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Struggle around Point Ellice: Explaining Lewis and Clark’s two missing campsites known as ‘Dismal Nitch’


For the Observer

Published on December 13, 2016 2:33PM

CHINOOK OBSERVER 2005 FILE PHOTOHistorical reenactors portrayed the Lewis and Clark Expedition's arrival in the Columbia River estuary as part of bicentennial observances in 2005.

CHINOOK OBSERVER 2005 FILE PHOTOHistorical reenactors portrayed the Lewis and Clark Expedition's arrival in the Columbia River estuary as part of bicentennial observances in 2005.

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RefleKt/Trip Through the States BlogA monument at Dismal Nitch celebrates the explorers' courage as they overcame some of the most dangerous conditions encountered on their legendary cross-continent expedition.

RefleKt/Trip Through the States BlogA monument at Dismal Nitch celebrates the explorers' courage as they overcame some of the most dangerous conditions encountered on their legendary cross-continent expedition.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Naselle-based historian and Emmy Award-winning documentary-maker Rex Ziak lays out his interpretation of some of the Lewis and Clark Expedition’s most dramatic days, spent in Pacific County 211 years ago this autumn. This is part 1 of 2.

Lewis and Clark probably assumed the rest of their voyage to the Pacific would be easy. The Cascade Mountains and two massive waterfalls were behind them; the churning white-water rapids and dangerous concealed rocks were gone. The Columbia had transformed into a broad, gentle river which gave them every reason to believe they’d have smooth sailing all the way to the ocean.

It was early November 1805 and things were looking up. Indians described three sailing ships anchored near Cape Disappointment and Lewis and Clark were thrilled by this news. They had hoped to meet these fur traders so they could replenish supplies and send copies of their journals back to Mr. Jefferson. This seemed entirely possible now.

Unfortunately Lewis and Clark had no way of knowing that in front of them was one of the most challenging obstacles of their entire expedition. One single massive rock would cause them more delay, more danger and more misery than any comparable piece of land on their entire expedition.

But before we continue with this history it is essential to understand the Columbia River we see today is radically different from the river Lewis and Clark experienced. The concrete dams have tamed the river and slowed its current to a gentle flow. Even more significant, the construction of the massive South Jetty has completely blocked the ocean swells from rolling far into the mouth.

Back in Lewis and Clark’s day it was a different story. The surge of the powerful Pacific met the Columbia head-on, and these two forces pitched and swirled in a frightening manner. And the place where they collided was at the hard, black rock we call “Point Ellice.”

November 10th: Morning

Lewis and Clark led their small fleet of five canoes downriver towards the waiting sailing ships. They passed the sites of Knappton Mill and the Quarantine Station, then paddled around Cliff Point and swung into the calm waters of Hungry Harbor. So far everything was going nicely.

But as they rounded that distinctive hook at the lower point of Hungry Harbor and passed around the Megler cliffs they saw something truly terrifying ahead.

Clark does not describe in his journals what they saw; that is left up to our imagination. However, when we look back at the dozens of white-water rapids they had passed without hardly any delay, we can only imagine that the troughs of ocean swells were breaking with terrifying force against the rocks.

As desperate as they were to reach the sailing ships, Lewis and Clark knew that continuing on would be suicide. They were now forced to do the unspeakable. For the first time in 17 months they turned around. The captains led their retreat upriver to a safe place where they could pull ashore and wait.

It is safe to assume they selected Hungry Harbor for this resting place. They would have noticed the waters of this cove are calm and protected from the ocean surge. Even more inviting was the enormous, level valley with enough room for hundreds of people to camp. Clark described how they pulled into the mouth of a small creek, undoubtedly the one that flows through this same wide valley today.

They dried themselves by the fires and waited. It had been a rough morning.

November 10th: Afternoon

Later that afternoon they saw what they had hoped to see. From this cove, looking upriver, they noticed the surface of the Columbia growing calm and smooth. Interpreting this change as a promising sign they loaded their canoes and set out.

After leaving Hungry Harbor and rounding the cliffs of Megler they came into view of Point Ellice for the second time. The sight they saw must have surprised and horrified them. The surging swells and breaking surf around Point Ellice had not changed; the waves were too dangerous for them to proceed. Their view from Hungry Harbor had been deceptive.

