A Brief History is a compilation of the 12 episodes previously published on CwHD. 

The Ancient River
Episode 1

Stella is a Leonberger, a hybrid breed that includes Newfoundland, Great Pyrennees, and St Bernard. She loves the water, and her home in Cascadia, a more romantic name than Pacific Northwest, suits her to a T.

The Columbia River defines the region, and the delta that forms the confluence of the Sandy River and the Columbia is one of her favorite places to play. Stella came to Oregon just a 

year and half ago. She learned of the big Newfoundland named Seaman who explored with Lewis and Clark on their expedition from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Needless to say, she quickly became enamored with Seaman.


Though the dog is rarely mentioned in their journals, Seaman did accompany the explorers to the Pacific Coast and back again. Meriwether Lewis thought the dog would provide security for the explorers, and purchased Seaman in Pittsburgh for $20 as a companion while he waited for their keel boats to be built.

Seaman had many adventures. He was stolen by Indians, bitten by a beaver, and so tortured by the "musquetos" that he howled in despair. His collar is still housed in a museum in Alexandria, Virginia with an inscription that reads: The greatest traveller of my species. My name is Seaman, the dog of Meriwether Lewis whom I accompanied to the Pacific Ocean through the interior of the continent of North America."

This history is brief on several counts, not the least of which is the fact that I am only considering the sections of the river that form the Oregon-Washington border. As Lewis and Clark's voyage down the river dovetails neatly with my account, I will include snippets from their journals as well.  These journals are best read in their original format even though the spelling, capitalization, and punctuation are all problematic. Initially, some annotation is added for abbreviated phrases. The river, historically, had changed very little for thousands of years before Lewis and Clark recorded what they saw.

Volcanos created the Columbia River. A geologist would quibble. Technically, the lava flowed from linear fissures, or vents, and reached as far as the northern Willamette Valley, breaching the Coast Range and pushed on to the continental shelf. Flood lava kept flowing and filling the river's ancient channels, but the river kept finding an easier path to the north. So rather than debouching into Yaquina Bay at Newport, the mighty River of the West ends its long journey at Astoria.

We struggle with numbers we cannot imagine. 100,000 people fill a football stadium, and gives us a notion; but a million years leaves a blank. Geology seems rife with such numbers. 4 billion years ago the planet came to be. 62 million years ago came the extinction of the dinosaurs. Several million years ago, the Oregon territory looked much as it does today with the exception of the Columbia River Gorge and the river that runs through that gorge.

20,000 years ago, the Columbia had already carved a fairly deep V-shaped channel through the massive basalt flows. Its banks rose gradually up to higher peaks. No evidence of a native people exists for this period; but some anthropologists and other scientists think a date of 20,000 years ago is not impossible. The climate was 6 - 8 degrees colder then for the last ice age still held most of North America in its grip.

A gradual warming of the planet that ended that age began to erode an ice dam in Montana. That dam held back a body of water nearly the size of Lake Erie. The collapse of the dam and the sudden release of such a large body of water created the greatest floods the planet has ever known. Named the Bretz Foods for Harlan Bretz, the geologist who first proposed the idea of flooding, this giant flow created the present configuration of the Columbia River. The V-shaped river valley was scooped and dredged by the rush of water and the U-shaped gorge we see today resulted.
USGS photo / Westby, Liz (2014-4-26)
Flood basalt lava flow in stacked layers viewed eastward across the Columbia River

The Early Days
Episode 2

Watershed, Columbia River
(By Kmusser - self-made, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3844725)

Early travelers may have populated the river 20,000 years ago. The Clovis culture, dated about 13,500 years ago, is more certain. The native Americans the Corps of Discovery found along the Columbia were linked to these early groups. By the 1700s, this heavily populated area was already in decline. Smallpox and other diseases, brought by adventurers through the mountains and traders to the mouth of the river, had spread quickly and taken a heavy toll on the tribes.

The expedition to the Pacific Northwest led by Lewis and Clark, came down the Snake River and entered the Columbia at the confluence just opposite of where Pasco, Washington now sprawls. They camped on a point of land that has become Sacajawea State Park. 32 miles downstream from this spot is the imposing edifice of McNary Dam.

To the north, the river extended into Canada, made a 180° turn to the south running 200 odd miles to its origin in a lake nestled between the Rocky Mountains and the Selkirks. The river drains 260,000 square miles, is about 1250 miles long, and its highest measured flow is over 500 million gallons per minute.

Wallula Gap
http://columbiariverimages.com, Lyn  Topinka

16 miles south of Pasco is Wallula Gap. Created by the many Bretz floods (1000 feet high walls of water moving at 65 miles an hour), the Gap will be the eastern terminal of our narrative as we voyage downstream with the Corps.

From the journal of William Clark, October 18, 1805 :

... the river passes into the range of high Country at which place the rocks project into the river from the high clifts which is on the Lard. [larboard or left] Side about 2/3 of the way across and those of the Stard. [starboard or right] Side about the Same distance, the Countrey rises here about 200 feet above The water and is bordered with black rugid rocks ...

According to Robert Hitchman1 Wallula is a Nez Perce name and apparently just a different rendering of Walla Walla, meaning "place of many waters." The river behind McNary Dam is over 300 feet deep, and a good deal of imagination is needed to recreate the early river.

