Following the Footsteps of Lewis & Clark
By Larry Rice
Here are five spots along the Lewis and Clark trail where Boy Scouts and Venturers can hike, paddle, or ride on horseback as they trace the explorers' historic route.
They were the ultimate Venturers, the pathfinders for a nation. In 1804, two Army officers began an epic journey of exploration across the continent, paddling up the Missouri River and trekking across the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific coast. When they returned in triumph more than two years later, Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their 40-man Corps of Discovery had traveled nearly 8,000 arduous miles, opening the way west for all Americans to follow.
Now, two centuries after Lewis and Clark's amazing exploit, modern-day Scouts can savor their own sense of discovery by retracing segments of the explorers' original route. In honor of the bicentennial of this heroic journey, Scouting has selected five premier sites along the trail, from rural southern Illinois all the way to the restless Pacific. Each location meets the criteria for historical significance, accessibility, and plenty of outdoor Scouting activities. So bring along the captains' journals and prepare to hike, paddle, and horseback the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.
Camp River DuBois, Illinois"The mouth of the River DuBois is to be considered as the point of departure."
Captain Lewis, May 14, 1804
From their snowy encampment at Wood River, Illinois, across from the French settlement of St. Louis, Captains Lewis and Clark gathered crew and provisions while gazing expectantly across the wide Mississippi River to the mouth of the Missouri, their gateway into unknown wilderness.
Today, Scouts and Venturers can experience that same vista and explore similar terrain while visiting the Lewis and Clark State Historic Site in Hartford, Ill. (3.5 miles north of Interstate 270). Near this very site, with its native prairie grasses and dense, vine-laden woods, the Corps of Discovery hunkered down at Camp River DuBois for the winter of 1803-04. Here you can examine a reproduction of the expedition's fort, witness living history demonstrations, and prowl for hours on end the newly opened, state-of-the-art visitor center.
Through films, interactive displays, and running text from the explorers' famous journals (with a warning of "rough spelling ahead"), the center does a remarkable job of depicting the expedition's story. In addition, the site offers an outstanding, full-scale reproduction of the Corps' original 55-foot-long keelboat, cut lengthwise to expose its internal structure and stocked with a sampling of the mission's eight tons of supplies.
Outside the interpretive center, a biking trail of more than 15 miles winds along the Great River Roadpast high bluffs and the villages of Grafton and Elsahto Pere Marquette State Park. Rent canoes in Grafton, tour historic buildings in Elsah, and explore the many wooded hiking and equestrian trails in 8,050-acre Pere Marquette. The steeper trails offer splendid river overlooks, and the Youth Tent Camp Area is spacious and secluded.
Ponca State Park, Nebraska"The winds blew hard West and raised the Sands off the bar in Such Clouds that we Could Scarcely See."
Captain Clark, Aug. 23, 1804
As Lewis, Clark, and company moved upriver into the heart of the Great Plains, the landscape opened up and grew wilder. The wind grew wilder as well, kicking up a sandstorm as the expedition passed the site of present-day Ponca, Neb.
Scouts can experience their own untamed version of the Great Plains by visiting rugged, scenic Ponca State Park (two miles north of Ponca off Nebraska State Highway 12). Twenty miles of oak-filled hiking trails lead to high bluffs with panoramic views of the Missouri River snaking through the grasslands. Here you'll be looking at the downstream section of the Missouri National Recreational River, an unchanneled corridor that looks much the same today as it did in 1804.
Experienced Scouts can paddle the entire 59-mile stretch from Yankton, S.D., to Ponca in two days. (Half-day and full-day kayak and canoe trips are also possible from various access points.) Along the way they'll gain firsthand knowledge of what the corps encountered on the Missouri: a swift, ever-changing waterway of islands, sandbars, shifting channels, snags, marshes, and abundant wildlife. Later, stow the canoes and take a guided horseback ride along the river and high bluffs of Ponca. Group camping is available year-round in the primitive areas of the heavily forested 900-acre park.
Around the evening campfire, you can recount all the firsts the expedition experienced in this region of the Great Plains: the first American election west of the Mississippi (for sergeant), the only death in the entire journey (Sgt. Charles Floyd, probably of a burst appendix), and the inaugural peace council with Sioux Indians. Near Ponca, the corps also celebrated its first buffalo feast and marveled at unfamiliar wildlife: mule deer, prairie dogs, pronghorn antelope, magpies, and jackrabbits.
Missouri Breaks, Montana"We were now about to penetrate a country...on which the foot of civilized man had never trodden."
Captain Lewis, April 7, 1805
Flat, wide, and gleaming, the Upper Missouri slices through a dramatic, semiarid landscape of elaborately eroded hills and magnificent sandstone cliffs. Called the Missouri Breaks, much of this riparian highway flows though the same pristine landscape witnessed by Lewis and Clark in the spring of 1805. As a canoe destination for Scouts and Venturers, it is virtually unequaled.
