When the Lewis and Clark Expedition reached what they thought to be the Pacific Ocean on November 7, 1805, it wasn’t the grand “ah-ha” moment they had hoped for. Although they knew they were near the mouth of the Columbia River because of the tidal influence, they couldn’t actually see the ocean because the bluffs at the mouth were too imposing and the bar was too rough to cross. Only Clatsop natives greeted them since no Europeans had yet settled there. At first they set up a temporary camp called Station Camp on the north shore of the river and explored the area, actually seeing the Pacific Ocean a couple weeks later. Finally, expedition members (including Sacagawea, the Indian woman who had traveled much of the way with them, and York, Captain Clark’s black slave) voted on whether to stay on the stormy north shore, move to the more-sheltered south shore where game was said to be more plentiful, or immediately start their return trip east. The vote was to fashion a winter encampment near the south shore of the Columbia. They named it Fort Clatsop after the local natives, who were such a great help to them. There they remained until March 23, 1806.
When we arrived at the Columbia River estuary on our sixth day aboard the National Geographic Sea Bird, our circumstances were quite different from theirs, although the bluffs were just as imposing and the bar just as rough. We began our morning at sunrise near enough to the Columbia River bar to see the breakers crashing there, but of course, we would not be crossing into the open ocean. From there, we could see the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse to the northwest and the Astoria-Megler Bridge to the east carrying US-101 traffic 4.2 miles across the Columbia from Oregon on the south into Washington on the north side of the river.
We moored in the historic town of Astoria, Oregon, named after John Jacob Astor, whose fur trading company established a post here in 1811. From the dock, we rode in motor coaches to Fort Clatsop, a unit of the Lewis and Clark National and State Historical Parks south of Astoria. This is the third replica of Lewis and Clark’s winter encampment, built to match the plans as laid out in William Clark’s journal and as near to the site as can be determined. The site also includes a visitor center and trail to the historic canoe landing on what is now called the Lewis and Clark River, a tributary of the Columbia.
After our time at Fort Clatsop, our buses took us to downtown Astoria where we explored the Columbia River Maritime Museum. This excellent museum features displays relating to the dangers of crossing the Columbia River bar, known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific”; to the fishing, salmon canning, and ship building industries so important to early development; to steamboats that long provided the only transportation from Astoria inland. An important part of the museum is the adjacent floating lighthouse, the National Historic Landmark Lightship Columbia, which guarded the entrance to the Columbia River from 1951 to 1979.
In the afternoon we traveled across the Astoria-Megler Bridge to Cape Disappointment State Park on the Washington side of the river. This park is also part of the Lewis and Clark National and State Historical Parks. It features the Lewis and Clark Interpretative Center with a well-laid-out timeline presenting an overview of the momentous journey of the Corps of Discovery. We did not have time to visit the lighthouse (which isn’t open to the public) but we did hike down the hill to Waikiki Beach, named in honor of a Hawaiian sailor whose body washed ashore there in 1811 after his ship failed in its attempt to cross the Columbia River bar.
This was our final expedition “In the Wake of Lewis and Clark.” After leaving Astoria, the Sea Bird returned us to Portland overnight, arriving back at the RiverPlace Marina at sunrise. By 8:30 a.m., we were off the boat, back in our car heading to Troutdale to retrieve our motorhome from storage – back to the real world and on to the next adventure.