91. Lower Estuary of the Columbia

Lewis and Clark National Wildlife Refuge

View west, downstream

Aerial photo of the wide Columbia River with numerous islands

© 2000 Airphoto—Jim Wark

"Great Joy"

When the sky cleared briefly at about noon on 7 November 1805, a rising cheer may have startled the myriad waterfowl in the area, for Clark wrote, "we are in view of the opening of the Ocian, which Creates great joy." For the first time, their horizon was not totally ringed by land; beyond that opening had to be the Pacific. As expressed later in the published journals, this was "the object of all our labors, the reward of all our anxieties."

The explorers were probably more than twenty miles from the ocean, perhaps somewhere to the right of the bottom of the photo, on the Washington side of the Columbia. To a viewer standing at sea level, the horizon is only about three miles ahead, so they could not possibly have been looking at the Pacific itself, but rather at the tops of the headlands on either side of the estuary. Most of the islands and wetlands in this photo are now part of the Lewis and Clark National Wildlife Refuge.

Local gossip must have torqued up their elation even higher that day when, according to Private Whitehouse, residents at two different villages "made signs to us that there were vessels lying at the Mouth of this River." Similar rumors of seagoing ships, along with the Euro-American trade goods they saw among the populace that hovered around them, energized the men for several more days.

The Corps returned to the same vicinity on the 25th, then threaded their way among the islands—perhaps something like those in the photo, perhaps not—and back down-river to a small wooded peninsula that Clark dubbed Point William, today called Tongue Point. In the photo, Tongue Point is the little knob at the right end of Clatsop Spit, which is on the left side near the horizon. (That may have been the southern gatepost of the opening they first thought was the ocean.) There, on this narrow neck, foul weather kept Clark and the Corps pinned down for ten days while Lewis and a small party were out searching for a winter campsite.


From Discovering Lewis & Clark from the Air
Photography by Jim Wark

Text by Joseph Mussulman
Reproduced by permission of Mountain Press