A special Lewis and Clark day

I always approach the day of November 19 with religious reverence and a large dose of grateful joy.

When I wake up on the morning of November 19, I give thanks to the universe and to a greater power. And then comes a laugh and a day of happiness celebrating the simple facts that, No. 1, I once completed a rugged journey that few folks in our modern age have made; No. 2, I survived; and, No. 3, I’m still alive, almost a half-century later, to tell the story.

November 19 was the day of the year—back 46 years ago—when four of my friends and I reached the St. Louis Gateway Arch, completing a half-year, 3,700-mile journey along the trail of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Our excursion was undertaken when I was a young man, a very young man, age 23, and it was by backpack; canoe and kayak on the rivers; and by foot across the Rockies.

Sometimes, as we hiked the Lolo Trail, the mountain forests were so silent all we could hear was our own beating hearts.

It was a poetic ballad of sweat, Nature’s beauty, friendship, aching muscles, blisters, sunburns, the fresh smell of pine trees, starry nights, snowy mornings, unbounded enthusiasm, at times gut-wrenching fear, great laughter, cold rain, and more sweat, always sweat, and always wind in our faces no matter which way we faced, a great mystery how that always seemed to be.

We started in early June at Fort Clatsop near the mouth of the Columbia River at the coastal edges of Oregon and Washington. The fort of today is a replica of a long-gone winter fort constructed there by the Lewis and Clark explorers in late 1805 after they spent the previous year and a half traveling through the wilderness from St. Louis. They lived at their Fort Clatsop for almost four months and in the spring of 1806 undertook a 6-month journey back to civilization at St. Louis.

One member of our group, Mike Cochran, was a cartoonist. This was his version of how Lewis and Clark and the dog Seaman felt at times as they moved along the Lolo Trail. A slight bit of editorial license here—back then, Lewis and Clark rode horses across the mountains. Poor ol’ Seaman, though, had to hoof it!

From Fort Clatsop, we paddled up the Columbia, Snake, and Clearwater rivers, hiked across the Lolo Trail in the high mountains of Idaho and into Montana (our two canoes and a kayak were trucked over the mountains), and then paddled down the Beaverhead and Jefferson rivers to the Missouri River. The Missouri took us north—to within 50 miles of the Canadian border—and then curved us directly south through the Dakotas, along the edges of Nebraska and Iowa, and southeast across the state of Missouri to that beautiful Gateway Arch towering 630 feet above the river.

Our route from west to east covered the same territory as Lewis and Clark. The explorers went up the Missouri River, rode across the Rocky Mountains—from western Montana and across Idaho—on horses that they traded for with Native Americans. On the west side of the mountains, they built canoes and paddled down the Clearwater, Snake and Columbia rivers to the Pacific coast. The spent the winter of 1805-06 at the mouth of the Coumbia and then returned to St. Louis mostly by the same route.

Oh, well, what was it that the poet Robert Burns once wrote about the best laid schemes of mice and men? The plans of Lewis and Clark reenactors often go awry, too.  We figured it’d be a little tough going up the Columbia, Snake and Clearwater rivers, against the current—and it was, but not bad. We also thought it’d be easy going with the current flowing down the Missouri River. That was the deciding factor—the Missouri’s downstream flowing—for why we went from west to east. We couldn’t have been more wrong.

Today’s Missouri River is still free-flowing, clear, swift, and gorgeous through a stretch of Montana. But then, farther on, 19 dams now back up huge reservoirs in Montana and the Dakotas, and the mighty river becomes what seems like one endless lake. Some reservoirs are so wide you can’t see across to the far shore. High winds often skim along the surface of the water, churning up giant, dangerous waves. Travel by muscle power was so slow that some days we struggled to make a dozen miles of progress across the reservoirs.

 

Forty-six years ago I stepped across the source of the Missouri River. This photo was published in an article that I wrote for the Denver Post’s Empire Magazine. Click here to read the article. On August 12, 1805, Lewis and some of his men reached the source not far from where I stood for this photo.  Lewis wrote in his journal that one of the men, Hugh 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.”

The youngest of us was a tall, rosy-cheeked Idahoan, Clay Asher, who had just graduated from the Twin Falls high school and reached the age of 18 only a few days prior to our departure. He could paddle all day. Even with a 60-pound pack on his back, he would keep a long-legged stride going for hours along rough and steep mountain trails. He loved the outdoors. He knew the wildlife and the plant life. He had a natural instinct for navigating rapids. Most importantly, he knew how to laugh while standing soaked in a freezing downpour in the middle of nowhere. Lewis and Clark had a youngster with them, too, George Shannon, who sometimes got lost but knew how to hunt. I’ve often wondered if Asher was Shannon’s reincarnation.

By the time we reached the Gateway Arch on November 19, I had lost 50 pounds (I was on the chunky side prior to our journey…But the daily rigors of outdoor life slimmed me down considerably!), capsized 22 times, almost drowned once when I was stuck under a capsized canoe—and would’ve certainly not survived if one of my companions, Mike Wien, hadn’t happened to spot my hand sticking for help out of the water. Another time, we almost lost a companion, Mike Cochran, when giant waves, kicked up by a sudden windstorm, swamped his canoe in the cold Snake River where it flowed through an isolated landscape of nothing but boulders, sagebrush, rattlesnakes, and a bit of driftwood. By the time we rescued him, he had slipped so far into hypothermea that we had to encircle him in a ring of campfires to bring warmth back into his body.

A few times we became lost as the path disappeared while we trekked through the great mountain forests of the Lolo Trail. At such times, our always optimistic leader (I say this with great admiration), Bob Miller, emphasized we weren’t really lost because, truly, we knew where we were, just that we didn’t know for sure how to get where we wanted to be. He was right. We always got there, wherever there was. Bob’s philosophy offered a great lesson that has helped me through all of these years—don’t worry so much about where you are; instead, focus on where you want to be.

