“Our situation is dangerous,” wrote William Clark on Nov. 12, 1805. It is one of the very few notes of alarm in the journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. A raging week-long storm, falling rocks and enormous shifting drift logs threatened to grind them to smithereens.
As hail fell and the wind tore at her audience Wednesday morning, Jill Harding read those words aloud, at the exact spot where the explorers were trapped by torrential weather for three days. Harding is chief of visitor services at Fort Clatsop. Her audience included historian Jim Sayce, Chinook Observer Publisher Matt Winters, Daily Astorian photographer Alex Pajunas and Publisher Steve Forrester.
Dismal Nitch Day is what the group called their commemoration of the expedition’s arrival at the mouth of the Columbia River 207 years ago last week.
“Lewis names this spot in his journal when he writes about ‘leaving this dismal nitch,’” said the historian Sayce. “In the lexicon of the early 19th century, a nitch described bays and coves.” A small interior valley at the site was described by the explorers as a “holler,” a term still employed in Lewis’ native Virginia.
Wednesday’s dark sky, rain and hail helped conjure the scene that the expedition survived. Winters noted that, “Monday’s gale-force wind was the weather they had. It pinned down the expedition in this spot.”
The location of Dismal Nitch has been disputed among historians. Expedition expert Rex Ziak of Naselle, Wash., determined that the spot was further west. But an “emerging consensus” says the spot is about two miles east of the Washington Department of Transportation’s (WSDOT) Megler rest stop, which National Park Service signage currently labels Dismal Nitch.
Why do historians think Dismal Nitch wasn’t where the signs say it is?
“The various indicators in the journals all line up for this spot,” said Sayce. “The cliff nearby, the creek, the distance from Point Ellice.” Sayce believes archaeology would confirm this, but finding any traces like dropped lead bullets would require digging through 14 feet of fill added when the highway was built along the shore.
The seven years that have passed since the Bicentennial of the expedition’s arrival at the Pacific Ocean have permitted a calm analysis of the explorers’ time here, Sayce explained.
Sayce said mid-20th century work by Lewis and Clark enthusiast Dr. J. Neilson Barry of Portland was particularly helpful in helping pinpoint two campsites located near one another on the shore. The explorers were stuck in one awful spot from Nov. 10 until sometime in the middle of the night on Nov. 13. They then relocated to a slightly improved situation a few hundred feet to the west before making their final push to Station Camp Nov. 15.
On Wednesday, besides typically turbulent mid-November weather, the perils facing the 1805 party were very much in evidence in the river. Four-foot swells and a rip-roaring current rounding the bend at Point Ellice just east of the Astoria Bridge were much as they would have been 207 years ago – effectively a barrier to westward passage by dugout canoes until conditions improved. This helps eliminate the nearby Megler rest stop area as being Dismal Nitch, since Clark wrote of a two-mile retreat from these rough waters.
In a practical sense, the Megler-Dismal Nitch site remains a helpful and convenient location from which to visit the actual Columbia estuary campsites to its east. Working with private property owners, WSDOT and others, Sayce said the hope is to protect the two newly rediscovered Dismal Nitch sites plus another campsite where Lewis and Clark stayed Nov. 8 and 9. This site is near the old eastern Pacific County ghost town of Frankfort, and the Pacific-Wahkiakum county line.
There are still considerable funds on hand for site acquisition, left over from the recently finished work at Station Camp-Middle Village.
Ultimately, along with a splendid overlook recently acquired by Columbia Land Trust above the Columbia at Knappton, Sayce envisions the four main Pacific County Lewis and Clark campsites serving as a prime historical and cultural asset for many generations to come.
“Dismal Nitch Day will never attract a crowd,” said Forrester. “But it is important to mark the days when the Columbia-Pacific region’s most celebrated visitors arrived. Being where the expedition actually waited out that torrent of adverse weather gave this year’s observance an extra measure of meaning.”
This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.