The Best-Laid Plans

“In battle, what cannot be predicted is the enemy’s reaction; in exploration, what cannot be predicted is what is around the next bend in the river or on the other side of the hill.  The planning process, therefore, is as much guesswork as it is intelligent forecasting of the physical needs of the expedition.  It tends to be frustrating, because the planner carries with him a nagging sense that he is making some simple mistakes that could be easily corrected in the planning stage, but may cause a dead loss when the mistake is discovered midway through the voyage.”

—Stephen Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West


The journeys I take are not Voyages of Discovery, and they do notDCP_2966 involve dozens of men for several year.  Yet, I feel some sympathy for Ambrose’s description of Meriwether Lewis’s struggles in planning for the unknown.  Though it can sometimes be stressful, I deny that it is in fact frustrating – at least not during the planning phase itself.  I actually get a certain energy from the planning, spending much more time on it than necessary, and getting more excited for the trip ahead with every moment.



I love reading a map – planning the route of a road trip is one of the best parts.  Deciding which personal effects to pack for a journey helps me realize my priorities.  Determining meals for a backpacking trip makes me examine my true needs.

However, it is true that I usually pack too much.  Maybe I am afraid of those “simple mistakes that could be easily corrected in the planning stage.”  Of course, I’m sure most of you can attest that bringing along unnecessary items can be as big an error as omitting a useful tool!



The frustrating part for me is when the journey is not an adventure.  Making hotel and plane reservations do indeed try my patience.  I prefer to travel in a way that does not require advanced planning for every step of the way.  Yet, even planning the complicated logistics of a longer trip or one with multiple participants or specific objectives to accomplish can stimulate me.  In that case, it may be less excitement that I am feeling, and more a positive type of stress.  It is that feeling that I imagine Captain Lewis to have had while planning his famous journey to discover what would become the western two-thirds of the United States.

What about you?  Do you find planning and packing to be exhilarating or frustrating?  Do you have tups to make the process go more smoothly?  What is your favorite part about planning for a journey?


The photos on this page document the packing portion of a research project that I worked with in Chile, ten years ago.  We not only had to pack our personal items, but also quite a bit of our food for four months, as well as materials for the project, including fence construction.  These photos show us packing the gear once in Santiago, then bringing it to the boat yard in Valparaiso, where it was loaded into crates for its journey to our island destination.  That was, indeed, a frustrating project!  And yes, we packed many things that we never used, and not enough of some items we couldn’t do without!  Luckily, we were not in uncharted waters, and were able to make things turn out alright in the end.



Leaves of Three…

Congratulations to everyone who chose “Photo E” in the Poison Ivy quiz – you will be rewarded by many rash-free camping, hiking, hunting, and canoeing trips!  For the other 37% of you… here is some more information that might help you in the future.

First off, what were the other photos of?

Photo A: Hog Peanut.  This is a very common plant in woodlands  – it twines around other plants, sometimes up trees, and often along the ground, creating a carpet of three-leaved plants.  As a legume, its growth is characteristic of others in the pea or bean family – it has three symmetrical leaves, and fine curly tendrils at the growing end of the plant (maybe like the peas in your garden).  It gets the name “hog peanut” from its tuber-like root that is edible… if you bother to dig up enough of them to make a meal!

Photo B: Raspberry.  A couple of you guessed this one – you’ll be missing out on some tasty treats this summer!  Raspberries and blackberries often look like they have three leaves on a branch, sometimes 5, sometimes more.  The leaves have toothed or serrated edges, though, the leaves are usually somewhat fuzzy, and the veins are very clear.  The stalks usually have hairs and/or thorns on them, so you probably don’t want to get in a thicket of them without shorts on.  The flowers are white, and the berries… well, they look like raspberries (in this case black raspberries)!  The plant grows on long canes that together look like a bush, often between head- and waist-high, though the young stalks are shorter and especially blackberries can grow well above my head!

