Class V (from the U.S. Scale of River Difficulty): Extremely difficult. Long and violent rapids that follow each other almost without interruption. River filled with obstructions. Big drops and violent currents. Extremely steep gradient. Even reconnoitering may be difficult. Rescue preparations mandatory. Can be run only by top experts in specially equipped whitewater canoes, decked craft, and kayaks.
Even people who know little else about Meriwether Lewis and William Clark have often heard that the explorers shot Class V rapids in their dugout canoes. Whitewater rapids are rated according to difficulty from Class I (easy flow and small waves) to Class VI (virtually unrunnable). Even in today’s era of fiberglass kayaks and self-bailing rafts, Class V rapids are not included on most commercial river trips. Negotiating the large rocks, colossal waves, treacherous currents, and steep drops of Class V rapids requires careful scouting, expert-level paddling skills, and nerves of steel. The adrenaline rush is huge, and the risk of death is real.
The greatest rapids of the entire Lewis & Clark journey were found at the site where the Columbia River contracts from one-half mile wide to a narrow chute of basalt slabs, confining the entire flow of the river into only 240 feet. What erupted from this chute was three miles of horrifying violence. Clark writes:
in those narrows the water was agitated in a most Shocking manner boils Swell & whorl pools, we passed with great risque It being impossible to make a portage of the Canoes, about 2 miles lower passed a verry Bad place between 2 rocks one large & in the middle of the river here our Canoes took in Some water, I put all the men who Could not Swim on Shore; & Sent a fiew articles Such as guns & papers, and landed at a village of 20 houses on the Stard Side in a Deep bason where the river apprd. to be blocked up with emence rocks
I walked down and examined the pass found it narrow, and one verry bad place a little in the narrows I pursued this Chanel which is from 50 to 100 yards wide and Swels and boils with a most Tremendeous manner. – October 25, 1805
This set of two rapids, known to Lewis and Clark as “the Long Narrows” and “the Short Narrows” of the Columbia, would later be dubbed by French fur trappers as “Le Dalles de la Columbia.” Dalles (rhymes with “pals”) means flagstones; the town of The Dalles, Oregon, gets its name from the rapids.
The Dalles was also the dividing point between two great Indian cultures, and thus the center of a trading operation that had lasted for at least 10,000 years. A few days before getting to the Narrows, Lewis and Clark had begun to encounter Indians with European clothing, beads, and ironware. They were obtaining these, along with vast quantities of dried salmon, from the Pacific Coast people who traded with British and Russian ships plying the coastal waters. From the Indians of the Rockies, horses, buffalo robes, hide clothing, and even bear grasses (good for making baskets) flowed the other way. Controlling all of this trade were the Wishram and Wasco tribes, who occupied either side of The Dalles.
Lewis and Clark arrived too late to get the full flavor of the fall trading days at the Dalles, though they certainly noticed the evidence of the massive trade in fish. They also noticed something else about the shrewd and aggressive trading people of the region — they stole. While petty theft had been an occasional problem when the Corps of Discovery had stayed among various Indian tribes in the past, at the Dalles it reached epidemic proportions.
As the men undertook a grueling portage around the Short Narrows at Celilo Falls, they were forced to strip naked due to the thousands of biting fleas that infested the discarded salmon skins littering the entire area of the recent fair-like campground of the Indians. As if that wasn’t enough, they found themselves accompanied by a large crowd of Indians, who literally rifled through the Corps’ belongings at will, helping themselves to axes, blankets, and knives. Native American historians believe that the Indians considered the “liberation” of Lewis & Clarks goods a kind of tax or tribute to which they were entitled.
The steep and rugged ground did not permit the portage of the heavy, unwieldy canoes. They had to go through the Short Narrows. Clark writes:
as the portage of our canoes over this high rock would be impossible with our Strength, and the only danger in passing thro those narrows was the whorls and Swills arriseing from the Compression of the water, and which I thought (as also our principal watermen Peter Crusat) by good Stearing we could pass down Safe, accordingly I deturmined to pass through this place notwithstanding the horrid appearance of this agitated gut Swelling, boiling & whorling in every direction (which from the top of the rock did not appear as bad as when I was in it. however we passed Safe to the astonishment of all the Inds: of the last Lodges who viewed us from the top of the rock.
Though Lewis and Clark armed their party in case the Indians decided to attack, they were able to preserve relative calm. After all, they were vastly outnumbered by the Indians, and had nowhere to run. They were not even in American territory anymore, and they were there to make peace, not war. Clark and Lewis both went visiting, met some chiefs, and invited them to visit their camp for a smoke and some music. As Clark writes in his usual delightful manner:
one of our Party Pete Crusat played on the violin which pleased the Savage, the men danced, Great numbers of Sea Orter Pole Cats about those fishories.
The next morning Clark and Lewis scouted the Long Narrows. What happened next is best told by Clark:
We found difficuelt of passing without great danger, but as the portage was impractiable with our large Canoes, we Concluded to Make a portage of our most valuable articles and run the canoes thro accordingly on our return divided the party Some to take over the Canoes, and others to take our Stores across a portage of a mile to a place on the Chanel below this bad whorl & Suck, with Some others I had fixed on the Chanel with roapes to throw out to any who Should unfortunately meet with difficuelty in passing through; great number of Indians viewing us from the high rocks under which we had to pass, the 3 first Canoes passed thro very well, the 4th nearly filled with water, the last passed through by takeing in a little water, thus Safely below what I conceved to be the worst part of this Chanel, felt my Self extreamly gratified and pleased.
He should have been. The Long Narrows was the graveyard of the Columbia, a place where untold numbers of Indians, trappers, and voyageurs would meet their Maker. As much as any other incident, the shooting of the Dalles rapids illustrates the character of William Clark, as well as the qualities that draw people to whitewater sports today: a calculating focus and intensity; a strong sense of personal responsibility and willingness to accept the consequences of his actions; a deep and hard-won confidence in his equipment, skills, and conditioning; and the ability to deal intelligently and courageously with danger.
Today, The Dalles remains a beautiful place, but the incredible beauty and risk of Celilo Falls and the Narrows are just memories. They were inundated by The Dalles Dam in 1957.