the Trail of Sacagawea
In order to write my books,
I need to review my journals that I keep as I take my adventures.
The following is the journal I kept while traveling
with my family from North Dakota to Oregon On
the Trail of Sacagawea:
August 1st, 1999
Knife River Indian Villages, North Dakota
Our family paddled up the
Knife River in a replica Voyageur canoe. Where the modest
Knife River enters the great Missouri, about 1500 miles
upriver from where Lewis and Clark began their journey westward,
the Corps of Discovery found a veritable city of Mandan
and Hidatsa Indians living in great earth lodges. They estimated
about 4,400 people lived here then. It was October and the
snow was beginning to fly, so the captains built a small
fort along the Missouri which they named Fort Mandan. Here
they waited out the bleak plains winter of 1804-1805. The
temperature dropped to forty below. For five months they
prepared for their journey west. With the break-up of the
river ice in the spring, they planned to cross the plains
and climb the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. They
had no idea how wide the Rockies were. They were about to
enter territory unknown by Europeans. That's why President
Thomas Jefferson had sent them: to learn about the people,
the land, and the animals, and to find a way to the Pacific
the long months, they got to know the friendly Mandan and
the Hidatsa people, and they hired a French interpreter
named Toussaint Charbonneau, whose young wife was named
Today my family--my wife and two children--visited
a reconstruction of Fort Mandan, and slept in a teepee along
the banks of the Missouri River. My children played in their
kayaks, tipped them over in the freezing cold water, and
swam in the river.
At the Knife
River Indian Villages, we saw depressions in the earth that
were all that was left of Sacagawea's village. Then we drove
to the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation where the Mandan
and Hidatsa live today. There are about four thousand Native
Americans living on the reservation and maybe four thousand
more who live off the reservation. A very helpful woman
named Marilyn Hudson of Hidatsa descent took us to see the
community gardens where children were harvesting the vegetables
they had worked hard to grow. We met the tribal governor,
Tex Hall, a big man with long flowing black hair.
We learned from
the Hidatsa that many on the reservation do not think that
Sacagawea was Shoshone from the Rocky Mountains. Historians
mostly agree that she was captured as a young girl hundreds
and hundreds of miles from here and brought to the Missouri
River. The Hidatsa say she was not Shoshone, but rather
Hidatsa and in fact had been captured by the Shoshone and
then walked back with many pair of moccasins for the long
journey along the Missouri River to her home here around
the Knife River.
In the past fifty
years, the Missouri River has changed completely. In the
Dakotas and much of Montana, it no longer flows freely.
Hundred-mile-long reservoirs have flooded the surrounding
land and formed huge lakes, called reservoirs. Dams have
been built to control flooding. And when the Garrison Dam
was built and 178-mile-long Lake Sakakawea formed, the Mandan
and Hidatsa lost much of their agricultural land. So it
was wonderful to see the children of the tribes growing
beans and corn again. Although there are only a handful
of Mandan speakers, the language is being preserved and
the young are taking an interest. There are many more Hidatsa
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
North Unit, North Dakota
Today the kids
chased prairie dogs and my son Walker almost kissed one
in his little burrow, so tame are these little creatures
that Lewis and Clark called "barking squirrels."
Beyond the prairie dog village were fifteen bison lounging
in the heat of the day. I stalked them, and took photos.
I loved walked through the sage and prickly pear scattered
over the lovely land along the Little Missouri River that
feeds the great Missouri.
Fort Peck Indian Reservation, Montana,
and the Assiniboin Indians
It was along
this stretch of the river as we head into Montana that the
grizzly bear attacked various members of the Lewis and Clark
expedition. The men shot the animal many times but had to
jump into the river to escape the grizzly's ferocity. Now,
of course there are no grizzlies here. First they retreated
up into the slopes of the Rockies, then they were hunted
out, and only now are making a comeback.
I met with Ken
Ryan, an Assiniboin who told me that in the oral tradition
of his tribe, the Assiniboins kept away from Lewis and Clark
when they passed through here in the spring of 1805. The
chief at that time was a man named Rosebud and when Lewis
who was walking along shore wanted to meet him, Rosebud
kept Lewis at a teepee pole's length. He literally put a
long pole between them. Lewis tried to step forward, and
Rosebud poked him with the pole. The Assiniboin did not
want to communicate with the Corps of Discovery.
Lewis and Clark had heard tales about the Assiniboin that
made them nervous as they traveled west along the Missouri
River, and they found burials on scaffolds and other signs,
but met little with this tribe.
Ken says they
Assiniboins called Sacagawea "the red French woman,"
probably because she was married to the French interpreter
today: white pelicans, mule deer, pronghorn antelope. The
air is filled with the smell of dry earth and sage, maybe
a hint of cedar.
Fort Peck, Montana
The dam here,
built in the 1930s, is the largest of its kind in the world.
We stayed in the old hotel, also built at the time of the
dam, and rested after some long traveling. Kids slept late,
coffee tasted good. But today we're heading west into some
of the most remote and wild territory in the lower forty-eight
states. Also some of the most scenic parts of the river--the
white cliffs of the Missouri.
Leaving Fort Peck Dam
Before the reservoir
formed after the dam was built, the river as described by
Lewis and Clark was maybe only 200 yards wide. Makes sense,
too, because this land is nearly a desert. The Fort Peck
reservoir sits like a small ocean, a dark blue watery mirage
in the wavering heat and the dry, tan earth all around it.
moved upriver through this hot region, Lewis and Clark kept
looking for the Rockies, for some relief from the eternal
prairie. Finally Lewis climbed out of the river bottom and
spotted some snow-capped mountains. Lewis was overjoyed,
but in fact they were the Bears Paw Mountains, a small range
that rises dramatically out of the High Plains.
