Ay-yi-yi, oh, the rain! How long can the rain go on?
— Tom Russell, The Road to Bayamon
“Rain as usual last night, and all day today, moderately.”
— Capt. William Clark, Fort Clatsop, December 21, 1805
I am something of a pluviophile. Rain soothes me. I like walking in it, I like driving in it, and I like watching it through a window while I sip a mug of something hot. I am slow to grow tired of its presence. This puts me at odds with Lady Marilyn, who is decidedly NOT of such temperament.
But even Lady Marilyn, Daughter of the Sun, had to admit that days of wind and rain last week were thematically on-point for our raid into the wild coastal region at the mouth of the great Columbia River. For we trod in the soggy moccasin prints of the Corps of Discovery — Lewis & Clark — in locations where they spent some of the most arduous and uncomfortable days in their long journey across two-thirds of a continent.
More on that in a bit. I will start this tale at the beginning.
As longtime readers know, the folk troubadour Tom Russell’s countenance glowers down from my personal musical Mount Rushmore, alongside Waylon Jennings, Guy Clark, Steve Earle, Dave Alvin, and a handful of others. We’ve hosted Russell in Sisters a number of times, and Clan Cornelius has traveled as far away as Monterey, California, and Elko, Nevada, to see him. It had been a few years, so when we saw that he was booked on April 5 at Portland’s venerable Alberta Rose Theater, we jumped on tickets.
Marilyn sang Tom’s Strawberry Moon to Ceili when she was carrying her, so, our daughter has known his music literally all her life. This was an opportunity to introduce her husband Jarod to the music that has permeated her existence. And a fine introduction it was — an intimate, career-spanning solo acoustic evening. And, glory-be if he didn’t spool out The Sky Above and the Mud Below, his epic Western noir ballad in A-minor, which he seldom performs — because it’s long and dark, just like the hair of the Brothers Sandoval. It’s a Frontier Partisans favorite — a masterpiece, really. Check it out:
The show would have been sufficient unto itself as a highpoint of the week, but we had many other adventures. One of those must remain classified for now… but I shall divulge it as soon as I am able…
In all our 30 years in Oregon, we had not ventured to the northern part of the coast, so Lady Marilyn booked us a trip to Astoria. Marilyn was once a travel agent, and she retains mad skills planning expeditions and finding deals, skills that were on full display on this raid. Eat, explore, repeat.
Our itinerary focused largely around Lewis & Clark, because Astoria is where they overwintered in 1805-06. We took an excursion south to view the iconic Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach, where members of the Corps joined Clatsop Indians in taking whale meat, baleen and blubber from a beached whale.
We visited Fort Clatsop, which was their winter quarters, deep in a temperate rainforest that looked like an enchanted woodland of Fennario — ancient and venerable trees — including massive Sitka spruce — and thick, wet ferns and huckleberry… glorious coastal Oregon flora.
Ceili and Jarod had to get back on the trail for work a day before Lady Marilyn and I, so they did not accompany us to Cape Disappointment, in Washington on the north side of the Columbia. That highly exposed jut of land where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean is a magnificent piece of American landscape. It’s also an extremely dangerous place.
I have friends who have had very hairy experiences sailing over the Columbia Bar who can attest to its awesome menace.
The rain whipped us and the wind roared as we walked up to the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center that stands on a cliff overlooking the battered Cape Disappointment Lighthouse — and we felt just the slightest touch of the brutal test that the Corps of Discovery experienced when they reached the ultimate goal of their mission.
As William Clark recounted, the men thought they had reached the ocean before they actually had. Arriving in November 1805, they spent an utterly miserable couple of days at Dismal Nitch along the Columbia River, soaked, cold and hungry, their buckskins rotting off their backs. The water at hand wasn’t the ocean, but it was too salty to drink.
The men of the Corps built a temporary Station Camp on the north shore of the river, then debated where they would overwinter. The company ultimately decided to cross the river, and they found the spot where they built the tiny but sturdy Fort Clatsop.
Unlike us, they could do little to get completely out of the ferocious elements, which ground on them not only physically, but psychologically as well. They would not escape the rain for months in their sojourn on the coast. The Corps of Discovery was in winter quarters at Fort Clatsop for 128 days. It rained on all but 12 of them.
“Nope,” said Lady Marilyn. “I wouldn’t have made it.”
We visited Sunset Beach, seven miles from Fort Clatsop, where the men boiled salt to preserve and flavor the meat that was their main subsistence.
The men lived on elk and deer, with the occasional duck or rabbit thrown in (and a few weeks of that whale meat, especially for the salt-boilers). At Sacagawea’s insistence, the also gathered wapato roots — a wetland tuber. They had no alcohol, no coffee and no tea — they drank only the clear water from a nearby spring.
The reconstructed fort is part of a National Park, and thus a developed site, with a museum and bookshop and all that. Nevertheless, it was not too difficult to cast back in the imagination to 1805/06 — especially in the dank and drippy conditions.
I am no expert on the Corps of Discovery, but our explorations certainly allowed us to touch that great piece of American lore… and left me hungry for more. I have long been drawn to George Drouillard, the French-Shawnee hunter and interpreter who was absolutely critical to the success of the operation, as Captain Meriwether Lewis acknowledged:
“It was his fate . . . to have encountered, on various occasions, with either Captain Clark or myself, all of the most dangerous and trying scenes of the voyage, in which he uniformly acquited himself with honor… he has been peculiarly usefull from his knowledge of the common language of gesticulation, and his uncommon skill as a hunter and woodsman.”
