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Sunday, January 7, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Washington's side of Lewis and Clark

Seattle Times staff reporter

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They shot through a series of horrendous whitewater chutes in dugout logs. They were the first white explorers to view the dry high country of the Palouse. They met more Native American tribes here than in any other area of the country. And they first glimpsed the Pacific Ocean while camped out near Ilwaco, Pacific County.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark's six-week trek through Washington in 1805-06 is more interesting than most people realize.

Now, state historians are trying to give the Washington leg of the expedition a big public-relations boost, just in time for the bicentennial of the expedition. They also want to try to do a better job of explaining the role Native Americans played in helping the explorers navigate through the northwest to the Pacific.

"There are great stories on the Washington side," said Dave Nicandri, head of the Washington State Historical Society. "We're not trying to take undue credit; really all we are looking for is equity."

"We're doing all kinds of things to get Washington on the map," said Congressman Brian Baird, D-Vancouver, who views promoting the Washington story as a good economic-development move - after all, the bicentennial is sure to bring thousands of tourists to Washington and Oregon.

Not everyone agrees that Washington has failed to toot its historical horn. Vancouver historian Martin Plamondon II notes that the state has had a Lewis & Clark Advisory Committee for 30 years and has built three interpretive centers, using "not a dollar of federal money."

But even Plamondon agrees that some other states have hogged the historical spotlight. "Dakota, Montana and Missouri think they've got the whole story," said Plamondon, who recently published the first of a series of Lewis and Clark trail maps.

Washington's latest project to promote the expedition's route is a series of 50 roadside interpretive signs, funded through federal and state dollars, to be posted at state parks and turnoffs. There are also plans to try to improve the Washington site where the Corps of Discovery first camped in sight of the Pacific Ocean.

Sculptures ordered

And New York artist Maya In, who created the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., has been commissioned to do four sculptures along the trail that will commemorate the important discoveries made by Indians and non-Indians.

It's part of nationwide plans to commemorate the three-year bicentennial of the expedition, beginning in 2003. The National Lewis & Clark Bicentennial Council has designed the entire lower Columbia River region as a site along the trail to be nationally spotlighted.

Most history books say the expedition ended its mission in Oregon, where the explorers built Fort Clatsop, near Astoria, as their winter quarters.

But Washington historians believe the mission was really over when the explorers laid eyes upon the Pacific Ocean on Nov. 15, 1805, while camped out in Washington state near the present-day Ilwaco, at a site the explorers called Station Camp.

Some published maps even show the expedition traveling on the Oregon side of the Columbia - when, in fact, they camped primarily on the Washington side, Baird said.

Decision on winter camp

Baird said one of the most interesting moments of the expedition happened in this state, at Station Camp, when Lewis and Clark held a vote among the 35 members of the expedition to decide where they would spend the winter - Washington or Oregon. Significantly, every member of the party was asked to vote, including an African-American slave, York, and a Shoshone woman Indian guide, Sacajawea.

One of the most harrowing and miraculous feats was the expedition's trip through the long and short narrows of the Columbia River, near The Dalles, Oregon; the whitewater rapids were flooded when the Columbia River was dammed. Plamondon said the chutes were "horrendous whitewater features, with high lava walls on each side. It's amazing they got through and didn't lose anyone."

Insults went unheeded

Plamondon and Nicandri also think history - and the explorers themselves - overlooked or misinterpreted meetings with Native Americans.

For example, Clark frequently complained that the Indians were stealing from the party. He didn't realize that the native Chinook Indians controlled a large stretch of the Columbia River, and expected strangers to pay a toll to use the river. "The problem was, if you didn't do that, you were insulting the local Chinook," Plamondon said.

Plamondon said the expedition encountered more Indian tribes and bands while in Washington than in any other state. The tribes lived on the Washington side of the Columbia because they liked to keep the river between themselves and their Oregon enemies, and because the north side of the river received the sunlight and was warmer in the fall.

Lewis and Clark camped out where the Indians lived, and that underscores the important role Native Americans played in helping the expedition reach the ocean. "This was a joint venture, from beginning to end," Nicandri said.

Won't get it right

Brian McCormack, a Lewiston, Idaho, landscape architect and member of the Nez Perce tribe, has been hired to help tell the Native American part of the expedition story for the interpretive-sign project. But he said many tribes are leery of the whole celebration and worried that, once again, the historians won't get it right.

The Nez Perce once occupied areas throughout southeast Washington, northeast Oregon and northern Idaho. When the Lewis and Clark expedition reached the Nez Perce after a disastrous and nearly fatal crossing of the Bitterroot Mountains, the Nez Perce Indians helped nurse them back to health and send them on their way.

McCormack will be interviewing tribal leaders and historians to determine what parts of the Native American story to tell. It's not likely to be a comfortable story. While Lewis and Clark are viewed as heroes because their stories and maps helped ignite the opening of the American West, the expedition and its aftermath brought disaster in the form of diseases and war upon Native American tribes.

`Station Camp' plans

Nicandri said historians are also seeking $3 million from the Legislature this session to make improvements to "Station Camp" - the point of land on the Columbia River, just west of the Highway 101 bridge in Washington side, where the expedition camped with the Pacific Ocean in sight.

When they reached Station Camp, Lewis and Clark had arguably reached the end of their mission. But until recently, Fort Clatsop - the party's winter camp, on the Oregon side - was considered the end of the Lewis and Clark trail.

"Fort Clatsop is really more properly thought of as their first stop on the way home," Nicandri said.

Station Camp is poorly marked and almost inaccessible because Highway 101 runs right by it, Nicandri said. Visitors risk getting clobbered by cars streaming along the highway if they want to stand where Lewis and Clark once camped. "It's a very nondescript wayside, not at all improved," he said. "It doesn't even begin to hint at the importance of this site."

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