Epilogue

The Corps of Discovery left Fort Clatsop and began their return journey on Mar 23, 1806. It took one month to reach the Walla Walla River, and they arrived at the Nez Perce village near Orofino in mid-May. There, they gathered the horses they’d left with the Nez Perce during the westward journey, and established camp to wait for the snow to melt. Lewis was impatient. He started out too soon and was forced to return, finding previous campsites covered with over 10 feet of snow. Finally, on June 24, 1806, the party was able to set out with some Nez Perce guides.

During their return, Lewis and Clark split up and explored the Marias and Yellowstone rivers, respectively. During this time, Lewis’s party on the Marias was attacked by a bear, Joseph Field killed a Blackfoot man who had tried to steal Fields’s gun, and Lewis was accidentally shot by one of his own men on the day before the Expedition was reunited. On Aug 12, Lewis and Clark rejoined 60 miles below the confluence of the Missouri and the Yellowstone. Lewis made his final entry in the journals, describing a bird and and some cherries. Six weeks later, on Sep 23, the party rowed into St. Louis.

Back at the warm Portland sunrise, Paige and I walked down to the waterfront in the pre-dawn.

Salmon Street Springs

A lull in traffic: six people, four of them on bikes

Open 7 days a week. It’s free.

Headed downstream on the Willamette

Hawthorne Bridge.

The Hawthorne Bridge is the oldest “vertical-lift” drawbridge in the nation. In 2012, on an average weekday, it carried over 8,000 cyclists every day. It also carries 800 buses carrying over 17,000 people. Daily.

We walked over to Mother’s for migas and coffee, then had some VD (Voodoo Doughnuts) for dessert.

She jumped on the MAX to the airport, and I returned to the hotel to pack the bike. I headed back up the Columbia, past the miles of lakeside and wildfires. Here’s one on the WA side, just north of Rufus, OR, where I stopped for gas.

I passed a convoy of ten onion trucks.

Onions along The Dalles

and some kind of silo…?

150 miles up the Columbia, I veered south as the river veered north, and I began the inland journey. Southeast of Pendleton, OR, I crossed the Blue Mountains through the very scenic Umatilla National Forest.

Oh, I hope not…

The road curves to the southeast, crossing the northeast corner of OR and then the Snake River on the OR/ID border. 429 miles and 7 hours after leaving PDX, I circled the south Boise hotel district before gliding into a decent but overpriced riverside hotel around dusk. I would have been more frugal and headed back to the cookie-cutter hotels along the interstate, but I smelled food from their outdoor restaurant.

On Wednesday, I made 390 miles in 7 hours continuing on I-84 into Utah. One interesting sight on the way was the Malad Gorge, about 90 miles southeast of Boise on I-84. It’s part of Thousand Springs state park.

Looking up the Malad River from the bridge.

It’s only a couple miles long, 250 feet deep. There is a 60-foot waterfall directly under a footbridge which crosses the gorge alongside I-84. I noticed it as I crossed on the highway bridge, so I took the next exit, paid the $4 day use fee, and went over to the rim.

Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon. Crevasses forming above the Malad River.

I caught US 40 (after a 10-mile wrong turn) east of SLC and found a campground at Lake Jordanelle in the Wasatch Mountains just east of Park City. One other car camper and a half dozen RVs in the Hailstone camp. Nice campground with showers (open on Oct 3) and laundromat (already closed for season on Oct 3). It was windy so I found a site with a pretty deep depression for the tent and some windblocking trees. This was the coldest night of the trip: 28F. It was fine inside the tent. My tent is a North Face Tadpole, and was a gift from my brother Matt in 1993. One of the best pieces of gear I’ve ever used. In snow, rain, wind–this tent has been perfect for one, and sometimes two. With a 20-degree bag and tent flaps closed, it’s plenty cozy.

