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Archive for the ‘Idaho’ Category

Among the many geographical features that Lewis and Clark were on the lookout for during their transcontinental trip was evidence of volcanic activity. Based on burned-out pieces of lignite coal that floated down the Missouri River, rumors of volcanoes in the Louisiana Purchase territory had reached Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was intrigued enough to purchase a copy of Claude Nicholas Ordinare’s Histoire naturelle des volcans in preparation for Lewis and Clark’s journey.

Illustration of a 19th century volcano eruption

Illustration of a 19th century volcano eruption

Still, the science of volcanology was still in its infancy, and Lewis and Clark were uncertain what to look for. On August 24, 1804, the Corps of Discovery was passing through present-day Dixon County, Nebraska, when Clark noted the “Great appearance of Coal” in the area  and investigated a burning bluff:

Some rain last night, a Continuation this morning; we Set out at the usial time and proceeded on the Course of last night to the (1) Commencement of a blue Clay Bluff of 180 or 190 feet high on the L. S. Those Bluffs appear to have been laterly on fire, and at this time is too hot for a man to bear his hand in the earth at any debth, gret appearance of Coal. An emence quantity of Cabalt or a Cristolised Substance which answers its discription is on the face of the Bluff—

The area Clark visited was later known as the “Ionia volcano,” after the now defunct town of Ionia, Nebraska. The burning bluff was not, however, due to volcanic activity, but rather to the heat released by oxidizing minerals on the rapidly eroding river bluff.

A few weeks later, on September 14, 1804, Clark again set out to investigate a possible volcano that had been referred to in the papers of fur trader and explorer Alexander MacKay. “I walked on Shore with a view to find an old Volcano Said to be in this neghbourhood by Mr. McKey,” Clark wrote. “I was Some distance out    Could not See any Signs of a Volcanoe, I killed a Goat, which is peculier to this Countrey about the hite of a Grown Deer Shorter, its horns Coms out immediately abov its eyes.” As there is no volcanic activity in this part of South Dakota, the phenomenon observed by Mackay (and not by Clark) was likely similar to the burning lignite bluff Clark had seen earlier.

Though they did not know it, Lewis and Clark were destined to see some of the most spectacular volcanoes in North America.

On November 3, 1805, Sergeant Patrick Gass wrote in his journal:

The morning was foggy: one of the men went out and killed a fine buck. At 9 we proceeded on, but could not see the country we were passing, on account of the fog, which was very thick till noon when it disappeared, and we had a beautiful day. We at that time came to the mouth of a river on the south side, a quarter of a mile broad, but not more than 6 or 8 inches deep, running over a bar of quicksand. At this place we dined on venison and goose; and from which we can see the high point of a mountain covered with snow, in about a southeast direction from us. Our Commanding Officers are of opinion that it is Mount Hood, discovered by a Lieutenant of Vancoover, who was up this river 75 miles.

Mount Hood

Mount Hood

It was indeed Mount Hood, one of the volcanoes in the Cascade Volcanic Arc, which includes more than 20 volcanoes in present-day Canada, Washington, Oregon, and Northern California.  Formed due to one tectonic plate sliding under another on the western edge of the continent, the Cascade volcanoes are among the most potentially dangerous in the world.

Lewis and Clark’s party observed five of these, including Mount Hood, Mount Adams, Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens, and Mount Jefferson, named by the Corps in honor of their presidential patron. The last major eruption of Mount Hood occurred in 1781-1782, but a more recent eruptive episode had occurred shortly before Lewis and Clark’s arrival in 1805. At the downstream end of the Columbia River gorge, Lewis and Clark noted the rich bottomlands that had been partially formed by Mount Hood’s eruption less than twenty-five years earlier. But they did not realize that the bottomlands had been formed by Mount Hood, an active volcano.

Nor did they know that Mount St. Helens had recently undergone a significant eruption. An explosion at Mt. St. Helens around the year 1800 probably rivaled the 1980 eruption in size, spreading ash over central and eastern Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana.

Mount St. Helens erupting, May 1980

Mount St. Helens erupting, May 1980

Lewis and Clark did know something of what to expect geographically when they got to the Cascade Range due to the explorations of George Vancouver, though they initially mistook a newly-sighted peak, Mount Adams, for Mount St. Helens, and mistook Mount St. Helens for Mount Rainier. By the time they had made winter camp at Fort Clatsop, however, Clark had sorted out his map and assigned the right names to the right peaks. Lewis and Clark noted the conical nature of some of the mountains, but they apparently did not draw the connection that they were in the midst of a chain of volcanoes. Minor eruptions in the 19th century filled in the gaps as explorers and settlers realized they were living in the midst of potentially explosive geologic giants.

Lewis and Clark’s last near-miss with volcanic activity came in the summer of 1806, when they passed to the north of the amazing thermal features of present-day Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone National Park is centered over the Yellowstone Caldera, the largest supervolcano on the continent. Like the Cascade volcanoes, the Yellowstone Caldera is considered an active volcano.