When we first
spotted the Bears Paw Mountains, a full rainbow covered
them in the sky like a magic hat.
We stopped along
the road to pet some horses, and saw mule deer bounding
through the sage.
Near here, Charbonneau
carelessly overturned one of the boats, but Sacagawea saved
some valuable supplies and instruments. She was already
beginning to prove herself to the two captains of the Corps
of Discovery, who seemed to grow more and more fond of her
as the journey continued. She and her husband, Charbonneau,
and their baby often slept in the same tent with Lewis and
Clark. Some believe this was because Charbonneau was very
rough with her and the captains wanted to keep an eye on
White Cliffs of the Missouri
Today we reached
Virgelle, Montana, a tiny little town (one store) on the
Missouri River where people come to take canoe trips through
the White Cliffs and Missouri Breaks section of the Missouri
River, a 149-mile stretch that has been designated Wild
grew up farming here and now runs a bed-and-breakfast inn
and canoe operation. He gave us a little cabin with no electricity.
It was exactly like living a hundred years ago. It had two
rooms, a big old wood cook stove and kerosene lanterns,
and outside a view of the gentle cliffs scoured thousands
of years ago by the great river.
When Don grew
up he was told by his parents never to swim in the Missouri.
Lots of people had drowned in the river, and even today
he does not get on the river without wearing his life jacket.
Trying to keep the life jackets on my kids has proved a
little difficult on this trip. But I wouldn't let them on
the Missouri, or even near it without them. The river boils
and sweeps away the banks and the cottonwoods growing there.
I don't want it to sweep Suzanna and Walker away, too.
Two hundred years
ago, as the expedition approached the lovely white cliffs
of the Missouri, Sacagawea passed a buffalo jump. Lewis
described how vast herds of buffalo were killed at a stroke.
One man would dress in the hide and head of a buffalo, and
the other men would all at once herd the buffalo toward
the cliff. The decoy closest to the cliff would run, leading
the whole herd, and at the last minute he would jump off
the cliff onto some rock, while all the many buffalo would
fall over him and out onto the ground far below in one tangle
of mangled carcasses. The Plains Indians used buffalo for
all their needs.
and I walked up onto the tabletop above the river and found
old cairns, piles of rocks marking directions. The newer
ones might be ranchers' piles when they cleared some of
the land, but the older ones with the sage growing out of
them are probably Native American markers from a long time
his finger on a prickly pear cactus thorn and I swiped my
foot against three of them. We found an old cabin tumbled
down a hill, the roof in tact. And old planks from other
cabins long ago forgotten.
A lovely view
of the river.
Later in the
morning we rode horses at a local ranch for a few hours
along the river. Walker rode Champ, I took Spike, Melissa
had T-Bar and Suzanna had Old Joe. It felt so good to be
in a saddle again. Walker was more comfortable being led
by Clara Alderdice who had grown up here.
At one point
Walker jumped off his horse, reached down, and picked up
the backbone and pelvis of a dead cow. He said, "Look,
DAD, look." The bones were as big as he was.
He was smiling as I have never seen him smile before. Clara
told him not to leave it on the trail. Some of the newly
broken horses get spooked by such bones.
That night we
drove into the Bears Paw Mountains to a powwow. Tribes from
across the Great Plains, from Canada, from Fort Peck Reservation,
from Fort Berthold Reservation, Assiniboin, Hidatsa, Cree,
Chippewa, Sioux, and more, had come to the Rocky Boy Reservation
to dance, sing, and drum. Ken Ryan had told us this was
one of the best powwows
with a storm approaching, Indians and non Indians sat around
a dance ring waiting for the Grand Entry that marked the
beginning of the all-night affair. When all the finely dressed
dancers came out, the women formed lines around the circle
and the men--some old and some teen aged, some as young
as three or four--danced toward the middle. The haunting
beat of the drums and piercing cries of the dance songs
put us all into trances. And I wondered if the rainbow we'd
day before was a harbinger for the powwow.
In her old pickup
truck, Clara drove us way out along the land above the Missouri
(her family has a ranch here of ten thousand acres). We
passed over some of the original prairie grass, never before
cultivated or plowed by modern farmers, to the Little Sandy
Creek where we found the most perfect teepee rings I'd ever
seen. These smooth round rocks lined up in a circle were
used to hold down the teepees of the plains Indians for
maybe hundreds of years when they went out to hunt or to
travel to the distant Rockies. Maybe these very rings were
used by the Hidatsa on their way to capture horses and raid
the Shoshone at Three Forks, where many believe that Sacagawea
was captured as a ten-year-old. Or, perhaps they were the
rings of the Shoshone coming to raid the Hidatsa, hundreds
of miles away.
Before Clara's family
took possession of this land, it had been owned by one family
since the late 1800s and no one had disturbed the rings
in all that time. I was surprised to see that these rings
were fairly close to one another. We found them on the ridges
between the coulees, or gulches. Nearby was a possible buffalo
jump, Clara said. And she pointed to a cliff.
When we stopped
in some sand dunes to hunt for arrowheads, Clara told us
stories about growing up as a cowgirl. She said there were
no snacks during the day, and when dinner was called, you
went because if you didn't go, you wouldn't eat. Walker
and Suzanna found lots of chips of arrowheads but no perfectly
On our way back
to the ranch, we came across a prairie dog town where the
little critters weren't so friendly as they were in the
National Park. Here the ranchers shot them because the prairie
dogs eat the grass that the cattle need. Clara told us that
one thousand out of her ten thousand acres was wasted land.
