Most people visit Fort Clatsop in the summer and so miss understanding history. The only proper way to see it is in midwinter, when the air is as raw as frozen hamburger and the rain drizzles down into the fibers of your clothing.
Fort Clatsop National Memorial is just a few miles from Astoria, Ore., and is where the Lewis and Clark expedition spent four cold months in 1805-06, waiting for the spring thaw so they could return to civilization. Meriwether Lewis and George Clark had led an expedition of 45 men up the Missouri River beginning in 1804, exploring the Louisiana Territory that President Thomas Jefferson had just bought from France. Lewis and Clark were charged with finding a way through the territory to the Pacific Ocean on the other side of the continent.
They spent two summers and a winter getting to the Pacific and another winter camped at Fort Clatsop, which they built as temporary quarters and a way to keep some of the constant rain off their heads. Of the 106 days they spent at the fort, the sun shone for six.
Life was constant misery. According to their journal entry for the day after Christmas, 1805, ”rained and blew hard last night, some hard Thunder. The rain continued as usial all day and wind blew hard from the S.E. Joseph Fields finish a Table & 2 seats for us. we dry our wet articles and have the blankets fleed, The flees are so troublesom that I have slept but little for 2 night past and we have regularly to kill them out of our blankets every day for several past. maney of the men have ther Powder wet by the horns being repeatedly wet, hut smokes verry bad.
Lewis and Clark were not hired for their spelling.
The original fort is long since returned to the soil it came out of. But a copy of the original, built from the description and plans in the expedition journals, has arisen in the original location.
The fleas have not been re-created for the modern visitor.
It is a very small fort by the standards of anyone who has seen palisaded forts in John Wayne Westerns. It is exactly 50-feet square and divided into eight rooms, three on one side and five on the other, with an open plaza between them. This was technically called the ”parade ground,” but no parade longer than a pace and a half would be possible in its Lilliputian length.
The largest room went to Lewis and Clark. The three smaller rooms on one side were given over to the remaining crew, up to 15 per room. And the smallest quarters, next to the commanders’, was given to the French trapper Touissant Charboneau and his Indian wife, Sacagawea, and their infant baby. The remaining small rooms were a meeting room and a supply closet.
In December, when you should visit the fort, fires crackle in the hearths of the rooms and volunteers give demonstrations of some of the things the explorers had to do.
A class of visiting high-school students was divided into a group that used rod and chain to learn primitive surveying and mapping techniques; another group that attempted to write with quill pens; a third group that made candles out of tallow; a fourth group that learned how to blow a glowing flint-and-steel spark into a flame; and a fifth group that heard about animal furs.
The smell of wood smoke penetrated everything. Hours later, I still could smell it in my coat. The smoke hung low above the log-cabin fort, which is a sign that canny weather watchers can use to predict rain. As if the prediction were necessary for an Oregon winter.
In 1805-06, the men came down with influenza and other sicknesses brought on by exposure. They managed to kill and eat 131 elk and 20 deer.
”We have not fared sumptuously this winter and spring,” they wrote in the journal as they prepared to break camp.
And when they reversed their route, they returned to St. Louis in half the time it took them to go out.