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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

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.

Exiting the Northern Plains

A striking irony of the Lewis & Clark Expedition is that the Northern Great Plains -- the part of the West that the explorers praised as the most fertile, the most suitable for settlement and the most visually enchanting -- are now the least populated stretch of the United States and getting emptier.

There are fewer human beings living now in the Missouri River valley around Fort Mandan -- where the Corps of Discovery wintered with the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes -- than there were in 1803-04, according to David Borlaug, president of the Lewis & Clark Fort Mandan Foundation in Washburn, N.D.

Then there were about 5,000 Indians, Borlaug said, now there are about 2,500 North Dakotans.

All of North Dakota has been losing population for nearly a century, as has eastern Montana and much of the Northern Plains. The state of Washington, by contrast, now has more residents, 6.2 million, than the entire United States in the autumn of 1805, when Lewis and Clark canoed down the Columbia.

Yet, it was the Northern Plains and its staggering abundance of wildlife (buffalo and antelope, grizzly bear and elk, mule deer and prairie dog) that seized the imaginations and affections of the explorers.

"The game is gitting so plenty and tame in this country that some of the party clubbed them out of their way," wrote one member of the expedition, Sgt. John Ordway.

Lewis and Clark called the weather of the plains "salubrious," even after enduring a bitterly cold and windy winter at Fort Mandan. Traveling up the Missouri through the plains, Lewis wrote, "This immense river waters one of the fairest portions of the globe." He added, "It seemed as if those seens of visionary inchantment would never have an end."

Some of the explorers' enchantment with the Northern Plains derived from their nutritional status, the relatively dry climate and their as-yet unspoiled hopes of finding the Northwest Passage, according to John Logan Allen, chairman of geography at the University of Wyoming and a historian who has written books about the expedition.

"They are psychologically up on the plains," Allen said. "They are anticipating the discovery of a water route across the continent and nothing suggests to them, yet, that they won't find it. They are also better fed, eating fresh meat on nearly a daily basis."

Over the past 200 years, most settlers have found the Northern Plains far less salubrious. The most sizable sodbuster rush occurred about a century after Lewis and Clark, when railroads opened up the land and the federal government began giving it away in homestead tracts. A freakish spell of above-average rainfall dovetailed with the early homestead era, enticing many farmers to the Dakotas and eastern Montana. But the rain soon failed, and the Northern Plains have been bleeding people since the 1920s.

One of the few bright spots in the long, dismal depopulation of the region has been a boomlet of tourism triggered by the 200th anniversary of the Lewis & Clark Expedition.

"For generations North Dakota hasn't really been on anyone's screen," said Borlaug, at the Fort Mandan Foundation in Washburn. "Now we are one of the last best places that people can't wait to get to. The heart and soul of tourism in North Dakota is heritage travel, with Lewis and Clark at the core."

Washburn is one of many towns on the Northern Plains where the passage of the Corps of Discovery is regarded as the biggest thing ever to have happened. Commemorating the explorers has proved to be good business, helping to revive towns with upscale hotels, restaurants and river outfitters.

"Two hundred years later, the main hope of these places for the present and for the future is capitalizing on memory of the past," said Dayton Duncan, author of books about Lewis and Clark and the writer and producer of a Ken Burns documentary on the expedition.

Elation Turns Sour

Here at Pillar Rock, where a stone tower pokes up out of the Columbia not far from the Washington side of the river, the "joy" that Clark recorded in his journals proved premature and short-lived.

He was probably 18 miles from the sea. Given the curvature of Earth, it has been calculated that Clark would have had to climb on Nov. 7, 1805, to an altitude of at least 103 feet to see the ocean, which he never did, according to his journals.

In his eagerness to see an ocean that had a strong tidal pull on the Columbia, Clark had apparently mistaken waves of an estuary for breakers at the beach. By the time the explorers actually did view the Pacific, their exclamatory elation was long gone, extinguished by what Clark kept calling the "disagreeable" weather.

In apparent despond, Lewis had stopped writing in his journal during the last three months of 1805. Historians have speculated that he was depressed by failing to find the Northwest Passage or that he was suffering from a bout of clinical depression (which may explain his apparent suicide in 1809, just four years after seeing the Pacific). Clark kept busy writing. But he, too, was a bummed-out explorer: "It would be distressing to a feeling person to See our Situation at this time."

They were cold and wet, with clothes rotting off their backs, and they were sick to death of salmon (the explorers much preferred dog). Historian Allen speculates that members of the Corps of Discovery suffered from what is now called seasonal affective disorder, a mood-crushing physiological response to sharply reduced amounts of natural light. During the winter, it affects an estimated 20 to 30 percent of residents in the Pacific Northwest.

The explorers' mood, as they waited out winter on the coast, remained disagreeable, according to the journals.

They escaped east in late March of 1806, back up the Columbia, over the Rockies, down the Missouri and home. The news they carried, of course, changed the nation forever.

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