When Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Volunteers for Northwestern Discovery crossed into what is now the state of Washington in October 1805, they assumed that the worst part of their journey was behind them. They expected an easy float down the Columbia River to their objective, the Pacific Ocean. Instead, they found a nearly unrelenting series of obstacles, dangers, and annoyances, from life-threatening rapids to inescapable fleas.
The rapids on the Columbia were much bigger and swifter than any they had encountered elsewhere. In the Columbia Gorge, warm air from the arid, treeless plains of eastern Washington collided with cooler air from the west, creating thermal winds of terrific force. Wood was scarce; any driftwood cast ashore by annual spring floods quickly vanished in the campfires of thousands of Indians. Clark reported that people in one village were drying fish and prickly pears to burn as fuel in winter.
On the lower Columbia, the challenges of the river were compounded by the continual irritation of fleas, one legacy of the mild weather and the large population of dogs among the native people. At times, the men could get relief only by stripping naked and getting into the water.
Waterfowl flourished in the marshlands, bringing yet another aggravation. "I [s]lept but verry little last night for the noise Kept [up] dureing the whole of the night by the Swans, Geese, white & Grey Brant Ducks &c. on a Small Sand Island," Clark wrote at one point (using his distinctive spelling). "…they were emensely noumerous, and their noise horid."
The closer they got to the Pacific, the more they suffered. This ocean, Clark mused bitterly, was not "pacific" at all, but "tempestuous and horiable." Storms pinned the party against the rugged, windswept northern coast for weeks. Waves slammed into the mouth of the Columbia with such force that some of the party got seasick. Their leather clothes rotted from the continual soakings, their supplies ran low, and they all got heartily sick of salmon.
On the coast, it rained, drumming a cheerless note in Clark’s journal: "rained all the after part of last night, rain continues this morning…a cool wet raney morning…eleven days rain, and the most disagreeable time I have experenced…." Still, as the expedition prepared to leave its winter headquarters at Fort Clatsop, on the southern (Oregon) side of the Columbia, on March 23, 1806, his tone was conciliatory: "at this place we had wintered and remained from the 7th of Decr. 1805 to this day and have lived as well as we had any right to expect…not withstanding the repeeted fall of rain…."
Two hundred years later, not much remains unchanged along the Lewis and Clark Trail in Washington. Many of the expedition’s campsites, along with the ancestral villages and fishing grounds of the Indians they met, have been flooded by dams. The plains of eastern Washington now bloom with orchards, vineyards, and other agricultural enterprises, the result of massive irrigation projects. From Clarkston to the coast, the Snake and Columbia Rivers, once muscled with white water, have been turned into a slackwater canal, carrying ocean-going barges more than 400 miles inland. Railroads and freeways slice through lands that once knew only Indian trails.
But the wind still blows through the Columbia Gorge and the rain still falls on the Pacific Coast.