I am not a huge history buff, but it’s impossible to live in the upper plains or the northwest and not know about Lewis and Clark. There are Lewis and Clark caverns and Lewis and Clark festivals. I drive from our ranch to Browning on Meriwether Road, named after Meriwether Lewis. Just south of here is the Marias River, named after William Clark’s niece, and we cross the Rocky Mountains through Marias Pass to get to the Clark’s Fork River. (Yes, it’s supposed to be Mariah’s. No, history maniacs, we are not spending a few hundred grand to put apostrophes on all the signs.)
Point being, the Lewis and Clark expedition was a big deal. But since some of the people who read this blog are foreigners from places like Australia and Ireland and Alabama and New York City, I thought I should start with a brief history lesson.
After the US did some bartering with France and acquired a small acreage known as the Louisiana Purchase, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were hired by Thomas Jefferson to map it. They were also trying to find an all water route to ship stuff across the continent to the Pacific Ocean. They headed up the Mississippi River from St. Louis in 1804 with a crew of eleven men.
Along the way, they picked up a Frenchman named Toussaint Charbonneau and his Indian wife, Sacajawea. Her job was to act as interpreter between the explorers and the various Indian tribes. She had been kidnapped from the Shoshone, who lived near the mountains in what is now southern Montana. They supposedly knew the best way to get across the continental divide.
Basically, Sacajawea was the only one in the whole expedition who had a clue where they were going.
She did her job well. They made it clear to the mouth of the Columbia River on the Pacific coast. Then they came back. In all, the trip took two years and they lost only one member of the expedition…to a burst appendix. Not bad, considering your guide is a teenaged girl packing a newborn baby.
On the whole trip, there was only one small skirmish with the indigenous tribes. Lewis got into a scrap with the Blackfeet, at a place he later named Camp Disappointment, which is about 30 miles from my house as the eagle flies. I like to tell people my ancestors were the only ones smart enough to figure out an infestation of white men wasn't going to turn out well for them.
It's also possible they were just cranky.
A few years back, several members of my family were visiting Two Medicine Lake. Two Medicine River flows east out of the lake. A mile or so downstream, it drops over Running Eagle Falls.
The river bed is a jumble of rock left behind by the huge sheets of ice that formed Glacier National Park. When the river is high with snowmelt, it flows over the top of the falls. Later in the summer, as the water level drops, the river sinks into the porous rock and shoots out of a tunnel in the middle of the falls, like so:
Someone told my mother you could hike from the lake to the falls and see where the river disappeared. On the map, it looked simple. No more than a mile, maybe a mile and a half.
“Let’s go,” my mother said, and set off, leading the way.
September in Glacier National Park can be fickle. And dangerous. The grizzlies are power-feeding their way toward hibernation. Snow squalls can pop up without warning. No one on the impromptu expedition had any survival gear. Or even a water bottle. But heck, it was only a mile to falls and there is a parking lot just beyond where one member of the party would be waiting with the car. They’d barely get out of sight of the Two Medicine campground and they’d be there.
They hiked. And hiked some more. The sky clouded over. The wind turned cold. They stumbled along the river bank over rocks and logs and what looked suspiciously like fresh bear poop.
“Maybe we should go back,” someone suggested.
“No, no,” my mom said. “It has to be around this next bend.”
They hiked around that bend. And the next. And the next. It started to snow. Some of the piles of bear poop were still steaming.
“Are you sure we shouldn’t go back?” someone asked.
“Not now,” my mother said. “We’re almost there.”
The snow was coming down in earnest, blanketing the rocks and making the footing treacherous. Huddled in their light jackets, icy hands stuffed in their pockets, they straggled along single file, heads bowed, faces grim.
From somewhere near the back of the line, a voice piped up. “You know, Lewis and Clark weren't so tough. They were just following a hard-headed Indian woman.”