In ascending the river fifteen miles from this place, the land on either side rises to some fifteen hundred feet above the level of the river which occupies the entire bottom from rocks to rocks on either side; when the land suddenly drops from this high plain which extends from the Blue Mountains on the east to the Cascade range on the west, forming, as it were, a great inland dam across the Columbia River, fifteen hundred feet high at the place where the river has broken through the dam. As you pass out of this gap, in looking to the north and east, the eye rests upon another vast, high, rolling plain, in the southeastern part of which lies the beautiful valley of the Wallawalla ...2

1Robert Hitchman, Place Names of Washington, (Washington State Historical Society, 1985)
2William Henry Gray, A History of Oregon. 1792 - 1849 (1870)

White Water
Episode 3

Before the dams, fourteen named rapids made navigation difficult between Beacon Rock (RM 142---River Miles are charted from the mouth of the river just beyond Cape Disappointmment to the north and Clatsop Spit to the south) and Wallula Gap (RM 312). Some were mere riffles; others, like Celilo Falls, were big drops with hazards at every hand.
Celilo Falls

These days, four major dams harness the Columbia below the confluence with the Snake River. The first, built in 1936, was Bonneville (RM 146). Then followed McNary Dam (RM 292) in 1954 ; the Dalles Dam (RM 192) in 1957 ; and the John Day Dam (RM 216) in 1971. Each of these dams was built at the sight of a rapids, and the reservoirs they created filled the gorge with hundreds of feet of water and eliminated the river and shoreline as known by Lewis and Clark.

The first rapids the explorers encountered they named Mussel Shell[s] Rapid. As was often the case, their name did not last, and those same rapids in modern times were called Umatilla Rapids. They were flooded out of existence by the construction of McNary Dam.

From Clark's notes of October 18, 1805:

we came too on the Lard [larboard] Side to view the rapid before we would venter to run it, as the Chanel appeared to be close under the oppd. Shore, and it would be necessary to liten our canoe, I deturmined to walk down on the Lard Side, with the 2 Chiefs the interpreter & his woman, and derected the Small canoe to prcede down on the Lard Side to the foot of the rapid which was about 2 miles in length ... This rapid I observed as I passed opposit to it to be verry bad interseped with high rock and Small rockey Islands, here I observed banks of Muscle Shells banked up in the river in Several places, I Delayed at the foot of the rapid about 2 hours for the Canoes which I could See met with much dificuelty in passing down the rapid on the oposit Side maney places the men were obliged to get into the water and haul the canoes over Sholes ...

While Lewis and his best watermen were attempting to negotiate the rapids, Captain Clark hiked up a butte on the south side of the river and saw two mountains in the distant west. He misidentified Mt Adams as Mt St Helens, but correctly spotted the 'conical' Mt Hood. Both St Helens and Hood had been charted by Lt Broughton, under George Vancouver's command, on his exploration up the river in 1792.

Between the Mussel Shell Rapids and the John Day Rapids, the Corps of Discovery had 85 miles of fairly easy water, and covered that distance in six days. They camped on the Washington side of the river near an Indian village. An oddity in what otherwise is a fairly meticulous account is their failure to mention the John Day River.

They camped in the same location on their return journey in April of 1806. They note the high bluffs and rocky arid landscape. They comment on the more hostile attitudes of the Indians they encountered. Condors and geese and ducks are mentioned. The John Day goes unnoticed.
mouth of John Day River from Washington side

An obvious explanation for the oversight is that Lewis and Clark were on the Washington side, the Columbia's river level was several hundred feet lower than it is today, and the John Day might well have been taken for an insignificant creek.

The Great Falls of the Columbia
Episode 4

The Columbia is a curious river. As Lewis and Clark discovered, long wide reaches, shallow and calm, are followed by short treacherous drops of "great impetuosity"1. Just above Miller Island (RM 207), for example, the river is nearly a mile wide. At Celilo, just fifteen miles downstream, the river, before the Dalles Damn, narrowed to as little as 75 feet and churned itself into a series of rapids and falls (Threemile, Fivemile, The Dalles, Tenmile, and Celilo). Over a 10 mile stretch, the river dropped some eighty feet culminating in the horseshoe falls that effectively blocked travel on the river.

Lewis and Clark had left the Umatilla Rapids (and the mouth of a small river on the "larboard side" --- most likely the John Day?), and paddled another twenty miles or so before arriving at the Great Falls. They landed and took council. Clark notes on October 22, 1805:

... 6 miles below the upper mouth of Towarnehiooks River (Deschutes) the commencement of the pitch of the Great falls, opposite on the Stard. Side is 17 Lodges of the nativs ... we landed and walked down accompanied by an old man to view the falls, and the best rout for to make a portage which we Soon discovered was much nearest on the Stard. Side, and the distance 1200 yards one third of the way on a rock, about 200 yards over a loose Sand collected in a hollar blown by the winds from the bottoms below which was disagreeable to pass, as it was Steep and loose. ...

