Following the path of these great American explorers one gets an inkling of the excitement that mounted as their Corps of Discovery made its way to the Pacific Ocean.
"The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri River, and such principal stream of it, as, by its course and communication with the water of the Pacific Ocean may offer the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent for the purpose of commerce."
_ Thomas Jefferson, 1803.
On a cold, cloudy morning in May we stand shivering and silent on the banks of the headwaters of the Missouri River in southern Montana. Lewis and Clark stood here in June 1805, trying to decide which of the three streams _ now named the Jefferson, the Madison and the Gallatin _ would be the one to carry them to the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean.
Which would be the one to help them open the Northwest Territories as they had promised President Jefferson?
I think of Sacagawea, their 15-year-old Indian translator and guide. Maybe she stood here, too, in the same place as I, with her infant son on her back, looking up at the cinder-gray cliff on the other side of the river. Today, brown birds are fluttering in and out of openings in the face of the rocky cliff. I am relieved there is no museum here, no other tourists. We are alone and see the rivers, stark and natural, as they plunge to the north.
My husband, Dick, and I are following the Lewis and Clark trail in our Volkswagen Rialta RV. Lewis and Clark began in St. Louis, Mo., in 1804. We are following approximately their same route.
But the differences between our ventures is enormous. We drive; the Lewis and Clark expedition mainly paddled. We have maps; they had some help from American Indians. We use state campgrounds; they stopped wherever the river took them. We shop at supermarkets; they shot antelope.
In 1803, it was assumed that access to trade routes to Asia would be possible through overland routes. Fur trading was a big business, especially beaver. At the time, the only route from young America's eastern settlements to the west coast was by ship around the cape of South America to today's Washington and Oregon. In 1803, the Mississippi River was the westernmost point of the United States, but just as Lewis and Clark began their journey, France sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States for $15-million _ about 3 cents an acre.
The Lewis and Clark trek _ they called their group the Corps of Discovery _ began in St. Charles on the north bank of the Missouri, near St. Louis. A keelboat and two canoes were loaded and ready for the expedition. On the boats were flour, corn, salt pork, shirts, mosquito nets, hominy, lard, a hundred gallons of whiskey, tools and nails, as well as beads, tools and tobacco for trading with the Indians. They carried a writing desk for Lewis (the journals came to 11 volumes) and much more. Lewis took his Newfoundland dog with him.
In the years leading up to the bicentennial of the expedition, at least 2-million travelers are expected to follow all or part of the trail blazed by the Corps of Discovery. We drive to St. Charles and sit on a bench on the bank of the Missouri River. The river is wide and running fast, cluttered with floating logs and tree branches. According to the expedition journals, the same was true at 3:30 p.m. on May 21, 1804, when the expedition set off. The corps covered just more than 3 miles the first day. Later, on a good day going up-river, they would make 20 miles.
We spend the rest of the morning at the Museum of Westward Expansion near the famous Gateway Arch in St. Louis and leave on our trip the next morning. The weather had been springlike as we drove from Florida to St. Louis, with lacy green forests reflecting sunlight through leafing trees, but we are now coming into cold, windy weather. Some trees have not leafed at all; others have just a suggestion of fuzzy green buds. It feels as if we are driving into winter.
Near Atchison, Kan., we visit Sugar Lake and Independence Park, where the Lewis and Clark group spent their first Fourth of July west of the Mississippi.
We cross the river to Council Bluffs, Iowa, where the Lewis and Clark expedition had encountered their first Indians, members of an Oto tribe. There were lengthy speeches, mainly by Meriwether Lewis, chiefs Little Thief and Big Horse. The Indians protested that the gifts presented were inadequate, and there were some hard feelings. Chief Big Horse arrived at camp naked the next day to show how poor he was and demanded, among other things, a barrel of whiskey, which he did not get.
