What’s a special Lewis and Clark day like?

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 to you, my friend.

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 1803-06 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; two canoes and a 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.

Our journey 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. Back in their time, Lewis and Clark rode horses across the mountains. Poor ol’ Seaman, though, had to hoof it!

From Fort Clatsop, our group—we called ourselves the 1973 Lewis & Clark Expedition—paddled up the Columbia, Snake, and Clearwater rivers, hiked across the Lolo Trail in the high mountains of Idaho and into western Montana (our canoes and kayak were trucked over the mountains), and then paddled down the Beaverhead and Jefferson rivers to the Three Forks of 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 toward the beautiful Gateway Arch towering 630-feet tall in the St. Louis skyline.

Our route from west to east covered the same territory as Lewis and Clark. The explorers, in the first half of their journey, went up the Missouri River, crossed the Rocky Mountains—from western Montana and across Idaho—on horses they acquired through trading 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. After their winter of 1805-06 at Fort Clatsop, they returned to St. Louis mostly by the same route.

Oh, what was it that the poet Robert Burns once wrote about the best laid schemes of mice and men? The best-laid 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 overly bad. More importantly, we thought it’d be easy, really 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; not much was easy on the Missouri River. So much for schemes and plans.

Today’s upper Missouri River is still free-flowing, clear, swift, narrow, relatively shallow, 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.

When they were constructed decades ago by the Corps of Engineers, the reservoirs inundated villages, farms and ranches, historic Native American sites, and, among other things, large forests. In some places, the trees were left standing in the rising reservoirs and have since died and turned an eerie pale gray.

Amid a wind storm and big waves, we paddled one day through a dead forest thick with towering gray cottonwood trees. Our boats became separated in the big waves as we maneuvered around the trees, and we were lost until we luckily spotted each other on the far side of the forest. It was an odd, dangerous and yet memorable part of our journey. After all, how many people can say they became lost while paddling big waves through a dead forest?

 

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.”

By the time we reached the Gateway Arch on November 19, I had lost 50 pounds, capsized 22 times, and almost drowned once when I was stuck under a capsized canoe—and would’ve certainly not survived if one of our companions, Mike Wien, hadn’t happened to spot my hand sticking up for help out of the water.

This happened on the upper Missouri in Montana where the river was swift, narrow and shallow, bordered by stands of willows and pine trees. I was paddling at the bow, the front of the canoe, and I noticed the air was at the perfect temperature where you can’t feel it either warm or cool on your skin. The setting sun cast the stream into deep shades of shimmering red. Beavers were everywhere in the water. Some were surprised as our boats came alongside them. Then, there’d be a loud, sharp thwap of a tail on top of the water, a warning to beaver buddies, and the beaver dove under the water, leaving behind a swirling disturbance on the river surface.

The thwapping happened again and again, almost with a rhythmic cadence, sometimes from a cluster of beavers swimming only a foot or two away from where I sat in the canoe. I was intrigued by the all of it, the red hues on the stream fading toward gray twilight, the scent of fresh river air when I inhaled, the long darkening shadows of the trees on shore, and the comforting feel of the current gliding along under our canoe. I felt a great sense of moving in unison with Nature.

Then came a quirky rapid, a fast rise followed by a deep angled descent, and I was suddenly flipped into the cold river. I landed in a way that the current pushed me under the canoe. The boat had me hopelessly pinned between it and the rocky river bottom. And then came a hand to my hand. It was Wien’s; he was steering in the stern and had the presence of mind to back-paddle to slow the canoe so he could find me. And, now, here I am writing about it decades later.

Another time, we almost lost a companion, Mike Cochran, when giant waves, kicked up by a sudden windstorm, swamped and sank the canoe he and Clay Asher were paddling on the Snake River. This was at a location where the river flowed through a lonely, wild landscape of nothing but boulders, sagebrush, rattlesnakes, and driftwood. The river was cold, so cold my hands stung as water droplets were flung up against my skin as I stroked a paddle through the water.

It seemed to take forever to get Mike Cochran and Clay to shore. By then, Mike had slipped so far into hypothermia that we had to encircle him in a ring of campfires to bring warmth back into his body. Clay? A hardy guy, a young guy, age 18, rugged, a lover of outdoor challenges. The long dip into the cold water was just a lark for him!

We retrieved the canoe as the big waves rolled and rolled it along. Our backpacks—except the one containing our cooking equipment—were still safely tied into the boat. However, that morning we had overlooked tying in the backpack that contained the pots and pans, so it was now lounging somewhere on the river bottom.

We had plenty of food, but nothing to cook in, and we were days from the nearest town, Lewiston, Idaho. The day after the capsizing we luckily found a rusty coffee can along shore. We used the can for cooking until reaching Lewiston. There—as happened in most of the dozens of communities along the Lewis and Clark Trail—the local newspaper published an article about us. The Lewiston article included a brief account of how we lost the cooking equipment. A businessman associated with the Chamber of Commerce read the article and donated new cooking equipment to us.

 

One of the more bizarre incidents occurred along the Columbia River in western Washington. This was a land of big gray boulders, dry brown sand, no vegetation except for willows now and then along shore, rattlesnakes and creepy spiders, and heat so hot that sweat didn’t even emerge on our skin as we exerted ourselves paddling.

Unfortunately, we ran out of drinking water during the hottest part of the afternoon. We always filled containers with potable water when we were in a town, but we hadn’t been for a while and now the drinking water was gone. When I have told this story to friends since then, I always like to say our mouths became as dry and sandy as the floor of a camel-skin tent in the middle of a summer afternoon in the Sahara Desert.