These "barking squirrels" eat all the grass, and
the land turns dark brown in those places.
We saw a mother
antelope with twins galloping over the prairie. Like phantom
streaks of light over the pastel green.
Eagle Creek, White Cliffs
rancher named Gary Darlington dropped us off with our canoe
in the heart of the White Cliffs. Here at Eagle Creek,
across from Labarge Rock, we set up camp with a storm coming
in from the west. Sacagawea and the Captains probably walked
and I wrote in our journals in the exact same spot where
Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea were camped on May 31, 1805,
nearly a year since they left St. Louis, and two months
since they had left Fort Mandan.
It was right
here at Eagle Creek that Lewis wrote: "The hills and
river Clifts which we passed today exhibit a most romantic
appearance." Running up to three hundred feet high,
the cliffs are nearly perpendicular. They blaze brilliant
white in the hot sun of late afternoon.
"The water in the course of time in descending from
those hills and plains on either side of the river has trickled
down the soft sand clifts and woarn it into a thousand grotesque
figures, which with the help of a little imagination and
an oblique view, at a distance are made to represent eligant
ranges of lofty freestone buildings, having their parapets
well stocked with statuary; columns of various sculpture
both grooved and plain, ...the thin stratas of freestone
the soft sandstone seems to have aided the water in forming
this curious scenery. As we passed on it seemed as if those
seens of visionary inchantement would never have an end."
The kids were
interested more in swimming than history. On their backs
and on their stomachs they ran the swift-flowing little
riffles of Eagle Creek that comes from miles away up in
the Bears Paw Mountains. Recent rain had brought it up so
it was fun to get swooped along over the rocks and clutch
at the long grass on the sides. Walker got a little panicky
when he got in over his head. He felt like he'd be swept
out into the bigger and more dangerous current of the Missouri.
Suzanna "saved" him
more than once. Laughing and bashing their legs and feet,
they had a blast.
We canoed out
into the big river and felt the great current sweep us along
below the overhanging cliffs of Labarge Rock. What
light the cliff gave off! White pelicans skimmed along
the water beneath the white cliff face.
We walked up
to the pictographs, two figures of primitive-looking horses
carved in the white sandstone maybe thousands of years ago.
Walker touched the rock and was connected to the past in
a strange way that even he might not recognize.
Just as the Plains
Indians used Buffalo dung to feed their fires, Walker wanted
to burn cow dung of which there was plenty, and Suzanna
wanted to burn sage, of which there was also plenty. So
the fire smelled of distant countries where I have traveled,
countries in Africa and South America.
There was so
much mystery all around us, and so much to explore, but
the rain was coming, so we quickly put up our tent and dove
into our bags. The wind flapped the tent around all night
long like a flag.
head of steamboat navigation
Founded in 1846,
Fort Benton's main street still lies along the river, where
the steamboats would come in the 1800s. Furs, and supplies
for miners and ranchers were taken up and down river until
the last steamboat ran in 1890.
very ill and just before reaching the Great Falls, Lewis
made her drink sulfur water, which seemed to revive her.
He was probably worried that if anything happened to her,
his chances of friendly relations with the Snake Indians,
or Shoshone, might be jeopardized. And he knew he needed
the Shoshone horses in order to get over the mountains before
the Carter Ferry over to the other side of the Missouri
(a ferry that pulled our van across along a few wires strung
across the river), we went to Ryan Dam that now runs on
top of the Great Falls of the Missouri. Lewis had been so
happy to find these falls because he had learned way back
at Fort Mandan from the Hidatsa that when he found the Great
Falls, he would be nearing the source of the Missouri.
coming to the falls: "I had proceeded on this course
about two miles when my ears were saluted with the agreeable
sound of a fall of water and advancing a little further
I saw the spray arise above the plain like a column of smoke.
It soon began to make a roaring to tremendious to be mistaken
for any cause short of the great falls of the Missouri."
Before the dam
was built on top of it, the falls dropped about forty feet.
Beyond these falls there are four more of them. And the
portage around the series of falls here would take them
Today we paddled
near the Gates of the Mountains, that narrow gorge with
cliffs rising a thousand feet above the river. Here the
captains kept expecting to find the Shoshone Indians but
the Indians stayed mostly out of sight. Clark roamed miles
ahead in hopes of meeting the Indians. He did not want the
guns of the Corps hunters to scare them off. Lewis was still
under the false impression that all they had to do was get
to the source of the Missouri, hop a few of the Rockies
and look down at the headwaters of the Columbia River that
would take them to the Pacific. One of his main goals for
this trip was to find the Northwest Passage to the sea.
For the next
week my family was about to camp in the Rockies and see
for ourselves that there is no Northwest Passage, no easy
route to the Pacific over the Continental Divide where the
water begins to run west to the other ocean. For Lewis and
Clark, after they finally met the Shoshone, it was rough
going walking and riding in that high country. For today's
traveler, it is not so rough at all. But many of the passes
and much of the route the Corps took through the Rockies
has changed little in the last two hundred years. And we
were excited to see this country.
Three Forks, Montana
As soon as we
got to Three Forks, we went to a local fishing access, a
swimming hole on the Madison River. We heard that local
kids jump off a train bridge into the cold, fast water.
Suzanna went first. I was a typical parent, terrified for
my kid, especially since she wanted to keep jumping. But
finally I jumped, too. Walker lifted rocks and chased crawfish.
