Everyone has people they admire. Some like sports heroes, while others obsess over film stars. Me? I admire your travel writing work. In fact, I’m truly jealous of it.
After all, you and your friend, William Clark, took on every travel writer’s dream assignment – exploring the great frontier for none other than Thomas Jefferson, who was then the president of the United States. You mapped unknown frontiers, met the local natives and wrote about all you saw. What could be better than that?
While most travel writing is quickly forgotten, your journals have lived on in history. In fact, America is commemorating the bicentennial of your Corps of Discovery right now. Congress established the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail in 1978, and communities along the route have planned activities to honor the expedition. It’s obvious that your writing and explorations have become an important part of this nation’s history.
However, since two centuries have passed since you inscribed your journals, they’re a bit out of date. Having dabbled in a bit of travel writing myself, I thought I’d give you an update on some of the places you explored.
But first, a confession: I didn’t start in St. Louis, Missouri, where your expedition set out. I flew to the land now called the state of Washington and followed the Columbia River more than 300 miles (480 km) to the coast. Is this cheating? Call it what you may, but today’s travel writers don’t have the luxury of two years to complete a journey like you did.
Here’s what I found:
Location: Confluence of the Snake and Columbia Rivers, present-day southeastern Washington
Then: Do you remember meeting the Wanapum Indians here at the mouth of the Columbia River? They lived in tule houses and were tremendous fishermen. You and Clark spent two days with them, and they were generous hosts. You were so amazed with the river’s bounty that you reported: “The multitudes of this fish are almost inconceivable. The water is so clear that they can readily be seen at a depth of 15 to 20 feet.”
Now: The years have not changed the flow of the mighty Columbia River, and it still gives back many things to the people who live near her – power, transportation, food, irrigation and even recreation.
In fact, the river is so vital to the local community that an extensive museum, the Columbia River Exhibition of History, Science & Technology Museum, in Richland, documents and explains her importance.
But though the river flows on, much here has changed since you visited. The Wanapum villages are long gone; the remaining tribe has moved on to another part of the state. Is this a change you envisioned? Did you guess that your journey would forever change the lives of those you met?
You and your expedition encountered almost 50 different tribes along the route. What an amazing experience to encounter so many unique cultures! Many tribes welcomed and helped you; but others feared what you might bring.
You brought change. With western expansion, treasured ways of life were forced out and lost forever. Perhaps you can understand, then, why many of today’s Native American tribes have mixed reactions about this bicentennial anniversary. How does one commemorate an expedition that helped one culture thrive at the expense of another?
But the past cannot be changed, while the future can. Several Native American communities, like the Mandan of North Dakota, have created ways for tourists to learn about and appreciate their unique culture while commemorating the bicentennial of your Corps of Discovery.
Bateman Island, not far from where the Wanapum once lived, is home to the Sacajawea* State Park Interpretive Center, which honors the 16-year-old Shoshone woman who served as an interpreter and guide on your journey. In vivid detail, the museum tells the story of this amazing young lady who traveled halfway across the continent with a young baby on her back, assisting your expedition in ways you will never be able to repay.
Location: Along the Columbia River in the Columbia Hills Region, some 200 miles (320 km) from the Pacific Coast
Then: There was absolutely nothing on this high plateau overlooking the Columbia River when you visited, and you wrote that it was “barren.” Since the river current was so strong at this location, you and your group had to pull out of the water and hike across the bluff, carrying all your gear, on your return trip. You could see for hundreds of miles from up there.
Now: You can still see for miles from the bluff overlooking the Columbia Hills Region, even all the way to Mt. Rainier. But today, the plateau is home to the Maryhill Museum of Art, a castle-like structure built by entrepreneur Sam Hill, and an official site on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. The museum has extensive exhibits commemorating your journey, as well as a wide collection of Native American artifacts. Other exhibits feature contemporary artwork by distinguished American Indian artists.
When Lewis crossed the bluff overlooking the Columbia Hills Region, the plateau was barren. Today, the area is home to the Maryhill Museum of Art.
Native American petroglyphs, which you might have seen during your trip west, can be viewed at Horse Thief Lake State Park, which is just 10 miles (16 km) west of the museum. The petroglyphs have been carefully collected and attached to the stone walls of the park. Admission is free, and there are numerous interpretive panels.
Location: Mouth of the Columbia River at the Pacific Ocean, near present-day Long Beach, Washington
Then: As you neared the Pacific Coast, your expedition grew eager to finally reach their goal. Your friend, William Clark, thought he could hear the waves and see the ocean in the distance. He wrote:
“Great joy in camp we are in View of the Ocian, this great Pacific Ocean which we been So long anxious to See. and the roreing or noise made by the waves brakeing on the rockey Shores (as I Suppose) may be heard distinctly.”