Boiling pots in "Colter's Hell"

Boiling pots in "Colter's Hell," Yellowstone National Park

In 1806, John Colter, a member of the Corps of Discovery, left the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Lewis’s consent to join a group of fur trappers. After splitting up with the other trappers, Colter passed through a portion of what later became Yellowstone National park during the winter of 1807–1808. He observed at least one geothermal area in the northeastern section of the park, near Tower Fall. After surviving wounds he suffered in a battle with members of the Crow and Blackfoot tribes in 1809, he gave a description of a place of “hidden fires, smoking pits, noxious steams, and smell of brimstone” that was dismissed by many people as delirium or exaggeration. Later, Colter’s observations were borne out by the reports of other mountain men who visited the area. The place he described was nicknamed “Colter’s Hell.”

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To conclude our tour through the Lewis & Clark Expedition in public art, let’s take a look at the sculptures of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark that adorn the trail from the Rocky Mountains to the sea. As with earlier installments, please let us know if we missed any. This is a part of the trail we have traveled very lightly and I am dying to go back.

Hospitality of the Nez Perce, by Douglas Hyde (1993), is on the campus of Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho

This beautiful bronze by Doug Hyde, a Santa Fe-based sculptor of Native American descent, was commissioned for the centennial of Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, a pretty town at the confluence of the Snake River and the Clearwater River. It depicts Lewis and Clark meeting with Twisted Hair of the Nez Perce as his young son Lawyer, later to play a major role in the conflict between the Nez Perce and American settlers, plays at their feet.

Hospitality of the Nez Perce by Doug Hyde (2006) on the grounds of the Idaho State Capitol

Look familiar? If not, consult your doctor about short-term memory loss. In 2006, historian Carol MacGregor commissioned a replica of Hyde’s Lewiston statue to be placed on the campus of the Idaho state capitol in Boise.

An Indian guide joins William Clark and York on the bluff at the University of Portland

I have not been able to discover much about this statue and would love to hear any further information about it.

Lewis and Clark monument along Washington Highway 101 near the Oregon state line

Talk about a terrific old statue! This is another one about which I have been able to learn next to nothing. I am not even sure of its exact location, but it appears to be in the Cape Disappointment area, where Meriwether Lewis explored before he and Clark settled the Corps of Discovery at Fort Clatsop near Astoria in the winter of 1805-06. Please post in the comments if you know anything about this gem.

Lewis and Clark monument by Stanley Wanlass (1980). This statue stands inside the Visitors' Center at Fort Clatsop near Astoria, Oregon.

For the most part I have skipped some indoor statuary for this series of blog posts, but Stanley Wanlass’s bronze is the show-stopper at the Fort Clatsop Visitors’ Center. It is indoors due to the extreme rainfall in the area, which is so much a part of the Lewis & Clark story at Fort Clatsop. Clark and Seaman take a look at a fish being offered by a Native American, while Lewis, the gourmet of the group, is busy being visionary.

Clark's Sturgeon, by Jim Demetro (2005) in Long Beach, Washington

What a fun statue. This sculpture by Jim Demetro depicts a real-life incident from the journals in which Clark records finding a 10-foot sturgeon on the beach. The statue adorns the Lewis & Clark Discovery Trail, which I have not yet gotten to visit. It sounds like an amazing project which features other Lewis & Clark interpretive displays including a whale skeleton and a 19-foot bronze tree by Stanley Wanlass that marks the spot where Clark carved the historic inscription “William Clark. Nov. 19, 1805. By land from the U. States.”

"End of the Trail" by Stanley Wanlass (1990) in Seaside, Oregon

This beautiful bronze by Stanley Wanlass marks the official end of the Lewis & Clark trail, the westernmost point reached by the intrepid pair. For more about Wanlass, check out his very interesting website, which includes photos of his fascinating automotive sculptures.

Again, please leave information in the comments about other Lewis and Clark sculptures or further information about these fascinating memorials to the leaders of the Corps of Discovery.

For more reading:

Lewis and Clark Among the Nez Perce
Lewis and Clark Among the Clatsops

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Blue camas flower

Blue camas flower

Much has been written about the incredible amount of meat consumed by the Corps of Discovery. The enormous physical challenge of hauling and poling the keelboat and its heavy cargo up the Missouri River dictated a high-protein diet, and Lewis and Clark’s hungry men ate up to 9 pounds of meat a day when game was plentiful and hunting conditions ideal. But man cannot live by meat alone, and Lewis and Clark made sure the occasional carbohydrate made its way onto the menu.

With yeast-based bread and the means to make it left behind with American civilization, the captains were well prepared to improvise. As the Corps traveled farther into the wilderness, their limited stores of flour and Army hardtack took a backseat to the traditional Indian “three sisters” of corn, beans, and squash. But when the Corps stumbled half-starved from the Rocky Mountains and onto the Weippe Prairie in September 1805, they were ready to eat anything. It was then that the Nez Perce introduced them to a new Native American staple: the camas root.