Then we all tried to swim against the swift current in the
shallow river. The small pebbles on the bottom shone like
colored eggs in the clear clear water.
the night in a wonderful old hotel called the Sacajawea
Inn, we launched the canoe where the Jefferson and Madison
meet, near the very spot where Sacagawea was captured by
the Hidatsa raiding party five or so years before she returned
here with Lewis and Clark and recognized the spot.
The Hidatsa view
that Sacagawea was really Hidatsa and that she had been
captured by the Shoshone but later walked back nearly a
thousand miles along the Missouri is not the common view.
The reason I use the Sacagawea spelling, pronounced "Sah-KAH-gah-wee-ah,"
is that this is a Hidatsa name, the one she was given as
a child around the Knife River area along the Missouri,
and is the way her name is pronounced even today by the
We paddled the
swift current down past the confluence of the third river
of the three that come together to form the main stem of
the Missouri. This one is called the Gallatin. After I put
the canoe back on the van, I forgot to place the paddles
back inside. Accidentally I backed the van over my two lovely
wood, bent-shaft paddles, cracking one of them and denting
the other. Later I'd try to duck-tape it.
This little accident
made me wonder how many such little and not-so-little mishaps
the Lewis and Clark Expedition must have faced in two years
and four months of travel. You can't travel eight thousand
miles in rugged country and not have a million mishaps.
The difference perhaps between then and now is that I don't
have the skill or materials to fix my paddle. I'll probably
just look for a new one, whereas the Corps had to fix every
broken thing as they went, and not just fix them a little,
but make them as useful and as solid as if they were new.
At Three Forks,
Lewis was right in thinking that the Jefferson, and not
the Gallatin or the Madison, was the main branch of the
river. Perhaps he guessed it simply because it seemed to
be coming from the direction he figured he needed to go
to get over the Divide. But he and Clark had an uncanny
sense of where they needed to go, and this, after the choice
they had made at the Marias River, was the second time they
Up the Jefferson & the Beaverhead
as we headed up the Jefferson by car and then the Beaverhead.
Amazing how the rivers keep coming from above. Seems never
to end. It was this same month in 1805 that the Lewis and
Clark Expedition headed up the Beaverhead, too.
a rock formation on the Beaverhead that her people called
the Beaver Head, hence the name of the river. The Beaverhead
is one of the great fishing spots in the west. We found
drift boats and rafts and sport fishermen everywhere. Here
they told us that there are 2500 trout in every mile of
Still the Corps
was looking for the Shoshone Indians. It had been four months
since they left the Mandans and Hidatsas, and they'd met
no Indians for all that hot crossing of the prairies. They
were in Indian territory but the Indians kept out of sight.
As the days passed,
our little Corps of Discovery faced some rising tensions.
We were learning to travel together, but inevitably flare-ups
occurred, especially at the end of a long day of travel
comments on how Lewis and Clark got along so well for the
two years and four months they traveled together. But I
can't help thinking they must have had their spats. Travel,
especially hard journeying over long periods of time, leads
to tension. Perhaps, Lewis and Clark simply didn't write
about their difficulties. And why would they hang their
dirty laundry out for President Jefferson and the world
and all future generations to read about. Another thing
I noticed in their journals, which I read to the kids as
we followed in the adventurers' steps, was how cheerfully
their men faced hardships. Like all those prickly pear cactus
thorns in their feet after days and days of lugging canoes
and gear around the waterfalls at Great Falls.
Camp Fortunate & The Lemhi Pass--the Continental Divide
I woke the kids early with a live raccoon on their beds.
Outside in the parking lot in the Dillon motel was a family,
two children, Rex and Shelby, and their parents, from Twin
Falls, Idaho, who had pet raccoons, named Bonnie and Clyde.
I borrowed one and put it on Suzanna's bed. My kids did
not wake with the usual grumpiness. They held and cuddled
the little masked critters. And of course now they want
raccoons. The Idaho couple said they might sell us a couple
if these two
We reached the
Canyon Ferry Dam and Lake. Walker got out of the van, saw
the big lake, and asked, "Dad, is this the Pacific
The big blue
reservoir sitting like a small sea in the hot hot dry dry
land now covers the area historians call Camp Fortunate.
Some of the most important events of the Expedition occurred
here and just west of here up in the Lemhi Pass mid to late
Lewis got here
first. Clark followed dragging the boats and supplies up
the shallow Beaverhead. Lewis left a note for Clark and
left the river heading west on foot. He climbed up the Lemhi
Pass and over to the Pacific side where he finally met the
the Shoshone chief, Cameahwait to return forty miles to
the Camp Fortunate area where Clark would join them. The
chief was suspect but decided to come with Lewis. The Shoshone
had very little to eat. One of Lewis' men killed a deer,
and the Indians ate the meat raw, they were so hungry. This
helped reduce some of the tension.
When Lewis and
the Shoshone returned to this spot, now a reservoir, and
when Lewis saw Clark had not gotten here yet, the captain
was very worried. The Chief's confidence in him would determine
whether or not they could get horses for their trek over
the mountains. He resorted to various deceptions in order
to keep the Shoshone here while Clark dragged the boats
up the Beaverhead, a difficult task in such shallow water.
Lewis let the
Shoshone hold his gun to assure the chief this was not a
trick. He lied, too, saying the note that was there at Camp
Fortunate was from Clark (it was actually his note to Clark).
The note, he told the chief, said Clark would be late.
When Clark finally
approached Lewis' camp he, Sacagawea and Charbonneau were
out front. Spotting an Indian on horseback, Sacagawea and
Charbonneau, began to dance, jump, and shout because they
recognized the Shoshone tribe who they had longed to meet.