Now the Lewis and Clark’s party was in a terrible predicament. Evening was rapidly approaching and they were forced to make a camp somewhere upriver from Point Ellice.

The most logical decision would have been to return to Hungry Harbor, and that is exactly what any safety-minded Boy Scout leader would do. Hungry Harbor was a safe harbor and offered a great campsite where they could pull their canoes out of the water and make a comfortable camp.

However, Lewis and Clark were not Boy Scouts. They were tough and daring, and every minute was precious to them. They desperately needed to reach the supplies aboard those ships before they sailed away and in order to do this they had to risk everything to get around Point Ellice as soon as possible.

Time and time again their journals reveal that whenever presented with a challenging obstacle they always pressed forward. That was their modus operandi and that is exactly what they now decided to do.

Nearby was a sweeping, protected cove at the toe of a steep hill. This site gave Lewis and Clark one enormous advantage over any other campsite. From here they could have visual contact with Point Ellice. Keeping a constant watch of that point was the only way they would know when the waters were calm enough for them to safely proceed downriver.

This place was barely suitable. The shoreline was too steep for the men to pull their canoes ashore and the nearby ocean made the river too briny to drink. Nevertheless, they unloaded their baggage and stowed it above the rocks; a spring poured out of the hillside which gave them all the freshwater they would need.

November 11th:

The next day at first light they saw the conditions around Point Ellice had not changed. The Lewis and Clark party was stuck … pinned down along the most inhospitable shoreline they could ever imagine. The men kept a vigilant watch of Point Ellice all day but the waves didn’t subsided for even one minute.

November 12th:

To make matters even worse a rare thunderstorm with lightening and hail kept the men awake all night. The skies opened up with torrents of rain which loosen the hillside bringing rocks tumbling down to where Lewis and Clark were encamped. It was pure misery.

At dawn they saw their situations was “seriously dangerous” with no possibility of improvement. They had no choice; they had to abandon this campsite.

The men had discovered a small cove between this campsite and Point Ellice. Clark said it was completely hidden by forest and driftwood, but now this unlikely place would be their salvation and their future home.

Before abandoning this campsite they first had to deal with their canoes because if left unattended the high tide would carry them away. There was only one option… and it would be perhaps the single most daring decision they ever made…at low tide Lewis and Clark ordered the men to fill each canoe with tons of large rocks.

If this plan worked the high tide would pass over the submerged canoes and leave them unscathed; if the plan didn’t work they would lose their only means of transportation and be hopelessly stranded.

After these canoes were securely pinned to the bottom they walked along the shore, around the near-by point and into the damp, dark cove. Clark looked at his wet, shivering men dressed in rotting buckskins and wrote, “It would be distressing to a feeling person to see our situation at this time all wet and cold…” This was among the most miserable of times the men had ever experienced.

This cove would later become known as “Dismal Nitch.”

The location of their campsite was now too close to Point Ellice to see the waves. A small Indian canoe was launched with three men to scout the point, but they returned after failing to advance against the rolling surf.

November 13th:

After suffering more delay than they ever would have imagined the persistent Lewis and Clark party were finally rewarded with success. On November 13th the captains sent out a canoe with three men and finally, on this fourth attempt, they passed around Point Ellice.

On November 14th Captain Lewis, along with four chosen men, managed to get around the point. On November 15th, Captain Clark and the remaining members of the party, paddled their canoes around the point. It took a great effort but finally all of Lewis and Clark’s party had passed around Point Ellice.

Clark proceeded along the sandy shoreline, passed a large abandoned Indian village and cruised another 900 yards before beaching their canoes at Station Camp. “This I could plainly see would be the extent of our journey by water, “Clark wrote, “In Full View of the Ocean…”

Point Ellice is a small tip of rock measuring several thousand yards from side to side but it held back Lewis and Clark for five days. When compared on an acre by acre basis, no other parcel of land between St. Louis and the Pacific caused them more delay. Clark, ready with an understatement, described their struggle around Point Ellice as… “the most disagreeable time I have experienced…”

Anyone who wants to read a full account of Lewis and Clark’s movements in the Lower Columbia River should look for “In Full View” by Rex Ziak, which was the first book of original research that accurately revealed the details of their ordeal and campsite locations near the ocean. “In Full View” first appeared in 2002; the second edition is available at local book stores and museums, or through Amazon. This book, written for the general public, is now used as a reference guide by scholars.


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