Photo C: Trillium.  This is a woodland plant that has a big, showy, white flower in the early spring – there are many different species throughout the Unites States; this one is a Large-flowered Trililum (Trillium grandiflorum).  The “tri-” in its name refers to the fact that the flower has three petals and the plant has… you guessed it… 3 leaves!  Its leaves are large like Poison Ivy’s can be, and the shape of the leaves is not always perfectly symmetrical.  However, a few things set it apart: 1) if it is blooming, it will be obvious! Even if it is done blooming, you may be able to see where the flower came from – right in the middle of those leaves.  2) Trillium, being in the Lily family, has a few long veins, rather than many shorter veins off of a central mid-rib.  3) The leaves of most trilliums rarely appear glossy.  4) Each trillium plant is a stand-alone – just a stalk with three leaves at the top, and a flower.  There may be several plants in a patch, but each one is distinct.  While it is possible to see Poison Ivy with just three leaves and a stalk, it is more common to see that grouping as part of a larger plant.  5) Trilliums are herbaceous – they wilt and die back after a few months of growth; Poison Ivy has woody stems and thus the stalks persist even when leaves are not present.

Photo D: White Oak sapling.  No one guessed this, but to me it can be a tricky look-alike.  It has a woody stem, like PI. The leaves of young white oaks, in their first year of growth. can be of varying sizes, and may or may not be symmetrical, though all of the leaves have at least some waviness to them.  A clue to this one is that you can see even younger leaves starting to grow, and if you look around you should be able to find one with a very characteristic “oak” leaf.  Also, the stem is much more robust than that of Poison Ivy, because it is the start of the trunk that will one day support the “might oak.”

Photo E: POISON IVY!!  This really is Poison Ivy.  Note a few characteristic features: 1) Glossy leaves – that is the oil that is going to cause the nasty rash!  2) A-symmetrical leaves – often one half of the leaf has a smooth edge, while the other half has a couple serrations, teeth, or waves in it.  On larger plants the leaves will sometimes look like a mitten – just a thumb and a finger showing, with the rest smooth.  If there are several plants visible in one location (which there almost always are), it is likely that all of the leaves will look a little bit different.  These leaves are the best way to ID poison ivy!  3) Poison Ivy has woody stems, but that is sometimes hard to tell.  It can grow like a small shrub, like an individual plant, or like a vine, up a tree or neighboring branch.  It doesn’t have to look like a vine, though.  4) Poison Ivy grows in a “rhizominous colony,” meaning that all of the plants in one area are likely connected by the same roots – this is what makes it grow up trees, and spread quickly once established.  5) As I showed in the previous post, PI has white berries and flowers – but you may not get close enough to be able to see that!  6)  As I also mention, PI, though characteristically found in the woods, can also grow in open fields and riparian areas.  Here in Wisconsin, our “western poison ivy” grows in open prairies, and the “eastern poison ivy” has done a great job of colonizing the floodplains of the major rivers.

Photo F: Virginia Creeper.  This is a common vine that grows in the woods.  It has a woody stem, and you can see it twining around many of the trees around you, I’m sure.  But…it has 5 leaves!  So it is clearly not Poison Ivy.  You were all smart enough to know that, and no one chose it in the quiz!  However, I know some very intelligent people who have spent their whole lives avoiding the harmless Virginia Creeper because they thought it was the dreaded PI!

Photo G: Desmodium glutinosum.  This plant has a common name, too, listed in my book as Cluster-Leaf (or Pointed) Tick-trefoil.  It is a relative of the Tick-trefoils that grow in western prairies, but this one grows in the woods.  It has somewhat irregularly-shaped leaves, in groups of three (it’s another legume – they’re tricky!), but it is yet another harmless wildflower growing around us.  A couple things that set it apart from Poison Ivy are: 1) the flowers grow on a long stalk coming up out of the center of the plant; 2) While it appears that the leaves are in groups of three, those are actually the leaflets – there are 3 leaves on the plant, but each one consists of three groups of leaflets, emanating from the central stalk.  If you can see this pattern, it’s a good bet it’s not PI; 3) This plant usually grows singly, not in large bunches, so the above pattern should be easy to discern.

Did you find any Poison Ivy this weekend?  Or avoid any near misses?!  Have more tips for identifying Poison Ivy in the wild, or tricks for healing the rash once you’ve acquired it?


I drove 10,000 miles around the county and saw lots of amazing things – but I could never have done it in silence!  This post is a tribute to all the music and other sounds that emanated from my stereo and carried me through the unending plains, dark nights, and twisting turns along the way.