Celilo Falls was the great meeting place of the Pacific Northwest. Archaeologists can date human occupation of the site for as long as 12000 years (just after the last of the Bretz Floods). The place and the falls went by many names (Horseshoe Falls, The Chutes, Wy-am), but Celilo was not one of them. According to the Oregon Historical Quarterly (April 1915) " ... the name does not appear in print before 1859, as far as yet discovered. The earlier journals and letters of fur traders and travelers do not mention it ..."

Lewis and Clark at Celilo Falls, Mural at Oregon State Capitol

The journals of Lewis and Clark provide the first glimpse of Celilo. 7000 - 10000 people lived between what today is Cascade Locks and The Dalles. In the Pacific Northwest, ethnographers estimate that there were 125 different tribes that spoke 56 different languages. Klickitat, Wishram, and Wasco would come from the inland plateaus to trade with the river tribes, the Clackamas, the Wahkiakums, and Chinook. It was Captain George Vancouver, noting that these natives had developed a common language, who labeled it Chinook jargon. It was Lewis and Clark who noted that disease from early contact with American an European traders at the mouth of the river had already begun to scythe its way through the tribes.

It was fish that made the relatively large population possible. Annual runs of 11 million to 16 million salmon and steelhead made the river a magnet for native Americans. Though rife with hazards, the fishing provided a lifestyle for many and a means of trade for many more. With the coming of the horse around 1730, this Columbia River crossroads became the hub of the Pacific Northwest.

1Alexander Ross (1783-1856), fur trader, as quoted in The Oregon Encyclopedia.

Episode 5

'Native people' is a clumsy phrase. Those who use it mean well, and there is no better term. 'Indian' carries a slightly (and in some cases, not so slight) pejorative tint. And, of course, the word is based on a serious error of navigation on the part of one Cristofor Columbo. Indigenous people, the original inhabitants of a region, have no nifty moniker. They might be known as first people, aboriginal people, or even autochthonous people. Native will do for this account.

From the Dalles to Hood River is about 22 river miles. The terrain and flora begin to change as the river cuts its cleft through the Cascades. The transition is obvious. Lewis and Clark make several observations on the change.

Near the end of October, 1805, they pass a village near the Klickitat River and stop to smoke a pipe. Clark writes:

after brackfast we proceeded on, the mountains are high on each Side, containing Scattering pine white oake & under groth, hill Sides Steep and rockey; at 4 miles lower we observed a Small river falling in with great rapidity on the Stard. Side below which is a village of 11 houses here we landed to Smoke a pipe with the nativs and examine the mouth of the river, which I found to be 60 yards wide rapid and deep ...

As they drifted and paddled downriver, they came upon 13 graves on an island. This is Memaloose, today only 1/3rd remains above the flooding waters of Bonneville Dam. Repeatedly looted and, in native people's view, desecrated by the grave and obelisk of one Victor Trevitt, the native remains were relocated in 1937 (either by the various tribes or the Corps of Engineers), and the count then was given at 650 burials.

Indian burials, Memaloose Island, Columbia River ca. 1950
Courtesy Paul Dorpat

Clark described the above ground graves as 'squar vaults.' These burials, odd to Clark, were common among native people world wide. In Tibet, for example, a similar practice is called 'sky burials.' The body is placed in the open, usually a high rocky place, and allowed to decompose and be scattered by winds and birds and other carrion eaters.

passed three large rocks in The river the middle rock is large long and has Several Squar vaults on it. we call this rockey Island the Sepulchar. The last river we passed we Shall Call the Cataract River from the number of falls which the Indians say is on it- passed 2 Lodges of Indians a Short distance below the Sepulchar Island on the Stard. Side river wide, at 4 mile passed 2 houses on the Stard. Side, Six miles lower passed 4 houses above the mouth of a Small river 40 yards wide on the Lard. Side

 Clark's 'Seplucher Island' is, of course, Memaloose. The name seems to be derived from the Chinook word "memalust, which means "to die".

Beacon Rock
Episode 6

I began this exploration of the Columbia River in part through the eyes of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Lewis brought with him a Newfoundland dog named Seaman. The dog is mentioned several times in the journals, but from August 1805 through July 1806 he receives not a line. Seaman's Creek in Montana was named by Lewis for the dog apparently on their return journey; but little mention after that. The creek today is called Monture Creek.

As the Columbia winds through what is now the Columbia River Gorge (with Clark and Lewis paddling along, Seaman standing in the bows), a major rapid and several large landslides mark its course before it reaches tide water at what is now called Beacon Rock. The Columbia derives its power as it drops on average two feet for every mile. Through the 100 mile section from above the Dalles to tide water, the drop is nearer five feet per mile. From the reach of tide to the mouth, the Columbia flattens to just a 1/2 foot drop per mile.

the 'cascades' and lock at Cascade Locks

The aerial view looks westward,downstream, and was taken September 8, 1929. Clearly shown is the main drop of Cascade Rapids where the Columbia River has been diverted southward around the toe of the Bonneville landslide. At the left is Cascade Locks, completed in 1896, which facilitated steamship travel upriver of the rapids. The Bridge of the Gods, completed in 1926, took advantage of the natural constriction of the Columbia between the eroded toe of the Bonneville landslide and the southern valley margin. The bridge still stands at its present location but was raised about forty feet during construction of Bonneville Dam to accommodate ship traffic on the pool that now drowns Cascade Rapids. Lewis and Clark's map has this has this note: ... the Great Shoot or Rapid. 150 Yards wide and 400 Yards long crowded with Stones and Islands ...