The next day I set out over Daniels Pass and down the Strawberry River valley, retracing the route I’d driven when moving from Seattle to Lawrence in 1997. The road crosses the Green River before entering Colorado and the joining the Yampa River. It is a beautiful route through the high desert of northern UT ad CO before arriving at Steamboat Springs, home of F.M. Light, as announced by the bazillion or so yellow signs which start appearing many, many miles to the west.

Hwy 40: highly recommended.

Rabbit Ears Pass, elev. 9429 ft.

Hence the name. Yeah, I know the photo sucks.

At the top of Rabbit Ears Pass, just east of Steamboat on US 40, it was a bright, sunny day.

On to Kremmling, still planning on heading out to the prairie of eastern CO on US 34 via Rocky Mt. Nat’l Park, but storms were forming ahead and the temperature was dropping. I started up the Fraser River as clouds began to gather above. It was still light, so I continued another 30 miles to Granby, where I stopped and put on my electric jacket and gloves. I had already decided to sleep indoors, as the weather was turning and clouds were dropping quickly over the passes to the east and south. But it was still clear to the southeast, so I carried on another 20 miles up the Fraser to Winter Park (on the advice of a hotel sign above a grungy motel in Granby promising a nice room in WP), thus abandoning my plan to visit RMNP and Estes Park. When I got to WP, the hotel turned out to be another grungy motel. There was still cloudfall to the east and to the southwest, but to the south, Berthoud Pass looked clear, and it was only 35 more miles to the next civilization, so I proceeded on, enjoying a cold twilight cruise over 11,315-ft pass on the way to a pizza and a hot springs spa in Idaho Springs. 433 miles in 8.5 hours.

Next morning started with snow.

I stalled for a few Fahrenheits at the Mainstreet Restaurant. By the time I got done with my excellent(!) french toast, the clouds had disappeared and the sun shone brightly on Idaho Springs. I hopped on I-70 to start the long glide across the prairie. But after five minutes, we dropped into a dense fog which hung over west Denver. We slowed to 40 mph or so for the descent into the South Platte River valley, where we dropped out of the cloud, crossed the Denver basin and I set sail across the cold, cloudy, rainy plains. I’d hoped to make the whole 600-mile trip back to Lawrence in one final push–it’s a trip I’ve made many times by car and moto–but variable gusts of wind, frequent fog, dropping temps, and the constant threat of rain almost had me bailing out in Goodland. I’m glad I pressed on, because east of Colby, conditions stabilized at around 45F and the wind let up as the highway turned southeast. I calculated a 7:30 pm arrival in Salina, but quickly realized a 6 p.m. stop in Hays would be closer to a brewpub: Lb Brewery on 11th for dinner and a delicious amber ale, then back to my “highway-vue special” room at the Ramada just at sunset. 370 miles in 7 hours.

The $49.99 special was really a $59.99 special. Apparently (unless you want a smoking room) the lower rate does not apply on the weekends, which must be why it was flashing in red numbers on the marquee on a Friday…? It was rainy and 40F the next morning when I finished loading the black beast for the last time and the final 230 miles, under the driveway portico and the wondering gaze of the three smokers gathered in their pajamas for a morning puff. Arrived back home about 1 p.m., where Paige welcomed me home with lunch and a beautiful bouquet from the garden!

Unloaded and washed the bike in the cold fall afternoon. And about the bike…

What a machine. That is all.

Trip specs:

  • 4,908 miles in 13 days.
  • Average daily mileage: 377.
  • Longest day: 528 miles (Orofino, ID, to Fort Stevens State Park/Astoria, OR)
  • Shortest day: 130 miles (Fort Stevens to Portland, OR)
  • Gasoline used: 114 gallons
  • Average mileage: 43.1 mpg
  • Average price/gal: $4.00 or so
  • Lowest elevation: Astoria, OR (0 ft)
  • Highest elevation: Berthoud Pass, CO (11,315 ft)

I’ve had several people ask me about the best moments on the trip. Two of my favorites are 1) traveling up to and arriving at the spring at the headwaters of the Missouri, and 2) reaching the Pacific at sunset two nights later. I also enjoyed my stay at the Heart River. But the best was walking into the Modera in Portland after eight days on the bike, in my road blacks and boots, my helmet hair perfect like a werewolf’s, to find Paige waiting for me. What a sweetie. Thanks for meeting me for dinner on the far side of the continent, babe!

