All braids aboard

When it comes to stern-wheeler captains, Misty Parker breaks the mold

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Misty Parker

Misty Parker at the helm.

Pete Stone

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Walk into the visitor center for the stern-wheeler Columbia Gorge, and there among the snacks and trinkets is a set of souvenir bobblehead dolls, one for each of the tour boat's three captains. Two are bearded and 50ish. The third has two braids emerging from her black cap. Meet captain Misty.

Ten years ago, Misty Parker was a high school senior in Stevenson, Washington, playing softball and working weekends and summers as a deckhand on the Cascade Locks, Oregon, excursion boat.

Today she stands at its helm, four gold bars on her epaulets, piloting the boat through locks and around barges, managing a crew of 15 and keeping up a running commentary about Lewis and Clark, steamboating, and salmon.

Her dress blues are impeccable, as you'd expect of the second woman ever to pilot a Columbia River stern-wheeler. But 28-year-old Parker is most at home in the engine room with a wrench in her hand. "That is my favorite place to be," she says.

No wonder. Her stepdad is a diesel mechanic who used to help her work on her car. She started as the boat's dishwasher but rose through the ranks and then went to Sea School, a two-week course in Seattle. But most of her learning has been on the job. The authentic stern-wheeler has no propeller, no side thrusters; the power and maneuvering are all done with the paddle-wheel and a couple of rudders, working with the wind and the current.

Parker earned her captain's stripes in 2003. Unlike her fellow captains, she's also juggling motherhood, with a 4-year-old at home. But she wouldn't trade the job for any other. "You meet new people every day from every place," she explains. "And I have my own bobblehead."

INFO: Stern-wheeler Columbia Gorge (daily two-hour sightseeing excursions $20, Fri and Sat dinner cruises $45; 355 Wa-Na-Pa St., Cascade Locks, OR; www.sternwheeler.com, 800/643-1354, or 541/374-8427)

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