Fresh Eyes on the West

Tracing the path of Lewis and Clark helps us rediscover the meaning of home
Peter Fish

TO THE SEA

Never underestimate the power of a good ending. If you consider Lewis and Clark's journey our American epic, an Odyssey decked out in leather breeches, then their final sprint to the Pacific provides a suitably grand finale.

"Took our leave ... and proceeded on down the great Columbia river," Clark wrote on October 18, 1805. Great it was, and is. Like the Missouri, the Columbia has been altered from the river that the Corps traveled. The vast waterfalls, like Celilo, have been drowned by dams, and the wild waters ("agitated gut Swelling, boiling & whorling in every direction," Clark complained) calmed into pools amenable to windsurfing. But the sight of the still-powerful river flowing beneath stately basalt cliffs is a spectacle of almost classical grandeur.

At Pillar Rock, near what is now Altoona, Washington, they glimpsed what they had come for. "Great joy in camp we are in View of the Ocian, this great Pacific Octean which we been So long anxious to see," wrote Clark. Historians now dispute whether Clark could have seen the ocean from this site. But give the Corps their moment of joy. They would need it.

For as they neared their goal, the elements fought to stop them. The weather was sodden; they could not find level ground to camp. Finally, they reached the Washington coast, lingered there a few days, then opted to make their winter camp on the other side of the river, in Oregon.

These shores are now among the most visitor-friendly places to learn about Lewis and Clark. At Cape Disappointment State Park, in Ilwaco, Washington, the newly expanded Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center lets you retrace the Corps' route downriver, and it introduces you to the sophisticated Chinook tribe the party encountered.

"Remember," says interpretive specialist Ryan Karlson, "the Chinook had been dealing with fur traders for some years. Lewis and Clark didn't expect to find natives wearing top hats, speaking a little English. But they did."

Across the river, Fort Clatsop National Memorial re-creates the fort that the Corps built for their winter stay in 1805-06. Here Dick Basch, a Clatsop who is working with the bicentennial planners, has a wry appreciation for the Corps' dealings with his people.

"They were clumsy traders," Basch says. "These guys showed up with a few beads, a few fishhooks, their clothes rotting off them. We felt sorry for them. Look at their fort ― how the roof slopes in to the courtyard so all the rain pours down on them. I am sure the Clatsop said, 'What the hell are they thinking?' "

The Corps stayed at Fort Clatsop for 106 days, of which it rained every day but 12. Yet the inclement weather was in some ways a blessing. It forced Lewis and Clark to stay inside, to work on their journals, to tally the miles they had traveled, the number of new species discovered ― 178 plants and 122 animals, by present count ― and to gauge the magnitude of their achievement.

After you inspect Fort Clatsop, you'll want to go down and gaze at the Corps' final goal. "The Great Western Ocian," Clark called it, adding, "I cant Say Pasific as Since I have Seen it, it has been the reverse."

But then the sea's mighty pounding ― "repeeted roling thunder," said Clark ― still provides a suitable drumroll for what was achieved. The waves shake this Oregon beach as if recognizing, 200 years later, that here a new American nation, spanning an entire continent, was born.

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