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photograph (from Wikimedia Commons)

The other major geographical feature, alluded to in the photograph description above, is the Bonneville landslide. Clark remarks (October 30, 1805):

a remarkable circumstance in this part of the river is, Stumps of pine trees are in maney places at Some distance in the river, and gives every appearance of the rivers being damned up from below from Some cause which I am not at this time acquainted with ...

These landslides from the steep cliffs to the north dammed the river until it was eventually able to breach the tongue of the slide and carve a new path through the vast slide debris. In legend, native Americans recall this as the Bridge of the Gods. No consensus exists on the dating of the various slides. The probability is that all of the dating is correct in some way. From 1200 to 1700, the cliffs tumbled and diverted the river.

Southern face of Table Mountain, slide scar, photograph by Eric Prado

Below 'the Great Shoot', the river began to level and the currents eased. Near what Clark first named 'Beaten Rock', they got there first taste of salt. The huge rock, known in geology as a monolith like Gibraltar, marks the eastern extent of the Pacific Ocean's tidal reach. Despite Clark's entry, the explorer's intent no doubt was to affix 'Beacon' as the name. This was a milestone in their journey. They all felt then that the end was near.

Beacon Rock, U.S. Geological Survey photograph


Episode 7

The prominent thrust of Beacon Rock found the explorers through the mountains and now at tide water. On October 31, 1805, Clark wrote:

... a remarkable high detached rock Stands in a bottom on the Stard Side near the lower point of this Island on the Stard. Side about 800 feet high and 400 paces around, we call Beaten rock ...

And from his journal of April 6, 1806, on their return trip, he noted:

... the river is here about 1 1/2 miles wide; it's general width from the beacon rock which may be esteemed the head of tide water ... it is only in the fall of the year when the river is low that the tides are perceptible as high as beacon rock ...

As the river widened, the current slowed and became shallow with sandy beaches at what the explorers called 'bottoms.' The weather, too, changed. Once through the heart of the Cascade range, the arid eastern reaches gave way to a " ... countary a high mountain on each side thickly covered with timber, such as Spruce, Pine, Cedar, oake Cotton & & ... " And more often than not they woke to " ... cloudy rainey disagreeable morning[s] ..."

Drawing by Roger Cooke, Washington State Historical Society
Lewis & Clark Today

The journals of Lewis and Clark noted 128 "rain days" from November 1805 (Beacon Rock) to March 1806 (Fort Clatsop). An average winter for northwest Oregon. Astoria, for example, recorded 127 days of rain during the winter of 2003-2004. "Rained all the after part of last night," wrote Clark on November 5. "I slept very little ... " And on the 6th, " ... A cool wet raney morning ... "

As wet and disagreeable as the conditions were, when the wind began to blow their troubles multiplied. The Gorge, as is well documented, is a wind funnel. When high pressure sits to the east and low pressure flows in from the coast, the resulting pressure gradient creates strong winds that increase in velocity as they wend their way through the constrictions of the Gorge. Folks in Corbett, a small town perched on a bluff above the western end of the gorge, like to tell visitors that they use anchor chain for a wind gauge. If the chain hasn't lifted off the ground, it's not really windy.

From Lewis (January 31, 1806, Fort Clatsop):

The winds from the Land brings us could and clear weather while those obliquely along either coast or off the Oceans bring us warm damp cloudy weather. The hardest winds are always from the S.W.

This is a typical weather pattern for the winter months on the Oregon coast. Had he spent a summer in the Northwest, he would have noted a shift in the pattern. The wind, he would find, would come primarily from the northwest. With this shift, the rain relents. Winter months in the Coast Range bring 140 inches of rain; summer months receive less the ten inches.

November 14th Thursday 1805:

rained all the last night without intermition, and this morning. wind blows verry hard ... one of our canoes is much broken by the waves dashing it against the rocks ...

In the summer of 2004, I paddled a sea kayak from Beacon Rock to Cathlamet (RM 40) and then, off the river, through the sloughs to Skamakawa and on to the Lewis and Clark Wildlife Refuge. My journey was done in stages over the course of the summer. No broken canoes or lashing rain and wind.

Not far down river from Beacon Rock, paddling the Washington side to stay out of the main channel, I picked up a bit of breeze and some chop. When the wind is from the west, against the river's current, it can kick up waves and white caps in short order. Running your hand against the lay of your hair gives you the idea. The river was getting the least bit tousled.

Into this head wind, I sat up and put a little more muscle into each stroke. Ahead on the river were two aluminum fishing boats bobbing up and down in the mouth of Skamania Island's north channel. "Can't be too bad," I thought. "Just the wind getting funneled past Skamania. No problem."

I put my head down and paddled harder. Chop became two foot waves with their tops blown off. I began taking water over the bow as I slapped into the face of the waves. I knew the boat was up for the conditions (it was a sea kayak after all); but the paddling was beginning to get too much like work.