A 149-mile stretch of the Missouri in Montana has been designated a National Wild and Scenic River. Multiple access points allow canoe trips of varying lengths, from weekend outings to the seven or eight days needed to cover the full 149 miles. It's much easier to paddle downstream (Fort Benton to Highway 191) than to muscle your way upstream as the Corps of Discovery did. With no rocks or rapids to worry about, modern Venturers can concentrate on the historic landscape, envisioning Blackfeet horsemen and 60 million bison roaming the surrounding plains.
Cattle have replaced bison, and the grizzly bears and wolves are gone, but virtually every other animal species that Lewis and Clark encountered may be spotted by Scouts: bighorn sheep, mule deer, pronghorn, elk, badgers, prairie dogs, herons, rattlesnakes, and golden and bald eagles.
The 47 miles from Coal Banks to Judith Landing, undoubtedly the most scenic and popular route, also offers excellent hiking. Here the big sky of the prairie is replaced by chalk-colored spires and castle-like bluffs known as the White Cliffs and praised by Lewis as "seens of visionary inchantment."
Camping is allowed on public land along the river. The Bureau of Land Management maintains a range of camping opportunities, from developed to primitive along the 149-mile stretch of the Upper Missouri, and not all have water. Fires are permitted, but firewood is scarce. Scouts are encouraged to gather only driftwood, bring portable stoves for cooking, and practice "Leave No Trace" principles.
Lolo Creek to Clearwater, Idaho"I have been wet and as cold in every part as I ever was in my life. Indeed I was at one time fearfull my feet would freeze in the thin mockersons which I wore."
Captain Clark, Sept. 16, 1805
In a race against cold and starvation, the Corps of Discovery metand passed its most severe test of the entire journey: a 170-mile trek across the snowy Bitterroot Mountains through a maze of dark canyons and towering peaks. Their route still crosses some of the most rugged, sparsely populated country in the Rockies; however, with the right equipment, planning, and attitude, Scouts will enjoy a relatively painless journey as they retrace portions of the original Lolo Trail.
Beginning in Lolo, Mont., drive west through the mountains on U.S. Highway 12, which roughly parallels the corps' journey into Idaho on foot and horseback. Following the journal entries, your troop can explore the historic sites (Grave Creek, Lolo Hot Springs, Lee Creek, and many more) where Lewis and Clark lunched, bathed, and camped in the fall of 1805. At higher elevation, stop at the Lolo Pass Visitor Center, which celebrates the trail's historic use by explorers and Native American tribes.
Armed with a good map and guidebook (see "Essential Info"), Scouts can choose from among dozens of easy to strenuous hikes along U.S. 12. They lead to open meadows, marshy springs, and deep forestsall sites where 40 buckskinned men and their Shoshone guide camped for the night, sometimes in eight inches of fresh snow. A more accessible, riverside campsite is Wendover (16 miles west of Lolo Pass). From here, you can hike a challenging, seven-mile section of the original trail through steep, densely forested terrain.
Continue on U.S. 12 to the Clearwater River, where Nez Perce Indians fed camas roots to the starving men as they emerged into the open plains. Hike the trails at Canoe Camp/Nez Perce National Historic Park (Orofino, Idaho) and, proceeding west to Lenore, take a guided canoe trip down the same river that led Lewis and Clark to the dangerous rapids of the Snake and Columbia.
Forts Canby and Clatsop, Washington and Oregon"Ocian in view! O! the joy."
Captain Clark, Nov. 7, 1805
Spectacular, oceanside Fort Canby State Park presents the perfect location for scouting the final leg of Lewis and Clark's outbound journey. Encompassing much of the corps' exploratory trek of the Washington coast, Fort Canby (Ilwaco, Wash., off U.S. 101) offers today's Venturers the same vivid maritime experience: a rich estuary, crashing surf, rocky headlands, marine plants and animals, and a dense coastal rainforest.
The park's excellent trail system links historical landmarks and follows Clark's overland exploration of the Washington headlands. The best hike (nine miles round-trip from the campground) leads you to Cape Disappointment Lighthouse and the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Centerfeaturing multimedia presentations and actual artifacts from the journeythen on to McKenzie Head where an elated Clark camped in view of the Pacific. From here, continue to North Head Lighthouse for a sweeping panorama of miles of surf. Reaching Beard's Hollow, head back to camp or continue north along the beach, as Clark did, to the rolling dunes of Long Beach (3.5 miles).
Fort Canby also offers a swimming beach, 250 campsites, and a virgin hemlock-spruce forest that gives a good sense of the dark, wet conditions that the corps endured in this region of "rain which has fallen almost constantly" (Clark).
Allow time to head over the U.S. 101 bridge to Oregon and the Fort Clatsop National Memorial (five miles southwest of Astoria). An exceptional museum and life-size reconstruction of the corps' 1805-06 winter quarters await you, complete with staff in period dress. Slip on a buckskin jacket, try out Clark's bed, and sit at Lewis' desk, where he spent the winter furiously filling his journal with descriptions of hundreds of animals and plants, many new to science.
Outside, wander among the lofty Sitka spruce to the same spring where the expedition members drank, or hike to the canoe landing, where reproductions of the crew's crude dugouts bring to life this epic American adventure.
Larry Rice is a contributing editor for Canoe & Kayak magazine. An avid traveler, he counts canoeing as one of life's greatest pleasures and one of the best ways to see America.
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