The behavior of the Columbia River changed abruptly at Beacon Rock. In disbelief, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark watched the river on which they had logged 183 turbulent miles suddenly turn docile. Clark recognized that the Corps of Discovery now floated on Pacific Ocean tidewater. "The River got more Smooth, the current gentle wide and Strait," is the way that Sgt. John Ordway described the change. Presumably the river's modification foretold the nearness of the Pacific Ocean. That idea gained support on the evening of Nov. 3, 1805 when, according to Pvt. Joseph Whitehouse, "towards evening we met Several Indians in a canoe who were going up the River. they Signed to us that in two Sleeps we Should See the Ocean vessels and white people & amp;c. & amp;c."
Each succeeding day brought additional evidence to the Corps of Discovery that the Pacific Ocean lay just ahead. They saw Indians dressed in sailors' jackets, overalls or blue and scarlet manufactured blankets. Some carried muskets and used tin flasks to hold their powder. At least one native could curse in English. Most of the Indians seemed unafraid of the Euro-Americans, not assigning to their visitors any special status, as had the more remote tribes of the Rocky Mountains. In fact, on Nov. 4, while taking a meal, Clark found the Indians "assumeing and disagreeable," especially after "those fellows Stold my pipe Tomahawk." While searching in vain for the pipe tomahawk -- one of two dozen trade items with a hollow stem and a pipe bowl attached to the back of a tomahawk blade -- Clark discovered that the Indians had also secreted an expedition member's coat under the root of a tree. It was with a sense of relief, then, that Clark looked around his camp the next evening and noticed that, "This is the first night which we have been entirely clear of Indians since our arrival on the waters of the Columbia River." A further comment by Clark may explain why: "we are all wet Cold and disagreeable ... I saw 17 Snakes today."
Islands hampered easy passage on the river and, at times, blocked views of the shore. Thus, the Corps of Discovery missed seeing the Willamette River, a major tributary of the Columbia, because they were on the wrong side of Sauvie Island, which is 15 miles long and four miles wide. (They will "discover" the river on their return journey in 1806.) Clark found "the river So Cut with Islands" on Nov. 7 that he hired "an Indian to pilot us into the main chanel [after] one of our Canoes Seperated from us this morning in the fog."
That evening, after 34 miles on the water, the fog lifted and Clark proudly wrote in his journal: "Great joy in camp we are in View of the Ocian, this great Pacific Octean which we been So long anxious to See. and the roreing or noise made by the waves brakeing on the rockey Shores (as I Suppose) May be heard distictly."
The expedition was, at this point, approximately 28 miles from the breaking surf of the Pacific Ocean. Leaning into their paddles the next morning, the men of the Corps of Discovery forced their dugout canoes toward the ocean against both tide and wind. But the Columbia is eight miles wide at Grays Bay, and the river's ocean-like swells soon overwhelmed the explorers. Several in the party became sea sick. "We thought it imprudent to proceed," writes Clark. The refuge Clark chose on the beach, however, proved to be untenable, "in as much, as we have not leavel land Sufficient for an encampment and for our baggage to lie Cleare of the tide, the High hills jutting in So Close and Steep that we cannot retreat back, and the water of the river too Salt to be used, added to this the waves are increasing to Such a hight that we cannot move from this place, in this Situation we are compelled to form our camp between the hite of the Ebb and flood tides, and rase our baggage on logs."
As anxious as the members of the party were to abandon that spot, the Corps of Discovery had no choice but to hunker down on Nov. 9 and stay put. A bad situation got worse at 2 pm when rain, driven sideways by wind, pounded the camp, and the floodtide pushed driftwood ashore. It was only "with every exertion and the Strictest attention by every individual of the party [that it] was Scercely Sufficient to Save our Canoes from being crushed by those monsterous trees maney of them nearly 200 feet long and from 4 to 7 feet through," reports Clark. In spite of everything, Clark believed that the members of his command remained "chearful and anxious to See further into the Ocian."
NEXT WEEK: The Corps of Discovery establishes a base camp at the mouth of the Columbia.
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.