It was an ironic situation. There we were, sitting alongside one of the biggest rivers in the United States and, regardless of our dreadful thirst, we refused to drink from the waterway. The reason? Self-preservation. We could see shimmering gasoline, hazy yellow chemical waste and other nasty-looking things floating along the surface—the dregs of pollution coming from upstream communities and industries. No drinking water from that river. No jumping in for a swim to cool off.

We were so tired from the heat that we could no longer paddle, so we pulled the boats onto shore. There was no shade to be found anywhere. All we could do was recline back on boulders. The hot sun in the cloudless sky, the ceaseless heat, the waves of heat over the river, the searing air drifting off the landscape—those influences mingled with our bodies and our sensibilities. We moaned. We groaned. For a while, we entertained ourselves by debating the many wonderful benefits of ice and snow. Then, we moaned again. We groaned again. Finally, we stopped talking.

We laid there, panting, moaning and, of course, groaning, unsure we could survive the heat, becoming more certain minute by minute that we wouldn’t survive. There was nothing we could do. We were stuck in the middle of nowhere with our camel-skin mouths and sweat-less skin.

Suddenly, a miracle.

Five big grapefruits came floating down the river, only an arm’s length from shore. We scrambled and retrieved them. With no hesitation at all and no thought at all (all of our sensibilities were burned away by then) as to whether polluted particles had seeped into the innards of the grapefruits, we quickly peeled away the skins and sucked down the fruity insides. Juicy, cool, quenching. Refreshing enough for us to be re-energized and able to paddle on for several hours to the next town and safe drinkable water.

Where did the grapefruits come from? Did they fall off a grapefruit truck crossing a bridge somewhere upstream? Did kids playing dodge-ball with grapefruits toss five of the fruits into the water? Did the ghosts of Lewis and Clark throw the grapefruits into the river as a special favor for us? Those explanations are as good as any. It didn’t matter, though. Five miraculous, mysterious grapefruits had pulled our over-heated bacon out of the blazing afternoon fire.

There are life lessons to be learned in the episodes I just related. Always tie in your backpacks; that is, expect the unexpected regardless of what you are doing. Always have enough water—and other necessary resources—to keep you going. Be grateful for gifts; they often can mean the difference between failure and success. Enjoy listening to the thwapping of beaver tails. And, of course, never look a gift grapefruit in the mouth. Instead, take a big bite of it.

 

A few times during our walk across the mountains we became lost as the trail disappeared in the pine forests and rocky terrain. 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 and somehow you’ll get there.

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 wrote 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 enjoy.

{Learn more: What food did we eat? How experienced were we prior to our journey? Why did we go? And what became of the five of us after our expedition? (Click here to find out.}

 

It’s interesting to compare the era of Lewis and Clark’s expedition more than two centuries ago and, likewise, our journey in 1973 to what’s happened today, in 2019.

Forty-six years ago, most locals we encountered knew only scanty details, if any, about the travels of Lewis and Clark through their region. Many locals had no idea of the connections 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 174 plants and 134 animal species previously unknown by the science of the early 19th century. Many local folks in 1973 had no idea of Lewis and Clark’s significant role in identifying and naming plants, birds and other wildlife in their area.

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

Now, it’s easy to find information about the explorers on the internet. Prior to 1973, only a smattering of books about the expedition had been published; now there are dozens and dozens written by historians and interested lay people. The popularity the explorers gained during the 2003-06 national bicentennial celebration of their expedition continues today. Meanwhile, citizen groups like the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation and such governmental agencies as the National Park Service have made strong commitments to keep alive the story of the expedition.

As a result, it’s now pretty darn hard to spit along the Lewis and Clark Trail without hitting a historic marker or statue commemorating Lewis and Clark or Sacajawea or Clark’s slave, York, or the other 29 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. Annual Lewis and Clark festivals are held in many communities along the trail. Bridges are named in honor of the explorers. So are streets, schools, and even a college. Many communities have named local trail systems and parks after the explorers. People frequently pick up their paddles and set out to retrace parts of the expedition’s journey on water.

During five months in 2019, for example, a small group named 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 (Click here to read his last article from when they reached St. Louis).

Elpel’s telling the story of the Rediscovery’s journey is on par with, if not better than, a classic account written by John Neihardt, 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 dammed much of the river. It’s a very fine read that I also recommend.

In March 2019, a federal act extended the official Lewis and Clark Trail by 1,200 miles. Where once the officially recognized trail started near 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. These 3,700 miles were considered the federally designated Lewis and Clark Trail until the extension was approved in 2019.

The federal approval of the extension was a major accomplishment for the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation and other 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 for 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 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. Some Americans turn to Lewis and Clark activities because they are are searching for a respite away from the pressures and complicated events of our times.

One important point that we have to remember, though, is that, no matter the era, whether it’s back in Lewis and Clark’s time or ours back in 1973, there will always be tough issues for our nation to face. In 2019, we have a country 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’s government was involved in a war with Barbary Pirates, the first terrorists to haunt the psyche of America. In 1973, the U.S. was embroiled in the Vietnam War. There was a severe national oil crisis. The American Indian Movement occupied Wounded Knee, South Dakota, and, of course, the Watergate scandal made big news headline.

And today, in 2019? Turn on a national TV news program and you’ll quickly see our world is impacted by issues—although they are far more complex today—that originated from the same underlying basic reasons that existed in Lewis and Clark’s time and in 1973: the struggle for power, greed and inequality, among others. Involving yourself in Lewis and Clark activities and the history of their expedition are fine ways to take a break from it all.

Mike Cochran drew this cartoon after he nearly died from hypothermia when huge waves sank the canoe he was in.

Anyway, those are just some of my musings as November 19 came 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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