I peered down river looking for my fishermen. They, more prudent than I, were gone. One more faceful of water made up my mind. I steered for the east end of the island, into the relief of shallow water and respite from the wind. Laughed at myself.

Turned tail and skedaddled, ya did, I thought. But then, as the old climbing adage goes: there are bold climbers and there are old climbers; but there aren't any old, bold climbers. I eased over to the lee of a bend on the Oregon shore and paddled down river.


Episode 8

My daughter sat on the foredeck and my wife and I filled the small cockpit of our West Wight Potter, a jaunty little sailboat just 15 feet in length. Leaving the glassy calm backwater behind Rooster Rock State Park, we eased down a short channel, gave the rocky submerged point some clearance and turned the bow upriver.

The quiet water of the narrow channel from the park mooring posed no problem for the Potter. Once on the Columbia, the current became a different kettle of fish. A crown like that of a roadway marked the deepest water of the main channel as it flowed along at three or four knots. Our little 2 HP outboard could push the boat at two or three knots. I shaded the main flow and pointed her bow upriver. We were on our way, sailing to Cape Horn.

Cape Horn Columbia River, Carleton Watkins, 1867

Intrepid though this first voyage on a new boat was, the notorious Cabos de Hornos at the tip of Tierra del Fuego was not our destination. That Cape Horn and this Cape Horn are similar in size, but both the weather and sea state are vastly different. The Columbia is not the Southern Ocean.

Historically, several shoreline outcrops on the river were daubed 'Cape Horn.' Two remain. Our goal was the basalt cliff outcrop brooding over the Columbia at RM 132. On November 2, 1805, William Clark located the prominent feature at "... S. 47° W. 12 miles to a Stard. point of rocks of a high clift of black rocks ... " Strong local winds characterize the area, and the winds along with the general appearance apparently gave rise to the name.

Our Cape Horn is an exposed section of Columbia River basalt. The rock was a product of several hundred fissure lava flows which covered most of Washington and Oregon and parts of Idaho. These flows were events of the Early Miocene, 17 to 5.5 million years old. The estimated volume of these eruptions was at least 700 million cubic miles, the largest such flows in the earth's history.

A reporter for the Utah Desert News, Andrew Jensen, filed this report as he traveled the river in 1895:

... As we proceed to the lower end of the gorge through which the Columbia passes through the Cascade Mountains, we notice across the river, in the state Washington, the so-called Cape Horn, also called Gibraltar ... [It] is composed of solid rock of apparent bark formation, rising abruptly from the water's edge ... These rocks are at the upper portion surrounded by cone-shaped pillars known as the Needles ...

Jensen's 'bark formation' is columnar basalt. From Wallula Gap to Astoria this type of rock provides a clear picture of the regions geologic past. After the massive lava flows of the Miocene, it was the relatively recent Bretz Floods of just 10,000 years ago which eroded the earthen layers and exposed the basalt. A good source for more information on the geology of the river is here:

CLICK to link to video

Passing the beach at Rooster Rock park, we were tempted to join the folks swimming in the warm shallows. The boat has a flat bottom with a lifting center board, and it would be a simple matter to beach her and have a swim. Noise from the bow seemed to be insisting on a change of course; but the Captain was having none of it. The mate suggested lunch. We pressed on. Phoca Rock, that curious phallic lump near the center of the river, became the Captain's goal. We would double Phoca mutiny or no.

From Clark's journal, November 2, 1805: "... at 17 miles passed a rock near the middle of the river about 100 feet high and 80 feet Diamuter ..." Though they make no mention in their daily journals of seeing seals in the area , the rock was named for them. Phoca in Greek means 'seal.' In his notes from the winter camp at Fort Clatsop, Clark writes: "... 11 miles to the Pho ca rock in midl. Rivr. 100 foot high, Saw Seal's; ..." These were probably harbor seals, frequent visitors on the river from the mouth to, historically, the Dalles.

Phoca Rock , Penny Post Card ca.1910

The rock sits just 30 feet above the river today. As we motored on, the afternoon warmed and the wind came up from the northwest. Up went the mainsail, out rolled the jib. We sailed past Sand Island and came abeam of Cape Horn. Appropriately, strong gusts now saw the Captain taking in sail. It had also occurred to him that the return trip would be into the wind, always a more difficult occupation. Wind against current also created chop. The mate feared sea sickness. We gybed away from Phoca Rock and began to beat down river.

Putting into the lee of Sand Island, some lunch, and a general lull in the afternoon breeze, restored our confidence. We returned without incident to the shelter of the moorage behind Rooster Rock.


Episode 9

From Broughton Bluff on past the town of St Helens where it bends sharply north, the Columbia runs fairly straight and wide. The prominent bluff, named for a British lieutenant who explored the river in 1792, overlooks the Sandy River. Named the Quicksand River for the consistency of its banks and bottom, the Sandy was just one of many rivers that debouched into the Columbia. The silt brought by these rivers and the shallow, slow water created many islands large and small along this reach.

