Tag Archive | Lewis and Clark

Fort Clatsop

Retreat from a Dismal Nitch

December 6, 2022

Entry sign to Fort Clatsop

I think I can trace my interest in – and love of – history back to this place which was identified as the location where the Lewis & Clark Expedition would spend the winter of 1805-06. It was on December 6, 1805 when the various scribes for the expedition reported being flooded out by a particularly high tide. The next day, they moved their camp to what would become Fort Clatsop.

For anyone who lives in the Pacific Northwest, you know that winters tend to be wet, miserable, and cold. I often joke (well, sort of) that winter in Seattle is forty degrees and rain.

And so it was for the L&C Expedition. When they arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River in November 1805, they set up camp on the north – in what would become the state of Washington – side of the river in a spot which, according to the Infallible Wikipedia was described as follows:

“On November 10, 1805, a severe winter storm struck the area, forcing them off the river for six days and preventing them from meeting the supply ships. The group landed in a cove on the north bank of the river that Captain William Clark called in his journals ‘that dismal little nitch’. With no more fresh food and their soaked clothes literally rotting away, he wrote that ‘A feeling person would be distressed by our situation’ and was concerned for the Corps safety for just the second time in the expedition, in danger of foundering just a few miles short. Upon the arrival of calm weather, the company left in great haste and moved to Station Camp on the west side of Point Ellice (referred to by Clark as ‘blustering point’, ‘Stormey point’, and ‘Point Distress.’), and camped at that location for 10 days before relocating for the winter to what would become Fort Clatsop.”

View of Fort Clatsop front entry

It is apparent that the explorers were treated to a pretty typical northwest winter. When they arrived at their final destination, they went right to work building the Fort. Also from the Infallible Wikipedia:

“Construction of the fort was slow, due to the incessant precipitation and unyielding wind that made working conditions less than ideal. On December 23, people started to move into the dwelling, even though it didn’t yet have a roof. The next day, Christmas Eve, everyone moved in. On Christmas Day it was named ‘Fort Clatsop’ in reference to the local Indian tribe.”

Firefighters putting out the last of the October 2005 fire which destroyed the 50 year old structure

Now, I don’t know about all of you, but for them to get the fort completed in 15 days doesn’t sound particularly slow what with all the permits they no doubt needed. Or not.

Regardless, it does seem that the weather affected them at every turn. They endured a long and rainy winter. The elk they killed for food would spoil quickly and many in the expedition were dealing with chronic maladies, made worse by the conditions.

Although they originally planned to stay until April 1, 1806, that date was moved up to March 20 and then delayed for three days due… to the weather.

After they departed, the rough hewn fort fell into disrepair and by the middle of the 19th century had rotted away. Then to mark the 150th anniversary of Fort Clatsop’s founding, a replica of the original structure was built using William Clark’s drawings as a guide.

For 50 years that fort stood and then, on October 3, 2005, a fire destroyed it, a mere two months before the planned celebration of the 200th year since Fort Clatsop’s founding.

Yet, in the spirit of the Corps of Discovery, a team of volunteers sprang into action:

“A new replica, more rustic and rough-hewn, was built by about 700 volunteers in 2006; it opened with a dedication ceremony that took place on December 9. The site is currently operated by the National Park Service.”

It speaks volumes to think that the original Corps of Discovery had 36 men who managed to build Fort Clatsop in 15 days and then 200 years later it took 700 to do the same.

My sister and her daughters along with my son and daughter at Fort Clatsop 1999

Now, if you are wondering how it is that Fort Clatsop inspired my love of history, we have to go back to a few short years after the original replica was built. My first trip to Long Beach, Washington, was – from what I have gathered based on home movies – was likely the summer of 1961 or 1962. There is footage of our family along with another family, vacationing on the Washington coast. It is possible we went to Fort Clatsop for the first time that trip.

