William Clark was overjoyed at the sight of the Pacific Ocean after traveling for over a year across the unknown territory of the Louisiana Purchase and then to Oregon country. The joy that he expressed in his notes that November day is perhaps the most famous quote of the Lewis and Clark expedition. In fact the entire Corps of Discovery was excited since this was one of the main objectives that President Jefferson give them. Interestingly enough their main goal was to find an all water route to the Pacific via the Missouri and Columbia Rivers. They had seen many things that no American had ever witnessed but the all water route was not to be.
Upon seeing the Pacific Ocean they had to reflect on the years of planning and work that it had taken to reach this point. Captain Meriwether Lewis had left Washington where he had spent time as Thomas Jefferson’s personal secretary and actually lived at the White House for some time. Now Lewis and Clark had made history and would be hailed as some of the great American explorers.
Celia and I found a campsite at a “fisherman’s campground” near Astoria, Oregon. There are not a lot of places to stay around Astoria and we felt lucky to snag a spot for the Bighorn. The weather was good and we planned to visit the winter camp of the Corps of Discovery, Fort Clatsop.
The explorers had spent several days in very rough weather on the north side of the Columbia River. Since it was now November of 1805, they needed to decide where to spend the winter before heading back toward St. Louis. The Clatsop Indians had recommended the southern shore of the river because there were plenty of trees and herds of elk there. They also could stay where they were or head east away from the ocean. Lewis held a vote and included everyone including Sacagawea, a female, and York, Clark’s slave, as equal participants.
The group of 31 voted to cross south on the Columbia and build a fort which they named after the friendly Indians – Fort Clatsop. The National Park Service has built a replica of the fort based on William Clark’s drawings. This small wooden structure completed on New Year’s Eve was to be their home until March of 1806.
The group did not like their winter stay. Of the 106 days that they were there, it rained everyday but 12. Even the clothes on their backs rotted away from the constant precipitation. At least they had plenty of wood and elk. The Corps ate about nine pounds of meat per person per day! When they went hunting they didn’t come back until they had at least 300 pounds of meat. As you can imagine they grew very tired of the same diet day after day.
They also needed salt and large quantities of it. A team of three boiled sea water “day and night” for almost two months to acquire enough salt for the journey home. This effort is remembered near the present town of Seaside on the Oregon coast. There is a 6.5 mile trail from the fort to the site where the Corps made the salt.
We were able to tour Fort Clatsop and fortunately the park service had outside interpreters during this time of Covid-19. They were very knowledgeable and discussed life at the fort which definitely enhanced our visit.
The fort grounds also has a statue of Sacagawea with little Jean Baptiste in tow.
The National Park Service has done a great job moving visitor information outside and providing as much information as possible. Oregon has a Covid-19 mask requirement and most are following its mandates.
The area around the fort is a lush forest with several trails along a river now called the Lewis and Clark River.
We had seen plenty of signs about the coastal area Roosevelt Elk herd but I did not expect to see one. Luckily one posed for us so we could get a picture.
While the Oregon Coast is usually cloudy in the mornings, things typically clear up in the afternoons. We took that opportunity to cross the Astoria-Megler Bridge into Washington state to check out the two lighthouses across the river. The bridge was the last link built of the 101 Coastal Highway from California to Washington and is the longest continuous truss bridge in North America. The four mile bridge is fun to drive and is worth going to Washington just to cross over it.
Our first stop was at Cape Disappointment State Park which has views of its namesake lighthouse. The trail to the lighthouse itself has been washed away but there are still great views along the coast. The park also has a large campground and it was full. Some of the spots are adjacent to the water and would make for an excellent stay.
Not far away is the North Head Lighthouse which is on the same loop road as Cape Disappointment. It is easily accessible for visitors and has some hiking trails nearby. You can also rent nightly stays at the light keepers’ houses through the Washington State Park system.
Note that many of the lighthouses are currently listed as “closed” due to Covid-19 restrictions. What that means is that the tours or internal access is restricted.
We headed back over the bridge to Astoria after a full day of adventures with a new appreciation of some earlier explorers.