Top 10  – Soundtrack

1. Trampled by Turtles

On the advice of friends, I had been to a Trampled by Turtles show in Madison the spring before my trip.  It had been “okay,” at least partly due to the fact that the venue it was held in was not my favorite.  However, I accepted a couple second-hand CD’s of the band, and loaded them onto my i-pod for this trip… and soon found myself listening to Trampled almost daily!  Now I’m hooked on the energy, lyrics, and musicianship of this young bluegrass band with all the excitement of their rock ‘n’ roll colleagues.  I bought their newest CD, and I’m looking for a show near me… but the ones in Duluth (their home town) and Madison (new-grass friendly in the extreme) seem to sell out quickly.  Turtles, come to Marquette soon!!!

2. NPR

As anyone who has traveled our great land knows, sometimes the only thing you can pick up is Public Radio – so it’s good that I like it!  I liked being able to grow weary of music, advertisements, or asinine DJs and be able to say things like, “It’s 4 o’clock; I bet I can find All Things Considered somewhere,” or “Oooh, I hope I’ll be able to pick up Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me and This American Life on Saturday!”  It didn’t hurt any that I had recently acquired an i-pod, and an i-trip, and had figured out that free downloads of most NPR shows are available online… so I could listen to some of my favorite shows even when I wasn’t in range.

3. Bob Dylan

I don’t actually remember specifically listening to Dylan on this trip, except that I’m sure that I couldn’t have lasted very long without his music.  My favorite album is Freewheelin’, which I only have on cassette, though I was recently introduced to Blood on the Tracks and I know that I had that along with me, too.  His newest, Together through Life is also pretty darn good.  Now that I think about it, I am sure that I listened to a lot of Telltale Signs: The Bootleg Series, Vol.8, which I got for my dad for Christmas a couple years ago. I would recommend that album of ulreleased acoustic recordings to anyone, whether you think you like Dylan or not.  I, for one, think that he’s among the best!

4. Lou Harrison

A friend introduced me to Lou Harrison’s musical style years ago, when I was living in California, and although it took me a while to get into that “weird music,” I came to appreciate it.  Then, a few years back, my parents told me about this great new CD they had bought – and Harrison surfaced again.  The music is very easy to listen to, as a result of the “just intonation” scales used, as well as the instrumentation and relaxed tempo.  I wouldn’t call it “easy listening,” though.  Some might consider it “new age” or “classical,” but I tend to steer clear of those genres, so I personally wouldn’t.  All I know is that it came in very handy on my journey… though I’m a little ashamed to admit the reason.

So, I’ve already mentioned… several times… that I had an i-pod along with me.  It was a tiny one, only 2 MB, and weighs almost nothing.  So, contrary to my usual practice, I decided to bring some music along with me when I took my week-long backpacking trip to Isle Royale.  Normally, back in the days of the Walkman, I would simply relish the sounds of nature… and besides that carrying a heavy electronic device and bulky recordings just doesn’t work.  The i-pod has now revolutionized my solo camping experience: I used to lie awake at night, worrying about moose or wolves or bears or raccoons or goodness knows what until I’m cold and sore from lying on the ground and ultimately never get enough sleep for the walking I have to do the next day.  Now, though, I can put on some music and fall asleep in 45 minutes to a night of sound slumber… as long as nothing rustles the leaves too close to me!  Lou Harrison’s Serenado helped me do that on Isle Royale, and across the country.  Thank you, Lou!

5. Ito-Ale-Lises-Zay

This is another album that I usually only listen to when I’m taking a nap, because it is so beautifully relaxing, but it rarely puts me all the way to sleep.  It is a traditional-style band from Easter Island, which a friend in Chile introduced me to, and which I’ve listened to every since.   They have this instrument that’s kind-of a cross between a ukelele and a mandolin which I find completely awesome!

6. Mix CD’s from friends

Well, of course I had some of these along!  Not only do my friends have great taste in music, and I get to learn about bands or even musical genres that I never knew existed, but I get to think about the wonderful people I know at the same time.  There was one in particular that I always put on when I was in an amazing new situation, such as a national park or a spectacular sunset, because it was just the right combination of subtle and exciting.  I wish I could show you all a video I took, driving past cows and antelope into the sunset and over Lemhi Pass – it actually looks like this inspiring music is the soundtrack for my adventure!

