Lewis and Clark: "We send from this place with dispatches"
The three-day passage through the wide Bitterroot Valley was a brief respite from the toils of the preceding days, but each view of the enormous snow-covered ranges to the west warned the Corps of unprecedented hardship ahead.
Before the ascent the expedition camped at a spot Lewis christened Travellers' Rest to hunt for food, take celestial bearings, and to refresh the horses. Afterward, for a few days travel was only moderately difficult. By mid-September food was again in short supply, as was pasture for the horses. Snow was piling up, the terrain had become steep and hazardous with many fallen timbers, and the Indian guide temporarily lost his way.
After eleven cold, wet, miserable days and extremely difficult traveling conditions, including the necessity of killing and eating two of their horses, the explorers finally descended to a level plain where they came upon a Nez Perce village on today's Clearwater River. The Indians offered the hungry travelers buffalo, salmon, berries and roots. As a result of overindulgence in an unaccustomed diet, most of the explorers became ill and were unable to proceed for almost two weeks.
Clark and a few men who had recovered began building canoes for the seemingly now-attainable journey to the Pacific. By October 6, 1805, the craft were ready, and the expedition began its descent of the Clearwater into the Snake River where treacherous rapids damaged canoes and submerged supplies. Lewis caught the first glimpse of the Cascade Mountains on October 15; the next day the party reached the junction with the Columbia River. Its banks were lined with large numbers of Nez Perce villages whose hospitable inhabitants shared their copious supplies of dried salmon.
A week later the explorers came upon a stretch of impressive waterfalls and swift rapids* that required portage of their baggage and lowering the canoes by elk-skin ropes. Rough waters continued with intermittent respites of calm until the first of November when the weary travelers reached the upper tidewater of the Columbia with its tree-lined banks, rain, fog, and abundant bird life.
Clearing weather on November 7 buoyed the spirits of the Corps of Discovery. Before the day was out the cry went up that the Pacific was in view. Though the expanse of water turned out to be the great bay of the Columbia with the ocean still twenty-five miles downstream, the explorers knew that their conquest of the continent had become a reality.
The strong winds, waves, and rains returned, making camp miserable and progress down the river inadvisable. A week later a three-man scouting party braved the waves, rounded a point, and found a sandy beach a short distance beyond with game nearby. Here, after a brief altercation with some Chinook Indians over stolen items, the expedition camped for ten days. During the interlude both captains independently set out to the mouth of the Columbia to explore the coast a few miles to the north. Neither found evidence of the white traders rumored to be living there, but both left proof of their arrival on the shore of the Pacific by carving their names on a tree.
Now the time had come to decide where the Corps of Discovery would spend the winter of 1805 - 1806. Brief encounters with the Clatsop Indians, who lived on the south shore of the bay, led the captains to favor that location closer to the ocean where salt was available and food seemed more plentiful. The leaders still hoped to find white men living on the coast and to see the landing of a merchant ship. The choice of winter quarters was, for the first time, decided by a vote of the entire company, including York and Sacagawea.
On December 6, 1805, the site for Fort Clatsop was chosen near present-day Astoria, Oregon, and construction began a few days later. By Christmas the two long buildings joined by palisades were ready for occupancy and for holiday celebration marked by singing, gun volleys, and the exchange of gifts.
*Now inundated by dam reservoirs