Blackbird in a field of blue camas

Blackbird in a field of blue camas

The camas root was unfamiliar to Lewis and Clark. A major food of the region, the camas plant is a type of lily that produces beautiful blue flowers in the spring and a nutritious, bulb-like root. Harvesting camas was a fun social occasion, and tribes from as far away as the Pacific coast sometimes made their way to the Weippe Prairie to participate in this event. Women, as the “gatherers” of the tribes, did all the harvesting, using digging sticks to pry the roots out of the ground. Women were also in charge of putting the roots up to last during the scarce game months of the long winter, a cause for celebration when the harvest was especially good.

Camas roots

Camas roots: look like onions, taste like pumpkin

Unfortunately, the camas root gave Lewis and Clark’s malnourished men little reason to celebrate. Though described by Sgt. Ordway as “sweet and good to the taste” – somewhat like a pumpkin – the root was hard on delicate digestions, particularly on men unaccustomed to eating much fiber. Famished after their time in the mountains, the Corps of Discovery gorged themselves on dried salmon and camas offered by the generous Nez Perce, and the result was digestive disaster.

Clark first noted his nausea on September 20, then reported the next day, “I am verry Sick to day and puke which relive me.” By September 23, Lewis and two other men had come down with the digestive malady. A short travel day to a more fixed camp the next day proved to be very difficult. “Capt Lewis Scercely able to ride on a jentle horse which was furnishd by the Chief,” Clark wrote. “Several men So unwell that they were Compelled to lie on the Side of the road for Some time others obliged to be put on horses.”

The acute suffering lasted for more than a week, during which time the men were engaged in building five canoes for the trip down the Clearwater and the Columbia. Hot weather contributed to the misery, making hunting a difficult chore. What venison the hunters were able to bring in was made into a soup to nourish the sick, while the less-sick men – no one was well – began work on the canoes.

Nez Perce woman sorting camas bulbs

Nez Perce woman sorting camas bulbs

One can only imagine what the Nez Perce must have thought of these scrawny, wretched men, laid low by vomiting, gas, and diarrhea. According to Nez Perce oral tradition, the tribal leaders were initially suspicious of the Corps of Discovery, and considered killing them and taking their arms and equipment.  However, an old woman named Watkuweis, who had been captured as a child and spent several years living with white traders in Canada, argued for leniency, begging the chiefs, “Men like these were good to me! Do them no harm!”

Canoe camp on the Weippe Prairie

Lewis and Clark's canoe camp on the Weippe Prairie

Whatever the cause, Lewis and Clark were spared, and they eventually got used to the camas root and even learned to like it. Lewis had to caution the men to obtain the root only through purchase from the Nez Perce rather than gathering it themselves, as the edible blue camas could easily be confused with the poisonous white or “death” camas, being hard to distinguish in seasons when the plants were not blooming. Lewis and Clark purchased a large supply of the camas root before packing up their canoes and beginning their journey down the Clearwater.

One further property of the camas root turned out to be a welcome and surprising treat. Dampened by the rough whitewater, part of their camas supply turned sour and fermented during their trip downriver. On October 21st, Clark recorded that Private John Collins had discovered the fermented camas and had “presented us with Some verry good beer.” It was the last alcoholic drink the Corps would taste until they returned home in the fall of 1806.

More interesting reading:

“Living in High Style:” Elk and the Corps of Discovery

Dog: It’s What’s for Dinner

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Rabbit Skin Leggings, by George Catlin

Rabbit Skin Leggings, by George Catlin

In 1831, four Nez Perce men from the Kamiah-Kooskia region of the Clearwater River made the arduous journey across the Rocky Mountains and down the Missouri River to St. Louis. Their mission: to visit an old friend, William Clark. The substance of their conversation may never be known—Clark himself made no written record of the visit—but the end result was momentous. A few months later, a breathless report appeared on the front page of the Christian Advocate, a popular religious weekly. It claimed that the Nez Perce had come to Clark on a spiritual quest, to seek the truth about the white man’s religion. According to the Advocate, the Indians wanted to know more about the mysterious “book” that seemed to hold the secrets to the white man’s power.

The leader of the group was a Nez Perce warrior named Black Eagle, about 44 years old, who may have met Clark as a young man while the Corps of Discovery stayed with the Nez Perce in the fall of 1805 and again in the spring of 1806. He apparently came from the village of the chief Lewis and Clark called “Broken Arm.” Accompanying him was another middle-aged Nez Perce-Flathead man called Speaking Eagle or Man-of-the-Morning, and two younger men, Rabbit Skin Leggings and No Horns on His Head, both about 20 years old.