Sacagawea started to suck her fingers to indicate they were
her people. A young woman ran out to embrace Sacagawea.
It was a friend of Sacagawea's who had been captured also
by the Hidatsa but who had escaped.
About three thousand
miles from where the Expedition had started, the reunited
parties made camp here for a week. Lewis and Clark smoked
a peace pipe with Chief Cameahwait. And Sacagawea suddenly
recognized the chief was her very own brother. She jumped
up, ran to him, threw her blanket over him, and "cried
profusely." Then she sat down and began to translate,
but broke into tears often.
were not simple. Since she spoke no English, she translated
her brother's words into Hidatsa. Then Charbonneau, who
also spoke no English, translated the Hidatsa into French,
and another man named Labiche translated the information
from French into English. Back and forth, the negotiations
for horses took some time.
Lewis and Clark
again told the chief that he and his tribe were now under
the protection of the United States government. They said
they had come to find a trade route. The chief agreed to
help the Corps perhaps because Lewis promised such items
as guns. There had been only three or four guns in the whole
Shoshone village, Lewis' men noticed. Cameahwait most probably
wanted to be first to attain special trading status with
the USA. Then he might more successfully fight off his enemies,
the Blackfeet and the Hidatsa who made constant raids on
the Shoshone horses.
At Canyon Ferry,
I took the canoe off the car and dropped it into the water.
The kids drank hot chocolate and ate snacks. It was our
own Camp Fortunate because Walker found an eagle feather.
It was illegal to take it with us since eagle feathers are
used for Native American ceremonies and dances. Also this
was our Camp Fortunate because tensions today had been running
particularly high. Now we had a chance to rest and laugh.
We played hot potato, and our spirits turned upward.
across the pass to her brother's village in the Lemhi valley,
while Clark and a few men went north to scout the Salmon
River to see if it would be possible to reach the Columbia
River and the Pacific.
The Lemhi Pass
August 12, 1999
August 12, 1805
What a coincidence!
We packed up the van and headed up the pass. When we got
to top, we had to put on sweaters. The wind was cold, bringing
in rain from the west. A wood fence marked the actual border
between Montana and Idaho and here we read on a plaque what
I had forgotten. That it was this same day, 194 years before,
that Lewis and a few men, out in front of the main body
of the Corps, topped the Divide and looked out over the
snow-capped Bitterroot Mountains. It was then that Lewis,
who had hoped for an easy route to the sea, discovered just
how much more he and the Expedition would have to travel.
And now he was sure he would need horses to travel overland.
When Lewis had
crossed the Lemhi Pass to meet the Shoshone on August 12,
1805, he was the first white man to cross the Continental
Divide in the United States. The Nez Perce, the Blackfeet,
the Salish, the Assiniboin, and the Hidatsa had been traveling
across the Divide for hundreds, probably thousands of years.
The Shoshone, the Salish, and the Nez Perce thought nothing
of traveling all the way from the Lemhi Valley, Bitterroot,
and Lolo Valleys west of the Divide to Three Forks for their
What I loved
about this part of our trip was that the Lemhi Pass, elevation
7339, is today much as it was when Lewis and the Corps crossed
in August 1805. Windswept, the pass gets no more than 30
or 40 cars each day. The gravel road is often only one lane.
Coming down from
Lemhi, big rain and lightning. Road turning from dust to
mud. I felt a kind of sadness about leaving Montana behind.
We'd been there a long time and so had Lewis and Clark.
Heading now for
the Pacific, our journey has a different feel to it. Rivers
to travel now: First there is the Lemhi River, then there
is the Salmon, the North Fork of the Salmon, the Bitterroot,
the Lochsa, the Clearwater, the Snake, and finally the Columbia.
A lot more rivers than Lewis had thought and hoped since
when he crossed the Lemhi, he was sure he was drinking the
water from the headwaters of the Columbia itself, which
in a sense he was.
A young woman
and a baby--Today I tried to imagine what it would be like
for the rugged men of the Corps of Discovery to have a young
woman on their trip, and also a tiny child. Did the Jean
Baptiste cry much? Was he swaddled in such tight comforting
cloth around Sacagawea's back so as not to cry? But a tiny
child in the Lemhi Pass, in the rapids on the Jefferson,
or later on the Lolo trail when the white men ate horses,
or on the Snake and Columbia when the white men ate dogs,
and the canoes swamped in the rapids! How many parents today
would bring an infant on such a journey? And if Jean Baptiste
cried only a few times, imagine a child's cry in the wilderness
on this the greatest adventure any American had taken to
date or perhaps, next to the moon shots, take forever again.
Glenn in his little space capsule with a baby aboard!
Baker, Idaho & the Lemhi River
We passed the
site of one of the Shoshone villages on the little lovely
Lemhi River, just north of Tendoy. Expeditioner Patrick
Gass described it, "...there are about 25 lodges made
of willow bushes. They are the poorest and most miserable
nation I ever beheld: having scarcely anything to subsist
on, except berries and a few fish...They have a great many
fine horses, and nothing more; and on account of these [the
horses] they are much harassed by other nations."
Clark later stopped
at a village where the Shoshone had placed a fish weir across
the Lemhi River. Broiled and dried salmon and dried chokecherries
were given generously to the Corps. Clark wrote, "Those
Indians are mild in their disposition appear Sincere in
their friendship, puntial, and decided kind with what they
have, to Spare...The women are held more Sacred,...and appear
to have an equal Shere in all Conversation, ...their boeys
and Girls are also admitted to Speak except in Councils,
the women doe all the drugery except fishing and takeing
care of the horses, which the men apr. to take upon themselves."
