On Nov. 24, 1805, the Lewis and Clark expedition, by majority vote, decided to cross the Columbia River south into present-day Oregon, building Fort Clatsop and wintering over before leaving for the east in March.

By Dec. 27, in a journal entry, Capt. William Clark describes the party eating rotten meat out of necessity because of a lack of salt used in brining the venison the expedition depended on.

Ten modern explorers, with the help of interpretive rangers from Lewis and Clark National Historical Park and each playing a private or sergeant from the Corps of Discovery, trekked down from Fort Clatsop to Sunset Beach last weekend, retracing the approximate steps the expedition took to establish a beach camp, gather and make salt needed to preserve their meat, find and trade for whale parts and otherwise make the best of their time on the coast.

The weekend was an immersion in all things Lewis and Clark, one of the only adult courses put on by the national park, which organizes several youth courses.

“Everything’s running out in January,” said interpretive park ranger Susan Rhoads about the expedition’s decision to winter over. “The plan was for the trip to be a year and a half, maybe two years at the most. It’s a year and a half that they’re just reaching the Pacific then wintering over. By the time they get home, which is six months after they leave the coast, there’s two and a half years.

“We’re giving them just sort of some cultural experience – our culture and native coast people’s culture – and just being outdoors and enjoying learning a little bit of history.”

Some came for leisure, while at least three educators joined the party for professional development. They all spent time learning about traditional skills and history, all set in the three months that the Corps spent on the Coast before their return trek east in March.

How to make salt

The journals of Lewis and Clark describe Clark directing Pvt. Joseph Field, Pvt. William Bratton and George Gibson to find a suitable spot for making salt, with Pvt. Alexander Willard and Pvt. Peter Weiser following to help carry the five copper kettles.

Members of the modern expedition, balancing yokes on their backs with half-full buckets hanging down along both arms, saltwater sloshing back and forth within, raced up and down Sunset Beach Saturday from the water back to a larger bucket, in which they gathered the water they’d need to boil down to sea salt.

Matt Hensley (playing Sgt. Nathaniel Pryor) said it can take 10 hours to boil enough salt water to get a quarter pound of salt.

“They’re down there 24/7 for about seven weeks boiling salt water,” he said. “They acquire enough that they can brine all the excess meat they bring to the fort, but they’re also making enough to get them from here to back across the Rockies where they have cached” more salt.

The Corps chose a spot about 10 miles south of Sunset Beach, near the present-day Cove in Seaside, to make salt. The saline content in the ocean water was higher there, being farther away from the Columbia; there were large, rounded rocks to make ovens with; nearby Clatsop and Tillamook villages provided support and trading; and the nearby Necanicum River still provided fresh water. Hensley said it took about seven weeks to make all the salt the Corps needed. The journals describe them as being able to produce between three quarts and a gallon a day.

Brothers Joseph and Reubin Field, who Capt. Meriwether Lewis described as “two of the most active and enterprising young men who accompanied us,” won the day with a time of about 1:30 to race down to the water, fill the two small buckets and bring them back to the saltmaking site hanging from a yoke on the latter brother’s back.

The 21st-Century Corps members then trekked back to establish camp near the Yeon house, a structure south of Warrenton built by famed Oregon architect John Yeon.

“My mother’s birthday is coming up on Aug. 6, and she kind of likes to do something she’s never done before,” said Celina Williams, who played Joseph Field and came with her brother Anthony (Pvt. Reubin Field), mother Susan (Weiser) and father Ken (Pvt. Hugh McNeal) from Redmond, Wash., for some camping. “We’ve never hiked this trail or been in this part of the ocean, so we decided to do it with her.”

An avid outdoorswoman, she relished the hiking the most. Williams and her compatriots learned how to make quill pens, wove small tule mats, described their experiences in near facsimile copies of the original journals located at the American Philosophical Society Museum in Philadelphia, made twine from cedar bark strands and heard numerous stories about the explorers that came before them.

The party spent the entire night guarding camp on watch rotations and keeping their campfire lit to prevent boiling the saltwater down. They kept journals with traditional goose feather quills and powdered ink, and some even spent the night under a makeshift tent they constructed outside camp at the historic Yeon House south of Warrenton.

“It’s strange; none of us have worked together before, and five of us just grabbed poles and a chunk of canvas and just started an impromptu shelter,” said Pat Schulte (Pvt. Thomas P. Howard), who attended the immersion camp with his wife Kathleen Schulte (Bratton).

She works for the Willamette Heritage Center in Salem at the Thomas Kay Woolen Mill, a joint venture between the Mission Mill Museum and the Marion County Historical Society to teach about the history of the Willamette Valley.

“I learned a lot of skills I hadn’t had before, and now I know a lot more to add to our programs on our side, because we work with Kalapuya history, which is valley native people,” she said. “Lot’s of common skills; they overlap greatly.”

Buying whale in

Cannon Beach

“They informed us by signs, that a large Fish was drove by the wind and waves on the shore near to where their lodges were, and we all suppose from the description they gave of it, that it must be a whale,” read a journal entry by Pvt. Joseph Whitehouse about a visit by natives Dec. 27, 1805.

Willard and Weiser, the two privates who had helped the saltmaking party portage their kettles, returned Jan. 5, 1806 with whale blubber local indians had given them near the Cove in Seaside.

“It was white and not unlike the fat of Pork,” wrote Clark, “tho’ the texture was more Spungey and Somewhat Coarser.”

The Corps left the fort Jan. 6 in search of the whale, taking canoes on the north-south streams between present-day Warrenton and Seaside. Jan. 7, they reached the saltmaking camp.

The modern-day explorers left the Yeon house Sunday afternoon for the beach below where low and behold, whale bones and baleen sat abandoned on the coast.

“He knows he’s not going to get the whole thing, because he’s been seeing people carrying these big burdens of blubber and oil and whale meat,” said Freeman about Clark’s quest for the whale. “But he’s still kind of hoping to get the whale.”

The original Corps, in a big letdown, passed their saltmaking camp, trudged over Tillamook Head and found a whale carcass near present-day Cannon Beach, the meat and other usable parts having already been scavenged from the remaining skeleton. They measured the whale to be 105 feet, a length only the blue whale could attain.

“Clark is very impressed by the immensity of this skeleton,” said Freeman.

The Corps portaged back over Tillamook Head with several gallons of oil and about 300 pounds of whale meat. The modern expedition took it a little easier, finishing the day’s activities with some traditional games such as prisoner’s base – like capture the flag – that the expedition played at times.

The rangers called the immersion weekend the “102” course in reliving the Corps quarter of a year spent on the coast before their return east. Next year, the park plans to return to the “101” course where participants will learn more about life at Fort Clatsop. For more information or to sign up for these courses, visit http://www.nps.gov /lewi/index.htm

     

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