What I do know is that the ONLY vacation my family took every year was always to the Long Beach Peninsula. And one of the favorite days of the vacation was when we ventured across the Columbia River to explore Astoria and visit Fort Clatsop.

The author with her sister and mother in a dugout canoe at Fort Clatsop. Image taken from home movies circa 1967. My grandmother DeVore is to the left.
The author with her own daughter in a dugout canoe at Fort Clatsop 1997

For a child still in single digits as far as her age, Fort Clatsop inspired the imagination. I was awed by the thought of Lewis and Clark and their adventures; inspired by the young mother, Sacagawea, the only woman in their troop, caring for a baby in the wilderness.

Each summer – and NOT in the rain and wind and certainly warmer than 40 degrees – we would sprint from room to room, examining the wooden bunk beds where the men slept. Looked at the tiny bed where Sacagawea’s son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, only 10 months old when Fort Clatsop was built, spent his first year.

My grandmother and our history teacher Dad at Fort Clatsop. Image captured from home movie footage. Circa 1967

We would walk the trail to the stream where they had to go to get water each day. We’d hike down to the Lewis and Clark River (the original name of the river was the Netul River. It was renamed in 1925) and pretend to row in the dugout canoes displayed there. For one afternoon, we’d imagine we were pioneers, living in a wilderness just like Lewis and Clark.

My father went back to school in 1962 to get his education degree and a couple years later became a Washington State History teacher at Franklin Junior High in Yakima.

My siblings and I were, in many ways, his first students as our summer trip to the beach was chock full of historical tidbits mostly about Lewis and Clark. And each year there was ALWAYS the trip to Fort Clatsop.

With the arrival of my own children, the annual trips to the beach resumed and for most of those years the obligatory visit to Fort Clatsop was included.

My son and niece dressing up in fun early 19th century style costumes circa 1997

October 2005’s fire left me feeling shocked and sad. Fort Clatsop was gone. And yet it rose again quickly and we visited the next summer. Of course the structure was not exactly the same but in one way it was much better. It felt more historically accurate.

The Fort Clatsop of my day was dank and seemed old. And it smelled musty. In the summer of 2006 I was struck by the aroma of the newly hewn cedar and how bright the wood looked, not yet wet and stinky. This, I thought, was how it must have looked to the Corps of Discovery when they occupied it, perhaps not quite as dark and miserable as the replica of the 1960’s and 70’s portrayed.

I like to think that my children also think about their many visits to Fort Clatsop and remember them as a wonderful family tradition. Just not in the month of December. Although that would be historically accurate.

A few links:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fort_Clatsop

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dismal_Nitch

https://www.nps.gov/lecl/learn/historyculture/fort-clatsop.html

The Grizzly Bear

Ursus arctos horribilis

March 8, 2022

Ursus arctos horribilis, also known as the Grizzly Bear, is one of the most feared animals in the world. When the first explorers and fur trappers began to explore what would become the great American West, tales of a huge, ferocious bear soon made their way back east.

A grizzly bear at Yellowstone in 2010 from https://thegirlygirlcooks.blogspot.com/2010/10/yellowstone-national-park.html

It was that intrepid pair, Lewis and Clark, who gave the bear its name. From the Infallible Wikipedia:

“Meriwether Lewis and William Clark first described it as grisley, which could be interpreted as either ‘grizzly’ (i.e., ‘grizzled’—that is, with grey-tipped or silver-tipped hair) or ‘grisly’ (‘fear-inspiring’, now usually ‘gruesome’). The modern spelling supposes the former meaning; even so, naturalist George Ord formally classified it in 1815 as U. horribilis for its character.”

There was, of course, good reason to think of the animal as fear-inspiring. An adult male weighs between 400 and 790 pounds! Females are smaller with a weight range of 250 to 400 pounds. At an average of 6 ½ feet in length and 3 ½ feet tall, it would sort of be like having a pro basketball player combined with a sumo wrestler; a truly intimidating beast. Oh, and did I mention that its front claws are between 2 and 4 inches in length?