While the larger tributaries brought silt, the smaller streams and creeks created waterfalls. The Cascades are relatively young mountains, and water erosion has left a few deep, narrow side canyons, but also many canyons in the making. Downriver, preoccupied with their destination, Lewis and Clark noticed and noted fewer details of the landscape than they did when they were homeward bound. From April 9, 1806, bound upriver, comes this journal entry from Meriwether Lewis:

... we passed several beautiful cascades which fell from a great height over the stupendous rocks which closes the river on both sides, the most remarkable of these cascades falls about 300 feet perpendicularly over a solid rock into a narrow bottom of the river on the south side ...

After camping at the mouth of the Sandy, they paddled on. Encouraged by tidewater and the imminent success of their journey, they focused on the end goal and missed the Willamette River and the fertile valley it drains. They corrected this oversight on their return, but did have to backtrack to locate the river the native Americans had described. Clark traveled some distance up the Willamette, but not far enough to see Willamette Falls though native guides had described the area to the south and the fertile valley it drained.

From the journals as edited by Nicholas Biddle, this entry from April 3 - 4, 1806:

13 miles below the last village, he entered the mouth of a large river, which is concealed by three small islands ... The current of this river is as gentle as that of the Columbia; its surface is smooth and even, and it appears to possess water enough for the largest ship. Its length from north to south we are unable to determine, but we believe that the valley must extend a great distance ... being naturally fertile, would, If properly cultivated, afford subsitance for 40,000 or 50,000 souls.

Lewis and Clark meet the Chinooks

As the cultural changes of the native communities became as dramatic as the geographical changes of the landscape, the expedition of Lewis and Clark encountered a wide welcoming river, but taciturn, contrary natives. The cooperation they had come to expect was replaced by hard bargains and what they saw as petty theft by the natives known as the Skilloots.

This Chinookan speaking tribe occupied both sides of the river between the Washougal and Cowlitz Rivers. They had a fair sized village where the airport is located and a large village near the mouth of the Willamette; and they effectively controlled traffic and trade on the Columbia acting as middlemen for all tribes between the coast and the Dalles. Lewis and Clark commented on the many European articles, from guns to buttons, that the Skilloots had stockpiled.

The bounty of the sea, the river, and the surrounding woods made for large populations and the leisure to develop diverse local customs. Trading had become a major part of this way of life. Early 18th century population estimates place as many as 80,000 natives along the river. With the coming of European traders, the lives of the Chinookan people changed, and the change was not for the better.

Disease swept the tribes. By the time of Lewis and Clark, 1805-06, the native population was reduced by half. Initially smallpox emptied the villages, but successive waves of malaria, measles, and influenza also took a heavy toll. Population estimates tell the tale. By 1780 there were 20,000 natives. By 1805, the number was reduced to 12,000. By 1850, only 4,000 remained. By 1910, 1,000 clung to desperate lives.

Couple a skilled trader with a deep suspicion of Europeans and the attitude the expedition encountered is easy to understand. Lewis and Clark met the hostility with some aggression; but, in general, managed to avoid any major confrontation. As they paddled on through the Coast Range and the cold rains fell, they had a bigger issue to deal with: the Columbia itself.

From Clark's journal, November 4, 1805:

... N. 28ยบ W. 3 miles to a Stard bend & campd. near a village on the Std. Side passed one on each Side, proceded on untill after dark to get Clere of Indians we Could not 2 Canoes pursued us and 2 others Came to us, and were about us all night we bought a fiew roots &c ...

Post Office Lake, Washington RM 95 near Lewis & Clark campsite


Episode 10

Just down stream from the city of St Helens (RM 86), the river narrows from more than a mile to less than a half mile as it runs just west of north. I had forgotten that the ship channel shifts to the Washington side leaving Columbia City astern as it wends its way through the wide flood plain marked by Burke and Martin Islands on the Washington side, and Goat and Deer Islands on the Oregon shore.

There I sat midriver in my sea kayak contemplating the six mile breadth of the Columbia and its lowlands, and how geography was so much a function of hydrology. Water was the sculptor of the land. The place had not changed much in hundreds of years. Lewis and Clark saw what I saw.

Looking north to south with Deer Island in background

I had the river to myself. No Chinook canoes; no container ships. Thought I would take a lunch break. Looked again. Nothing coming up the river, nothing coming down. I pulled up my spray skirt and fished below decks for my ditty bag.

The thing is, while canoes and kayaks do well to travel at 3 - 5 knots, cargo ships usually do 15 - 20 knots. A rule of thumb: if you can see the white mustache of a ship's bow wave, trouble is only minutes away. The numbers tell the story: At 16 knots, a ship will cover 8 miles in thirty minutes. In fifteen minutes, that same vessel puts 4 miles under its keel. In 7.5 minutes, 2 miles. In something less than 4 minutes, 60,000 tons of relentless steel will cover a mile.

Unwrapping my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I glanced upriver. A ship plain as day pushing a big bow wave. Salty language ensued. I stuffed my PBJ into my ditty bag and headed for the Washington shore. Not an ideal choice. Heavy riprap bolstered the bank. How close would the ship pass? How big their wake? Just where was the channel anyways? I dug a paddle into the river and spun the bow to face the thudding menace.

From William Clark's journal, November 5, 1805:

Separated from the Lard side by a narrow Chanel, on this Island we Stoped to Dine I walked out found it open & covered with Sm. grass interspersed with Small ponds, in which was great numbr. of foul, the remains of an old village on the lower part of this Island, I saw Several deer ...