In addition to meeting with Clark, the Indians met with some Catholic priests and visited a Catholic church, appearing “exceedingly well pleased with it,” though it was difficult to communicate as no one spoke their language. Bishop Joseph Rosati gave this account of what happened a few months later:

Two of them [Black Eagle and Speaking Eagle] fell dangerously ill … two of our priests visited them. They made signs of the cross and other gestures which seemed to have some relation to baptism. This sacrament was administered to them; they showed their satisfaction at that. A little cross was presented to them, they seized it eagerly, kissed it often, and it could not be taken from their hands until after their death. Their bodies were carried to the church for burial which was done with all the Catholic ceremonies. The other two Indians attended with great simplicity. They have returned to their country.

No Horns on His Head, by George Catlin

No Horns on His Head, by George Catlin

The two younger men, Rabbit Skin Leggings and No Horns on His Head, headed back up the Missouri River on an American Fur Company vessel called The Yellowstone. The western artist George Catlin met and drew both men, and reported that one of them died on the voyage, near the mouth of the Yellowstone River. The survivor reportedly made it back to his home country, but he had no way of knowing what their brief visit had wrought.

The report in the Christian Advocate electrified the religious community. Within months, funds were raised, men were recruited, and a Methodist mission led by Jason Lee and his nephew Daniel headed into the Oregon country. They would be followed by others, along with a flood of white settlers.

Bringing Indians to the Book, by Albert Furtwangler

Bringing Indians to the Book, by Albert Furtwangler

In his great account Bringing Indians to the Book, Albert Furtwangler sums up the situation of the first religious missions: “The missionary beginnings reflect an almost hopeless ignorance—and credulity—about the West. Not one loud voice rose to challenge the dubious notion that four Indians represented thousands yearning for Christian conversion.” When Jason Lee, his nephew and two companions arrived at Fort Vancouver in 1834, they found the area dominated by the Canadian Hudson’s Bay Company. Employees of the company helped Lee find a site on the Willamette River, northwest of present-day Salem, Oregon—and at a safe distance from the most lucrative fur trading areas— where he settled with about a dozen Canadian men and their native wives. Over the next six years, Lee established a small but influential American presence in the area, eventually bringing in new ministers, a blacksmith, a doctor, and a carpenter. In 1840, a ship arrived carrying more people— including single women to join the single men. Lee faced serious competition from the Catholic church, particularly Father Pierre-Jean de Smet, who had been sent by Bishop Rosati of St. Louis in response to the Indians’ plea for a “Black Robe.”

Jason Lee, missionary

Jason Lee, Methodist missionary

Though Lee’s mission to bring his Methodist brand of Christianity to the Flathead or Salish people of the Bitterroot range was almost entirely unsuccessful, his efforts had other lasting consequences. As more white settlers followed him to the Salem area, the Indian Manual Training School he founded evolved into the Oregon Institute, a school for white children (it eventually became Willamette University).  The new chapel he built in 1843 became Salem’s First United Methodist Church.  The same year, enough Americans had settled in Oregon that they outvoted the old British and Canadian residents to create an American provisional government.

However, not all fellow ministers approved of Jason Lee’s leadership. The Missionary Board back east felt that he had abandoned the original goal of bringing God’s word to the Indians and was wasting money on land speculation schemes, and they recalled Lee in 1843.  Though he was exonerated of misappropriating mission funds and reinstated by the Missionary Board, Lee fell ill and never made it back to Salem. He died at his family home in Stanstead, Canada, on March 12, 1845, age 41.

By this time, Lee’s pioneering Methodist mission had been joined by Catholic, Presbyterian and Congregational missions, all competing for the privilege of saving the Indian soul. This next wave of missionaries included the first white women to cross the Rocky Mountains, Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding. Narcissa Whitman and her husband Marcus founded a mission among the Cayuse Indians on the Walla Walla, and Henry and Eliza Spalding settled with the Nez Perce on the Clearwater.

The Whitmans labored with true zeal to make their mission a success, offering Presbyterian church services, Bible instruction, medical aid, and a school. However, their initial optimism soon gave way to discouragement and tragedy. The Whitman’s infant daughter died in a drowning accident in 1839, and Narcissa’s eyesight began to fail. Perhaps most discouraging of all was the lack of interest among their Indian “charges.” The religious message the Whitmans preached made little sense to the Cayuse in terms of their own practices and beliefs, and the Whitmans made little attempt to understand the Indians or explain their message in terms the Cayuse could understand. In the end, the Cayuse simply didn’t like the Whitmans. Not too many signed on to be “saved.”

