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“Dismal Nitch” – and November

October 26, 2019

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In the Pacific Northwest, November is the most dismal month of the year. October is filled with sunny, cool days and beautiful colors: brilliant reds, bright oranges, and cheerful yellows, all backstopped by our tall green firs. Then… come the “sou-westers”: wind and rain storms that make ferry boat captains sit up and take notice …while we landlubbers deal with downed branches and power outages. By mid-month, the winds have blasted all the color off the trees, and the leaves are heaped on the ground in a soggy, brown mess.

I remember a production of “Little Women” during this time. The audience sat in a dark, cold theater wrapped in coats, hats, mittens, and scarves. Just outside the building, a generator provided enough juice for a few floodlights for the stage; the roar of the engine was drowned out by the howling of the wind. The stage apron was lined with lighted candles – appropriate for the period – but we had to be VERY careful with our long skirts.

Recently, I was reminded that this November weather is historical – and sometimes our predecessors had it a lot worse than we do. I recently returned from an eleven day cruise up the Columbia and the Snake Rivers. We were in search of sites used in the epic journey of Lewis and Clark’s “Corps of Discovery”.

( In what follows, I have drawn heavily on a book, “Wind hard from the west” by Robert Heacock. Rob was one of the leaders of our trip.)

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November 7, 1805 – After traveling almost 3700 miles through prairies, deserts, and mountains, 34 ragged travelers were finally within reach of their objective: the Pacific Ocean. They landed their canoes at Pillar Rock, (near present day Altoona, OR) on a tiny beach. It had been raining for days. But Clark wrote, “we are in view of the opening of the Ocian, which creates Great joy”. (They were actually looking at the estuary… at least 22 miles from Cape Disappointment and the river bar…but it WAS a fine moment.)

November 8th – another morning of wind and rain…. When they tried to cross Gray’s Bay, wind and swells pushed them back. Hugging the shore, they forged ahead until the swells forced them to land and camp “on a Point Scercely room Sufficient for us all to lie Clear of the tide water. We are all wet and disagreeable…” To avoid the water, they had to set their baggage on logs. When the tide returned that evening, they had to quickly empty their gear from the canoes. One canoe swamped and three others filled with water.

November 9 – the morning was filled with hard rain. At 2pm, the tide returned, higher than before. Swells flooded their campsite. Loose driftwood trees threatened to crush their canoes. The winds “Shifted about to the S.W. with great violence…for about two hours”. Because of the wind and waves, they had to spend another night “at this dismal point.”

November 10 – another night and morning of hard rain. They tried to move ahead, but were pushed back, landing ‘in a Small Bay on Driftwood, on which we had also to make our fires. Their only food? “Pounded fish”.

November 11 – no movement possible. Sergeant Gass wrote in his journal: “we have no tents, or covering to defend us, except our blankets and some mats we got from the Indians….” Clark continued: “The tide was 3 hours later today…and rose much higher, the trees we camped on was all on flote for about two hours…the great quantities of rain which has fallen losenes the Stones on the Side of the hill & the small ones fall on us…”

By November 14th, it had rained for ten days with no lull over 2 hours.

Finally -on November 15th, they got a break. Clark: “About 3 o’clock the wind lulled, and the river became calm. I had the canoes loaded in great haste and Set Out, from this dismal nitch where we have been confined for 6 days passed…” They made it to an Indian camp just west of Point Ellice where they traded for food and other goods. For the first time in weeks, they were fed, warm, and dry in their shelters at Station Camp.

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At “Dismal Nitch”, we viewed an image, sculpted in metal, which vividly portrays the misery of those six days. For me, the most poignant image was Sacajawea, huddled in a corner, shielding her child from the wind and rain.

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(Note: On our eleven day trip up and down the Columbia and the Snake, we had only one day of rain: the day we visited Dismal Nitch.)

(Further note: After several weeks, the Corps of Discovery set up their winter camp at Fort Clatsop. They wintered there from December 8, 1805 – March 22, 1806. In the 106 days they were there, there were only 12 days with no rain.)

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