I guessed wrong about the channel. This container ship would pass close by, too close. They had not given me the 5 blasts on the horn that indicate a potential for danger. That would be Rule 34d of the Navigation Rules worded as follows:

When vessels in sight of one another are approaching each other and from any cause either vessel fails to understand the intentions or actions of the other, or is in doubt whether sufficient action is being taken by the other to avoid collision, the vessel in doubt shall immediately indicate such doubt by giving at least five short and rapid blasts on the whistle.

I wasn't even a blip on their radar screen. If anyone was looking at their radar screen. As it thudded by, no one came on deck to give me a wave. Saw no one at all. I steadied my little boat with blades flat on the water, watching for logs and other debris that ship backwash often kicks up. I waited for the wake.

Surprised and more than a little relieved, the ship passed by with just a bit of gentle swell and no debris. I took a breath. All things considered, would rather have paddled with Lewis and Clark. Canoes are far more agreeable than cargo ships.

Clark, November 5, 1805:

We met 4 Canoes of Indians from below, in which there is 26 Indians, one of those Canoes is large, and ornimented with Images on the bow & Stern. That in the Bow the likeness of a Bear, and in Stern the picture of a man- we landed on the Lard. Side & camped a little below the mouth of a creek on the Stard. Side a little below the mouth of which is an Old Village which is now abandaned-; here the river is about one and a half miles wide. and deep, The high Hills which run in a N W. & S E. derection form both banks of the river the Shore boald and rockey, the hills rise gradually & are Covered with a thick groth of pine &c. The valley which is from above the mouth of Quick Sand River to this place may be computed at 60 miles wide on a Derect line, & extends a great Distanc to the right & left rich thickly Covered with tall timber, with a fiew Small Praries bordering on the river and on the Islands; Some fiew Standing Ponds & Several Small Streams of running water on either Side of the river; This is certainly a fertill and a handsom valley, at this time Crouded with Indians. The day proved Cloudy with rain the greater part of it, we are all wet cold and disagreeable- I saw but little appearance of frost in this valley which we call Wap-pa-too Columbia from the root or plants growing Spontaniously in this valley only ... We
made 32 miles today by estimation -

Chinook canoe, historic photo from Lewis & Clark Today website


(Ska- mock-a-way)

Episode 11

" ... a cool wet raney morning we Set out early ... " Lewis and Clark had camped at Prescott Beach, just below Rainier on the Oregon side and Kelso-Longview on the Washington side. This area of the river, other than where the dams were located, is the most changed. The mill at Longview and the bridge spanning the river speak to the commerce that has developed along the Columbia's shoreline.

When Robert Gray sailed across the bar at the mouth of the river, only native villages dotted the shoreline. From Fort Vancouver, built in 1829, to Astoria, settled first in 1811, a number of small communities with their attendant commerce had begun to supplant the native villages. The industrial age had caught up with the Columbia. And with the discovery of gold in the interior Columbia basin and the development of canneries on the lower river, the die was cast.

Two brothers, George and William Hume, were major players in the development. In 1866, with declining salmon runs on the Sacramento River in California, they packed up and moved their operation north to the Columbia. With their partner, Andrew S. Hapgood, they built a cannery located at a place they called Eagle Cliff on the Washington side some 50 miles upriver opposite the mouth of the Clatskanie River. That year they packed 4,000 cases of salmon, 48 one-pound cans to the case, all done by hand. By the 1880s, more than thirty canneries lined the river from Astoria to the Dalles, and 600,000 cases of packed salmon were shipped yearly. By 1911, just 100 odd years since Lewis and Clark, the salmon catch peaked at 47 million pounds.

from The Oregon Encyclopedia

Increased boat traffic, from steamboats to double ended gill netters, created a need for a safe channel and aids to navigation. The river's seasonal rise and fall and its many shoals posed a challenge for the larger ships that began to sail up river. In 1877, Congress approved the creation of a channel from Portland to the mouth of the river. In 1891, dredging deepened the channel from 17 feet to 25 feet.

Skamokawa and the shoals at the west end of Tenasillahe Island mark the end of the river proper and the beginning of the Columbia's estuary. From Bradford (RM 41), once a booming logging town, across to the Elochoman Slough is just a mile and a quarter. Beyond Tenasillahe's western point, the Columbia widens to over six miles from Svenson Island in Cathlamet Bay to the mouth of Gray's River.

Tenasillahe Island from near Bradford; called the Marshy Islands by Lewis and Clark, the island's name is composed of two Chinook jargon words, "tenas," meaning small, and "illahe," meaning land

As with the character of the activities along its shoreline, the character of the river itself between St Helens and Skamokawa begins to change. Beyond the Cascades, across a wide plain, and through the less formidable Coast Range, the river slows and its course becomes dotted with islands, large and small. Their names speak to the nature of each island: Goat Island, Deer Island, Martin Island, Sandy Island, Cottonwood Island, Walker, Fisher, Hump, Crims, Wallace, Puget, and back to Tenasillahe.

