On the Trail of Lewis and Clark
by LORRY HEVERLY
As I journey upstream by canoe, I listen to the rhythmic slice of paddles through the calm water. Rounding a bend, the Missouri River is swallowed by a valley of dramatic cliffs and strange rock formations where it has carved through sedimentary layers of an ancient inland sea.
This work of art, with Nature as its artist, features white sandstone cliffs sculpted into windswept peaks, crags and pinnacles. Atop the valley rim, one rock cluster looks like the ruins of an ancient Inca city. Another resembles an eroded temple at Abu Simbel, or perhaps a cross between the Acropolis and a Mayan masterpiece crumbled by jungle.
Into the Unknown
White Cliffs, a secluded stretch of the Upper Missouri Wild & Scenic River only accessible by water, remains today much as it did when Meri-wether Lewis and William Clark passed through almost 200 years ago. At the urging of President Thomas Jefferson, the Congress of the fledgling American republic had appropriated $2,500 for the explorers to chart a water route to the Pacific Ocean — the elusive “Northwest Passage.” On their expedition from 1804 to 1806, Lewis and Clark would map new territories, meet with Indian tribes, and cover an astonishing 8,000 miles.
Two centuries later, I embarked on a three-day journey organized by ROW (River Odysseys West) that would retrace the route of Lewis and Clark on Montana’s Upper Missouri River. To make our journey authentic, we would travel in a 34-foot Voyageur canoe, a replica of those used by early voyagers and fur traders. But unlike the rugged 19th-century explorers, we would enjoy a luxury, safari-style trip on the tranquil waters, with no previous canoeing experience necessary. The ROW staff would transport all gear and set up our tents before arrival in camp.
Soon after settling into our canoes at Coal Banks Landing, we slipped into a forgotten world that Captain Lewis, who kept a journal of his explorations, described as “seens of visionary inchantment.” Lewis may have been a haphazard speller, but he was a detailed observer. Rhapsodizing about this stretch of the river, he too perceived “the remains or ruins of eligant buildings.”
“No wearing watches on the river,” Andy, our river guide ordered. “We’re on river time now. Our stomachs will tell us when its time to eat. We’ll sleep when tired and awaken to the smell of freshly brewed coffee.” Once we finally had our rowing coordinated, we got our first lesson in luxury canoeing when Jim, steering from the rear shouted “You don’t have to row unless you want to. That’s why we guides are here.”
We had only just begun to uncover the wonders of White Cliffs when we pulled in at our campsite, surrounded by steep bluffs. Several of us hopped out of the canoe, pulling it onto the bank when I sank into the gooey mud, sacrificing my flip-flops to the river gods. Tevas would have been a better choice of footwear. This gumbo mud is the reason much of this wilderness is still unsettled. When it rains it turns into slippery goo, making both the river banks and land impossible to navigate.
In his diary, Lewis recalled how the river banks were “so slippery and the mud so tenacious that they (the crew) are unable to wear their mocker-sons, and in that situation draging the heavy burthen of a canoe ... their labour is painfull and great ...” While Lewis and his crew were roughing it, our roomy four-man tents for two were set up and waiting, along with a table of hors d’oeuvres and drinks. Some of our group relaxed at camp while another guide, John, organized a pre-dinner hike.
It was good to be back on solid ground and stretching those leg muscles. Changing into hiking shoes, we wandered through scratchy sagebrush and bunches of prickly pear cactus, our shoes collecting souvenirs of sharp thorns. We trekked a small passage between cliffs towering on both sides, as blackbilled magpies called a greeting.
When I returned to camp, the smell of grilled salmon marinated in lemongrass and herbs caused my stomach to growl. We dined on linen and silver garnished tables under the big Montana sky, as the sun slowly descended in a blaze of pinks and purples.
“It’s another Russell sunset,” said Andy, referring to C.M. Russell, America’s cowboy artist, whose paintings capture the brilliance of Montana’s sky. Fascinated by Lewis and Clark and their encounters with Indian tribes, the turn-of-the-19th-century artist took a similar journey down western rivers, inspiring his well-known collection of Lewis and Clark paintings.
In the early 1800s, hundreds of elk and buffalo roamed the region, so the explorers hunted and ate lots of fresh meat — but probably they didn’t have warm carrot cake for dessert, like we did. As we slept in our tents, some under a canopy of pulsating stars, the sound of crickets lulled us to sleep.
Lewis and his crew weren’t so lucky while camping at the mouth of a nearby river. A buffalo charged into camp, nearly trampling several sleeping men and trashing one of their canoes. My biggest camping worry was wondering where I had put my coffee cup, when Jim came tent-to-tent with a fresh pot of coffee for our morning wake up.
Sheer sandstone cliffs hundreds of feet high continued to dwarf our canoe all morning. For lunch, we stopped at Hole in the Wall, where winds had eroded a gaping round void in the corner of a large rock escarpment. Hiking through a Badlands-style landscape of chimneys, 20-foot clusters of jutting toadstool-shaped rocks and sandstone cathedrals, we climbed through narrow crevices, squeezed between boulders and finally arrived at the wall with the giant hole, 150 feet above.
Up and Away
A tall guy on the trip and I decided to climb to the Hole. Like others before us, we used well-worn notches in the soft sandstone to get a good foothold and work our way up the steep incline.
This was no problem for my lanky companion, but I’m only 5’2”, and it was a major stretch to reach the next handhold. In addition, the hole was like a major wind tunnel, nearly knocking me off my perch. I held my ground and crawled inside since the wind was just too powerful to stand. From here I pondered the fantastic view, not looking forward to the journey back down.
On the final leg of our adventure, we stopped at a field filled with hundreds of prairie dogs. On our approach they disappeared, dashing into muddy burrows then popping out their heads to see if we were still there. Some sneaked from hole to hole, while others, unafraid, stood on their hind legs staring at us. This was the biggest wildlife sighting on the trip. Unlike the days of Lewis and Clark, there were no longer buffalo still roaming.
Lewis’ chronicles of 1805 describe the scene of a buffalo jump where hundreds of mangled carcasses piled up along the river. The Indians maintained a sacred relationship with buffalo, which provided tribes with food, clothing, teepees, and weapons.
The Native Americans communed with massive, woolly animals, asking them to sacrifice themselves for the needs of their people. A runner or decoy dressed in a buffalo cape with attached head and horns lured herds to follow him, ultimately leading the buffaloes over a cliff. Usually runners would duck into small holes under the ledge as the herd fell to their death, but often they too, perished. Lewis and Clark named the nearby river Slaughter River, known today as Arrow Creek.
All too soon, it seemed, signs of civilization were creeping back. Telephone wires ran across the river and muffled sounds of cars echoed from a distant highway. After we pulled out at Judith Landing, it was two hours by van back to Great Falls. It would take much longer for Lewis to reach the long awaited falls, a site that filled him with “pleasure and astonishment.” I was looking forward to a hot shower, while Lewis had more important things to worry about, like making the exhausting portage around the Falls, before winter set in.
For more information, contact ROW (Rivers Odysseys West)—Tel: 800-451-6034; Website www.rowinc.com. The company offers expeditions by replica Voyager canoe on the Upper Missouri Wild and Scenic River, June through September. Special trips feature guest interpreters, including authors and historians. Weekly trips are three or five days. A visit to the Lewis and Clark Interpretative Center in Great Falls, Montana before departure is highly recommended.
For information on additional programs and operators, see the Geographical Index under “Montana.”