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Lewis and Clark and the ‘horriable’ Northwest windstorm of November 22, 1805

Lewis and Clark experienced a typical Northwest winter. Any then hurried home to the East Coast. (AP)

Thanksgiving  is just a week away, and that means that storm season is here. It’s time for classic Northwest wind and rain, along with the stuffing and mashed potatoes.

Sunny November to return for rest of week

And when it comes to November storms, even Lewis & Clark were forced to contend with pretty serious wind and rain when they traveled through the southwest part of what’s now Washington state more than 200 years ago.

Nobody recommends camping in Pacific County or Wahkiakum County in November. But, if you’re Lewis & Clark, and President Thomas Jefferson has sent you and the rest of the Corps of Discovery west, and it’s November 1805, you don’t really have much choice.

From November 10 to November 15 of that year, the famed explorers were pinned down on historic Chinook lands by a series of vigorous storms. The place they were camped is on the Washington side of the Columbia River, just east of the bridge to Astoria. This area was also where the old Megler ferry dock operated for decades, until 1966 when the bridge was built.

The Washington State Department of Transportation rest area there along State Route 401 was renamed from Megler to “Dismal Nitch” in 2005 during the Corps of Discovery Bicentennial.

William Clark used the phrase “that dismal little nitch” to describe the area in his journal, using his own distinctive approach to spelling for the word “niche.” On November 15, 1805, Clark also wrote, “The rainey weather Continued without a longer intermition than 2 hours at a time from the 5th in the morng. untill the 16th is eleven days rain, and the most disagreeable time I have experienced.”

On that day, the explorers moved their campsite farther west, to where Fort Canby State Park now stands. That’s where they were when a much bigger windstorm hit on November 22, 1805.

Dave Nicandri is an expert on Lewis & Clark and on British explorer Captain James Cook, and is the retired former director of the Washington State Historical Society.

“They got really walloped by this second big storm that apparently, from the reading of the journal accounts, was more intense,” Nicandri said. “It was more compact and fiercer than the earlier blast, which was over the course of two or three days, but it really, from all accounts, it really howled for virtually 24 hours.”

Oregon meteorologist and author George R. Miller wrote a book in 2004 about the weather that Lewis & Clark experienced during their time in the Northwest. About the November 22 storm, Miller wrote:

“This was most likely one of the strongest storms the party experienced during their stay at the mouth of the Columbia River, and it may have been similar in its track to the infamous Columbus Day Storm of October 12, 1962 along the Pacific Northwest Coast.”

While the Corps of Discovery took no wind speed measurements, it’s easy to picture the November 22, 1805 storm bringing high winds and heavy rain, much like the storms that strike the Willamette Valley, the mouth of the Columbia River and the Puget Sound area once or twice a year, almost every autumn and winter.

During the Columbus Day Storm, which is blamed for 46 deaths from Northern California to British Columbia, the highest wind speeds of anywhere the storm hit were recorded about 10 miles away from Dismal Nitch at Naselle Ridge. An Air Force radar station there recorded a gust of 160 miles per hour.

Even without meteorological data about the November 22 storm, Dave Nicandri says that there is plenty of anecdotal evidence in the expedition journals.

“They were pretty colorful, talking about the waves and the sprays carrying inshore from the Columbia River, that the branches in the trees [were] cracking in the wind, so you can get a pretty clear picture,” Nicandri said. “I mean, the waves would toss their canoes around like toothpicks on the shore. So it’s pretty descriptive language. You can get a pretty good idea of just what the circumstances were like.”

On November 22, 1805, Meriwether Lewis wrote: “rained all day, wind violent from the SE.” William Clark wrote: “wind violent from the SSE, throwing the water from the river over our camp and rain continued all day,” and “the wind increased to a storm from the SSE and blew with violence; o how horriable is the day.”

The explorers’ clothes were tattered from months of travel, and the rain made everything wet, including their blankets. Dave Nicandri says the relatively mild temperatures at the mouth of the Columbia 214 years ago meant that, weather-wise, the group dodged a bullet.

“They were in no real trouble. They just simply needed to get to a fishing camp which later became known as Station Camp,” Nicandri said. “The big [camp], of course, was Fort Clatsop across the river, founded the next month, but between those storms that was their closest brush with danger – a cold front – but they didn’t really get one.”

The main reason the weather was so “disagreeable” or “horriable” as Clark wrote, should come as no surprise to longtime residents: their stay at the mouth of the Columbia coincided with the often rainy months of November to March.

“The coastal region, once they got below where Bonneville Dam is, [it] rained almost constantly for three or four months,” Nicandri said. “That left them with a distinctly sour impression of this country, notwithstanding the fact it was warmer than they might have expected at that latitude [compared to the East Coast].”

“They still got a good regular drenching, routinely,” Nicandri said.

Many Northwest residents have heard about (or perhaps even been diagnosed with) Seasonal Affective Disorder, and most of us have, at times, found the ceaseless rain a little hard to take. Beyond the “sour impression,” did the weather ever “get” to Lewis & Clark, from a mental health standpoint?

“That’s a very good question,” Nicandri said. “There are episodes in the journey where ‘armchair psychologists’ have lent a lot of thought, but no one’s really dwelt on that here. I think in part because, in my own recollection of the journals, there are no nuggets or bits of text one can seize upon to indicate that they were demoralized in any sense. I mean, after all, in effect, they just accomplished the mission [of reaching the Pacific].”

One challenge that might have created some frustration, Nicandri says, was that the group arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River too late to rendezvous with trading ships that might have been in the area earlier in the autumn. This would have allowed the Corps of Discovery to send home specimens they had collected, and to perhaps get some new clothing and other supplies.

“They never met a vessel at the mouth of the Columbia River, so there was some disappointment there,” Nicandri said. “But otherwise, they were looking forward to settling in for the winter and anxious to get going back home to following spring, which of course they did.”

The remainder of the winter of 1805-1806 would be familiar to anyone who’s spent a season here, Nicandri says.

“There was a snowfall in late January . . . but it was quite transitory [and] of no enduring impact on the fate of the expedition,” Nicandri said. Most of the time “it was the more routine steady drizzle and occasional gale that you see down on the Oregon coast . . . that was the common pattern, not much unlike what we have today.”

Dave Nicandri says that earlier explorers, including Captain Cook and Captain Vancouver, generally experienced much less “horriable” weather during their time along the Northwest coast.

That’s what happens when you visit here in springtime rather than in November.

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