Bob Miller on the Missouri River as it passes through the White Cliffs region in Montana. In a lengthy, eloquent description on May 31, 1805, Meriwether Lewis journaled that the enchanted cliffs “exhibit a most romantic appearance.” Here’s what else Lewis about the White Cliffs…

We were awed just to be out there, lost or not, standing at times on the ridge of a high mountain and viewing nothing but dark green forested mountains ahead and, beyond them, more mountains and, still, beyond those, even more mountains, fading into the hazy horizon of a blue sky. At night, in places where the ambient light of communities didn’t exist, the sky was so thick with stars seeming so close to us that I felt like I could reach up and touch them. Such views few of us in today’s world seldom enjoy.

{What food did we eat? How experienced were we prior to this journey through Nature? Why did we go? And what became of the five of us after our journey? Click here to find out.}

Looking back now, I find it’s interesting to compare those days of Lewis and Clark’s expedition and, likewise, our journey in 1973 to what’s around today, in 2019.

Back then, 46 years ago, most locals knew only scant details, if any, about the travels of Lewis and Clark through their region. They had no idea of the connection between the names of local rivers and other geographic features to Lewis and Clark. The same goes for local flora and fauna. Lewis and Clark identified hundreds of plants and animals previously unseen by Americans of the early 19th century. Many local folks in 1973 had no idea of Lewis and Clark’s role in identifying birds and other wildlife in their area.

How Mike Cochran showed what it was like to reach St. Louis on Nov. 19, 1973.

The prairie dog is a great example. The explorers viewed it as a small dog that barks, and one time they poured buckets and buckets of water into the hole of a prairie dog colony in an attempt to flush out and capture one of the tiny critters to send back to President Jefferson, a fellow with quite an inquisitive mind. In 1973 and even today, some locals merely consider prairie dogs as a growing nuisance, not as a biological oddity as Lewis and Clark did.

Now, thanks to the popularity of the 2003-06 national bicentennial celebration of the expedition and groups like the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, it’s pretty darn hard to spit along the trail without hitting a historic marker commemorating Lewis and Clark, or Sacagawea or Clark’s salve, York, or the more than two dozen other men on the expedition or, for that matter, Lewis’ Newfoundland dog, Seaman.

This is what it was really like. Bob Miller, in the bow, and Clay Asher headed to the Gateway Arch on Nov. 19, 1973.

Today, school kids can recite dates, adventures, and Lewis and Clark journal entries that describe what happened and when and where it happened in their locality. Historians and interested authors continue to publish books with new insights about the explorers. Annual Lewis and Clark festivals are held. Bridges are named after the explorers. So are streets, schools, and even a college. And frequently people pick up their paddles and set out to retrace parts of the expedition’s.

During five months in 2019, a small group called the Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery paddled down the Missouri River from Three Forks, Montana, to St. Louis. Organized and led by Tom Elpel, the group studied the landscape and the wildlife, and took time to educate people about Lewis and Clark and what they discovered along the river. The Rediscovery’s journey was remarkable. Elpel wrote 34 blog articles along the way. I highly recommend that you read all of them (here’s the link to his last article from when they reached St. Louis).

Elpel’s story of their journey is on par with, if not better than, a classic account written by John Niehardt, the author of the ground-breaking book, Black Elk Speaks. in 1908, Neihardt and two companions journeyed down the Missouri in a 20-foot canoe. His book, The River and I, describes the wild waterway and storied sites of the Missouri before the Army Corps of Engineers damned much of the river. It’s a very fine read that I also recommend.

In March 2019, a federally approved law extended the trail by 1,200 miles. Where once the officially recognized trail started at St. Louis, it now goes from Pittsburgh, Pa., down the length of the Ohio River and a short distance up the Mississippi River, to St. Louis. From St. Louis, the route goes another 3,700 miles up the Missouri River, across the Rockies, and down the Clearwater, Snake and Columbia rivers to the Pacific coast. I sometimes wish I was a bit younger—I’ll be 70 years old in a couple of months—and still had the stamina of youth to paddle from Pittsburgh to St. Louis so I can brag that, well, by golly, I did the whole Lewis and Clark Trail.

The federal approval of the extension was a major accomplishment for the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation and other nonprofit organizations. (Click here to read an article I wrote about the extension for the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation’s website.)

{To learn more about Lewis and Clark, click here to go the website of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. While you’re there, become a member—it’s a worthwhile organization that is the keeper of the Lewis and Clark story. Here’s the foundation’s Facebook page.}

Today’s widespread popularity of Lewis and Clark speaks to the yearning desire for great adventure that many Americans have but are unable to pursue beyond short canoe trips or day hikes along the trail, or expeditions by car to follow parts of the route of the 1803-06 expedition.

In 2019, we have a nation that is politically and philosophically divided in harsh ways. Back in 1973, it wasn’t so much different. A disgraced Spiro Agnew resigned the vice presidency as we paddled the Missouri River, and Richard Nixon was lying about Watergate and other matters.

During the time when Lewis and Clark were forging their trail, Alexander Hamilton was fatally shot during a duel with Aaron Burr, the ultimate price of political rivalry. And Jefferson was involved in a war with Barbary Pirates, the first terrorists to haunt the psyche of America.

Mike Cochran drew this cartoon after he nearly died from hypothermia after huge waves the canoe he was in, capsizing it.

Anyway, those are just some of my musings as November 19 comes around for its annual visit. It’s a good day of the year. A fine day to remember the way things were and to think about how they are today.

How did Lewis and Clark spend the day of November 19 in 1803, 1804, and 1805? You’ll be surprised! Click here to find out…

 

 

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