Although the expedition's men were often sick with intestinal and skin problems, only one died on the entire two-year trek. It was early on, here in the Council Bluffs area, that Sgt. Charles Floyd became desperately ill. Lewis diagnosed the disease as "Biliose Chorlick" but had nothing to treat it. Floyd probably died of a ruptured appendix. We visit the monument to him on a hill overlooking the Missouri River near Sioux City. Later, we go to a riverboat museum that gives us a clearer picture of the size of the boats that the expedition used.
Now six weeks into the trip, Lewis recorded seeing (his spelling) a "prarie wolf" _ a coyote. One of the men came rushing into camp saying he had killed a buffalo, the first one of the journey. That night, the men dined on buffalo hump, steaks and the tongue, which they considered a delicacy. One of Lewis' assignments was to document the wildlife and plants, which he did in fine detail, recording encounters with everything from grizzly bears to the little-known prairie dog, which baffled the men with its underground burrowing systems.
One of the troupe defected and had to be found. The search took 10 days. A court-martial followed with the defector suffering a punishment of 500 lashes "well laid on" by the other men.
"Muskuitors verry troublesom," Lewis wrote. He couldn't spell for beans but went on to note that the mosquitoes were so bad the men could hardly see to navigate the boats.
Further up the river, near what is now called Sioux City, there was a stand-off with Sioux Indians. Again the Indians wanted more gifts, but the captains were stern. Clark wrote, ". . . if they were for war or were deturmined to stop us we were ready to defend ourselves."
Nonetheless, he was impressed with them. "The Sioux," he wrote, "is a stout bold-looking people (the young men handsom) and well-made."
Dick and I are having no trouble with mosquitoes, but the weather is cold and so windy that the awning of our vehicle is pulled from its case on the side of the van and is destroyed as we drive. We continue to Niobrara State Park in northern Nebraska, where we are the only campers. Sensible people don't camp out in this kind of weather.
Nonetheless, there is a sweeping view of the river. I can imagine how it might have looked for the explorers. We see no buffalo but a large flock of wild turkeys shares the grassland with us.
The next day, as we drive through small-town America, avoiding freeways, it seems that each community has a church and a bar _ solace of one kind or another. As we go farther north, I see that most towns have a tanning salon, too. In small-town cafes, patrons look up and say hello as we enter, making us feel at home in America.
Under lowering clouds, there is a luminous field of green grass as far as the eye can see. We follow the river as we drive, now near, other times out of view, but we imagine these strong young men, paddling, paddling, always against the current. Often, they had to tow the boats, using ropes made of elk hide. Other times, they had to carry the boats overland, heavy with supplies. They also hunted for food: elk, deer and antelope. Beaver tail was a favorite.
NORTH DAKOTA: On to Mandan. The Corps of Discovery spent the winter on the Missouri River, near today's Washburn, N.D. It was a cold winter, below zero for days at a time, once down to 45 below. The explorers got along well with the Mandan Indians, who were helpful and sociable as the men built log cabin dormitories for winter quarters that were named Fort Mandan.
This is where they met Toussaint Charbonneau, a trapper who lived among the Indians. He asked for and received a job as an interpreter as he said he spoke several Indian languages. With him was a woman he had won while gambling. Sacagawea was 15 years old and six months pregnant.
The name Sacagawea, or Sacajawea or Sakakawea, has been the subject of some controversy in terms of spelling and pronunciation over the years but Sacagawea and the pronounciation, Sah-kuh-guh-weh-uh, is the most accepted spelling by Lewis and Clark history scholars, the U.S. Park Service and the National Geographic Society. The U.S. Postal Service will release in 2000 a $1 coin bearing her likeness and her name, Sacagawea, which is believed to be derived from Hidatsi Indian language to mean bird woman.)
Sacagawea was a Shoshone Indian who had been captured by the Hidatsa Indians at Three Forks, where the rivers form the headwaters of the Missouri. Because she was a Shoshone, Lewis knew that she might be helpful if they needed to buy horses from her tribe later. The Shoshones were poor, but had horses.