7. Amazon Free Music

I don’t like to “pirate” music, not only because it’s illegal but also because I think it’s important to support the art that makes my life more pleasant and exciting.  However, if it’s being given away free, I won’t sneer at it! offers a lot of free mp3 downloads of all genres, mostly new artists who want to get some exposure, and compilations that smaller record companies put out so that people buy their artists’ albums.  It’s a great way to get to hear new music that doesn’t get played on the radio and I’ve found some hits in there (some duds, too, but that’s why it’s free, right?).  Check it out yourself!

8. Country Radio

It’s pretty hard to get around the country without listening to a lot of “Country” music.  Good thing I (mostly) enjoy it.  It’s best when I can find a station that plays a good smattering of Classic County, up through the Outlaw Country phase, but I do also enjoy singing along with some “Top 40” Country… for about 2 hours, that is, until they’ve played all 40 songs in their playlist and start over again!

9. Telepath

This was a cool band that I discovered through the aforementioned Amazon giveaways… and their plan worked, because I wound up buying the whole album.  Some of their music is listed as “acid jazz,” other as “electronic,” or “electronica” or “dance.”  I would call it kind of jazzy electronica.  I’m not sure how good it would be to dance to.  But it is fun to listen to!

10. Lewis and Clark Journals

I had listened to most of these over the summer, before my trip began, along with my work crew, and we had all enjoyed them then.  However, once I started crossing the same landscape that the Corps of Discovery had, and eventually began visiting their historical sites, I ran through all 6 discs again.  While I listened to several audio books along the way, this remained my favorite.  I would highly recommend this edited version of their journals, whether in a regular old bound book or as I experienced them – though Tom Wopat as Clark makes a convincing case for the audio version! The Essential Lewis And Clark edited by Landon Jones.  Enjoy!

Lewis and Clark (and Anna) in the Pacific Northwest


Bluff along the Snake River in eastern Washington

Day 28-29

Sep 26-27, 2010

Clarkston, WA to Ft. Clatsop, OR

When Lewis and Clark finally descended from the Rocky Mountains along the ridge adjacent to the Clearwater River, they found themselves in a lovely valley that eventually brought them to the Snake River.  I was as surprised as they were to discover that the bluffs and adjacent plains of the Snake were totally devoid of trees.  In the rain shadow of the Cascade range, not much grows on the ground, and it’s no surprise that the Corps of Discovery could find little to eat this time of year.  Even if there had been ample food, I doubt that they would have remained long – they were in a time crunch to make it to the ocean before winter set it.

The former Indian trail around the Snake River is still apparent on this bluff... if you look closely.

Sunrise at the confluence of the Snake and Columbia

Following the natives’ land route around the Snake River, Lewis and Clark made it to the confluence with the Columbia River, and knew they were on the home stretch.  They weren’t even perturbed by the overwhelming smells of rotten onions, sulfur, and broccoli farts.  Oh wait, the paper mills weren’t there yet when the Corps came through…  Well, they’re here now, and my sunrise at Sacajawea State Park in eastern Washington was marred by smog, dams, and at least a dozen power-boats heading upriver for the day.

Luckily, the rest of my trip down the Columbia River was nicer.  It was a Sunday, and the Deschutes River was thronged with

Transition from desert to rainforest is apparent, just west of The Dalles, OR

fishermen.  Shortly thereafter, The Dalles, in addition to being the end of the Oregon Trail, marked the transition from high desert to temperate rainforest.  I began to see conifers on the bluffs, and by the time I’d followed the scenic highway up into the hills, the mist was forming droplets on my windshield.  Coming back down into Hood River, OR, I felt like I’d officially made it to he Pacific Northwest: kiteboarders plied the shallow waters along the sandbar, the Full Sail brewery promised free tours and fresh-hop brews, and the threat of

Anna and Stephanie (and a borrowed pooch) on the bank of the Columbia River in Hood River, OR

rain hung heavy in the air.