Narcissa and Marcus Whitman

Narcissa and Marcus Whitman

In 1842, the American Missionary Board decided to close the foundering mission and transfer the Whitmans elsewhere. Marcus headed East to persuade the board to reverse its decision but was rebuffed. During his return journey in 1843, he helped guide a wagon train of a thousand pioneers up the Oregon Trail, and the Whitmans’ mission soon revived, becoming a gathering place for these settlers and their children. The ties between the Whitmans’ mission and the encroaching white settlers angered the Cayuse, and when an epidemic of measles struck the area in 1847, the Indians’ dislike of the mission gave way to outrage. Most of the sick white children cared for at the Whitman’s mission lived, while almost all the Cayuse children who came down with measles died. Furious at this perceived treachery, the Cayuse took their revenge on November 29, 1847. They killed fourteen whites, including the Whitmans, and burned down the mission. The incident ignited the Cayuse War, which raged between the U.S. Army, local militias and the Cayuse for the next 8 years. In 1850, the Cayuse handed over 5 men who were hanged for the Whitman Massacre, but that did not end the conflict. The Cayuse were finally defeated and forced onto reservations in 1855.

Compared to the Whitmans, the mission of Henry and Eliza Spalding on the Clearwater River was a smashing success. Henry gave out seeds and hoes and taught the Nez Perce how to cultivate lands for farms and orchards. At Lapwai, Henry built a home, meeting house, school, mission church, blacksmith shop, sawmill and gristmill. Eliza’s school served 200 pupils at a time, and Henry baptized over 900 Nez Perce, including Chief Timothy and Chief Joseph (father of the famous Chief Joseph). In spite of Henry’s reputation as a stern and unyielding man, at the height of his mission efforts as many as 2000 Indians attended his church services.

Ruins of the Spalding Mission at Lapwai, Idaho

Ruins of the Spalding Mission at Lapwai, Idaho

Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce

Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce

After the murder of the Whitmans, the Spaldings were ordered to close their mission. They  relocated to Brownsville, Oregon, where Eliza died in 1851. Henry returned to Nez Perce country twice as a teacher and missionary, dying in 1874 in Lapwai, Idaho, age 70.

He had one final legacy. The conflict between the “treaty” Nez Perce Spalding had helped Christianize and the “non-treaty” Nez Perce led by Chief Joseph (the son of the man he had baptized) would erupt into permanent division. Though initially supportive of Spalding’s mission, Chief Joseph’s father had become disillusioned by the white man’s lust for land. He told Joseph on his deathbed: “My son, never forget my dying words. This country holds your father’s body. Never sell the bones of your father and your mother.”

Joseph heeded these words. His refusal to give in to the pressure to make a treaty and move onto a reservation drove him and many of his people into flight, war and exile a few years later.

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Location: On Highway 93 on the Montana-Idaho border, halfway between Hamilton, Montana and Salmon, Idaho (45 miles from each)

The rugged terrain near Gibbonsville, where Lewis & Clark decided to leave the trail. Courtesy U.S. Forest Service.

On August 30, 1805, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark undertook what was perhaps their most perilous adventure.  For two weeks , the Corps of Discovery had lived among the Shoshones, Sacagawea’s people, in their remote mountain home on today’s Montana-Idaho border. Despite their best efforts, Lewis and Clark had failed to find an easy path to lead their men forward through the rugged, treacherous mountains that lay ahead. It was clear that the only way forward was straight though and damn the consequences.

They bought 29 horses from the Indians, hired a Shoshone guide named Old Toby, and once again turned their faces west.  In fact, their iron-willed determination to continue west almost led to the unraveling of the entire expedition just two days after they resumed their journey.

Old Toby had shown the captains a well-worn, if rough and hilly, Indian path that would lead to the Bitterroot Valley, the logical entrance to the crossing Lewis & Clark needed to make. This ancient trail wound back east through the “Big Hole” Country (later the site where Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce were stopped on their attempt to flee to Canada to avoid being forced on to a reservation )and was about 35 miles long. By this route, the Expedition would recross the Continental Divide at a place known today as Gibbons Pass.

The sheer crumbling slopes of the North Fork. This may have been the most difficult terrain encountered by the Corps of Discovery on their entire journey. Courtesy U.S. Forest Service.

It was a tedious and long journey that involved something Lewis always hated – doubling back, or what he called a “retrograde march.” Undoubtedly there was an involved discussion between Lewis and Clark and Old Toby about other options. In the end, the captains and the Indian guide got a little cocksure. They decided to leave the beaten path and set off cross-country, confident that they could hack out a shortcut that would shave at least a day off their journey.

This was one of the worst decisions Lewis and Clark ever made.  Within hours, the trip had become a nightmare:

Left the roade on which we were pursuing and which leads over to the Missouri; and proceeded up a West fork without a roade proceded on thro’ thickets in which we were obliged to Cut a road, over rockey hill Sides where our horss were in pitial danger of Slipping to Ther certain distruction & up & Down Steep hills, where Several horses fell, Some turned over, and others Sliped down Steep hill Sides, one horse Crippeled & 2 gave out. with the greatest dificuelty risque &c. we made five miles & Encamped on The left Side of the Creek in a Small Stoney bottom after night Some time before the rear Came up, one Load left, about 2 miles back, the horse on which it was Carried Crippled. – William Clark, September 2, 1805

The exhausted Corps fell into camp after a day in which they made only thirteen total miles and in which three of the precious horses were lost. And as Private Joseph Whitehouse wrote:

This horrid bad going where we came up this creek which we Call dismal Swamp was six miles and we are not out of it yet.  

