Lewis and Clark’s Winter Camp at Fort Clatsop
Imagine you are an explorer to the Northwest coast; all around you are reminders that you are alien to this land. Gargantuan trees, their tops lost from sight, shrouded in mist; a tidal river, choked with fish. A solid wall of green forest, forbidding you to enter too far into the trees. Wild elk grazing in a field, seemingly indifferent to your presence. This is how the Corps of Discovery, led by Captains Merriwether Lewis and William Clark found this territory, and as you'll see at Fort Clatsop, not too much has changed.
Sailing aboard the 88-guest S.S. Legacy on the Columbia and Snake River cruise, one of the more memorable stops is Astoria, Oregon. The most prominent feature about our time here is a visit to the National Park Service's excellent interpretive park at Fort Clatsop, the winter camp of Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery from December 1805 to March of 1806.
The Corps had arrived miserable and wet, exhausted from their trip down to the Lower Columbia River. They had crossed a continent to finally see the ocean. As Sgt. Patrick Gass wrote in his journal, “We are now at the end of our voyage, which has been completely accomplished according to the intention of the expedition, the object of which was to discover a passage by the way of the Missouri and Columbia Rivers to the Pacific Ocean.” The amount of joy and accomplishment felt by the men and by the young mother, Sacajawea must have been palpable. Now the next challenge lay in finding a place to spend the winter.
The decision was made to camp for the winter near the present day town of Warrenton on the shores of Youngs River. They moved there on December 7th, 1805. It had all they needed for a camp: fresh water, high ground, wood for building, and game in the form of elk. The men divvied up chores; hunters head into the bush to shoot some elk, and the rest get to work clearing ground and setting up the fort.
In 20 short days, the men had accomplished the feat; a seven room fort complete with a stockade wall. They felled trees for the construction, using the logs to build up the fort. Dirt floors, a guard box, a storage shed, rooms for the men, a separate room for the officers, another room for Sacajawea, her young son and husband, Toussaint Charbonneau.
The fort had shingled roofs and a fence with a stout gate. We know these details from the journals of the officers and men. The men would remain here for three and a half months, eating elk, making clothing from their hide, trading with the Clatsops, and trying to stay out of the punishing rain. This is a part of the world that rains an average of 85 inches a year!
Eventually, the men became sick of elk meat, and began to suffer illnesses from the constant wet. The Corps moved out on March 23, 1806, leaving the fort they had constructed to their native hosts. In the following decades, the fort fell into disrepair, then rot, and degraded to its natural state and disappeared into the forest.
The Fort that guests aboard the legacy will experience is as close to the original as could have possibly been made. On the way there, keep an eye out in the fields for the elk herd! Arriving at the Fort, you will be welcomed into the visitor’s center. Outside, you walk amongst immense Sitka spruce, cedar and fir trees.
Arriving at the reconstructed fort, you see it as the men must have; a log structure, traditionally built, with a rudimentary log wall, gate and small flagpole. Pass through the guard gate into the small courtyard amidst the rough-cut logs. The smell of the peeled logs, the look of the hastily built bunks, and the rustic-yet-homey hearth and fire make it seem as though you are a member of the Corps in 1805. It becomes easy to imagine one waiting out the rain in this outpost in the wilderness.
Often you'll run into Corps of Discovery re-enactors showing you how to make a fire or operate the flintlock muskets the men carried with them. The park rangers are incredibly passionate and knowledgeable as well. Down the trail from the fort is a boardwalk and trail following the river and leading into the forest. This is a lovely way to see the forest in its natural state; take in the smells, sights and experience how it must have been in 1805.
Fort Clatsop is a powerful and informative stop for those interested in the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It is a just a small part of the Lewis and Clark story that we witness and experience on every river cruise aboard the S.S. Legacy.