I really can’t say what Lewis and Clark felt like: they encountered numerous rapids and waterfalls on the Colombia, all of which have been erased by dams in the last century.  Despite the rough water, Clark decided to shoot “The Gorge” on their downstream trip in 1805, bargaining that their river skills were superior to their mountains ones – and not wanting to be caught high in the Cascades in late November.  Indeed, they made it through safely, though they were then held up by rain for weeks below present-day Portland.

My trip through the Gorge was a little less treacherous, but extremely beautiful!  It never did rain, and the fog was actually lovelier than the stark sunlight of the eastern plains.

Columbia River at dusk, with Portland, OR on the left and Vancouver, WA on the right

Looking west into The Columbia Gorge from above Portland

We wound along the waterfalls of the scenic highway and descended into Portland just after sunset.  I didn’t spend long there in the City of Roses – after breakfast sandwiches at a hip coffee shop and a quick tour of the Ota Tofu Factory, we hit the road heading to the coast!

View from Astoria Column - looking towards the ocean in the delta of the Coulumbia River

In Astoria, OR, there is a towering column, commemorating the (European) history of this coastal landmark: the point where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean.  From the first English sailor to reach that shore, through the Corps of Discovery and John James Astor’s Fur Company, this town held the promise of the Northwest Passage.  I feel like I’ve been following Astor longer than Lewis and Clark – from the beginning of my journey on the Mississippi River and later Lake Superior.  So it meant that I had to climb all 100+ steps to the top of the column and look over the bays and estuaries in that historic place.

Lewis and Clark didn’t find a bustling tourist center – just some coastal villages, and Indians that were already accustomed to trading with (and stealing from) white men (the jury is still out as to whether or not they understood the European concept of stealing – perhaps they were just sharing).  Unable to find any Europeans at Fort

Fort Clatsop reconstruction

Bunk room at Fort Clatsop

Vancouver, they decided to build sturdy walls and winter at Fort Clatsop.  It was smaller than Fort Mandan, and the Corps never had the same positive relationship witht he natives that they had in North Dakota.  This is likely because the Indians of the Northwest Coast had a culture that was markedly different from that of the eastern Indians that the Americans had experienced up to that point.  While they may never have understood one another fully, Lewis and Clark and their company spent an interesting winter there – they got to see (and taste) a beached whale, even if it rained all but 6 days of their stay!  In the spring, they packed up and headed east again… and made it back to St. Louis before Christmas, as they had wished.

Rivers and Divides

Day 26-27

My feet with the first grains of Missouri mud


Sep 24-25. 2010

Miles 2793 – 3403

Bozeman, MT to Lewiston, ID

Missouri headwaters

Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery moved fairly quickly across the plains after leaving Fort Mandan in the spring of 1805.  That is, they had some struggles as their men towed the boats upriver over increasingly rocky shores, and frequent encounters with grizzly bears tested their courage, but those trials were nothing to what was to come.  They had been told that portaging around the Missouri River’s Great Falls would take half a day – in fact it took them more like half a month.  From there, the Missouri turned southward, carving its valley through the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains, and the expedition’s course took them through high, arid plains.

I didn’t go all the way up to Great Falls (this time), but I met back up with the river to the west of Bozeman, in Three Forks, MT.  There, between the Bridger and Tobacco Root Mountains, the Missouri is born.  The Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin Rivers come together from the south, and merge their waters into the clear river that gets named The Big Muddy farther downstream.  One thing that I’ve learned on this trip is that, while geology may determine the course of waterways, it is humanity that decides their geography.  Why is this point considered the headwaters of the great Missouri River?  There may be geological clues that sway the geographers, but ultimately it was William Clark who drew the map as we see it today.  He could have omitted one of those smaller rivers and taken the Missouri all the way up into the mountains to the south.  The same questions arose with the naming of the Mississippi.  The great river that empties into the Gulf of Mexico is considered to have its roots a couple hundred miles from the Canadian border… but only because explorers decided to follow that branch with that name.  Why isn’t the St. Croix, or the Ohio or, for that matter, the Missouri, the one that is considered to terminate at the ocean, rather than being a mere

Along the Jefferson River, high plains reach to the base of the Tobacco Root Mountains.

Beaverhead Rock from the south

This was named Beaverhead Rock by the Snake Indians, and was an important landmark for natives and early explorers alike.

tributary?  Because someone said so, that’s why.

