Saturday, August 8, 2015

Vagabonding on Dangerous Ground: Putting on a Happy Face at Dismal Nitch and Cape Disappointment

Waikiki Beach at Cape Disappointment. Yes, the cliffs are basaltic like those in Hawaii, but the spot was named for a Hawaiian sailor who lost his life here in a shipwreck (one of many).
How does a place get a name? Cape Disappointment and especially Dismal Nitch seem to just scream to tourists to "please visit us". Both sites sit on the north peninsula where the Columbia River reaches the Pacific Ocean, and both are steeped in history.
The Astoria Bridge (photo by Mrs. Geotripper)
Imagine it's 1805. You've been walking, riding and floating for more than a year through perilous and unknown lands, and your supplies are dangerously low. The food is almost gone, the trade goods are almost gone, and the clothes are literally rotting off your back. You're within a few miles of the expedition's goal, and you know that a ship bearing supplies, clothing and food is likely to be sailing nearby. And you've got a government credit card...

Well actually, it was an unlimited letter of credit from the president, one named Thomas Jefferson (maybe you've heard of him). The thing is, you are almost there, and a storm begins, the likes of which you haven't experienced before. Heavy rains, hurricane force winds, and it doesn't let up. You take shelter in the best spot you can find, but it is steep and rocky and wet. For six days the storm rages, and finally it's spent. You load the canoes as fast as you can, head the last few miles to the coast...and you've missed the trading ship.

And that's how Dismal Nitch got its name. The party of course was that of Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery. The correct spelling is "niche", but they kept William Clark's version. He had many original spelling versions of a great many words in his journals.
From the top of the Astoria Bridge. Dismal Nitch is on the shoreline to the right, while Cape Disappointment would be on the left, just out of the picture. Photo by Mrs. Geotripper

Here's an example from the middle of their ordeal (from the Washington State Historical Society):
A Tremendious wind from the S. W. about 3 oClock this morning with Lightineng and hard claps of Thunder, and Hail which Continued untill 6 oClock a. m. when it became light for a Short time, then the heavens became Sudenly darkened by a black Cloud from the S. W. and rained with great violence untill 12 oClock, the waves tremendious brakeing with great fury against the rocks and trees on which we were encamped. our Situation is dangerous. we took the advantage of a low tide and moved our camp around a point to a Small wet bottom at the mouth of a Brook, which we had not observed when we Came to this cove; from it being verry thick and obscured by drift trees and thick bushes It would be distressing to See our Situation, all wet and Colde our bedding also wet, (and the robes of the party which Compose half the bedding is rotten and we are not in a Situation (not) to supply their places) in a wet bottom Scercely large enough to contain us, (with) our baggage half a mile from us and Canoes at the mercy of the waves, altho Secured as well as possible, Sunk with emence parcels of Stone to wate them down to prevent their dashing to pieces against the rocks; one got loose last night and was left on a rock a Short distance below, without rciving more dammage than a Split in her bottom— Fortunately for us our men are healthy. men Gibson Bratten & Willard attempted to go aroud the point below in our Indian Canoe, much Such a canoe as the Indians visited us in yesterday, they proceeded to the point from which they were oblige to return, the waves tossing them about at will I walked up the branch and giged 3 Salmon trout. the party killed 13 Salmon to day in a branch about 2 miles above, rain Continued.
Cape Disappointment Lighthouse from Waikiki Beach
I'm happy to say that our arrival at the peninsula on our vagabonding journey along the Cascadia Subduction Zone was a much more positive experience. For one, we didn't need a canoe to cross the Columbia River from Oregon. The four mile long Astoria Bridge worked out just fine. The weather was dry and calm. We had a reservation for a campsite in a pleasant forest on flat ground. And there was a pizza shop just down the road from the campsite.

The pizza shop had the audacity to close at like 8:00 pm, so we took our dinner out to Waikiki Beach on Cape Disappointment. It turns out that we were enjoying our evening repast on the very spot where the Lewis and Clark crew reached the Pacific Ocean on November 18, 1805, just a few days after leaving their "little dismal nitch". Strangely enough, Cape Disappointment was not named by Lewis and Clark. The cape already carried that moniker, although only for the previous 17 years. The Native Americans of the region knew the point as "Kah-eese".