In Bismarck, N.D., we had seen a statue of Sacagawea at the state capitol. The statue has been criticized because the face seems to be that of a mature woman. However, a younger face might not express the strength, the emotional balance of a girl who is required to travel overland for months with 31 men, sometimes having little to eat, carrying a newborn on her back.
At the Interpretive Center in Washburn, N.D., we see displays of the journey. There is a recording of the kind of fiddle music that Cruzatte, one of the men, played for the Indians. There is a cradleboard such as Sacagawea used to carry the baby _ Jean Baptiste, or "Pomp" as Lewis called him. Visitors are invited to wear the cradleboard. Heavy! Another center at the Knife River also offers information on Indian cultures as well as the travelers.
The western landscapes are exquisite as the vistas stretch against the northern sky _ an artwork in itself. As we drive, we finally see a herd of buffalo _ even if they are behind a fence. Later, we see a coyote, running across an open field, looking back at us as it goes. Prairie potholes hold water and attract many birds, one of which is the American white pelican. At one point, writes historian Stephen Ambrose, the travelers saw a "blanket of white coming down the river, a sea of white feathers, over three miles long and 70 yards wide" _ this species of pelican.
The weather is not improving. There is hail, sleet, snow and wind. We give up and stay in a motel. The next morning, at a hardware store, we buy two saddle blankets for $9 each, one of which I keep over my knees for most of the rest of the trip.
MONTANA: Lewis and Clark had some idea of the terrain they would follow as far as Mandan, but after that, it would be new territory. In May 1805, they broke winter camp in North Dakota and headed west across the prairie toward today's Montana. They came to a fork in the river and decided to follow the branch with the heavier spring run-off. The other branch they named the Marias River . . . named for one Maria _ the woman Clark married after the trip.
They expected to be coming close to the Columbia River and had been told that it was a short pass over the mountains. But they came over one hill after another and saw more, and then snow-covered mountain ranges _ the Rocky Mountains.
By the time they arrived at what is now Great Falls, the men were sick and exhausted. They took time to recover. In spite of being awed by the beauty of the five falls, they knew they would have to carry their gear around them. It took three weeks to travel the 18 miles around the falls. Rattlesnakes, grizzlies and the spines of cacti piercing their moccasins made their life miserable.
A quarter of the journey took place in Montana. The Interpretive Center in Great Falls has excellent displays and lectures, even a library. South of today's Helena, the corps came to the Three Forks area, finding the confluence of what is now the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin rivers. They decided to follow the Jefferson.
We drive on across Montana, what used to home to herds of thousands of buffalo. Now the distant mesas show us only new snow. The snow continues until we cannot see where the plateaus meet the sky. We approach Dillon, Mont., and a rock formation which is said to look like a beaverhead. Sacagawea recognized the Beaverhead and knew that she was in her home territory.
The Corps of Discovery met the Shoshone tribe after many delays in the area. And they found to their surprise that the chief of the Shonshone was now Sacagawea's brother, Cameahwait. There was much rejoicing, and horses were purchased for the trek through the Bitterroots mountain range, part of the Rocky Mountains.
Earlier in the trek, Lewis had been told that it was just a half-day from the east side of the mountains to a "large river" _ perhaps the Salmon. Cameahwait, however, told him the river was not navigable. Lewis was distressed. Lewis promised Cameahwait that if his tribe would help the explorers cross the Continental Divide, white people would help the Shoshones in the future. Cameahwait offered a guide as well as horses. The Americans called the guide Old Toby.
THE NORTHWEST TERRITORIES: The expedition crossed the Continental Divide with extreme difficulty over Lemhi Pass, leaving the newly expanded United States and entering the unchartered Northwest Territories.
It is snowing as we awaken in the KOA campground in Dillon and we, too, are apprehensive about attempting Lemhi Pass. We are told not to attempt it in our RV: The road is small and rough even for smaller vehicles. So we travel the freeway to Missoula and will reconnect with the Lewis and Clark trek at Lolo.
