Mountains of Waves

The morning of November 16, 1805, was clear and beautiful but the southwest wind whipped up the water. "We could see the waves, like small mountains, rolling out in the ocean," wrote Patrick Gass, "and pretty bad in the bay." Those waves marked the world-famed Columbia Bar, the sandy shoal that practically blocks the broad mouth of the river, where breakers sometimes reach 40 feet in height. The hunters bagged some "pore" (lean, that is) deer and a few waterfowl.

In keeping with common practice among explorers in those days, the two captains and several of the men chiseled their names and the date, "& by Land &c. &c.," in the soft stone of the cliffs. Evidently, their marks have never been found.

The men began to long for a more placid environment, some suggesting that they move back upriver to the Cascades to camp for the winter. Indeed, it became clearer every day that they would have to move somewhere. The Chinook Indians demanded higher prices for food and furs than the Corps was capable of paying and besides, they wanted payment in blue beads—"chief beads"—which the explorers were low on. Also, it was reported that elk, which they needed for clothing as well as food, were much more plentiful on the south side of the river.

On the 24th of November every member of the party, including York and Sacagawea (but not Charbonneau, for some unknown reason), was asked to vote on the matter. A large majority favored crossing to the south side and examining their prospects there.

Their canoes not being equal to the demands of the four-mile trip directly across the open water of the estuary, the Corps set out upriver on the 26th, stayed the night near their camp of the previous November 7, and made their way among the sheltering islands to the south shore.