WARRENTON, Ore. – As I hiked the Fort to Sea Trail recently with my MP3 player dealing a mix of Jack Johnson and Queens of the Stone Age, my thoughts turned to Lewis and Clark.
I admit, as a typical overentertained 18- to 34-year-old American male, it’s pretty rare my thoughts drift toward pioneer history. If you say “Lewis and Clark,” my first thought might be Patrick Warburton and Richard Kind wedged into narrow Horizon Air seats doing “Clark and Lewis” radio spots.
This isn’t to say I don’t appreciate Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s epic journey 200 years ago. If it wasn’t for them, we’d all be living in St. Louis, and that’s more than anybody should have to endure.
Apparently, I’m not alone. All along the Corps of Discovery’s route, turnout at bicentennial celebrations have failed to meet expectations.
This is why those who helped blaze the Fort to Sea Trail, which will be dedicated Monday, wanted to do something different than just another bicentennial celebration.
“We wanted to do something that would be around for a while,” said Chip Jenkins, superintendent of the Lewis and Clark National and State Historic Parks. “We wanted to let people experience what the trail might have been like 200 years ago.”
Precisely why the 61/2-mile trail had me thinking about Lewis and Clark.
As I cruised along the new trail, which was unfinished at the time, it wasn’t hard to imagine how burly the hike would have been 200 years ago when there was no trail.
“You’ve got to remember, they’re not out there on a trail for a day hike,” Jenkins said. “Their clothes were rotting on their backs. They were tired and hungry and making their own way.”
The Corps of Discovery set up camp for the winter of 1805-06 near the western trailhead of the Fort to Sea Trail. They built Fort Clatsop and regularly sent men out to hunt for food and prepare for the return journey.
Jenkins says it wasn’t uncommon for the men to travel from the Pacific Ocean, quite likely along the route of the new trail.
The first section of the trail heading east from the Fort Clatsop National Memorial is a converted logging road that climbs gradually up 400 feet to Clatsop Ridge. Jenkins says a lookout with views of the Pacific will soon be finished on the ridge and will likely be a popular destination on the trail.
From the ridge, the route narrows for its steepest section as it drops into a swampy ravine. Then it winds through the forest as it snakes its way to U.S. Highway 101 with elk tracks occasionally dotting the sandy path.
The trail changes dramatically after you pass through a tunnel under the highway. Now, the hike is through rolling pastures, among woods with a lush mossy carpet and over bridges (including a floating bridge).
As I walked along the fence line, I stopped suddenly when I noticed a black cow blocking the trail.
The docile bovine stopped chewing the grass, and we eyed each other for a few minutes. Clearly I had entered the section of the trail that was not yet open. But I was only a little more than a mile from the Pacific, and I wanted to finish my trek.
So I asked myself, “What would Meriwether do?”
Actually, he probably would have killed the thing and started cooking dinner right there on the spot.
“These guys were constantly looking for food,” Jenkins said. “They weren’t admiring the scenery so much. They were thinking, ‘Where’s the elk? Where’s the elk?’”
I decided I’d hike back to the Fort, drive to the Sunset Beach Trailhead and finish the hike from the other direction.
When the trail is dedicated Monday, Jenkins says the path through the cattle pasture will be fenced on both sides so families won’t have to worry about sharing the trail with cattle.
Perhaps even more impressive than the variety of terrain packed into this relatively short hike is how the Fort to Sea project came together in 21/2 years.
It took 14 corporations working with the National Park Service, local volunteers and even the National Guard to get the project done in time for the bicentennial.
“Often when you have that many people working on a project, it can complicate matters and slow the project down,” said Ken Wightman of David Evans and Associates, a Portland-based engineering firm that donated resources to the project. “But in this case we all had a common goal.”
Wightman was particularly interested in the project because he has ties to the Lewis and Clark expedition. He is a descendent of Alexander Willard, who served in the Corps of Discovery.
As I hiked the final 50 yards of the trail and saw the vast blueness of the Pacific finally appear beyond the waving grass, I turned off my MP3 player for the first time so I could listen to waves. And I wondered how that first glimpse of the ocean must have felt to Lewis and Clark.
Jenkins and Wightman and the legions of others involved in the Fort to Sea project might get a little idea of what that moment was like Monday when this dream of theirs becomes a reality.
“Everybody involved is proud of this trail,” Jenkins said. “This is a project that leaves a legacy.”
LEWIS AND CLARK NATIONAL AND STATE HISTORICAL PARKS
Some recreational opportunities in the Lewis and Clark National and State Historical Parks:
CAPE DISAPPOINTMENT STATE PARK
The history: In 1805, Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery arrived here.
Play today: The North Head Lighthouse is open for tours at $1 per person. There’s also a Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in the park. The park, once known as Fort Canby State Park, offers seven miles of hiking trails, freshwater boating, and freshwater and saltwater fishing, as well as clamming, crabbing, bird-watching, 27 miles of beachcombing and wildlife viewing. There are 235 campsites available for as little as $15 per night, and three vacation houses are available to rent.
Fee: $5 per vehicle
Information: 360-642-3078 or www.parks.wa.gov
FORT COLUMBIA STATE PARK
The history: Lewis and Clark mapped the area when they passed through. In 1896, Fort Columbia was built to defend the mouth of the Columbia River. It remains intact even though it was declared surplus after World War II.
Play today: There are five miles of hiking trails and 25 unsheltered picnic tables in this day-use park. You can also walk more than a mile of shoreline on the Columbia River and tour one of the few intact coastal defense sites.
Fee: $5 per vehicle
FORT STEVENS STATE PARK
The history: Before it was a military fort, this area was home to the Clatsop Indians who helped the Corps of Discovery prepare for the winter.
Play today: Fort Stevens has numerous campsites for both tents and RVs. You can also rent a yurt, comb the beaches or swim in Coffenbury Lake. The park has picnic areas, a nine-mile network of bike trails and six miles of hiking. You can boat and fish on the lake and tour a 90-year-old underground gun battery.
Fee: $3 per vehicle
FORT CLATSOP NATIONAL MEMORIAL
The history: Fort Clatsop was the winter quarters for the Corps of Discovery in 1805-06.
Play today: Memorial workers are rebuilding a replica of the fort that burned down last month. The area offers an interpretive center and plenty of hiking, including two new trails. The Netul River Trail is a 11/2-mile walk near where Lewis and Clark arrived in the area. The memorial is also the western trailhead for the new 61/2-mile Fort to Sea Trail.
Fee: $3 per person
Information: 1-503-861-2471 or www.nps.gov/lewi
SUNSET BEACH STATE RECREATION AREA
The history: It is an area explored by members of the Corps of Discovery as they wintered at Fort Clatsop.
Play today: Sunset Beach offers direct access to the Pacific Ocean and miles of beaches. Sunset Beach is also the eastern trailhead for the Fort to Sea Trail.
ECOLA STATE PARK
The history: In 1806, Capt. William Clark and 112 of his men fought their way through difficult terrain to get to a beached whale, where they recovered 300 pounds of blubber.
Play today: The coast here is popular among surfers. The less-adventurous watch migrating gray whales or hike the new Clatsop Loop Trail. You can spend the night at one of the park’s primitive cabins by hiking 11/2 miles from the Indian Beach trailhead to Tillamook Head.
Fee: $3 per vehicle
Information: 1-800-551-6949 or www.oregonstateparks.org/park_188.php
back page: State and local governments worked together to meld several sites into the Lewis and Clark National and State Historical Parks.
Craig Hill: 253-597-8497