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Lewis and Clark re-enactors ready to start 3-year trek

Most of their hair has grayed, or disappeared. Some wear hearing aids. Others lean on canes. There are bum knees and bad backs among them, not to mention an assortment of pills being popped daily.

These men, mostly retired and in their 60s, have been working for years toward a journey that finally is about to start: the official re-enactment of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Bicentennial events will get rolling soon, and these men, re-enactors with the nonprofit Discovery Expedition of St. Charles, Mo., are at the center of the celebration.

Their handbuilt replicas of Lewis and Clark's three boats made one last public appearance in the St. Charles Fourth of July parade before heading to a spot outside Pittsburgh where, in late August, the boats will head down the Ohio River toward St. Louis. The three-year journey will have begun again.

The trip now is about honoring history, not making it. For the re-enactors, it is also about time. This crew is older, with an average age pushing 50. On the original journey it was 27.

So while the volunteers will lunch on the river just as Lewis and Clark did _ from beeswax-lined, 30-gallon wood barrels full of dried meat, dried fruit and parched corn _ there will be an important difference this time: Mess call will be followed by a "medicine call" to remind everyone to take their medications.

Original recipes calling for sugar will use sugar substitute. The jams and jellies be sugar-free, too. And the crew has been encouraged to get special insurance policies to pay for flying them out of a remote area if they fall ill.

Lewis and Clark's expedition lost one man, to a ruptured appendix. But already time has claimed four members of the new group. A memorial plaque engraved with the names of the men who died will be carried on the boats "so they can make the trip with us," said volunteer Peter Geery of St. Charles.

Geery, 62, has an acute understanding of the loss. He suffered a stroke in December. It was debilitating at first, but he's recovered. Soon afterward, his wife asked him if he still planned to go on the trip. His response: "I'm either going on the plaque or I'm going on my feet, but I'm going."

He's going because the group needs him. He is in charge of scheduling the 260 volunteers who plan to spend some limited time on the expedition, which will take three years and 16 days, just as it did the first time. Geery is one of a few who plan to make the entire trip. The rest will rotate.

"If we were going to be 100 percent authentic, I'd be 29 years old. But find me a 29-year-old to take my place and I'll move over," Geery said, knowing full well that few people could have shown the dedication he has over the past couple of years.

Jim Rascher of St. Charles, also plans to ride the entire time. The 68-year-old retired cabinetmaker and carpenter is in charge of the boats, which instead of relying on oars and sails, have engines.

Together, Geery and Rascher lead the group. There was once a third man who joined them at the top, or really who led them _ the man whose effort and skill are still sorely missed by the workers. Glen Bishop was 76 when he died in October 2001.

It was Bishop's dream to re-enact the Lewis and Clark journey. Bishop fashioned a 55-foot replica of the expedition's keelboat, founded the Discovery Expedition and helped raise funds for the Lewis & Clark Boat House and Nature Center.

At the boat house last month, Geery and Rascher were going over last-minute details. Another worker sat on his knees painting the bottom of the keelboat. There was some discussion about someone else's less-than-perfect paint job, where the red paint didn't get into the seams on the bottom.

"Who's going to see it, the fishes?" one of them asked.

Standing with them was Jim Sonnenfeld, who has traveled from Centreville, Va., for each of the past three summers to help. He's a 62-year-old semiretired financial consultant. He heard about the expedition from a friend and decided to see what it was all about.

"You really see the country," Sonnenfeld said. "I'm on a river with the local people."

Sonnenfeld brushed off any talk that he or the others may face problems.

"I'll compete with any 30-year-old guy."