Although you were still 20 miles (32 km) from shore when he wrote this, you eventually reached the area near present-day Long Beach, Washington. After some 4,100 miles (6600 km) of travel up the Missouri River, over the Rockies and down the Columbia River, the expedition had finally realized President Jefferson’s quest to navigate the inland waterways, connecting the east to the west coast. You must have felt a tremendous sense of satisfaction.
Today: The Ocean still thrills her visitors today. This coastal area, surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, the Columbia River and Willapa Bay, has become a favorite spot for vacationing families, as well as a refuge for migrating birds.
An eight-mile (12 km) Discovery Trail with 14 interpretive stations will soon be completed to commemorate your time here. (I told you that your journey is still viewed with great importance, didn’t I?)
Yet the local community also uses the region for fun. When I visited Long Beach Peninsula, they were hosting SandSations, an annual sand-sculpting contest, along with a kite-flying event. There are several very talented sand-sculptors here.
Location: Fort Clatsop, near present-day Astoria, Oregon
Then: The Corps of Discovery had to spend the winter of 1805-1806 somewhere, and it was here that you built your winter camp, a 50’ x 50’ (15 m x 15 m) fort, complete with walls and chilly quarters.
Your journals show you fought sickness and boredom at the fort. The nearby Clatsop and Chinook Indians befriended your group, offering hunting advice and becoming trading partners which, in turn, helped you survive the winter. You spent hours interviewing the Indians, trying to write down their vocabularies and learn about their cultures. It was not easy for either of you, for you had no common language.
In addition to cultural research, your group decided to improve their cuisine by setting up a salt camp along the shoreline. By boiling seawater until it evaporated, your men were able to obtain much coveted salt. You were thrilled; Clark, who said he didn’t care for salt, was unimpressed.
Today: If you visited the region today, you would see many changes, as well as a few familiar sights. Sadly, the Chinooks and Clatsops are gone. Many were lost during a malaria epidemic in 1825-26, and the rest of the tribes have moved on.
Yet Fort Clatsop still stands – or at least a replica of it. In 1955, the community built the Fort Clatsop National Memorial, a complete copy of your winter quarters. The 125-acre (about half a square kilometer) historical park, including the fort, fresh-water spring and historic canoe landing, are tucked into the wetlands of the Coastal Range where it merges with the Columbia River Estuary.
You might also be surprised to see men still boiling seawater along the shoreline near today’s Seaside, Oregon. They are actors from Fort Clatsop recreating the Salt Works Unit for visitors who want to learn about that unique time in American history – the years when your Corps of Discovery set out into the great unknown, bearing only a few meager supplies and the hopes of a tiny, growing nation.
It’s often said that the best way to know a man is to walk in his footsteps. And now, sitting on the sandy beach, looking over the same shoreline you once surveyed, I can almost imagine what life here was like back then.
It’s true that America has changed a great deal since you’ve walked this western frontier. The empty middle lands have long since been turned to farms and towns. Large cities run the coastlines and dot the open prairies, filled by Americans who poured in from all over the world, forming a brand new culture.
This land is by no means a perfect place, yet her people still possess that frontier spirit that yearns to overcome obstacles and explore new frontiers – hopefully moving ahead for the better.
Yet as you know, some things never change. The waves still pound upon this western seashore, and the mighty Columbia continues her constant race toward the sea.
With admiration for your completed assignment,
A fellow travel writer,
IF YOU GO:
The National Park Service has published a map and guide to the Lewis and Clark Trail for the bicentennial. The map details the expedition’s outgoing and return voyages, and highlights attractions along the trail. It also describes the Native American tribes encountered along the trail.
The map is free, but requires a $3 handling and postage fee. Send to: National Park Society, 5335 Whip Trail, Colorado Springs, CO 80917. For information call
Columbia River Exhibition of History, Science & Technology Museum
95 Lee Blvd.
Columbia River Journeys
Jet boat rides up the Columbia River
P.O. Box 26
Sacajawea State Park and Interpretive Center
2503 Sacajawea Park Rd.
Maryhill Museum of Art
35 Maryhill Museum Dr.
Fort Clatsop National Memorial,
92343 Fort Clatsop Rd.
Where to Stay Along the Washington Portion of the Lewis and Clark Trail:
Hampton Inn, Richland
Located right on the Columbia River
486 Bradley Blvd.
Dolce Skamania Lodge
Northwestern-style lodge located in the Columbia River Gorge near the foot of the
1131 SW Skamania Lodge Way
Vacation condominiums located one-mile north of the town of Long Beach.