My mileage plan turned out to be pretty spot-on. I rode comfortable distances, physically and logistically. And I lounged. I took my time. I didn’t even ride in the dark. I enjoyed my camp coffee down by the riverside, usually stopped and sat down for lunch and had dinner by sunset. The bike is very comfortable, very quiet, very smooth. There wasn’t a single day that I didn’t wake up ready to get back on and ride. I only had one day–the morning we left Portland–where I could have maybe stayed in one place for just one day, but by lunch I was over that. I could comfortably do 10-20% more miles if I wanted to make time and didn’t stop for random stuff as much as I did on this trip. Which was the point.

What’s next? Well, I was talking with a fellow moto rider about my plans for this trip, and he suggested I do a Four Corners trip. I said, “Oh, I’ve been to the Four Corners…”

Nope. Not that Four Corners. He meant the four corners of the continental U.S.: Blaine, WA; San Diego, CA; Key West, FL; and Madawaska, at the northern tip of Maine. It would be around 11,000 miles for me, and would also take me through the last four states in the lower 48 that I have not visited: FL, NH, VT, and ME. I also have never been to Alaska or Hawaii. I know! I know! I lived in Seattle for years! How could I not have gone to Alaska AND Hawaii?

They’re on my list.

Happy travels,

Eric

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October 2012. By land, from Kansas

Today, we end our journey to the Pacific. But first, some coffee and a quick breakfast in the yurt.

A sweet little setup that is becoming more common in western state campgrounds. There are lots of cabins, too. The yurt is built on a platform and covered by a heavy canvas and vinyl skin.

They are heated and have electricity, a small desk and a shaving cabinet on the wall. Five people and gear could sleep in one. $40 a night. Bathroom down the hall. Recommended.

I went up to Point Adams, at the tip of the south jetty near the mouth of the river, and looked across at the steep, rocky coastline where the Expedition had tried to camp in such miserable conditions before moving to this side.

Too steep to camp over there, I’d say.

Trestle Bay, aka Jetty Lagoon, is crisscrossed with trestle bridges linking the islands in this estuary.

The bridge from Astoria to the south jetty crosses Young’s Bay, a broad tidal flat that was covered with thousands of waterfowl apparently floating on the surface. But they were not floating. They were standing in less than an inch of water, dipping their beaks into the water and sand, eating the water plants and bugs and perhaps small fish. I headed over to the other side of the jetty, back to the Fort Stevens beach, for a daylight look at the Oregon coast.

Just 15 minutes after low tide, the broad, shallow waves rolled forever across the smooth beach.

But just a few dozen yards into the mild-mannered surf, with waves just a couple feet tall…

logs roll and collide, rocks tumble, ships come to grief. Don’t turn your back on the sea, says a safety poster at the ranger station. Check out what the tide brought in:

These massive pieces of driftwood roll around in the shallow waves, in water juuust deep enough to conceal them. There is a couple walking toward me in this picture. They were headed back to the park. They’re somewhere over on the right (maybe in the shade of the dune), but they are so small in comparison to the logs that I can’t remember where they were. Click to enlarge (for all the pix!).

With the beach to myself, I walked over to the wreck of the Peter Iredale, a steel four-masted sailing barque that was blown aground here, just south of the mouth of the Columbia, in October of 1906, a victim of fog, a rapidly-rising tide, and a strong northwest wind. Its accessibility and dramatic state of repose probably make it the most photographed shipwreck in the world.

Tillamook Head viewed through the wreckage

I walked out to where I thought the waves might reach. They glided up the nearly-level beach, huge herds of water molecules, advancing in 1-inch swells, covering their predecessors, each wave broadening anew like a geisha’s fan.

I reached out to touch the water as it surrounded me, sipped a drop from my finger: salt, fish, grit. The ocean. We made it.