The cape was first charted by the Spaniard Bruno Heceta as Cabo de San Rougue in 1775. He suspected a major river was present in the sandy shoals to the south, but his crew was more or less wiped out by scurvy, so he retreated south without further exploration. Twelve years later in 1788, a ship captained by John Meares sighted the cape, but couldn't confirm the presence of a major river, and so named the headland Cape Disappointment. The Columbia River was "discovered" and named in 1792 by an American captain, Robert Gray, and explored by a crew under the leadership of George Vancouver. When Lewis and Clark approached the Pacific Ocean in 1805, they had a reasonably accurate map of the lowermost 100 miles of the Columbia.
The North Jetty of the Columbia River. The forested area beyond the jetty was once open water.
The mouth of the Columbia has changed in many ways since the arrival of the Europeans and Americans. The shoals at the mouth of the river were deadly to ships, so two lighthouses were built on the cape in the 1800s, Cape Disappointment in 1856, and North Head in 1898. Nearly ten miles of jetties (rocky breakwaters lining the navigation channel) were constructed between 1885 and 1939. Sand started to accumulate on the north side of the jetty immediately, and within decades the entire coast was changed.
View south from North Head Lighthouse

The picture above is the scene from the North Head Lighthouse, and all the flatlands in the view are lands added since the jetty was constructed.
Beard's Hollow, a former water-filled cove
Beard's Hollow, just north of North Head Lighthouse, was once a cove along the coast, under water. Since construction of the jetty, a baymouth bar closed it off, and the cove filled with sediment. Within a few decades it has become a freshwater wetland with a growing forest.
Walking in Beard's Hollow
Cape Disappointment was an important landmark for sailing ships because it stood out so high along a relatively low-lying coastal zone. The cliffs are there because they are composed of basalt, which can be quite resistant to erosion. Given that the Cascades are a volcanic mountain range, it might seem to make sense that these are lava flows from the interior. Some lava flows from eastern Washington have reached the region, but these are probably not related. Part of the reason for thinking this way is a strange structure seen in close-ups.
Waves once crashed against the base of Cape Disappointment. The construction of the Columbia River jetties has caused the sand to back up and form wide beaches.
The pillow-sized lumps of basalt are called (surprise!) basalt pillows. This kind of shape occurs when basalt is erupted into water, such as at divergent boundaries on the ocean floor, or on seamounts. These rocks quite probably were scraped off the sinking slab of the Cascadia Subduction Zone and accreted to the edge of the continent. The subduction zone that has many people in the Pacific Northwest up in arms has been changing and altering the landscape for many millions of years.
The geologic map of the cape shows the basalts (Tc), and sand beaches (Qb) which have grown out since the construction of the jetties. Without the jetties, there would be no campground or pizza parlor at the park. Point of reference, though: if the big earthquake occurs, the sand flats will not be a very good place to be. The roads will probably severely disrupted by liquefaction, and the tsunami that will likely follow the earthquake will completely inundate the lowlands. It's a wonderful campground in good weather, but if you are there in an earthquake, don't hesitate. Drive for high ground, and if the roads are blocked, run for high ground.
Source: Northwest Geology Field Trips

The final note for this little exploration concerns the famous weather at the state park. Why are there not one, but two lighthouses? Cape Disappointment has been described as the foggiest place in the nation, with an average of 2,550 hours of fog every year: 106 days of poor visibility! Both times I've been there, I've spent afternoons and evenings in fine weather and woken up in the morning to rain. Just imagine! If you are there and the rain is pouring down, be sure to shelter in the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in the park. It's excellent.

We were looking forward to our next day. In all my travels, I've never been up the western side of the Olympic Peninsula, or into the Olympic Rainforest.


Celia Lewis said...

Wonderful area here, and I always loved the names, Dismal Nitch and Cape Disappointment!! I've never managed to visit the Interpretive Centre - perhaps I'll get there next year for a visit. It's a marvellous experience going across the Astoria Bridge and seeing the amazing volume of water, even after all the dams on the Columbia.
Merci, Garry, for another fascinating post.

Lockwood said...

The Crescent Volcanics, like the Siletz River and Roseburg Volcanics, are all part of the basement rock of Siletzia, an accreted terrane extending from Coos Bay to southern Vancouver Island. They are thought to have been formed from hot spot volcanism combined with a spreading ridge, somewhat similar to what's happening in Iceland in the present.