Sep 26-27, 2010
Clarkston, WA to Ft. Clatsop, OR
When Lewis and Clark finally descended from the Rocky Mountains along the ridge adjacent to the Clearwater River, they found themselves in a lovely valley that eventually brought them to the Snake River. I was as surprised as they were to discover that the bluffs and adjacent plains of the Snake were totally devoid of trees. In the rain shadow of the Cascade range, not much grows on the ground, and it’s no surprise that the Corps of Discovery could find little to eat this time of year. Even if there had been ample food, I doubt that they would have remained long – they were in a time crunch to make it to the ocean before winter set it.
Following the natives’ land route around the Snake River, Lewis and Clark made it to the confluence with the Columbia River, and knew they were on the home stretch. They weren’t even perturbed by the overwhelming smells of rotten onions, sulfur, and broccoli farts. Oh wait, the paper mills weren’t there yet when the Corps came through… Well, they’re here now, and my sunrise at Sacajawea State Park in eastern Washington was marred by smog, dams, and at least a dozen power-boats heading upriver for the day.
Luckily, the rest of my trip down the Columbia River was nicer. It was a Sunday, and the Deschutes River was thronged with
fishermen. Shortly thereafter, The Dalles, in addition to being the end of the Oregon Trail, marked the transition from high desert to temperate rainforest. I began to see conifers on the bluffs, and by the time I’d followed the scenic highway up into the hills, the mist was forming droplets on my windshield. Coming back down into Hood River, OR, I felt like I’d officially made it to he Pacific Northwest: kiteboarders plied the shallow waters along the sandbar, the Full Sail brewery promised free tours and fresh-hop brews, and the threat of
rain hung heavy in the air.
I really can’t say what Lewis and Clark felt like: they encountered numerous rapids and waterfalls on the Colombia, all of which have been erased by dams in the last century. Despite the rough water, Clark decided to shoot “The Gorge” on their downstream trip in 1805, bargaining that their river skills were superior to their mountains ones – and not wanting to be caught high in the Cascades in late November. Indeed, they made it through safely, though they were then held up by rain for weeks below present-day Portland.
We wound along the waterfalls of the scenic highway and descended into Portland just after sunset. I didn’t spend long there in the City of Roses – after breakfast sandwiches at a hip coffee shop and a quick tour of the Ota Tofu Factory, we hit the road heading to the coast!
In Astoria, OR, there is a towering column, commemorating the (European) history of this coastal landmark: the point where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean. From the first English sailor to reach that shore, through the Corps of Discovery and John James Astor’s Fur Company, this town held the promise of the Northwest Passage. I feel like I’ve been following Astor longer than Lewis and Clark – from the beginning of my journey on the Mississippi River and later Lake Superior. So it meant that I had to climb all 100+ steps to the top of the column and look over the bays and estuaries in that historic place.
Lewis and Clark didn’t find a bustling tourist center – just some coastal villages, and Indians that were already accustomed to trading with (and stealing from) white men (the jury is still out as to whether or not they understood the European concept of stealing – perhaps they were just sharing). Unable to find any Europeans at Fort
Vancouver, they decided to build sturdy walls and winter at Fort Clatsop. It was smaller than Fort Mandan, and the Corps never had the same positive relationship witht he natives that they had in North Dakota. This is likely because the Indians of the Northwest Coast had a culture that was markedly different from that of the eastern Indians that the Americans had experienced up to that point. While they may never have understood one another fully, Lewis and Clark and their company spent an interesting winter there – they got to see (and taste) a beached whale, even if it rained all but 6 days of their stay! In the spring, they packed up and headed east again… and made it back to St. Louis before Christmas, as they had wished.