Tag Archive | Lewis and Clark

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.



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).