Ranch near Beaverhead Rock

Regardless of names, I continued along Lewis and Clark’s approximate route up Jefferson’s River to the south, and thence to the Beaverhead and Red Rock Rivers.  This was the plain of Sacagawea’s Snake Indian relatives – a wide and grassy valley with steep slopes on either side.  Today’s highway closely approximates their trail… though Clark’s return 1806 route on the Big Hole River was better than their outbound route – and the size and condition of the roadway reflect that.  I, however, followed the 1805

Looking east from Lemhi Pass

outbound trail, crossing the continental divide at Lemhi Pass in the Bitterroot Mountains.  I reached the summit at sunset, and descended into Idaho’s Lemhi Valley in darkness.  The smells of sage and pine permeated the air, and as I reached the bottom of the twisted gravel road, I could hear the

westward from Lemhi Pass

roaring of the Lemhi River.

The following day was one of hard driving for me – but nothing to the Corps’ months of struggle in crossing these mountains.  I headed north up the Salmon River valley to yet another crossing of the Bitterroot Mountains at Lost Trail Pass, descending back into Montana’s Bitterroot.  This is a broad valley, suitable for some habitation in Lewis and Clark’s day and plenty of towns spilling south from Missoula today.  After heading north for nearly 100 miles, their trail and mine turn to the west, and we head up into the final pass of this tortuous journey (for my part, the only exertion has been on my right ankle, alternating between the gas and brake pedals… I feel a little wimpy).  I cross Lolo Pass back into Idaho (my third trip across the continental divide in 24 hours – but nothing compared to three months!) and begin the winding descent along the Lochsa and Clearwater Rivers.  It is beautiful!

Hiking trail in Clearwater National Forest, Idaho

Salmon River, north of Salmon, ID

These frequent interpretive signs were actually helpful - they pointed out the exact places where events noted by the Corps of Discovery took place - really made me feel like I was re-visiting history!

Trail bridge crossing the Lochsa (or Clearwater?) River

Jerry Johnson Hot Springs - a nice break in the middle of my 500 mile day of driving through the mountains!

Lewis and Clark on the Plains

Day 20, 24-35

September 18, 22-23, 2010

Miles 1711 -2541

Washburn, ND to Billings, MT

Capts. William Clark and Meriweather Lewis with one of their host chiefs (from right) at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, Washburn ND

Upon reaching the Missouri River in North Dakota, my journey joined up with that of the Corps of Discovery: Lewis and Clark spent their first winter at Fort Mandan, outside of what is now Washburn, ND.   There is a very good Interpretive Center in town, and a few miles down the road Ft. Mandan had been reconstructed (the original site is now underwater, due to the Missouri’s fickle course… and the dam upstream).  Since I’ve been re-listening to Lewis and Clark’s journals on CD (in Landon Jones’s The Essential Lewis and Clark), I did not learn many new facts here, but I was impressed by the reality of their situation.

Fort Mandan reconstruction - this is pretty much all of it!

Ft. Mandan itself (portrayed actual size) was very small for forty men, which I suppose was good considering the frigidity of that winter (40 and 60 below were not uncommon).  The captains bunked together, and there was a room for visitors (eventually occupied by Charbonneau, who was hired that winter as an interpreter, and his wife Sacagawea).  The other men all lived 6-10 in a room, cooking together over the central fireplace and sleeping on buffalo robes in the lofts.  The “fort” was never used for defense, as the Corps had friendly relations with the residents of the neighboring Hidatsa and Arikara villages at the mouth of the Knife River.  They often visited between the settlements, and

Reconstructed earth home at Knife River NHS

members of each culture sometimes spent several days in the other’s encampment.  They hunted jointly and, on a couple occasions, the Americans hurried to defend the Indians from perceived threats. In this way, Meriweather Lewis and William Clark, though employed by the U.S. Army, were less interested in “claiming” the land for their country than in learning more about it, and making peaceful contact with the natives they met.  However, as one of the panels at Washburn’s Interpretive Center pointed out, the white men did honestly believe themselves to be superior to the Indians they met.  They felt that establishing these peaceful relationships would be of long-term benefit not only to their country but to the native tribes themselves, as the Indian nations would be aided by the United States rather than engaged in warfare.  Although Lewis and Clark probably did not anticipate the speed, and certainly not the magnitude, in which these Indians would be displaced, there was never a doubt in their mind that the route they “discovered” would be used for the expansion of the United States of America.  That said, they honestly considered many whom they met to be “friends,” and the Corps enjoyed purely social dancing and other pursuits with Indians, as well as more ceremonial forms of the same interactions.