Drouillard stayed in the West after the expedition found its way back to St. Louis. He worked for Manuel Lisa as a trapper, trader and enforcer. He met a gruesome but epic death at the hands of the Blackfeet in 1810.
I have not done much of anything on Drouillard at Frontier Partisans — and that’s going to change. I now feel compelled to give him his due as one of the all-time great Frontier Partisans.
The road trip book was Jack Carr’s Savage Son (for the record, Lady Marilyn’s choice).
Carr notes that the story was conceived as an homage to a classic hunt thriller:
I was first introduced to Richard Connell’s masterpiece, “The Most Dangerous Game,” in junior high school. Connell, a veteran of World War I, published his most celebrated short story in Collier’s Weekly in 1924. Upon that initial reading, I was determined to one day write a modern thriller that paid tribute to this classic tale, exploring the dynamic between hunter and hunted.
Here’s the caper:
Deep in the wilds of the Russian Far East, a woman is on the run, pursued by a man harboring secrets, a man intent on killing her.
A traitorous CIA officer has found refuge with the Russian Mafia with designs on ensuring a certain former Navy SEAL sniper is put in the ground.
Half a world away, James Reece is recovering from brain surgery in the Montana wilderness of his youth, learning to live again, putting his life back together with the help of investigative journalist Katie Buranek and his longtime friend and SEAL teammate Raife Hastings.
For reasons both personal and professional, the Russian intelligence-mafia consortium has their sights set on removing a player from the board before he can return to the battlefield, targeting Reece on U.S. soil.
With an unknown entity inside the U.S. government compromised by Russian intelligence, Reece is forced to recruit a team of former commandos to bring his unique brand of vengeance to the Russian Mafia on their home turf, turning the hunters into the hunted.
Paul McNamee says
All that AND a mystery hook, too ? (One of those must remain classified for now… but I shall divulge it as soon as I am able…)
Fantastic photos. I haven’t read much about their wintering in Oregon so this is fascinating stuff. Surviving off the land for 128 days with so many men and (no casualties?) is astonishing. Being able to hunt enough to keep their energy and health up for such a daunting return journey. Definitely an “under the radar” historic travel location.
It really is remarkable that only one man died on the expedition (of a probable ruptured appendix, right at the beginning). So many opportunities to drown, and the whole lot of them could have died crossing the Bitterrroots. They also lucked out re: grizzly encounters. John Colter and George Drouillard did yeoman’s service keeping them fed. Apparently they had a bias against salmon (a bad experience can do that to you) which was unfortunate because there was plenty of dried salmon to be had from the Indians.
Brian H. says
Nice travel post. I too am remiss in traveling through the upper PNW. It’s a big ol country and we can be thankful for that. My own intersects with the Lewis and Clark trail were in Montana a few years back on the Missouri river. It’s awesome how on much of their route you can still get a vibe of the wild that was.
Yes… and my appetite is whetted for more. Such a remarkable journey. I totally get the people who undertake to follow the whole thing.
My son lives in Bay City, OR and love it there. But it’s really about the salmon. Great story.
Greg Marshall says
We’ve visited Astoria several times. It’s a great stop, with several decent pubs, one of which has a happy-hour tradition of cheap oyster shooters. These are a great refreshment following a day’s hike along some of the local trails.
If you go that far, next time cross that wonderful bridge over the mouth of the Columbia and go up the west side of the Hood Canal to Port Townsend, then across on ferry to Whidby Island and up to Anacortes.
The various Lewis and Clark interpretive centres are also a really good reminder of the legacy of the US National Park Service, and what an amazing job they do preserving and protecting your country’s natural and cultural heritage.
I got interested in L&C a couple decades ago when the Ken Burns doc came out. And Stephen Ambrose’ “Undaunted Courage” is a very readable popular history. It actually inspired me to pick up an annotated version of the Journals, which I managed to get through despite the archaic language.
And Tom Russell! What a great trip. Russell is the “seed” for my various playlists as the artists that get linked to him via algorithm almost always please, and never disappoint. I think “Tonight We Ride” is my favourite.
Tonight We Ride is a regular in my band’s set.
Ceili an Jarod are talking about returning to Astoria and doing that run up the Olympic Peninsula this summer. I love Port Townsend and would like to get back up there.
lane batot says
I’ve been mesmerized by the beautiful variety of Oregonian habitats from watching films made there–I think one of the first I took note of was that incomparable little mutt in “Benji The Hunted”–some really incredible animal work in that one, as well as amazing scenery! I saw some documentary on the making of it, and they were saying they had to get all these animals together that were natural enemies, get them to be friends, but then pretend they were enemies! So they had a lot of really confused animals in the end! Nowadays, all those animals would be computer generated–even Benji, likely(sigh)…..I’d love to learn more about George Droulliard–not read anything much about him, so far. I DID JUST FINISH a rough but readable copy(1949 publication, if I’m remembering right) of a book suggestion I learned about right here on “Frontier Partisans”! That would be of the historically obscure, but fascinating fellow considered the FIRST of the coureur de bois–“Etienne Brule: Immortal Scoundrel”! EXCELLENT little book! Off topic, but right after Brule, I’ve blundered into a post mortem publication by none other than Michael Crichton–“Pirate Latitudes”. Well, maybe not totally off topic– I guess the coureur de bois could have been considered land pirates by some!
I liked Pirate Latitudes better than I was supposed to.
lane batot says
I’ve only just started “Pirate Latitudes”, but I’m hooked. Some really interesting characters, that’s for certain!
Hawken Horse says
What an epic trip!!!