Tempestuous weather at the mouth of the Columbia River marooned the Lewis and Clark Expedition in a makeshift camp for two days in November 1805. Fortunately, on Nov. 10, the wind and waves subsided, so the expedition members loaded their canoes and resumed their interrupted journey. By hugging the Washington shore, paddling from cove to cove, the Corps of Discovery managed to log 10 miles in salty water.
A morning of progress energized the expedition members, but every mile they advanced put them that much closer to the pounding ocean surf with its unrelenting rhythm of rising and falling. When the waves increased in size and strength beyond the point of prudence, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark called a retreat and the canoes made an about turn. Two miles later, they took refuge in a small indentation in the coastline. "Here we scarcely had room to lie between the rocks and water," complained Sgt. Patrick Gass, "but we made shift to do it among some drift wood that had been beat up by the tide." After a delay of only a few hours, the expedition launched their five canoes again, but for the second time that day, they had to retreat, this time to a "small holler." The rain continued for the seventh consecutive day.
River swells kept the Corps of Discovery in camp on Nov. 11. An exasperated Clark lamented, "we are truly unfortunate to be compelled to be 4 days nearly in the same place at a time that our days are precious to us." Perhaps hunters could look for game in the forest. Alas, they returned to say that the hills were "So high & amp; Steep, & amp; thick with undergrowth and fallen Timber" that foot travel was as impossible as canoe travel. That afternoon, "at a time when the wind was verry high and waves tremendous five Indians Came down in a Canoe loaded with fish." The natives sold salmon and roots, and then they departed. Their route, writes Clark, took them straight across the river, "which is about 5 miles wide through the highest Sees I ever Saw a Small vestle ride." It is certain, he added in admiration, "they are the best canoe navigators I ever Saw."
Unable to move again the next day, Clark assessed the condition of the men, their rotting clothes, the lack of food and the frightening thunder and lightening. "Our Situation is dangerous," he concluded. At least by the end of the day, the members of the expedition were able to move their camp around a point of land to a more sheltered location. They proceeded on foot and left the canoes behind.
Isolated for a second and third day in what Sgt. John Ordway called a "disagreeable harbour," the Corps of Discovery eventually pulled their canoes to camp. That modest accomplishment, however, was offset by the expedition's third and fourth failed attempts to pass around "Point Distress," a protrusion in the shoreline that had stymied the expedition since Nov. 10. Today it is known as Point Ellice, the location where the 4.1-mile Astoria-to-Megler Bridge anchors itself to the Washington shore. On the evening of Nov. 14, the Corps of Discovery occupied three separate camps on the Columbia shoreline.
"About 3 oClock," on Nov. 15, "the wind luled, and the river became calm, I had the canoes loaded in great haste and Set Out, from this dismal nitch ... proceeded on passed the blustering point." Miraculously, a "butifull Sand beech" stretched out before Clark's men, and beyond that lay a commanding view of the Pacific Ocean. Goal accomplished. Destination reached. The sounds of the ocean that evening soothed the party to sleep.
In the light of morning on Nov. 16, the enlisted men of the Lewis and Clark Expedition understood what their captains had recognized the day prior. "We are now in plain view of the Pacific Ocean, the waves rolling, & amp; the surf roaring very loud," marveled Pvt. Joseph Whitehouse. Sgt. Gass sounded even more excited: "We are now at the end of our voyage, which has been completely accomplished."
Some historians have decreed that Lewis and Clark's most severe challenge on their 8,000-mile journey had taken place two months before, on the Lolo Trail in the Bitterroot Mountains during September 1805. Most historians in Washington state, however, take a different view, citing journal passages written during mid-November 1805.
Next Week: Exploring Long Beach Peninsula.
Special Event: Gary Moulton, editor of the 13-volume The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, will speak at Gonzaga University's Cataldo Hall on Thursday, Nov. 17, at 7 pm. Call 323-5973.
Robert Carriker has directed eight National Endowment for the Humanities seminars on the Lewis and Clark expedition and is author of Ocean in View! O! the Joy. When he's not out retracing the steps of the Corps of Discovery, he teaches history at Gonzaga University.