication, comparing it to dudes in the woods yelling "Hey!" "Wooh!" and "Agh!" I guess I should've figured that if Bigfoot did exist, he would be a bro.
We glide back onto the Willamette and everyone falls silent for a bit. Suddenly, Farrah takes out a box of blue surgical gloves, which is always a sign things are about to get risky, and pulls a pair onto her hands. Earlier in the recording, Cliff described Bigfoot hair samples and its scent, which we were now about to experience with a scientific reproduction. Inside a jar is a chip mimicking the animal's smell. Farrah takes it to each willing nose on the boat.
"Ugh!" one woman winces, quickly recoiling from the source. Another wants the entire lid off for maximum exposure, which she quickly regrets. She takes a whiff of coffee beans Farrah has provided as a nostril cleanser.
Doing my due diligence, I reluctantly inhale when the jar is presented in front of my face. It's pretty bad. Think of a musty, wet dog that's never had a bath, with a dash of urine and skunk spray. At least find comfort in the fact that if you were to get close to a Bigfoot while camping, you could smell it coming from a mile away.
Smelling isn't quite believing, though, and I can't say I came away from the tour a convert. But it's certainly fun to imagine there might be something besides us humans out there. And even if there isn't a band of sasquatches tromping around Oregon, the thrill of the imaginary chase is worth it—and hey, at least I got some pretty pictures out of the deal.
GO: See more information about the Columbia Gorge Bigfoot Adventure Cruise at bigfootcruise.com.