Location: Great Falls, Montana
Remember your first? For me, the first Lewis & Clark site I ever visited was at Great Falls, Montana, the site of the epic portage in which the men had to tote their canoes and all their gear for miles around the falls of the Missouri River. For many of us, the portage is the most spine-tingling accomplishment of the entire Expedition, a feat of courage, strength, and teamwork that defines what is special about the Lewis & Clark Expedition. A visit to Great Falls not only gives you easy access to portage sites, but allows you to relax in a fun town where the summer is often spectacularly sunny, crisp, and mild.
A great place to begin a visit is at the beautifully designed Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center overlooking the wide Missouri River. The first time I visited this place, I didn’t really know much about Lewis & Clark other than what I had read in Undaunted Courage. The second time, I was an author of one novel about Lewis & Clark and in the middle of completing a second. But this museum has enough depth to introduce newcomers to Lewis & Clark while still providing much to enjoy for those more familiar with the details of the Expedition.
The exhibits here are quite extensive, and many of them are interactive. The focus is on Lewis & Clark, the Indians they met (although there were none in the Great Falls area), and the buffalo, bear, and other animals they encountered (and in some cases discovered for science). We especially enjoyed the chance to try the portage, attempting to haul a load as heavy as that wrangled by the men over 18 miles of unbroken wilderness terrain. I’m afraid the Corps of Discovery wouldn’t have gotten too far with me as a member! I guess someone had to stay back in Philadelphia and mind the store.
You can spend several hours here; there is a first-rate video on the Expedition produced by none other than Ken Burns, and space for changing exhibits. The last time we visited, we got to see a collection of fascinating photographs of the Umatilla Indians by a turn-of-the-century photographer named Lee Moorhouse. We also got to visit with local historian Jim Ray, who was at the center demonstrating and explaining amazing old weapons, both white and Indian. He showed us the use of the atlatl, an Indian spear-throwing tool, and explained how bullets were made in the field. It was all quite different from what we all think we know from watching old Westerns!
The outside nature trail features native plants, especially those discovered by Lewis & Clark. You can easily walk to Giant Springs, a beautiful and unique cold springs discovered by William Clark … and that’s a topic for another post.
For more reading:
Our take on Lewis & Clark’s Portage Around the Great Falls