Today the Lemhi
Valley has some of the best elk hunting in the world. Cougar
come down into the valley. Wolves howl from nearby mountains.
Last night a rainbow shaft thicker and more bright with
color than any I'd ever seen popped out of the sky after
the rain. The mountains all around us with wolves and cougars
sang emerald songs to us.
We watched Shoshone
dances from the Fort Hall Reservation south of here in Island
Park in the nearby town of Salmon. The men all arrayed in
eagle feathers danced expressively, while the women made
little restrained steps, very lovely in their restraint,
tantalizing. Handsome faces. These were old, traditional
On August 30,
the Expedition set off for the north. Sacagawea said good-bye
to her people, but there is no record of what that parting
was like. I wonder if she wanted to stay with her tribe,
or, perhaps because they were so hungry, she might have
wanted to keep going with the Corps.
Salmon, Idaho, we visited Scott and Linda Matz, archaeologists
who work for the Bureau of Land Management and the National
Forest Service. They have sixteen sled dogs and they go
to mushing races in the winter. Suzanna is passionate about
mushing. She can't wait to get her own dog and sled, and
so it was a great opportunity to get some tips about dog
keeping and what sleds to buy.
up to Lolo, we took a little detour and headed west along
the Salmon River road to Shoup, a little outpost with a
store/gas station. Lovely road, along the section of river
that Clark had explored in late August, where he discovered
the Expedition dare not go. We saw why. The river got wilder
by the minute as we headed west. Stunningly beautiful, though,
with remains of old log cabins dotting the pines.
This fork of
the Salmon River is called The River of No Return and can
not be reached by car. We turned around and headed up Lost
Trail Pass. Clark reported that the Salmon was almost one
continuous rapid and that passage "with canoes is entirely
impossible." So the expedition had to buy pack horses
and go 110 miles north on an Indian trail across the mountains.
Old Toby, a Shoshone
man, and his son, led the expedition north through the Bitterroots.
By Sept. 2, it had snowed.
Spring Gulch, MT
We crossed back
over the Divide, just like Sacagawea. The Expedition had
just spent a few grueling days climbing over what is known
today as Lost Trail Pass, over the Divide again and into
present-day Montana. The morning was very cold and wet.
Ground covered with snow, on Sept. 4. "We kept for
Several Miles & fell on the head of a Creek which appeared
to run the Course we wished to go prosued our Course down
the Creek to the forks about 5 miles where we met a party
of the Flathead nation, of 33 Lodges, about 80 men 400 total
and at least 500 horses."
"We Proceeded on ...Crossed a mountain and Struck the
river. Sever miles down, at place the Indians had encamped
two days before...rained this evening nothing to eate but
berries, our flour out, and but little corn, the hunters
killed 2 pheasants only"
It was here the
expedition met the Flathead Indians, the Salish people.
Lewis and Clark camped with them. He found them friendly
but hungry. They had very little, but like the Shoshone
they were incredibly generous. They shared what they had
with the expedition. Well dressed with skin shirts and robes.
Stout and with light complexions, this tribe had never met
white people before.
One hundred and
ninety-four years later, we camped the night in a National
Forest Service campground beside the shallow and lovely
Bitterroot. Suzanna took out the portable bike, and Walker
fished the stream. He lost his best lure under a boulder,
and he cried for a while until I told him that's what fishermen
do--they lose lures so they can buy new ones. That seemed
to cheer him up a little.
kids picked a large wild berry, the Service berry, which
tasted like sour blueberries. Suzanna boiled her cupful
with sugar and labeled a plastic container and planned to
go into the business of selling the stuff.
All night the
stream sounded fast and beautiful. It rained off and on
and got pretty cold. High in the mountains, like Sacagawea,
we were about to go over the Divide again and down to the
Next: The final push to the Ocean.
Nez Perce country
Sacagawea and the Corps were dangerously low on food as
they crossed the Divide west over the Lolo Pass. The Lolo,
called "Khusahna Ishkt" or Buffalo Trail, by the
Nez Perce, had linked Columbia river tribes and northern
Indians for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years.
traveling westward over the Lolo Pass, only 5000 feet high,
and into Nez Perce country, now faced one of the worst portions
of the whole journey. For eleven days it rained and snowed.
Game was scarce. Horses stumbled and fell over cliffs. Lightning
and hail blasted the little group of adventurers, who at
one point killed and ate a colt, they were so hungry. Sacagawea
would not eat horse meat.
The Nez Perce
might easily have wiped out the expedition as it approached
their villages west of the mountains. Some wanted to do
so, but they did not harm the Corps of Discovery probably
because one old woman spoke about being treated well by
whites many years ago.
As we drove upward
into the clouds and the chilly air of the pass, it was hard
to imagine Sacagawea with a baby in these conditions. Suzanna
fed a ground squirrel right out of her hand. It looked a
little like a prairie dog.
We followed the
lovely rapids of the Lochsa River down into the Clearwater
where Clark and Lewis made five dugout canoes from Ponderosa
pines. These boats they'd now take down the Snake and Columbia
rivers to the sea. Of all the rivers we'd seen so far, perhaps
the Lochsa was the most beautiful whitewater river of all.
Here in the wildest part of Idaho on a stream that was one
continuous rapid after another live moose, elk, black bear,
wolves, and cougar. There is talk, too, of reintroducing
the grizzly bear!
Along the Lochsa
we stopped to hike a mile into a natural hot springs, where
hot mineral water rises from deep in the earth and flows
out into the open and down into the cold river making steam.
