Skip to main content


Following Lewis And Clark

February 2024
5min read

In a crude log bunk room in the midst of a dense forest in Oregon, the afternoon light is dim and greenish. Outside, the rain pounds down, and with only a slice of window cut into the wall and a small open doorway, the room fills quickly with smoke from the fire on the hearth.

Any traveler prefers sun to rain, but on this occasion a visitor to the reconstruction of Lewis and Clark’s winter campground found the downpour entirely suitable. ”… rained all the last night,” wrote William Clark of the place he and Meriwether Lewis named Fort Clatsop. “We covered our selves well as we could with Elk skin & set up the greater part of the night, all wet I lay in the wet verry cold.” In the diaries of the two explorers there are many moans about the weather; out of the 106 days they spent here in 1805 and 1806, they saw only 12 dry days.

Fort Clatsop is one of several stops on an eight-day journey I took last April aboard a sturdy little vessel called the Sea Lion . We traveled the Columbia and Snake rivers round trip from Portland on a nine-hundred-mile cruise that is billed “In the Wake of Lewis and Clark.” By the end of the week passengers would see how far we had traveled from the realm of these early explorers and how the inheritors of Lewis and Clark had completely transformed that world. The fifty-four passengers (when full the boat holds seventy) all turned out to be eager amateur historians. Most had dipped into the reading list provided ahead of time by Special Expeditions, which runs these cruises in the spring and fall.

While reading up on the Lewis and Clark expedition, known officially as the Corps of Volunteers for Northwest Discovery, I reaffirmed an early affection for them. For me their appeal lies partly in the sheer romance of their mission. “We were now about to penetrate a country at least 2000 miles in width, on which the foot of civilized man had never trodden,” wrote Lewis, the corps leader. Just as pleasing is the almost Hollywood-cast diversity of the group: the two chief adventurers with their sympathetic courtesy toward each other and their men; the Indian woman Sacagawea, who came along as the wife of their guide, Toussaint Charbonneau, and who proved far more useful than that feckless Frenchman. She carried her infant, Baptiste, and Clark, who came to dote on him, later raised the boy and saw that he was educated. Too, there was the powerful black slave York, whom Clark always carefully referred to as “my servant.” Completing the party was Scannon, a huge Newfoundland that hunted for his masters’ supper and guarded their camps. The journey of 7,689 miles and two and a half years saw close calls and near misses, yet all but one of the party of forty-five particinants survived.

Driving it all was the visionary President Thomas Jefferson, whose plan it was to set the United States’s imprint on distant northwest territories, as well as to chart those unknown miles in between that had fallen to this country as part of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. “The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river & such principal stream of it, as, by it’s course and communication with the waters of the Pacific ocean … may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent for the purposes of commerce,” Jefferson instructed the expedition leaders.

Fort Clatsop, the huddle of cabins in the forest, is now a national park, and it’s a wonderful place to wander and summon up the explorers’ shades. Beside a cedar-chip path winding down to their canoe landing are the plants and trees that Lewis and Clark would have seen: Sitka spruce, Western crab apple, and red huckleberry. “The leafing of the Huckleberry reminds us of spring,” Lewis wrote near the end of their long, sodden stay, and you can hear the happiness in his voice.

After the corps departed, the settlement didn’t last long in the damp. By 1811 an observer found nothing but “piles of rough, unhewn logs, overgrown with parasite creepers.” In 1900, when the Oregon Historical Society began to look into reestablishing the site, it was the testimony of early homesteaders that helped pin down the exact location. But it wasn’t until 1957 that childhood memories of an eightyseven-year-old former teacher provided the final link of evidence. Harlan Smith recalled his mother’s showing him a twenty-foot log on the ground in 1877, ”… and I remember her distinctly saying to me that that was one of the logs of the original Fort Clatsop.”

From Astoria, near the fort, our boat swung back upstream headed toward the Columbia River Gorge. Perhaps the most scenic part of the trip, this is where the river cuts deep through the Cascade Mountains; heavily wooded cliffs rise straight up on both sides, and narrow braids of waterfalls tumble more than a hundred feet. As we left this area and approached the Bonneville Dam, the first of eight massive locks and dams built across the section we were to travel of the Columbia, it seemed that the ghosts of Lewis and Clark were fading into near invisibility. The dam system has assured—for better or worse—that this will never again be the wild, boulder-strewn river they knew. As a kid I sang Woody Guthrie’s “Roll on Columbia,” without quite understanding what it was about. “Your power is turning our darkness to dawn,” I would shout enthusiastically to the chords of a guitar. Now I know it’s a hymn to the Bonneville Dam.

For Franklin Roosevelt, who proposed the Bonneville project in 1933, to those who worked on it and saw it as a way out of economic disaster, and to Woody Guthrie, it was only good news. “At Bonneville now there are ships in the locks,” Guthrie’s verse runs. “The waters have risen and cleared all the rocks / Ship-loads of plenty will steam past the docks / so Roll on Columbia, roll on!” In those years the river was seen as a monster to be tamed. And with this taming has come the ability to power the Northwest and irrigate its fields. What was lost, it seems, was the river: its personality and its teeming fish and wildlife. (And “ship-loads of plenty” have given way to freight cars and trucks of plenty.) Of the Columbia’s 1,214 miles, stretching deep into British Columbia, it has been calculated that only 300 miles run free. The rest is no more than a series of dammed lakes.

This is not to take away from the scenic splendor of the journey by boat or the many ways in which one is brushed by the region’s history. Guided by Special Expeditions’ onboard historian and naturalist Don Fillpot and the expedition chief, Neil Folsom, who sees each cruise as a chance to seek new landfalls for the next one. passeneers are kept busy.

The dam system has meant—for better or for worse—that this will never again be the wild, boulder-strewn river Lewis and Clark knew.

From time to time buses meet the boat at small town landings to carry passengers to local museums, to a winery, and on a train trip where vintage coaches climb the foothills of Mount Hood, past orchards of pear and apple.

On a locally operated jet-boat jaunt (more comfortable and less risky than it sounds) up the Snake River toward Hells Canyon in Idaho, the boat’s young captain proudly told how plans for a dam there were defeated in 1975, when Congress instead created the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, letting the rapids boil and rush forever.

The Sea Lion carries several motorized rubber rafts that allow passengers to explore the shallowest, narrowest river passages. On the Palouse River, a tributary of the Snake that runs into Washington State, fifteen of us set off in two rafts to cruise past a strangely beautiful landscape, carved by the geology of sixty million years ago. Lioncolored basalt outcroppings shaped like huge upended doorknobs or stepped Mayan temples were topped by the wire fences that indicated that up on this utterly remote plateau is grazing land. Low at the water’s edge grew willow and balsam root, canary grass and cattail. Branches neatly stripped of bark drifted by. These were “beaver chew,” and the sharp-eyed spotted the beaver lodge just upstream.

Of Lewis and Clark’s voyage Bernard De Voto wrote, “It satisfied desire and it created desire; the desire of the westering nation.” Even today something similar can happen to a traveler on a small boat on a great Western river.

—Carla Davidson TO PLAN A TRIP

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.