Driving north to Missoula, we cross the Continental Divide at a low point _ 5,879 fees _ on the way to Lolo Hot Springs. The pass seems negligible after all this effort, but then we suddenly see that the rivers and creeks _ Clark's Fork, then the Lolo are now going downstream _ and west.
Under cliffs of round black rock, Lolo Creek tumbles past our campsite. We walk across the highway and luxuriate in the warmth of the hot swimming pool of spring water gushing in through a pipe directly from the mountainside. When Lewis and Clark were here, they used the hot springs, too.
The next morning, we cross the Bitterroots, traveling near rivers that loop into each other . . . the Lochsa, the Clearwater and then finally the Snake. We pass Lewiston, Idaho, and proceed to Clarkston, Wash. Finally, at Sakakawea Interpretive Center near Pasco, Wash., we see the Snake River join the Columbia _ a wide expanse with the two huge rivers flowing west as one toward the Pacific Ocean.
The Corps of Discovery suffered greatly crossing the Rocky Mountains and the Bitterroots. Sometimes there was little game and they were reduced to killing and eating their horses and dogs. (But not Lewis' dog, Scannon _ he survived the trip.) Sacagawea helped by collecting roots and berries that she knew were edible.
Once they got to the Snake River, things were easier. They built new boats and, at last, they were traveling with the current. They shot rapids that the Indians said they could not. They made it nearly to the coast in just a few days.
We are delighted with the scenery of southern Washington as we traverse the same area. Rolling hills are plowed and planted in wide curves, following the terrain and the farms are huge.
THE PACIFIC OCEAN: On Highway 101 just west of the Astoria bridge is a turnout to a small park with a rough statue of Lewis and Clark: Station Camp. This marks the recorded point at which the explorers knew they were practically at the Pacific Ocean.
It is a simple monument. With traffic rushing by, we miss it, drive past it, then turn and go back. I am again pleased that _ like the headwaters of the Missouri _ an important point is quiet, simple. We again are alone, standing here on a foggy morning, looking at the confluence of the river and the ocean just across the highway. I take a deep breath.
The corps actually spent the winter on the other side of the river in Fort Clatsop, Ore., in a more sheltered area. Storms prevented them from paddling into the ocean itself.
NOVEMBER 1805: "Great joy in camp," Lewis wrote in the journal, "we are in view of the ocian . . . this great Pacific Ocean which we been so long anxious to see. And the roreing or noies made by the waves brakeing on the rockey shores (as I suppose) may be heard disti(n)cly . . ."
Freelance writer Niela M. Eliason is a frequent contributor to the St. Petersburg Times.
IF YOU GO
For an excellent road guide: Along the Trail with Lewis and Clark: Historical Highlights and Color Maps, Where to Stay, What to Do by Barbara Fifer and Vicky Soderberg, maps by Joseph Mussulman, published by Montana Magazine, 195 pages; $17.95. Includes all the interpretive centers and museums, motels, campgrounds. To order, call (800) 654-1105.
For the big story: Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West by Stephen E. Ambrose, Touchstone/Simon and Schuster, $17. 484 pages. The detailed history. Study this one before you leave.
A brief history, well-written, easy reading with great photos: Lewis and Clark: Voyage of Discovery: The Story Behind the Scenery, published by KC Publications, 3245 E Patrick Lane, A, Las Vegas, NV 89120 or call (800) 626-9673. A good overview, less complex than the Ambrose book.
All of the above are available at interpretive centers on the way but should be perused before you set out on the trip.
The National Park Service administers the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail; for information, write to the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, in care of the Park Service, 1709 Jackson St., Omaha, NE 68102. The service's Web site (http://www.nps.gov/lecl/) has a brief history of the expedition, calendar of events, information on the trail and links to dozens of federal, state and local memorials or attractions along it, and even a list of bookstores that carry books on the subject.
Historical information can be obtained from the private Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, P.O. Box 3434, Great Falls, MT 59403; call toll-free (888) 701-3434, Web site: http://www.lewisandclark.org.