All these landforms are products of the vast amounts of sediment that the Columbia transports. A good deal of that sediment is deposited at the mouth creating the hazards of the bar. Much is washed out to sea. Known as the Astoria Fan, this asymmetric wedge of sediment is 6000 feet thick and extends over 60 miles out to sea. The most obvious product of deposition though are the islands.

As a river meanders down its course, the flow on the outside of a bend will accelerate, and erode the corresponding bank. The flow slows on the inside of the bend, and this allows deposition of the silt, sand, and gravels carried by the river. One aspect of this corresponding erosion and deposition is the maintenance of a river's width. Often, an anabranch, or side channel, will cut a path through the easily eroded sediment and an island is formed.

From Clark's journal, November 7, 1805:

... A cloudy foggey morning Some rain. we Set out early ...fog So thick we could not See across the river, two Canos of Indians met and returned with us to their village which is Situated on the Starb. Side behind a cluster of Marshey Islands, on a narrow chanl. of the river ... Those people call themselves War-ci-a-cum ... we See great numbers of water fowls about those marshey Islands; here the high mountainious Country approaches the river on the Lard Side, a high mountn. to the S.W. about 20 miles ... and 18 miles of this day we landed at a village ... at the foot of the high hills on the Strb Side back of 2 Small Islands it contains 7 indifferent houses ... opposit to this Village the high mountaneous Country leave the river on the Lard Side below which the river widens into a kind of Bay & is Crouded with low Islands Subject to be Covered by the tides ...


Episode 12

Mouth of the Columbia River, 1929
Photo by Brubaker Aerial Survey, Courtesy National Archives,
Pacific Alaska Region (Neg. RG77, Portland District L-224)

From Wallula Gap to the mouth of the Columbia is some 310 miles. While the rock of the gap is, for all intents and purposes, a solid and enduring landmark, the mouth of the river is not. River mouths are fluid constructs and defy fixed positions. As an aid to navigation, River Miles are begun at a somewhat arbitrary mile 0 point. In the Columbia's case, RM 0 begins just beyond the North Jetty and extends perpendicular to the dredged channel. Shifting sand and fast water makes for change. So the position of the mouth is determined to be somewhere between Cape Disappointment in the north and Point Adams on Clatsop Spit in the south.

As the Corps of Discovery came ever closer to the river's end, all the men were filled with anticipation. The weather was horrid. Incessant rain and strong winds from the southwest kept them wet through. No matter, William Clark sat stolidly in his canoe keeping a notebook wrapped in oil skin perched on his knee. This served as his log of the voyage and in it he recorded courses, bearings, prominent landmarks, and, on occasion, exclamations. On November 7, 1805, he made this entry in the log: "Ocian in view! O! the joy." Though the emotion was no doubt genuine, his observation was to prove false.

He made that observation from an exposed campsite of rock and rolled logs near Pillar Rock, "... a rock Situated half a mile from shore, about 50 feet high and 20 Deamieter ..." The "ocian" is still around the bend and some 15 miles away. No doubt the rough water of the lower river looked very like ocean.

Pillar Rock from downstream, Lyn Topinka photo (the top of the rock was removed and flattened
to put a light and navigation aid. Now stands 25' above river

The view downriver rarely allows much of a distinction between fresh river water and the salt of the Pacific. The low lying sandy spit extending out to Point Adams confuses the most discerning eye. And the width of the estuary as it tends seaward is enough to add to that confusion. Waves and swell blend and merge. It would take an experienced eye to say that there the river ends and there the ocean begins. A distant horizon would be suggestive on those days when wind and rain and fog allows a distant horizon.

The view of the river from the ocean is equally obscure, so much so that English explorer John Meares, in 1788, looking for the entrance to a river that Spaniard Bruno Heceta had charted, had this to say: We can now with safety assert, that no such river as that of St. Roc (Heceta had named the headland he charted as Cabo San Roque) exists. He rechristened that headland 'Disappointment.'

George Vancouver, charting the coast in 1791, missed the river as well. He did conclude that a small bay or river might exist. He was contending with fog, rough weather, and an unruly crew of young gentlemen at the time so might be forgiven his lapse.

It was left to Robert Gray to first cross the bar and enter the estuary. He sailed up river as far as Tongue Point (RM 19), traded with the natives (his primary concern), and named the river after his ship, Columbia Rediviva. His report (and subsequent profit) led the parade of trading vessels that were to follow. Since Gray's crossing more than 2000 large ships of been wrecked on the bar earning it the sobriquet of The Graveyard of the Pacific.

Published April 28th 1814 by Longman & Co. Paternoster Row

I mentioned earlier there are places on the river that afford a view much like that of Lewis and Clark, and one can take from such views a taste of 1805. But the Columbia of today, controlled by dams, bridged, overfished, and polluted is certainly not their river. Estimates of 19th century fish runs count 12 to 16 million fish. This number has been reduced to a million or so. Take a stadium filled with 72,000 people and, using the lowest estimate of past runs, reduce that crowd by the same ratio. 6000 people would remain. One might say that the stadium was empty with such a sparse crowd. And so the river. Modern homo sapiens seem driven to dominate the natural world, and our overbearing presence has created today's Columbia River.

French bark Colonel de Villebois Mareuil
passing over the bar of the Columbia River, ca. 1900

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