The Cascades

Down the Cascades

Clark described the Cascades as having a "Great Shute" extending about one half mile, where the Columbia was 150 yards wide and dropped about twenty feet over both large and small rocks, "water passing with great velocity forming & boiling in a most horriable manner." Then the river continued among fully and partially exposed boulders for another two miles of extreme rapids. Over the entire two-and-a-half-mile length of the Cascades, he estimated that the Columbia fell 150 feet.

Even after watching local Indians portage the Cascades' entire length, the captains decided they could get the canoes through by ropes and a temporary log "road." On November 1, the men carried all their baggage over a 940-yard portage, a "bad way over rocks & on Slipery hill Sides." Then they laid poles across the exposed rocks, and let the canoes down the falls and dragged them over the rest of the rapids. Battered and needing repairs, the four canoes survived this passage.

On November 2, the Corps "Examined the rapid below us more pertcelarly" and decided to empty the canoes and have the non-swimmers walk around. They portaged their baggage for a mile and a half, then ran the Cascades' lower rapids in the canoes: "one Struck a rock & Split a little, and 3 others took in Some water[.]" They then safely passed two more sets of rapids in the next four miles before—downstream from today's Bonneville Dam—the Columbia became "a Smoth gentle Stream of about 2 miles wide, in which the tide has its effect as high as the Beaten [Beacon] rock."

Of as much interest to Clark as describing the Cascades was writing about the people who lived along them. The men had pierced noses; men and women had flattened foreheads; male and female clothing comprised skimpy garments of leather (they were "nearly necked"; their clothing was labeled "indecent" on March 29, 1806); blue and white beads decorated everything. To him, these people were "durty in the extreme both in their Coockery and in their houses," and he believed the adults' many missing and extremely worn-down teeth came largely from eating uncleaned roots just as they came from the soil.1 Had he had the time to observe the whole process of drying salmon to make fish pemmican, he would have seen that the violent Gorge winds continually blew sand into the hanging fillets, which also abraded the Indians' teeth.2

Clark failed to clarify the extent of the trade between Indians and whites lower down on the Columbia, but he concluded it was of minor importance, since the Indians' "knowledge of the white people appears to be verry imperfect, and the articles which they appear to trade mostly . . . Pounded fish, Beargrass, and roots . . . cannot be an object of comerce with furin merchants." Pounded fish sold especially well among the coastal tribes, since the climate there was not conducive to the fish-drying processes.

The Corps continued down the Columbia in peace, having experienced no major problems during their first visit to the area. Ahead were the miserable stormy weather of the Columbia estuary, and the winter at Fort Clatsop.

  • 1. Clark made a good inference. Teeth ground down from decades of eating stone-ground grains is one way that anthropologists and archaeologists age-date ancient human remains.
  • 2. Emory Strong, Stone Age, 46.