In winter, if you travel the lower Columbia River near Astoria, you must slow down and savor the season at a place where Oregon history comes to life.
Chances are you will spy retired schoolteacher, Tom Wilson, covered head to toe in buckskins and history. He relishes the role of Capt William Clark – one of the co-leaders of the famous Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery – and is on duty this time of year at Fort Clatsop National Historic Park.
He explained to nearby visitors – “This fort wasn’t really in their plans – they had hoped to get downriver, see a ship, get re-provisioned, get back over the mountains before winter and home – Well, it is winter so things didn’t go as planned.”
Wilson is part of a small group of volunteers who bring the Lewis and Clark story to life through living history experiences that you can enjoy on your visit.
“Oh, it was a miserable, cold, wet winter. They were low on provisions, their clothes had rotted, military uniforms had rotted away and so the ship was going to re-provision them – Unfortunately, they arrived much later than they thought – the trading season was over.”
So, they were forced to stay – and the chose a small area on the Oregon side of the river to built a log fort – when you visit at this time of year, you get a feel for what the explorers experienced in December, 1805.
The Corps also stayed in Oregon because abundant deer and elk made the hunting easier – especially for the elk.
“Yes,” added Wilson – “The reason this fort is here is because of more word of elk and deer than anywhere else and so they were out hunting the entire time.”
Elk provided the explorers with many things: food, hides for clothing, elk fat for tallow candles and antlers could be made into buttons. Nothing was wasted.
Indoors – at the nearby Fort Clatsop Museum, you can learn more about the Corp of Discovery’s remarkable journey across America through exhibits, drawings and equipment that also put you in touch with history.
You can also do the same on the recently completed “Fort to Sea Trail” that stretches from Fort Clatsop nearly seven miles to the ocean. And it can be joined at many locations along the way.
If you travel this way, you may also consider a longer stay at nearby Ft Stevens State Park. The trails and campgrounds at Ft Steven’s are quiet at this time of year.
The summer crowds have disappeared and the beaches, Coffenbury Lake and the wetland areas are all yours to explore.
Ft Steven’s Park Manager, Mike Stein, explained: “People are looking to get away from the larger crowds and we specialize in that at this time of year. We’ve got over 4,000 acres to spread across, plus miles of beachfront and 9 miles of paved trail, plus another 7 miles of nature trail.”
If you lack a trailer or an RV, no need to worry, Ft Steven’s boasts 15 YURTS that make the camping easy: “Yurts are wonderful camping opportunities,” explained Stein. “They offer a domed platform with canvas sides and top. They have furniture in them: a futon sofa and a bunk bed. They’ve proven to be very popular because they reach out to the visiting public that’s unable or lacks the time to invest in a tent or RV.”
Back at Fort Clatsop, Superintendent David Szymanski said that folks should consider Fort Clatsop a launching point to make their own trail of discovery in the region:
“It is a way to give a lot of people the experience of what the expedition would have faced. It’s a place where you can spend a day or two exploring and get to know more about our national history. “
Tom Wilson agreed – and for the next couple of weeks, he will be on hand to help you understand how important a place Fort Clatsop – the place where Lewis and Clark slept – meant to Oregon and the shaping of America.
“What they endured and how they persevered to make this place their temporary home for nearly four months – and the story behind it – it wasn’t just a camping trip – this wasn’t just a bunch of guys looking for an adventure – this had so many purposes and was well laid out and executed. It truly was the best of any expedition ever.”