The United States established its claim to the Pacific Northwest in 1792, when a fur trader named Robert Gray became the first man to sail up the Columbia River. Almost two centuries later the author made his own voyage of discovery.
My boat lifted and fell in the gentle ocean swell a few miles seaward from Cape Disappointment off the mouth of the Columbia River. Although the summer morning was calm, my exposed offshore position made me nervous. I was in a small boat I had built for a journey up the Columbia, not for a voyage on the open ocean. But the journey had to begin from the sea if I was to approach the river, cross its bar, and then travel upstream as a sailing ship had done nearly two centuries ago to begin the first chapter of the river’s recorded history.
An ebbing tide had carried me away from the coast, through the ship channel, and out past the broken ends of the two stone jetties that define the outer ramparts of the river mouth. Sea birds skittered before me and then resettled on the sea in clusters, preening themselves as they bobbed up and down ons the ocean waves. A distant bell buoy clanged in the slow roll of the long Pacific swells. There were no other boats or ships around.
Turning the boat, I looked back at the coast. To the north, the descending spine of Cape Disappointment ended in a steep cliff. To the south, the low sands of Clatsop Spit formed the blur of a distant beach. The backdrop of dark Washington hills seemed to tie the land together in one long, unbroken shore. Were it not for the jetties and the line of the buoys marking the channel, I would have lost sight of the river entrance.
I tried to picture the Columbia as it must have appeared to an eighteenth-century maritime explorer, when sandbars filled the river mouth: swells, breaking on those bars, would have appeared to him as a continuation of the surf that broke north and south of the river in an uninterrupted white line. My short sea voyage had already made clear to me why the Columbia was the last of the world’s great rivers to be discovered. To that eighteenth-century captain, the Columbia River was nearly invisible.
Though unseen, it had a name: the River of the West. A geographical theory of the time held that from a collective height of land somewhere on the continent fell four rivers, one for each cardinal point of the compass. There was the River of the East (the St. Lawrence), the River of the South (the Mississippi), and evidence of the River of the North (now called the Mackenzie). The missing link was the River of the West. If it could be found, the seas washing the continent would be linked by an interior waterway wonderfully convenient for commerce.
The Columbia was first noted by Spanish captain Bruno de Hezeta as he was returning in his ship Santiago from an exploring voyage north along the coast in 1775. He wrote in his logbook on August 17, 1775: “These currents [at the mouth of the bay] and the seething of the waters have led me to believe that it may be the mouth of some great river or some passage to another sea.” His crew reduced by illness and death, Hezeta was unable to investigate further, but Spanish cartographers included this probable river on their coastal maps, calling it Rio San Roque.
The English captain James Cook sailed by the river on his northward passage along the coast in 1770. Twelve years later John Meares, an independent trader sailing south along the coast, found himself off the location of the reported Rio San Roque. Unable to see the river, he declared it did not exist. His dismay in not finding it—and the trading opportunities it might have offered —was expressed by the names he left behind. The prominent cape on the north side of the river entrance he called Cape Disappointment; the inlet at the foot of the cape he named Deception Bay.
One more great navigator and explorer was to miss the river. George Vancouver had sailed as an officer with Cook. In 1792 he returned to the coast in his own ship Discovery with instructions to complete Cook’s survey of the northwest coast. On April 27 Vancouver identified Meares’s Deception Bay, which he described this way: “On the south side of this promontory [Cape Disappointment] was the appearance of an inlet, or small river, the land not indicating it to be of any great extent; nor did it seem accessible for vessels of our burthen, as the breakers extended from the above point two or three miles into the ocean, until they joined those on the beach nearly four leagues further south.”
What I saw during my short voyage on the sea confirmed Vancouver’s description. All he noted was a change in the color of the seawater, which he attributed to the “probable consequence of some streams falling into the bay.…Not considering this opening worthy of more attention, I continued our pursuit to the N.W. being desirous to embrace the advantages of the prevailing breeze.” The Columbia remained hidden.
The water around my boat began to stir, and flow lines around the base of the buoy indicated a change to a flooding tide. I looked at my watch. The time was right: 8:00 A.M. And then I checked the compass. Course: East-northeast. I turned and headed for the river entrance, hoping to cross the bar as closely as I could to the time and course of the ship that first entered the Columbia River and later gave it its name. The ship was the Columbia Radiviva , under the command of Robert Gray, an American trader on his second voyage to the northwest coast. His practice was to sail close along the shore, seeking out small bays and openings that might shelter natives willing to trade. It was a practical Yankee interest in furs, not exploration, that prompted him to hazard the crossing of the shallow bar on the morning of May 11, 1792. The tide was just right, the wind was in the right quarter, and the sea was calm. Because of these chance conditions the Columbia River entered history with this brief log entry: “At eight, a.m., being a little to windward of the entrance of the Harbor, bore away, and ran in east-northeast between the breakers, having from five to seven fathoms of water. When we were over the bar, we found this to be a large river of fresh water, up which we steered.”
I followed, crossed the bar, and up the river I steered. I had started my voyage at the beginning of the river and its history.