Hunting the “Dismal Nitch”

Historians have long sought the site of Lewis and Clark expedition’s “Dismal Nitch” camprground, as recorded on the journal map, above. The Washington shore site is along State Route 401 at the mouth of the Columbia River.

DISMAL NITCH, Wash. — Historians know the Lewis and Clark expedition weathered brutal storms two centuries ago when they reached the rocky cliffs off the Lower Columbia River, described as Dismal Nitch in Capt. William Clark’s journal.

The 33-person expedition was pinned down Nov. 10 to 15, 1805, along the north shore east of Point Ellice.

The exact location of the expedition’s stay is still up for debate.

Historian Jim Sayce, the Washington State Historical Society’s liaison to the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, has studied the location for nearly two decades collecting clues from journals, maps, tidal charts and photographs. Trying to pinpoint the location.

Sayce, and many other historians, have faced challenges visually reconstructing the area since State Route 401 was built in 1958. In addition, few maps and photographs exist showing how the shoreline appeared in the early 1800s.

“The trick is to find those features that don’t change,” Sayce said.

Through his research, Sayce believes the Corps of Discovery camped in Hungry Harbor, east of the Dismal Nitch Rest Area. Other historians put the campsite closer to the rest area near Point Ellice.

Lewis and Clark National Historical Park has not endorsed any theory regarding Dismal Nitch, although the rest area is a part of the park. Superintendent Scott Tucker insists the park is more interested in helping the historians foster the discussion.

When the Washington State Transportation Commission approved changing the rest area’s name in 2005, commission Chairman Dan O’Neal expressed the same encouragement for more research.

“The commission recognizes the importance of this site and encourages the further development of interpretive information about the historical and cultural significance of this area,” O’Neal said.

The Dismal Nitch Rest Area was named shortly after the Lewis and Clark bicentennial.

Sayce said he always sees the impact of an anniversary, what he calls the “ennial effect.” Essentially, he said, anniversaries increase people’s curiosity and efforts for interpretation. Then in off years after the excitement, the focus on historical work slows down.

“We need to learn to take advantage of that quiet period,” Sayce said. “That allows us to focus on the story under the story. It allows historians, researchers and writers to take one step back and see what was really happening. That’s what I do.”

In the years since the bicentennial, Sayce has continued his work on the Dismal Nitch site.

He has camped under the cliffs and walked along the streams to replicate the Corps’ experience.

The area around Hungry Harbor, where Sayce believes the Corps camped, matches specific descriptions in the journals.

The expedition writes about a high cliff rising 500 feet, which Sayce has identified as a 425-foot-high cliff, historically known as Eagle Cliff.

Near the cliff is a logging road through a canyon that Sayce believes the Corps called a “small holler,” or an intimate canyon. The small holler is where the Corps stored their gear and weighed down their canoes.

They also stored belongings on a “rock above the tide,” which Sayce may have found among the new rocks lining the highway.

The journals claim two salmon-bearing streams surrounded the small holler. Sayce has found two streams on each side of the canyon that he believes matches the journals.

“There are not many places like this in this area that have a salmon-bearing stream on both sides, a small holler and a rock above the tide,” Sayce said.

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