Lewis and Clark swam in the hot springs and rested before
pushing on over the pass. What a feeling that must have
been. All those travel-weary bodies lolling in 100-degree
medicinal water. Did Sacagawea bathe her little boy in the
springs, too, I wonder.
The Heart of the Monster
Like so many
other native tribes the Corps met, the Nez Perce greeted
the expedition with generosity and curiosity. For two weeks
the Corps of Discovery rested in the Kamiah valley, below
the mountains, recouping, eating salmon and dried roots
called Camas which the tribe was preparing for winter storage.
The Nez Perce,
according to the journals, like the Shoshone and the Salish
people, had also not seen white men before. Famed for their
fine horses, the Nez Perce agreed to take care of their
horses while Lewis and Clark headed west.
three Nez Perce, the Corps, Lewis and Clark, Charbonneau
and Sacagawea and her baby left for the sea on Oct. 7, 1805,
hoping to be back the next spring on their way home. The
expedition faced many dangerous rapids on the Clearwater
and more on the Snake. Two boats sank, and many repairs
had to be made. Imagine Sacagawea's little boy on such a
journey. In so much whitewater!
Along the Snake
they met other tribes and traded goods for dogs. The dogs,
forty of them, were for eating. Lewis liked dog meat, but
Clark did not. Tribes along the rivers of the Northwest
began to call the Corps, Dog Eaters.
On October 13,
Clark wrote in his journal how beneficial it was to have
Sacagawea and her son along on this part of the trip. Traveling
with a woman and a baby helped diffuse any hostility the
native peoples might have felt if Sacagawea had not been
with them. War parties did not travel with women.
In Kamiah, I
talked with Allen Slickpoo who still speaks the Nez Perce
language and who has been passing it along to his children.
He said he still practiced the traditional ways of the tribe.
Allen said his people remember Lewis and Clark in context
with the missionaries that came a few years after the Expedition.
Much of the Nez Perce culture was taken away from the tribe
by the missionaries, he said, and the effects of those early
missionaries still can be seen today. Slickpoo does not
sound bitter but his message is strong. Lewis and Clark
brought death to the Nez Perce way of life. "It is
like a beautiful plant or fruit or berry," he told
me, "and you are starving. That fruit looks nice and
plump, but then you eat it and it turns out to be poison."
Our family stayed
in the Lewis and Clark Resort Motel across from a legendary
mound or rock that the Nez Perce call, the Heart of the
Monster. Here it was that Coyote slew the Monster and carved
him up, and, tossing pieces of the monster to various parts
of the Pacific Northwest, created animals and tribes. And
here too it was that Coyote watered the ground and up sprang
the Nez Perce people, the Nee-ME-Poo, as they call themselves.
Here was the heart of their nation, and I considered it
a blessing to sleep so near to the very place that Coyote
had created everything in the Nez Perce world.
I decided someday
to return to spend more time with Mr. Slickpoo, and to learn
more about the Nez Perce people. I liked the dry, brown
grass of the Kamiah valley and the green pines in the surrounding
hills. I had a calm feeling here. The people we met seemed
kind and generous.
In Kamiah, we
also met a man who told us where to pan for gold on the
Clearwater River near Lewiston, Idaho. In the afternoon
we bought pans and we swirled the muck around on the bright
river until little yellow flakes showed in our pans. The
kids put the gold into small glass bottles. This was flood
gold that had washed down from the mountains thousands of
years ago. Walker and Suzanna would have stayed for the
whole day, but we needed to get going.
Just down river
from Lewiston, the Clearwater opens out and hits the Snake
River, and the land is hot and brown and dry and the Snake
is big, where we found the first evidence of tugs and real
industry. We were getting closer to the sea.
We spent the
night in the famous and dramatic Columbia River Gorge, so
perfect for its wind-surfing conditions.
more rapids and waterfalls on the Columbia. The Expedition
met other tribes catching salmon and drying them on fish
wracks along shore. The Nez Perce guides returned to their
homeland, and the Corps began to see evidence of sea trade
among the peoples of the Columbia River. These people had
been visited for years by British and Yankee ships along
Then on Nov.
7, 1805 Clark wrote "Ocean in view. O. The Joy."
Actually when Clark wrote this, he was looking at the wide
mouth of the great rolling Columbia River, not the sea proper.
He was just east of present-day Astoria, Oregon.
Near the sea
finally, their exuberance, however, was tempered by days
of hunger, darkness and dreariness. By rain, fog, and gloom.
Our own little
corps of discovery was weary from nearly three weeks of
travel in the modern dugout of our big Chevy van, so we
were happy to reach the sea, but our joy was tempered by
our fatigue and by the misty fog rolling in from the Pacific.
The air dripped with humidity, and the giant cedars and
firs of the Northwest looked like fantastic animals with
coats of moss along every branch and trunk.
Like Lewis and
Clark, we camped. We set up our tent at Fort Steven's State
Park, a few miles from where the Expedition spent the winter
of 1805-1806. And once again we noticed how engaged our
senses were when we spent a night camping instead of staying
at motels. The outdoors put us all in better spirits. Collecting
wood, preparing dinner, being
active--this saved us. The kids had a natural playground,
too. Whenever we stayed in a motel on the Trail of Sacagawea
they had sat like pasty-skinned, eye-glazed animals in the
motel room watching Bart Simpson, but now they came alive
in the great outdoors. They threw rocks on the rivers and
fished and explored even though it got cold and damp and
mysteriously foggy from the sea.
And I wondered
how it would be when we got home, back to our soft beds
and regular routines. Lewis, when his journey was ended,
told an innkeeper that ever since his great expedition,
he had found himself unable to sleep in a feather bed, put
preferred to unroll his buffalo skin and to lie on the floor.