This is the ground Lewis and Clark ascended in the sleet and snow. Courtesy U.S. Forest Service.

The next day was, if possible, even worse.  As James Fazio documents in Across the Snowy Ranges, the Corps had descended into a bottomland choked with thickets of briars, willows, and fallen logs, a place where the ground was nothing but sharp broken talus, a place where men and horses stumbled and slipped on steep, almost vertical slopes. Now there was nothing to do but climb out of it – a climb of some 2300 feet.

Then it began to rain. As they climbed, the rain alternated with sleet, then turned to snow. Several more horses took bad falls. The Corps somehow struggled to the ridgetops somewhere in the vicinity of today’s ski runs at Lost Trail Pass. Cold and wet, the party shared a meager supper of nine grouse – all the hunters could find – and a little parched corn that had been carried all the way from Fort Mandan.

It is debatable, by the way, whether Lost Trail Pass is a Lewis & Clark name, though it certainly fits with their experience there. The pass is not named on any  map until 1854, when Isaac Stevens called it “Big Hole Pass,” and many historians believe “Lost Trail” was first applied as a nickname after an 1871 surveying crew got lost in the same area that had flummoxed Lewis & Clark. The pass was officially designated as Lost Trail Pass in the early 20th century.

Lost Trail Pass. Courtesy U.S. Forest Service.

The next day – September 4, 1805 – the Corps woke covered with snow. It never got above freezing all day. However, the wet fog and rain had lifted, and with the help of better visibility, Old Toby determined a route down a rough ridge that led the Corps out of trouble and back into known territory.  As they emerged into the vicinity of present-day Sula, Montana, the  Bitterroot Valley looked like paradise to Sergeant Patrick Gass:

proceeded down a small valley about a mile wide, with a rich black soil; in which there are a great quantity of sweet roots and herbs, such as sweet myrrh, angelica and several other, that the natives make use of, and of the names of which I am unacquainted. There is also timothy grass growing in it; and neither the valley nor the hills are so thickly timbered, as the mountains we had lately passed.

By that afternoon they had come to a beautiful village of the Salish Indians in a place now called Ross’s Hole. The Indians draped buffalo robes around the weary travelers and gave them gifts of dried cherries and serviceberries. This exhilarating meeting was brilliantly imagined by Charles M. Russell in his masterpiece at the Montana State Capitol.

Charlie Russell's "Lewis and Clark Meeting the Flathead Indians"

"Lewis and Clark Meeting the Flathead Indians at Ross's Hole" by Charlie Russell

Lewis and Clark couldn’t have known it, but their ordeal at Lost Trail Pass was only a taste of what was to come. Their greatest trials in the Bitterroots still lay ahead.

Park buildings were wrapped in something that looked like aluminum foil to try to protect them if the blaze came that way.

I am very desirous of going back to this country. When we visited, there was a major forest fire going on near Lost Trail Pass. We had to be escorted in by a “pilot car,” which keeps visitors from wandering off into the fire area, and it was not possible to explore around the area. I was touched by the courage and dedication of the firefighters, who looked dirty and extremely weary. We got to see the “fire camp” where they had pitched their tents, and the preparations to save pricey park buildings if the fire passed over Lost Trail Pass.

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Location: The Salmon River runs across Idaho, from its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains until it empties into the Snake River at Lewiston. The area of Clark’s reconnaissance can be explored just off U.S. 93 at North Fork, Idaho, about 20 miles north of Salmon, Idaho.

The Salmon River near North Fork, Idaho

The Salmon River is one of the premier recreational rivers of the world. Depending on the time of year you go and the section you choose, you can experience anything from gentle rafting to heart-pounding whitewater action. You can also go for almost any length of time you choose, from half-day excursions to week-long camping and rafting trips. A few years ago, we took a half-day float trip and I have been dreaming about getting back and going for longer ever since.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark also dreamed of taking a trip on the Salmon River. When they reached the Continental Divide at Lemhi Pass, they were confronted with the reality of crossing the Bitterroot Range of  the Rocky Mountains. Not surprisingly, they quailed at the idea of subjecting themselves and their men to such a brutal and risky ordeal. Lewis and Clark were camping with Sacagawea’s people, the Shoshones, and interviewed them as to the prospects for navigating through the mountains by river.

Shoshone chief, 1884. Courtesy First People.

Despite assurances by the Indians that “it can’t be done, hoss” (or words to that effect), Lewis and Clark decided it would be worth doing a reconnaissance of a large river that lay just ten miles from the Shoshone camp. Clark hired a Shoshone guide known as Old Toby and headed out on August 21, 1805. That first night, Clark and Toby camped just off the modern highway. Clark was impressed with the size and beauty of the river and noted:

I observed that it was a handsom river at my camp    I shall in justice to Capt Lewis who was the first white man ever on this fork of the Columbia Call this Louis’s river.   

