Fort Clatsop re-enactors bear 'delightful miseries' to bring visitors the real experience"Before Monday I thought I knew what cold was." Cold, Phil Huff now knows, isn't waiting for the car's heater to come on in the morning.

Cold is standing alone outside in the middle of a damp winter night, dressed only in buckskins, a woolen robe and soggy moccasins, the only distractions the calls of coyotes and a bright moon appearing between rain showers.

That's what Huff and a dozen fellow Lewis and Clark re-enactors experienced at Fort Clatsop last week when they took on the roles of Corps of Discovery members for the park's three-day living history program, "Wintering Over - Snuggly fixed in their huts."

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One-year-old Michael Looney from Columbia City appears interested in the candle that Pvt. John Thompson, portrayed by Michael Riley, center, and Pvt. John Shields, portrayed by Edward Duncan, are using to help shed light on their work Thursday morning. By day the group portrayed Sgt. Pryor, Pvt. Willard, George Drouillard and other members of the party for park visitors, demonstrating frontier skills, haggling for trade goods and conveying a sense of life as it was at the tiny fort 200 years ago.

But when the park closed and the visitors left, the interpreters didn't trade their buckskins for fleece. They slept overnight in the replica fort in their period costumes, warmed only by small fires in the rooms and even taking two-hour guard duty assignments during the night, just as the men did at the original Fort Clatsop.

"How can you describe it unless you've done it?" said Matt Hensley, Astoria Middle School teacher and part-time Fort Clatsop interpreter, who portrayed Sgt. Nathaniel Pryor.

'Delightful miseries'The cold, damp and darkness are all part of the "delightful miseries" that first-person interpreters willingly put themselves through to more accurately convey the people and the period they're portraying, said veteran interpreter Jim Phillips of Colorado, who returned to Fort Clatsop to play George Drouillard.

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Gray Warriner, with Camera One, films in the Captains' quarters Wednesday night for film that will be shown at the visitor's center at Fort Clatsop. Dave Scott, left, portrays Capt. Meriwether Lewis, and Tom Wilson, right, portrays Capt. William Clark.Tom Wilson, a fourth-grade teacher at Astor Elementary School who has taken part in past Fort Clatsop living history presentations, received a temporary promotion to captain to portray William Clark for a film crew that used the "Wintering Over" program as an opportunity to shoot a new movie for the park's visitor center. But he still took his turn at guard duty with the rest of the group.

"To be out in the night, with the coyotes calling, and then the rain starts and you hear that drip-drip-drip from the trees - it made me think 'I wouldn't last long,'" he said.

Some of the re-enactors stuck strictly to period dress and equipment, while others made a few concessions to comfort. After the constant damp turned his leather moccasins to "goo," Huff decided a pair of wool socks was in order.

Huff, a first-time Fort Clatsop living history interpreter who was "recruited" by his brother-in-law, Dave Scott/Meriwether Lewis, came from an acting background as director of the Portland Actors Ensemble Shakespeare in the Park program. He portrayed Pvt. Richard Windsor.

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Michael Riley's condensed breath is a testament to the chill in the air Thursday morning as he works to create an elk skin sewing bag. Wanting the Wintering Over experience to be accurate though, Riley says of the conditions, "It would be nice if we had worse weather." Clinton Smith, portraying Pvt. Silas Goodrich, keeps an eye on things at the fort. Huff admitted that after bedding down that first night on his cedar plank bunk with only an elk skin for warmth, he wondered why the group had to keep up the 1805 lifestyle even after the visitors were gone. But that experience carries over into his interaction with the public, he found.

"After a day in wet moccasins and deer hide, in a log cabin with many holes, I truly know what cold is. And as an interpreter I need that," he said. "People come with a lot of expectations about what history is like. Your job is to take out the dates and the particular events, and put the humanity on the people."

Real experienceAs cold, wet and uncomfortable as they were, the re-enactors were well aware they got just a taste of what the original party went through during their three-month stay. For starters, they enjoyed meals at the nearby visitor center instead of the explorers' regular fare of spoiled elk meat "which has become verry disagreeable both to the taste & Smell" as described in Capt. Clark's journal. And the bartering with visitors brought them some additional treats the Corps never enjoyed, including snack chips, chocolate and Hostess Snoballs.

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Clad in silver jewelry, George Drouillard, portrayed by Jim Phillips, drills holes in elk teeth.Hensley, a part-time Fort Clatsop interpreter for 12 years, broke character long enough to devour the Snoballs as he shared a smoke around the fire in the "sergeants' quarters." He relishes the chance that living history programs give him to immerse himself in a historic character, he said - he took part in the "Talking Tombstones" program sponsored by the Clatsop County Historical Society last Halloween.

"I love first-person, I love diving into a role," he said.

One question visitors often ask is "how do buckskins feel," Hensley said. He can describe them vividly in a way only a person who wore them all day could.

"When they're cold and wet it's like icicles against your legs," he said. "They're cold, clammy - they're not that comfortable. In the summer they're hot, they don't breath."

Sharing, in a modest way, the trials of the original explorers has also sparked a camaraderie among the re-enactors, some of whom come from as far away as Virginia to take part in the Fort Clatsop programs, said Phillips, who lives in Colorado Springs, Colo.

As a civilian member of the Corps of Discovery, George Drouillard wasn't required to stand guard duty. But during earlier "Wintering Over" programs when the contingent of interpreters was smaller, Phillips took his place at the gate. Standing outside in the dark, looking at the fort with only slivers of candlelight visible, the years seemed to slip away, he said.

"Just for a moment, you look around and think 'what day is it, what year is it?'" he said.

Phil Estes, aka Pvt. Alexander Willard, said moments like that amount to "living history bliss," when the combination of sights, smells and sounds and the interaction between the re-enactors can transport them back to the period they're portraying.

"You can drift back easily a couple of centuries, and you hope you can take some people along."


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