Cape Disappointment and the Journey of Lewis and Clark and the Corps. of Discovery.

Mileage today: 38. 5Total 1490

Today we mainly explored Cape Disappointment State Park which is at the southern end of the Long Beach peninsula. It was named Cape Disappointment after the thwarted expedition of Captain John Meares, an English explorer and adventurer, in 1788, who had tried to find the entry to the Columbia River and failed even though he’d actually reached the opening. At this point no non indiginous person had ever done so, and he logged his disappointment that no such river existed, hence the name of the southern cape. He couldn’t get past the bar. In fact, the river entrance was heavily disguised by the capes and the monstrous sand bar at it’s entrance, not to mention the frequently huge seas and fogs and it was not until 1792 that American Captain Gray, found a channel past the sand bar and named the great river Columbia after his ship.

In 1803 President Thomas Jefferson commissioned Captain Meriwether Lewis and his friend Lieutenant William Clark to mount an exploration to map the land west of the Missouri River and the passage of the Columbia to the Pacific. There was almost no knowlege of the geography of the land west of St. Louis at this time and huge misunderstandings of the topography were believed to be true ie that the mountains to the west were like the Adirondacks to the east, a single range and that it would be possible to make a short portage between the Missouri and the Columbia. Jefferson even believed they would find the woolly mammoth still existing there. Lewis and Clark assembled 33 men in 1804 that later became the Corps of Discovery. They were joined by Charbonneau, a French Canadian trader and his Native American wife, Sacagawea, who gave birth to a son along the way. She was an indispensible help, translating meetings with the tribes and helping with negotiations and trading. The arduous and very dangerous trip took 2 years in total, and at many times the company were near starvation and death and yet only 1 man actually died, quite early on from a burst appendix.

Map of mouth of the Columbia in the 1850s showing the treacherous, shifting sand bar.

Many of the men, in particular Lewis and Clark kept incredible diaries along the way, and the Corps. mapped huge areas of unknown land, encountered 20+ unknown Native American tribes, many many unknown animals and birds. They were also able to confirm that there was no short portage between the rivers and indeed that the western ranges of mountains were much, much higher than anything in the east and far from being a single range, there were many. Most importantly, their diaries provide a detailed snapshot of the western lands, people and flora and fauna at a fixed point in time. Within 50 years of that snapshot, some of the same areas were unrecognisable and there were enormous changes in the fates of the wildlife and the indiginous peoples. We followed a lot of their route in 2019 when we were travelling in Montana, and Wyoming and so were very keen to follow their trail again at the end/turning point of their great journey.

I make no apology that I find the expedition of Lewis & Clark incredibly interesting, comparable to space travel today but without any support system. They were undoubtedly heading out into the unknown, and death lurked around every corner. Many times their lives were saved by the tribes they encountered along the way. Anyway, eventually in November 1805, they reached the Pacific at a point on the Columbia River, near Cape Disappointment. They were stuck there in horrendous storm conditions for 6 days, unable to move an inch and soaked to the skin, with little food except some mashed fish. Then it cleared somewhat, and they managed to get to a better spot on the river where they established Station Camp on the north bank of the Columbia.

“the wind verry high from the S. W. with most tremendious waves brakeing with great violence against the Shores, rain falling in torrents, we are all wet as usial and our Situation is truly a disagreeable one; the great quantites of rain which has loosened the Stones on the hill Sides, and the Small Stones fall down upon us, our canoes at one place at the mercy of the waves, our baggage in another and our Selves and party Scattered on floating logs and Such dry Spots as can be found on the hill Sides, and Crivices of the rocks.
—William Clark

Some days later, they ventured across the cape to the beach and there enjoyed a clear view of the great Pacific Ocean and the success of their mission to reach it. After wintering on the south side of the river, they made their way back east reaching St Louis in September 1806. Anyway, if you are interested in knowing more about them, a very readable and enjoyable account based on the diaries of Lewis and Clark is “Undaunted Courage” by Stephen Ambrose Really recommend reading that.

First glimpse from Cape Disappointment

So, having arrived at the State Park, we bought a Discovery Pass for $30 that allows us to enter and park at all the Washington state parks for a year. It will be invaluable when we return to Washington later in the trip. We first visited the excellent Lewis and Clark Interpretive Centre which was absolutely brilliant. We started with a short film that gave an over view of the expedition and then moved around the museum in a timeline with exhibits and quotes from the diaries at many strategic points of the trip. It was really good. Very interactive and something for every level of enthusiasm. We spent a good amount of time in there.

At the end there was a section on the Columbia river bar itself and how it has changed over the last 200 years. Some of the changes are natural as you would expect with a fast flowing massive river and moving sand….. others caused by man in an effort to tame the mighty Columbia and the sand bar itself. The Columbia River has a long history of shipwrecks. Its bar, where freshwater and saltwater meet, is one of the most difficult crossings of any river in the world, especially in the spring when the river’s volume is so great, even now, that the freshwater plume extends 100 miles to sea, and in the winter when storms lash the jumble of waves to 50 feet and higher. We saw some of the difficulties today for ourselves. Although the weather on the peninsula was hot and sunny, there was a thick bank of fog from the beach out to sea, and over the river, totally obscuring the natural features. Historically, the crossing was particularly difficult for ships under sail because the two natural channels across the bar forced them to turn sideways to the current and the wind. To this day it is not uncommon for ships to wait a week or longer for the bar to calm enough to allow a safe crossing. The sea wasn’t rough today, there was little wind, but still the swells coming in from the Pacific were significant and where they met the outcoming flow of the Columbia there were visible currents and rip tides. And of course, dense sea fog.

earLooking across the Columbia river near the entrance to the sea. You can see the fog bank lying out there hiding the passage.

We ate our lunch in the park and then visited the North Head Lighthouse, on the headland. Still very much in operation, it was built as a second lighthouse at the entrance to the river in 1898 because so many ships were continuing to be wrecked on the bar and the capes despite the Cape Disappointment lighthouse having been in service since 1856. It was a nice circle trail, about a mile, to and from the lighthouse and great views down to the crashing water. The fog was still thick which was a shame. It was a lot like the north coast of Cornwall.

We drove out of the park and a few miles up the north bank of the river to the site of Station camp. There wasn’t a lot to see but some of the exhibits about Chinook life on the river going back hundreds of years were very interesting. There were many thousands living there, mostly engaged in fishing and they built incredible canoes, some of them 75 feet long, for ocean trading.

site of Station Camp

Finally, we drove to a point on Long Beach itself recorded in the diaries by Clark, who had taken a party of men on an exploratory hike and then carved his name and date in a fir tree.

“…I proceeded on the Sandy Coast 4 miles, and marked my name on a Small pine, the Day of the month & Year…”

Now….. the tree is no longer there….. whether this is due to storm surge on the beach, some natural reason….. or some bright spark chopped it down by mistake, (that would be a bad moment, eh? ‘Timber!!! Oh, what’s that writing???……. AHHHHHHH’……. ) Anyway, they have commemorated the spot with a bronze statue of a tree with the inscription as per Clark on it. Well worth a look and it puts a firm full stop on the outbound expedition point.

After admiring the statue we ventured onto Long Beach (well named) and walked a bit but the sea fog was still there and we were a bit nervous it would come in and we’d struggle to find our way back through the dunes……

Tonight we had our fresh halibut steaks, gently fried in a little butter and seasonings. Served with fresh asparagus and Bob had baby potatoes. The halibut was divine. What a piece of fish!!