Where the mighty Columbia River spills out into the Pacific Ocean near Astoria, Oregon, American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark made history in mid-November of 1805 when they ended the first half of their historic journey. The expedition had covered some 4,000 miles in 19 months as the team documented and mapped the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase, researched and connected with the Native American tribes in the west, and searched for the most direct water route to the Pacific.
To prepare for their return journey to St. Louis, Lewis and Clark chose a protected site south of the Columbia River on Netul Creek (now the Lewis and Clark River) to build Fort Clatsop, the winter encampment where they and roughly 30 enlisted men in their Corps of Discovery stayed from Dec. 7, 1805, to March 23, 1806. The site is the present-day location of Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, which we found well worth visiting.
Here at Fort Clatsop, while sitting out the rainy Pacific Northwest winter, Lewis and Clark refined and reorganized their journals, maps and collections of botanical and faunal specimens. Surprisingly, despite all the species they discovered during their journey, only two birds — the Clark’s nutcracker and the Lewis’ woodpecker — are named for the pioneering journeyers.
Back in 1805, the Clatsop and Chinook Indians they encountered in Oregon knew this band of men did not come to trade, as evidenced by their crudely built watercraft not suitable for ocean travel (or even navigating the rough waves of the Columbia Estuary), paucity of trade goods and lesser bargaining skills. Nonetheless, the tribes were friendly and hospitable to Corps members, who took advantage of the plentiful game and other food in the area and spent a great deal of time that winter making salt from ocean water.
After touring the replica of the original Fort Clatsop and imagining what it must have been like to spend so much time taking shelter from the rain in such tight quarters, Hector and I hiked a few of the trails leading off from the Visitor Center. We started on the Netul River Trail, which followed the river and its delightful wetlands down to the landing where the Corps of Discovery’s canoes came ashore back in 1805. We regretted not having more time to explore the wetlands by kayak, and visiting too late in the season to go on one of the free, ranger-led paddling tours offered in the summer.
However, we timed our visit just right for blackberry season and gathered as many ripe berries as we could eat from the bushes lining the path. One can never have enough berries! We looped back to Fort Clatsop using the Upper Slough, Kwis-Kwis and Fort to Sea trails that traversed a lovely forest full of birdsong and autumn sunshine. As when we visited Spirit Mound in South Dakota in August, we experienced a tangible thrill walking in the same forest that Lewis and Clark had called home for a brief time. For aspiring and admiring explorers like us, a trip to Fort Clatsop was the icing on the cake of our journeys in the Pacific Northwest.