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Correction to This Article
A Nov. 5 article on the bicentennial of the Lewis & Clark Expedition misstated the date of their winter camp at Fort Mandan in what is now North Dakota. The expedition wintered there in 1804-05.

Lewis & Clark Mapped It -- Then the Nation Remade the West

Reenactor Mike Caldwell celebrates the 200th anniversary of the Lewis & Clark Expedition.
Reenactor Mike Caldwell celebrates the 200th anniversary of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. (By Ross William Hamilton -- The Oregonian)

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By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 5, 2005

PILLAR ROCK, Wash. -- Ocian in view! O! the joy.

William Clark, who scribbled these words in his field journal on Nov. 7, 1805, was not a man to get carried away with exclamation points. He was a woodsman, a waterman and a sober-minded maker of maps.

Yet, if ever there were a time and a place for extravagant punctuation, it was here 200 years ago where the Columbia abruptly widens to embrace the Pacific. Having crossed the continent as co-leader of the most important road trip in American history, Clark believed he could finally see and hear the ocean (he was mistaken; it was about 18 miles away).

More important, Clark and Meriwether Lewis and others in the Corps of Discovery were in exclusive possession of geographical intelligence that would soon demolish three centuries of guesses, rumors and dreams about the character of the West. They knew that what President Thomas Jefferson had sent them to find -- a "direct & practicable" water route across the continent -- did not exist. They had instead observed, mapped and painstakingly described what was actually out here, in all its punishing vastness and exclamatory wonder. Their journals -- historian Donald Jackson called the Corps of Discovery the "writingest" explorers in U.S. history -- would recast the nation's conception of itself.

Though Clark could not spell, he could capture a moment. Sitting here two centuries ago on the northern bank of the Columbia, after a pause in the cold November rain and with fog lifted to unveil the big river as it sprawled into a huge, wind-tossed estuary, Clark explained the mood of an expedition that had taken the measure of America: "Great joy in camp we are in View of the Ocian, this great Pacific Octean which we been So long anxious to See."

The bicentennial of Clark's famous journal entry is also an occasion to see what has changed along the route of the Corps of Discovery -- and what has hardly changed at all.

More than anything else, the great rivers of the West -- the Missouri and the Columbia, the primary highways of the Lewis & Clark Expedition -- have been fundamentally remade. The rivers, as the explorers knew them, were put to death by federal dams and resurrected as plumbing.

Rapids and waterfalls that Lewis and Clark described as "tremendious" and "verry bad" were submerged in a stair-step chain of slack-water lakes created by some of the world's largest concrete and earthen dams. Slack water has inundated hundreds of thousands of acres of Native American farmland and countless Indian fishing sites.

Technicians in control rooms manipulate river flow minute by minute, in response to electricity consumption, barging schedules, irrigation seasons, recreational boating needs and court orders to protect endangered migratory fish.

The Columbia, once the premier salmon highway on Earth, where Lewis noted that "the multitudes of this fish are almost inconceivable," has become center stage for the nation's most costly, complicated and protracted dispute over the protection of endangered species.

Salmon, as it turns out, need the seasonal pulse of a snow-fed river to migrate to the sea. In the herky-jerky fluctuations of plumbing, their numbers have plummeted, with a few species pushed to extinction and many others on the brink. With each passing decade, as environmentalists file lawsuits, power lobbyists fight for the status quo and federal judges struggle to balance species survival against consumer demand, the runs of salmon that Clark called "incrediable" have become even more so -- but not in a way that he could have imagined.

Thanks to billions of dollars worth of federal tinkering, salmon themselves have been engineered as cogs in the machine river. They are bred by the hundreds of millions in concrete-lined hatcheries, fitted with computer chips, distilled out of the Columbia by screening devices, and then trucked or barged below the last dam -- where they are pumped back into the river not far from where Clark scribbled his joyous points of exclamation.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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