By the next day, Clark found the going very rough. The river tumbled through steep mountains and was as swift and treacherous as it was lovely:

proceed on with great dificuelty as the rocks were So Sharp large and unsettled and the hill sides Steep that the horses could with the greatest risque and dificulty get on.

After two days of exploration, Clark had to admit it. Not matter how you sliced it (or spelled it), Lewis’s River was impossible. In his methodical Army way, Clark enumerated the difficulties:

1. The going was awful: The River from the place I left my party to this Creek is almost one continued rapid, five verry Considerable rapids the passage of either with Canoes is entirely impossable, as the water is Confined betwen hugh Rocks & the Current beeting from one against another for Some distance below &c. &c.   

2. A portage would daunt a suicidal mountain goat: at one of those rapids the mountains Close So Clost as to prevent a possibility of a portage with great labour in Cutting down the Side of the hill removeing large rocks &c. &c.    all the others may be passed by takeing every thing over Slipery rocks, and the Smaller ones Passed by letting down the Canoes empty with Cords, as running them would certainly be productive of the loss of Some Canoes.

3. There was nothing to eat: Those dificuelties and necessary precautions would delay us an emince time in which provisions would be necessary.    (we have but little and nothing to be precured in this quarter except Choke Cheres & red haws not an animal of any kind to be seen and only the track of a Bear)  

4. The intelligence didn’t look too good either: My guide and maney other Indians tell me that the Mountains Close and is a perpendicular Clift on each Side, and Continues for a great distance and that the water runs with great violence from one rock to the other on each Side foaming & roreing thro rocks in every direction, So as to render the passage of any thing impossible. those rapids which I had Seen he said was Small & trifleing in comparrison to the rocks & rapids below.

The spectacular scenery of the Salmon River country was the very thing that made it impassable for Lewis & Clark's canoes.

Clark and Toby followed an Indian road to the vicinity of present-day Shoup, Idaho, a tiny burg where today’s recreational boaters can get gas or a burger. The two men climbed to a high point, where Clark had something of the same revelation that Lewis had a a few days earlier at Lemhi Pass: namely, that that they faced an ordeal now greater than any that had gone before. If he and Lewis failed here, the expedition could be defeated. They could even die here.

Reunited on August 26, Lewis and Clark talked it over. Turning back was never an option. They hired Old Toby as a guide, and got busy trading for horses and getting ready to take to the mountains.

On horseback in the Salmon River canyon, 1945

The very whitewater, steep cliffs, and mountain views that made the Salmon River so impractical for Lewis & Clark’s dugouts now attracts thousands of people a year to the region for incomparable canoeing, kayaking, and rafting, along with fly fishing, mountain biking, hiking, and camping. It is the centerpiece of the largest designated wilderness area in the United States, the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area (named for the legendary Idaho senator who wrote the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, and the nickname of the river bestowed by early gold prospectors).

Moon Handbook Idaho, by Don Root (2004)

There are literally dozens of rafting outfitters in Idaho who can help you go on an adventure  that suits your fitness level and thirst for adventure. The huge whitewater rapids are in May and June; we went in July and had a gentler float with just a few small rapids, though we did get pretty wet! It can be confusing deciding what you want to do and where. I recommend sitting down with a good guidebook and reading up on the options before starting to browse the web and becoming overwhelmed with information from all the outfitters. However you decide to experience it, don’t miss this gorgeous piece of American wilderness.

After our trip, we stayed at the Stagecoach Inn, a quaint motel in Salmon, Idaho, with barrels of flowers outside each door and the Salmon River running right outside! We had a wonderful dinner of trout and great potatoes at a restaurant called the Shady Nook. I would like to return here someday.

Discovering Lewis & Clark has a great series, The Valleys of Lewis’s River, with history, maps, and aerial photos on the subject of Clark’s exploration of the Salmon.

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Location: On the Montana-Idaho border, 43 miles northeast of Dillon, Montana

Meriwether Lewis at Lemhi, by Robert F. Morgan

It was August 12, 1805, and Meriwether Lewis was a desperate man. Four and one-half months before, the Corps of Discovery had headed west out of present-day North Dakota and begun their second year exploring and laying claim to the American West. Their journey took them across the entire breadth of present-day Montana. They overcame waterfalls and prickly pears, grizzlies and hailstorms. But in all the adventures, they had not encountered a single fellow human being.