Depressions in the ground still mark the locations of lodges in the Mandan villages, here at Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site.

The “friends” there in present-day North Dakota lived a couple miles north-west of the Fort in a group of affiliated villages along the Knife River, where it emptied into the Missouri.  The Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara are considered to be the “affiliated tribes” of that region of the Plains, and their villages were situated “close enough to remain friends, but far enough apart so as not to become enemies.”  They lived most of the year in permanent settlements of earth huts, with one

The shifting river bank eroded part of the former Arikara village on this site, exposing historical "trash" buried below the homes.

family to a house.  In the winter, they moved to more temporary houses right along the banks of the river, where they could be better sheltered from wind and snow, and have easy access to wood for heat and cooking.  Those huts were rarely re-used from year to year, even if they were not washed away in spring flooding.  They practiced small-scale agriculture along with hunting and gathering.  As the Corps of Discovery often remarked, buffalo were plentiful in that region of the plains in those days, with tens of thousands sometimes covering the hills.  Of course I have seen artists’ renderings of the game-filled plains, and I tried pretty hard to imagine it myself, but I just couldn’t.  Even in the big National Parks out here, where spaces are vast and many of those species have been re-introduced, the herds are comparatively tiny, and the scale on which those early explorers experienced the Plains can never be experienced again. Most of that, as we know, is the result of the “white man,” and fur traders followed soon after the preliminary publishing of Lewis and Clark’s results.  By the early 1800’s, the huge beaver populations had already dwindled, and as the fur companies moved onto the Great Plains, their commerce turned to buffalo hides.  Fort Union was established as an outpost of John Jacob Astor’s

The Yellowstone (nearer) and Missouri (farther) Rivers come together west of Williston, ND

American Fur Company, near the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers.  It was not used for defense, but was simply a trading post for exchanging European goods for the furs brought by various Indian nations.  When Lewis and Clark first came to this spot shortly after leaving Fort Mandan in the spring of 1805, they called it the “long hoped-for sight,” and were ready to move into uncharted territory.  On their return journey in 1806, the two captains divided their group into two, with Clark leading one half down the Yellowstone.   He wrote of having to stop the canoes for fully half a day in southern Montana while a herd of bison crossed the river in front of them.  His half of the corps re-convened with Louis’s band on the Missouri in north-west North Dakota.  Twenty-two years later in 1828, Fort Union was

Fort Union National Historic Site - reconstructed on top of the original foundations.

established at that site, fifteen years after that (1837) Indians along the Missouri were nearly decimated by the first of several smallpox epidemics, and twenty-five years after that settlers began arriving in droves

Looking west on the Yellowstone River, just east of present-day Billings, MT. The Yellowstone is the longest un-dammed river in the U.S.

from the east, heightening tensions between the Sioux (including tribes referred to as Asinniboine by the Expedition) and white men.  By that time, buffalo were significantly more scarce than in 1805, the beaver nearly exterminated, and trade relations with natives seriously strained.  In 1867, as gold displaced furs as the treasure of the west, Fort Union was dismantled and its beams recycled to expand the military presence of nearby Fort Buford.   In one human lifetime, the Plains went from a blank spot on a map, teeming with nations, cultures, and the animals on which they depended, to the more barren and homogenous land we know today, fully charted and civilized.

Pompey's Pillar, on the Yellowstone River, was a landmark rock well-known to Indians, and given its present-day name by William Clark in honor of Sacagawea and Charbonneau's toddler son.

Capt. William Clark signed his name on the rock in 1806, alongside Indian carvings. It is the only tangible evidence remaining of the Corps of Discovery's long expedition.

I knew it would be interesting, but I didn't realize how excited I'd be to see this! Here I am, with Clark's signature (right, under glass).