The damp practically floats off the pages in Astoria, the sweeping tale of John Jacob Astor’s attempt to settle the remote Pacific Northwest coast in 1810. Astor’s vast wealth enabled him to send two expeditions: one over land and one by ship. His plan was to set up a fur trade, the first on this particularly harsh stretch of the West Coast. Whoever could settle the area would lay claim to a vast area rich with sea otter and beaver fur, salmon and other seafood.

It’s hard to decide which party had the rougher journey. The overland party climbed snowy mountains, nearly starved and was attacked by Native Americans. The seafarers didn’t do much better, a motley crew of Americans and Scots who encountered rogue waves, endured water shortages and squabbled their way around Cape Horn to the rocky coastline where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean.

Author Peter Stark retraces the journey in spellbinding detail, making use of journals to get inside the minds of these explorers who set out just two years after Lewis and Clark successfully crossed the continent.

“We climbed mountains so high that I could hardly believe our horses would get over them,” wrote Wilson Price Hunt, whom Astor chose to lead the overland party. “We could advance only with the greatest difficulty because of the sharp rocks, and the precipices plunge to the very banks of the river.”

Almost half of the 140 travelers died before ever laying eyes on Astoria. Those who did straggle in to the muddy settlement found something other than paradise awaiting them.

“[I]magine the rude shock of arrival in the coastal winter or early spring,” Stark writes. “It’s cold, it’s raining—as it is nearly two hundred days a year at the mouth of the Columbia—the infinite gray coastline stretches away backed by the thick, dark rainforest—soggy, choked with rotting cedar logs, prehistoric sword ferns, and the dark columns of towering fir and spruce whose outstretched limbs are draped with lichen in giant, ghostly cobwebs.”

Stark is a correspondent for Outside, and his outdoor-writing bona fides are put to excellent use here. Astoria brings to life a harrowing era of American exploration.

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