Now the Missouri River was running out, and the country was growing rugged and mountainous. Lewis knew that the party was approaching the Great Divide–a geographic backbone that splits the North American continent into two gigantic watersheds. East of the divide, the rivers flow to the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico; west, to the Pacific, where Lewis wanted to go. A veteran of mountain travel through the rugged passes of the Appalachians, Lewis knew that the Corps would need horses to transport themselves and their baggage through the range. From the beginning, he had laid plans to buy horses from the Shoshone Indians, even hiring the teenage Sacagawea and her fur-trapper husband to accompany the Expedition so she could act as a translator with her native tribe.

We got to stand astride the tiny stream that is the source of the mighty Missouri River.

By August 12, Lewis and Clark had been looking for the Shoshones for weeks. Even as Sacagawea started to recognize landmarks from her childhood, the Indians failed to materialize. All Lewis could think was that he had brought his men this far only to be stranded in the mountains, unable to go forward, too late in the season to go back. If that happened, he would be a failure. Even worse, they would have to spend the winter alone in a mountainous and hostile country. Everyone could die.

Leaving Clark to wrangle the canoes and supplies through the dwindling river, Lewis took a small party and forged ahead to try to locate the Shoshones. They followed a well-traveled Indian road into the hills, once even catching a glimpse of a lone rider. Frustratingly, the man high-tailed it off into the brush in spite of Lewis’s attempts to signal friendly intentions.

Forging on, Lewis and his men took the time to savor a singular moment. After 2300 miles, they had reached the headwaters of the Missouri River.

at the distance of 4 miles further the road took us to the most distant fountain of the waters of the mighty Missouri in surch of which we have spent so many toilsome days and wristless nights.    thus far I had accomplished one of those great objects on which my mind has been unalterably fixed for many years, judge then of the pleasure I felt in allying my thirst with this pure and ice cold water which issues from the base of a low mountain or hill of a gentle ascent for ½ a mile.    the mountains are high on either hand leave this gap at the head of this rivulet through which the road passes. here I halted a few minutes and rested myself.   

two miles below McNeal had exultingly stood with a foot on each side of this little rivulet and thanked his god that he had lived to bestride the mighty & heretofore deemed endless Missouri.   

Ahead lay a saddle point, or mountain pass. Lewis knew all about saddle points. They generally lay just above a river’s source. They often formed a bridge to the headwaters of the next river. Lewis’s pulse must have quickened as he ran up the path. He hoped to see the Columbia or a broad tributary shining before him. An easy water route to the Pacific Ocean; after generations of searching, the fabled Northwest Passage. Instead, this is what he saw:

Lemhi Pass

There was no river. There was no Northwest Passage. There was no glory. What Lewis saw were “immence ranges of high mountains still to the West of us with their tops partially covered with snow.” Steep mountains as far as the eye could see; a knee-buckling ordeal ahead.

Even today, Lemhi Pass (named in 1855 by Mormon missionaries after a king in the Book of Mormon) is quite difficult to visit. As it turned out, Lewis and Clark had hit upon one of the most difficult mountain passes in the Rocky Mountain range, and later explorers, trappers, and road-builders found Bannock Pass and other better places to cross. But if you are a confident driver with a high-clearance four-wheel drive vehicle (or can find someone who is, the way we did) then you will find a visit to Lemhi Pass to be one of the most exciting and fun stops along the Lewis & Clark trail.

Road to Lemhi Pass (Lewis & Clark Backcountry Byway)

You can enter the road up to Lemhi Pass from either the Beaverhead National Forest in Montana or the Salmon National Forest in Idaho. We did the Montana route, which involves driving for for miles on a rough, steep dirt Forest Service track. I’m told the Idaho side is even steeper. Pretty scary!

We found this road very rutted and rocky when we went, though I am told it has been regraveled more recently. Still, be sure you have the skills and equipment to change a tire or two! The road is still considered to be impassable in bad weather, so you would be smart to check with a ranger station for conditions before heading out. And once you get there, you’re pretty well committed. The road has only a single driving lane, and if you meet someone else coming, you either have to pull into a turn-out or back up until they can pass. Downhill traffic has the right of way.

Seeing Lemhi Pass was one of the biggest adventures we’ve had on the Lewis & Clark trail, and I’m so glad we made the effort. The wild and unspoiled views of the enormous slopes, pristine valleys, and distant, snow-capped mountains are worth it. It is possible to feel very close to Lewis & Clark here.

Though he didn’t show fear or doubt in front of the men, Lewis had to be pretty crushed about what he saw that day at Lemhi Pass. Fortunately, he didn’t have much time to mope about it. He found the Shoshones the next day and started bargaining for horses, and a few days later, Clark caught up and the party was reunited. You have to wonder what the two captains talked about privately. Their dreams of an easy passage over the mountains had proved illusory. The towering range ahead of them was nothing like the rolling landscape of the Appalachians. And the men were already bruised and exhausted from the ordeal of the portage around the Great Falls and the last brutal miles of the Missouri. They must have known that the trek over the mountains would test them in ways they had never imagined.

Turning back was never an option. When Lewis and Clark walked across this pass they set the course for manifest destiny. American (and world) history would never be the same.

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