Climbing the coastal trail at Cape Disappointment State Park, you can taste the oxygen generated by the old-growth forest.
The giant Sitka spruce were just saplings when Meriwether Lewis and William Clark passed this way nearly 200 years ago. But the sheltered waters of Baker Bay, and the waves hitting the sandbar out at the mouth of the Columbia River, haven't changed in two centuries.
Cape Disappointment has claimed its share of ships over the years, but on the November morning that Clark first gazed upon the Pacific in all its glory, he was surprised to find no sailing vessels.
"They had hoped to find traders," said Ryan Karlson,, a historian who works at the Washington state park that now occupies the land where America's most famous explorers finished their epic, 4,000-mile journey. "With no ride home, they had to be a little disappointed."
The cape, however, had earned its name years earlier, from another explorer looking for a passage inland. The shores of the mighty Columbia, a major route of commerce long before Europeans discovered it, has changed greatly since the time of Lewis and Clark.
But much of the Long Beach Peninsula, with Cape Disappointment at its southern tip, looks the way it did when the Corps of Discovery stopped here in the fall of 1805.
"Much of the areas that they passed through have become heavily industrialized," Karlson said. "But the river and ocean, they haven't changed."
On Nov. 7, 1805, the expedition stopped at Pillar Rock, west of present day Skamokawa, and made camp. The river is at its widest there and the explorers mistakenly thought that they had finally reached the end of their journey.
Clark captured the moment in his journal: "Great joy in camp we are in View of the Ocian, this great Pacific Octean which we had been So anxious to See. And the roreing or noise made by the waves brakeing on the rockey Shores (as I Suppose) may be heard directly." But their elation was short-lived. The last two weeks of their 18-month-long journey would prove to be among the most difficult. Heavy winds and rain pinned the explorers against the shoreline.
Huge waves battered them and their canoes, and many complained of seasickness. After several days of hard paddling, the explorers prepared to round Point Ellice (Point Distress), which today is marked by the roadside Megler Rest Area, and Clark made note of their predicament in his journal: "this dismal nitich where we have been confined for 6 days passed, without the possibility of proceeding on returning to better Situation, or get out to hunt, Scarce of Provisions, and torents of rain poreing on us all the time."
Finally on Nov. 10, Lewis and Clark rounded the spit of land they came to call "Blustering Point" and stopped to rest on the beach east of present day Chinook, Wash. There is a "Lewis and Clark Campsite" marker at the exact location of "Station Camp," where the party spent several weeks in November 1805.
From Station Camp, Clark set out and followed the shoreline of Baker Bay. Nearby, he and his men discovered an abandoned Chinook fishing village. Its inhabitants had moved to their winter settlements and the explorers were once again disappointed to find nobody to trade with. On Nov. 18, Clark and a party of 11 men crossed over Cape Disappointment and the next day traveled along the rock-strewn shore of the Long Beach Peninsula. The men walked about 4 miles along the beach, where Clark marked his name and the date on a pine tree before returning to Station Camp.
"The shoreline, because of erosion and the breakwaters, is not what it used to be," Karlson said of the beach at Cape Disappointment. "But you can stand here and still get a feel for what they must have experienced on that day in November of 1805."
Back at Station Camp, the rest of the Corps carved their names into some alder trees. A statue now marks the spot and, although the original trees have long disappeared, there are still plenty of alder trees in the area to help with the imagination.
"By the time the Corps of Discovery had arrived, the Chinook had been trading with the French, English, Russians and Americans for 13 years," Karlson said. "These Indians were serious about their business, so they really did not know what to think of the expedition.
"Here were these traders _ half-starved, out of clothes, out of supplies," Karlson continued. "And they didn't bring anything to trade."
On Nov. 24, the members of the expedition had to decide whether to head back upstream and build a camp or sit out the winter at the ocean's edge. Each person, including Sacagawea, an American Indian woman, and York, an African-American slave, was given a vote.
"It was quite a historical occasion," Karlson said. "Everybody had a chance to vote, regardless of sex or skin color."
They agreed to cross the river to what is now present day Oregon, where the weather was warmer and the elk more plentiful, and establish a winter camp. The Corps of Discovery built a log structure that would become Fort Clatsop.
Today, the site of the old fort is a popular tourist attraction. But Cape Disappointment and nearby Fort Columbia state parks on the Washington side of the river are well worth a visit, too. The trails here are all moderate in difficulty and range in length from .5 to 2 miles.
If you go
GETTING THERE: Fly nonstop from Tampa to Portland on Southwest Airlines. Rent a car in Portland then take about a three- to four-hour scenic drive to Ilwaco.
STAYING THERE: Whalebone House Bed and Breakfast, 2101 Bay Ave., Ocean Park, Wash.; toll-free 1-888-298-3330; www.whalebonehouse.com. This restored 1889 Victorian farm house is listed with the Washington state register of historic places. All rooms have private bathrooms.
Ocean Park Resort, 25904 R St., Ocean Park, Wash.; toll-free 1-800-835-4634; www.opresort.com This AAA-rated facility includes a motel, campground and cabins.
Lighthouse Motel, 12415 Pacific Way, Long Beach, Wash.; toll-free 1-877-220-7555; www.lighthousemotel.net. The motel offers nostalgic ridge cabins built in the 1950s and recently built oceanfront townhouses.
EATING THERE: 42nd Street Cafe, 4201 Pacific Way, Seaview, Wash.; (360) 642-2323; www.42ndstreetcafe.com. Rated by the Tacoma News Tribune as "the best restaurant on the Long Beach Peninsula," it serves burgers, seafood and everything in between.
Dooger's Seafood & Grill, 900 Pacific Ave. S, Long Beach, Wash.; (360) 642-4224. This casual family restaurant is heralded for its award-winning clam chowder.
Shoalwater Restaurant (in the Shelburne Inn), 4415 Pacific Highway, Seaview, Wash.; (360) 642-4142; www.shoalwater.com. This restaurant serves nationally acclaimed Northwestern cuisine.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact Cape Disappointment State Park (formerly Fort Canby State Park) at (360) 642-3078 or on the Web at www.capedisappointment.org.