Fresh Eyes on the West

By Fish, Peter | Sunset, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Fresh Eyes on the West


Fish, Peter, Sunset


SUNSET GRAND TOUR

Tracing the pat of Lewis and Clark helps, us rediscover the.meaning of hoas-se BYPETERFISH.

The Missouri Riven Green water mirrors cottonwoods and willows. Cloud puffs drift across a silent blue sky.

Then "Bear! Bear!"

As we watch from the opposite bank, hunter George brouillard, rifle at the ready, plunges into the willows, pursuing a dimly seem brown blur.

Back on our side of the river, a 12-year-old audience member pipes up: "Hey, that's just a guy in a bear suit."

Well, yeah, kid, strictly speaking it is just a guy in a bear suit, not a real specimen of Ursiis urdm horribilis, the American grizzly. And strictly speaking this is not the Corps of Discovery's encampment ol'Junc 27. 1805, but a modern rcenactmcnt performed by the Great Falls, Montana, Lewis & Clark Honor Guard as part of the city's Lewis & Clark Festival, held each june.

They take their roles seriously, the members of the Honor Guard, lints, canoes, and rifles are reasonable facsimiles of what Lewis and Clark and their party would have used in 1805. Once the excitement of the bear hunt has died down, Lee Ebeling, a Great Falls engineer who is the Honor Guard's navigation expert, sits beside his tent and demonstrates his Hadley's sextant, a near-perfect replica of the one Meriwether Lewis brought on the expedition. "I got this off eBay," Ebeling explains.

Two centuries ago, Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and 30-odd other men-eventually joined by one 15-year-old Shoshone woman, her trader husband, and their infant child-across the unknown American West to find easy passage to the Pacific. Two centuries is a long time. But even now their story remains uniquely compelling, unduplicated for heroism and adventure.

Best of all, Lewis and Clark's journey is one that the modern traveler can share. The explorers' complete route extends more than 8,000 miles, from Camp Wood, Illinois, to the Oregon coast. But the best of the trail-the most beautiful, the least altered- lies here in the West. To follow the explorers along the Missouri River, across the Rocky Mountains, and down the Columbia River to the Pacific will show you an American West whose capacity to inspire pleasure and awe remains undiminished.

The river

Verne Huser steers his canoe past a cottonwood snag with the ease of a man who has paddled Western rivers for five decades.

"Clark was a much more experienced river man than Lewis was," Huser explains between strokes. "He'd traveled up and down the Mississippi and the Ohio."

We are paddling downstream on the Missouri River, on a trip run by River Odysseys West, for which Huser-pioneering Western river guide and author-serves as a Lewis and Clark historian and naturalist.

If you want one experience that will make you feel what traveling with Lewis and Clark might have been like, canoeing Montana's Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River is probably it. Lewis and Clark's journey was substantially a river journey. And while elsewhere the Missouri has been dammed and reservoired into submission, here it flows beautifully beneath sandstone bluffs, not so different from the river that the Corps traveled in two pirogues and six dugout canoes.

Remember, Huser notes, the Corps were traveling upstream. With the right wind, they could raise sails. Otherwise they would paddle. If the current grew too strong, they would pole the boats upriver or, worse, tow them by hand, struggling against muddy river bottoms and rattlesnake-infested banks.

"Imagine towing these boats through swift, cold water-they were here in May, the river was running fast with snowmelt," Huser says. "It was tough. They worked their bones off."

We don't. The dozen of us on this trip are in that idyllic position of being vicariously thrilled by hardships we don't have to endure. We paddle easily downstream along a midsummer Missouri made for jumping into when the day gets hot, with plenty of time allowed for water fights and hikes and dinners around the campfire. …

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