"Not any occurrence today worthy of notice."
- Meriwether Lewis at Fort Clatsop
March 4, 1806
As I waited for David Szymanski and Cathy Peterson, I listened to the silence while walking about the parking at the trail head of the Fort-to-Sea Trail.
In front of me was timber that was blown down in the 2007 storm. I imagined the noise in this spot as so many trees came up by their roots or were snapped in two like matchsticks.
Peterson had invited me to hike what's called the South Slough Trail, which will be improved this summer. It is good for an office-dweller to spend a weekday morning among unfamiliar sounds. Birds chirped in profusion. When a gust of wind passed, a pair of trees about 50 yards away creaked in the manner of a ship, when its joints are stressed.
Today in 1806, Lewis and Clark were in residence at Fort Clatsop. Their departure was less than a month away. They had learned that elk herds were migrating away, a disturbing sign. I read this information in Gary Moulton's definitive edition of the Lewis and Clark Journals while waiting for my Park Service hosts. Meriwether Lewis' journal entry for last Friday was all about food: wapato, sturgeon and anchovy. Lewis also writes about turtle doves, robins, magpies, woodpeckers and sandhill cranes.
When pondering this period in the life of the expedition, I remember the writer Dayton Duncan saying that the Fort Clatsop period was about three things: shooting and eating elk, making moccasins from their hides and writing the journals. Of course, there was also interaction with Indians. The explorers also missed a ship that was deterred from entering the Columbia during their Fort Clatsop residence and another vessel that arrived weeks after their departure upriver.
Wearing uniforms in a deep green reminiscent of the U.S. Army, Szymanski and Peterson stepped out of their vehicle. We set out on what became a loop hike from the trailhead to the Lewis and Clark River to Fort Clatsop and back to the trailhead. Along the way, we talked about how these trails are envisioned, built and revised.
There is something about walking that encourages conversation. Perhaps it is the visual stimulation of scenery or the fresh air. I have known Peterson since her career as our reporter from 1992 to '95. Szymanski is the fifth National Park Service superintendent whom I've known at Fort Clatsop. As we hiked, we talked about trail-making, bird songs, the culture of the Park Service and the difference between raising boys and girls (Peterson and her husband have a son and daughter, as do my wife and I.)
The South Slough Trail is another extension of the Lewis and Clark experience. The great benefit of the Fort-to-Sea Trail, added during the bicentennial year, is that it expanded the boundaries of Fort Clatsop to include much more of the story of Lewis and Clark's residence in what was then Clatsop and Chinook Indian territory.
This boundary expansion authorized by Congress prodded a culture change among Park Service employees. I like to visit Fort Clatsop in March, the month of their departure. In my first such sojourn, in 1988, Frank Walker was park superintendent. In those days, Fort Clatsop was the park, and the park was Fort Clatsop. Now, with National Historical Park designation, employees' perspective must be much broader.
The Fort-to-Sea Trail was the defining moment that drew many of us further into the Lewis and Clark story. On our hike around South Slough, we came upon trail work being done by Craig Holmquist, Andrew Rasmussen and Doug Graham. Holmquist is the most important trail designer you've never met. He laid out the Fort-to-Sea Trail.
Graham is in a career ladder position at the park while completing Clatsop Community College's historic preservation program. Rasmussen grew up in Astoria, has worked for the Western Federal Highway Division in Vancouver, Wash., and now moved to the L&C Park with the Park Service.
A few of the slopes were challenging, especially in the mud. Some of the improvements in the South Slough Trail will introduce switchbacks into the steepest slopes. That will make the trail more inviting and presumably limit soil erosion.
"we have had our perogues prepared for our departure, and shal set out as soon as the weather will permit."
- Meriwether Lewis at Fort Clatsop
March 17, 1806
Visits to Fort Clatsop become a meditation on the great adventure that occurred here at the mouth of the Great River of the West. March 23 marks the day of their leaving. When I imagine the expedition's departure from Fort Clatsop, I?think about the strength it took to row a large log boat (perogue, as Lewis called it) up the Columbia River. And remember that this was spring, and there were no dams upriver.
We are fortunate to live in the midst of such a rich vein of history. The vanished Chinook culture, Lewis and Clark and arrival of the Astor party make this the Pacific Northwest's most historic region.
We are also becoming hiking heaven. The improved South Slough Trail will join our profusion of trails.