Just as at Fort
Mandan way back on the Missouri River where the Corps spent
its first winter, so too here at Fort Clatsop, named also
after the local tribe, we found a reconstruction of the
fort where the Expedition spent its second and only other
winter on the whole 8,000-mile, two-year journey. To get
away from the terrible weather of the sea, the fort was
built inland seven miles from the Pacific. As with Ft. Mandan,
the gates of this fort were shut at night and a sentinel
was put on watch. The present-day fort was reconstructed
from a copy of Clark's floor plan which he kept in his journal.
The day we arrived
at the fort, it was drizzling, and the mist off the sea
had a kind of mystery to it. As small and cozy as the first
fort, Clatsop was fun to visit. Walker and Suzanna jumped
on the bunk beds covered in animal hides. A real fire smoldered
in the fireplace of the captain's quarters which was right
next to the little room where Charbonneau, Sacagawea, and
Jean Baptiste slept. Here on this spot, nearly two centuries
ago, captains Lewis and Clark spent cold and dreary months
rewriting their journals and perfecting their maps.
On Jan. 6, 1806,
Clark set out with a small group, including Sacagawea and
Charbonneau, and the baby?, or did the baby stay behind?
to get blubber from a beached whale on the ocean itself.
But when they got to the whale, which was 100 feet long,
it had been stripped clean by the Timamoot people who lived
In 106 days at
the fort it rained all but twelve, and the sun showed itself
on only six of those twelve days. The captains and the men
prayed for a British or American ship to pass by to take
them home by way of the Horn so they wouldn't have to walk
and take boats back to St. Louis. Jefferson had given them
a letter of passage saying that the US government would
pay their way. But no ship came, so on March 10, they headed
back the way they had come. They should have waited until
April, but they were anxious to get home. Other adventures
and setbacks awaited them. Snows beset them in the Rockies
and they had to turn back more than once. The two captains
split up on their return, Clark heading down the Yellowstone
River and Lewis going north to explore the Marias. But a
few months later, reunited at Fort Union, they managed to
reach the Mandan villages on the Knife River, where Charbonneau,
Sacagawea, and Jean Baptiste left the Expedition before
Lewis and Clark continued on down the Missouri to St. Louis.
And in September 1806, two years and four months after setting
out, Lewis and Clark were greeted in St. Louis as heroes.
One of the guides
at Fort Clatsop asked my children if they wanted to help
her take down the flag. At six p.m. it was the end of her
day. It seemed fitting at the end of our trip, too, for
Suzanna and Walker to put on replicas of the two dress coats
that Captains Lewis and Clark would have put on for meeting
chiefs and conducting affairs of state even in the wilderness.
The captains' coats were much too big for children, but
they looked beautiful and stately on my children in the
raw, gray drizzle at Fort Clatsop. The American flag with
only fifteen stars on it, representing fifteen states (what
a young country it was in 1806)--the exact flag that the
Corps would have flown on the Pacific coast, came down slowly.
Suzanna helped fold it. And our trip was done, really.
Just one last
photo to take, I told the kids. I assembled the family on
the beach of the great ocean. The sea was gray, the sky
was gray, but I felt anything but gray. Walker and Suzanna
had grown sick of me taking photos of our trip. I think
I now had about 2,000, give or take a few hundred. They
fled from my cameras screeching and laughing hysterically
until suddenly a seal from under a jetty started to bark.
For awhile Walker and the seal kept barking at each other.
Then Walker found a dead crab among the big black beach
boulders, and he lifted it up with glee. Offshore, surfers
in wet suits cruised the cold gray expanse for good waves.
I told my kids
they'd been wonderful companions on the trip, which hadn't
always been easy. Through their young eyes, I had seen things
I might not have noticed if they had not come with me. From
the prairie-dog town and buffalo on the dry prairie of North
Dakota and eastern Montana, we had followed in Sacagawea's
trail, trying to imagine what she could have felt as she
then moved over the mountain passes with her baby boy to
the gloomy, yet mysterious mists of the Oregon coast.
Nearly two hundred
years after Sacagawea and Jean Baptiste, we had witnessed
with awe the same rivers she had canoed and hiked and admired
on her long trek west--first the great Missouri, then the
Jefferson, the Beaverhead, the Lemhi, the Bitterroot, the
Salmon, the Clearwater, the Snake, and finally the massive
Columbia. We had spoken with some of the descendants of
the tribes she had known, and we had seen what a great land
this country is, full of native people who do not necessarily
share the same vision of discovery as the whites who now
would come in droves across the plains and mountains to
settle the new nation.
had had the vision to send the Corps of Discovery out into
the new territories of the United States and beyond. Lewis
and Clark and their men had realized this vision, but they
most probably could not have succeeded had it not been for
Sacagawea who helped secure horses to get over the Rockies
before the winter came, and who helped find roots and plants
to eat when the Corps was starving, and who acted always
as a softening agent to this strange band of white people
traveling in an Indian land. Sacagawea was not so much a
guide to the Expedition as perhaps a guardian to the traveling
She remains something
of an enigma. Many say Sacagawea died a few years later
in what is now South Dakota. Others say she lived to be
an old old lady and is now buried with her Shoshone ancestors.
Because we do not know more than what little is written
about her in the journals and what remains of her story
in the oral traditions of the Shoshone, the Assiniboin,
the Hidatsa, and other tribes, Sacagawea, Birdwoman, will
remain ever a mystery--an exemplar or archetype to give
us all heart in our daily adventures.