With the expansion of human civilization there has been a marked decrease in the grizzly population over the last 500 years. In 1850, grizzly bears were found in all of the western half of the US from the Canadian border to Mexico. Population in what would become the lower 48 states is estimated to be between 50,000 and 100,000 animals.

Their numbers have, however, decreased significantly. The Infallible Wikipedia shares:

“There are about 55,000 wild grizzly bears located throughout North America, 30,000 of which are found in Alaska. Only around 1,500 grizzlies remain in the lower 48 United States. Of these, around 1,000 are found in the Northern Continental Divide in northwestern Montana. About 600 more live in Wyoming, in the Yellowstone-Teton area. There are an estimated 70–100 grizzly bears living in northern and eastern Idaho. Its original range included much of the Great Plains and the southwestern states, but it has been extirpated in most of those areas. Combining Canada and the United States, grizzly bears inhabit approximately half the area of their historical range.”

In last week’s Tuesday Newsday, I shared information about the creation of Yellowstone National Park. In the 1950’s and 60’s, especially, Grizzly Bears and Yellowstone became synonymous. It was during this era, particularly, when the explosion of visitors, combined with an abundance of grizzly bears combing the park dumps and trash cans for a meal, collided.

What happened was an increase in bear and people encounters, similar to those often seen in movie footage of the time:

In the early 1970’s, policy changed with an all out effort to return bears to their natural ways.

Of course, I did not know all this when the hubby and I arrived at Yellowstone on September 1, 1980. As far as I knew bears roamed everywhere in the park and were around every turn. This is my mindset when, just after sunset – about 8:30 p.m. – the hubby has gone on foot to pay for our campsite.

There I sit, all by myself, the camp sites around us empty… when I hear it. The hum of an engine and the crackle of a loudspeaker, the words – at first – unintelligible.

I watch as a station wagon, bearing the National Park logo, rolls slowly into view, emerging from the dark forest. There are speakers mounted on the roof and someone from inside the safety of the car is, apparently, determined to scare any and all visitors half to death. The loud speaker cracks with sound and a solemnly intoned message blares into the quiet night to those foolish enough to camp there:

The author with a grizzly bear when visiting the University of Alaska Museum of the North at Fairbanks in March 2017

“This is bear country!” (static sounds follow) “Store all food securely in your vehicle” (more static)… “Fear… fear… fear…” (static). Okay, I made that last part up, but by now you have the picture. The message repeats as the car slowly disappears into the night. By now I am certain that grizzlies are going to emerge from the woods and make a meal of me, a certainty since all that would be between us and the 500 pound beast is a flimsy tent wall.

By the time the hubby arrives back in camp, I’m good and freaked out. Even so, we get a fire started, dinner fixed and eaten. And then I get really weird. I’m on my hands and knees, with flashlight, searching for that one kernel of corn I’m certain I dropped during the meal which, if smelled by a bear, will encourage them to rip into our tent and have us for a midnight snack.

My travel log entry reads as follows:

“I became almost fanatical in seeing that everything was securely locked away and bear proof. No bears tried to eat me during the night.”

My entry says ‘almost’ – there was no ‘almost’ about it. I was fanatical.

During two subsequent trips to Yellowstone, in 1982 and 1989, we became obsessed with trying to find a bear. It was during the latter trip that we did, finally, see one. It was about a half a mile away, across a valley, and it took a pair of binoculars to confirm. That was it. The only grizzly we ever saw in the wild.

Even so, bells tied to shoe laces do offer that extra bit of noise which is a good idea since you never, ever want to surprise a bear. Although we’ve seen grizzly in captivity a couple of times over the years, I think I’d rather not encounter one in the wild. A very horribilis idea.

As always, a link or two for those who want to know more:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grizzly_bear

A pretty good documentary if you have 45 minutes:

Nat Geo Bears of Yellowstone: