The End of the Oregon Trail: Oregon's Willamette Valley and Coast

Article excerpt

Timothy Rake is a freelance writer, photographer, and educator based in Eugene, Oregon, where he teaches French language and literature. He has previously written about the Pacific Northwest for The World & I.

No longer the last American frontier at the end of a long and laborious journey, today Oregon's coastal region boasts a landscape of limitless beauty and surprising opportunity.

None started but the brave;

None got through but the strong.

--an Oregon pioneer

For pioneers who made the trek, the nearly two-thousand-mile westward march finished in verdant river valleys, rain-soaked forests, or right here along the dramatic Oregon coast where I am sitting now. My eyes gaze at Proposal Rock, awash in a late autumn haze. Protruding into the cold blue waters of the Pacific beneath a hillside of evergreen, the granite colossus resembles a humpback whale beached upon the shore near the town of Neskowin. With a soft afternoon sun falling on my cheeks, I lean back against the sand, close my eyes, and try to imagine how this virgin shoreline looked when George Vancouver skirted the coast and sailed by the mouth of the Columbia River in 1792. "The serenity of the climate, the innumerable pleasing landscapes, and the abundant fertility that unassisted nature puts forth," the British captain wrote, "require only to be enriched by the industry of man ... to render it the most lovely country that can be imagined."

How lovely was the land when the only sounds were the crash of the sea, the whisper of pine needles falling on the fern-paved forest floor, the leaping of salmon, the screech of an owl, and the murmur of wind through the woodland? In the decade after Vancouver's visit, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark opened up the overland route to America's northwest and found winter here more wretchedly wet than lovely. Wondering what those adventurers might see today, two centuries later, I have set myself a task: to size up a landscape enriched by village and vineyard, boasting an impressive American city, facing the strains of urban sprawl and coastal development, but still alive with the Oregon spirit.

Walking along Neskowin Creek, I lose myself in the trees. Here are hints of unspoiled ancient Oregon. One can still see--as I have this day-- silver salmon swimming upstream. One can listen to the wind whistle through the Douglas fir and hear the distant ocean's heartbeat pulsing against the sand. And one can hear the whoosh of automobiles racing along U.S. Highway 101 past clusters of condominiums and vacation cottages.

As much as twelve thousand years ago, this pristine earth provided hunting and fishing grounds for tribes with names like Chinook, Clatsop, and Calapooia. The land was sparsely inhabited and mostly unfamiliar to white men until President Jefferson commissioned Lewis and Clark to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Territory, purchased from France in 1803. A year later, in hopes of finding an inland waterway that would span the continent and join the Pacific Northwest to the Eastern seaboard, the explorers set out on a trek from St. Louis to the Oregon coast. It took nearly eighteen months.

In December 1805, the party of adventurers, including the Indian guide Sacagawea and her child, arrived on the Oregon coast, near the mouth of the Columbia River. As Clark noted, the river was so choked with salmon at places that the Indians collected fish at will.

The party camped near present-day Fort Clatsop and spent a miserably wet winter surviving on elk and root crops bartered from the Indians. Failing to find Jefferson's dream of a navigable water passage across the American continent, the two commanders and their small group headed home disappointed, with these last words of hope recorded in Lewis' journal: "The leafing of the hucklebury riminds [sic] us of spring."

Summer and then rain

Spring in Oregon's fecund Willamette Valley can be beautiful--and miserable for allergy sufferers or sun worshipers. …