Time to go.

I reached into the sea once more, splashed a few symbolic drops of transcontinental communion on the moto, bid goodbye to the Pacific,

and we turned to face the rising sun. Homeward bound.

Looking back up the Columbia. Eastbound and down.

The first few miles of my return trip were spent getting over to Fort Clatsop, the Expedition’s home during the winter of 1805-6.

On Nov 15, the party moved from their north-shore camp of five days to one about 3 miles farther west, around the point which today anchors the north end of the Astoria Bridge. They moved from one side of the future bridge to the other. They stuck it out for 10 more days near Chinook Point before the captains decided they had to move. They presented the Corps with three choices: stay on the north side, head back upstream to the falls at The Dalles, or cross to the south side of the bay and see what was there before deciding. The members of the Corps, including both Sacagawea and Clark’s slave York, voted with one exception to explore the southern side.

Returning 15 miles upriver, they crossed and camped for 12 days along the shore east of today’s Astoria, OR. On Nov 29, an exploratory party of six rounded the point on which Astoria now sits, paddled across the bay and about 2 miles up the small Netul River (now named Lewis and Clark River), where they found flat ground 30 feet above the tidal pool, with spring water, plenty of accessible timber, and lots of elk. “A most eligable situation,” declared Clark. On the side of a pine tree, he carved: “William Clark December 3 1805. By Land from the U. States in 1804 and 1805.”

They immediately began construction of the fort, and named it after the Clatsop tribe who lived along the southwest side of the bay. The Corps spent all of December building, finishing on Jan 1, 1806. It rained every single day.

A replica of the fort stands on the original site of Fort Clatsop.

The forest on the southwestern bay is dominated by sitka spruce, western hemlock, and red cedar. The sitka in this picture is less than 110 years old–it’s also actually much taller than it looks. Sitkas can live up to 700 years, and the tallest trees in the world are sitkas over 300 feet tall.

The replica is the third built on this site. The original, made of untreated wood, rotted away quickly in the 70 annual inches of rainfall. A replica of the fort was constructed on the Expedition’s 150th anniversary, in 1955, but it was lost in a fire in 2005. The current replica was built in 2006.

Charbonneau family quarters

Enlisted men’s quarters

The Expedition camped here, trading with and learning from the Clatsops, or “dried fish people,” from December 7, 1805 until March 23, 1806. During this time, Lewis observed their incredible canoeing skills. He saw racks of drying fish he estimated at over 10,000 lbs. Mmmm…dried fish.

The three months at Fort Clatsop, despite the abundance of game (131 elk, 20 deer killed), was, as Ambrose writes, “more a prison than a fortification.” Nothing but elk and deer with occasional whale blubber. The food, the rain, the chores–life was a slog. Lewis spent the time recording his scientific observations, describing the people, the land, the animals, the plants. Among the hundreds of specimens in his notes and in his collection of samples, there were 24 new animal species and 10 new plant species. Clark spent the winter finishing his map of the continent, perhaps the single most important product of the Expedition. The map showed the bad news: there was no Northwest Passage.

There a statue of Sacagawea, in honor of the Shoshone guide, counselor and interpreter, along the trail to the fort. The bronze depicts her with her infant son, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau. At the time the party moved into the fort at Clatsop, the child was 11 months old.

After the Expedition, Sacagawea and her husband, Toussaint, moved back to the Mandan settlements near the Knife River until 1809, then to St. Louis, where she entrusted the child to William Clark, who had moved to St. Louis. In 1811, she and Toussaint moved back up the Missouri River, to Fort Manuel Lisa, a trading post near modern-day Omaha, NE, where she died in 1812. At time of her death, the young Shoshone guide for the Corps of Discovery was just 25 years old.

Young Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau had been born on Feb 11, 1805, in the Mandan villages at the Knife River, where the Expedition spent the winter of 1804-5. He traveled every mile of the journey into the truly unknown (to any Euro-American) lands of the west. And he returned. After Sacagawea and Toussaint Charbonneau returned to St. Louis, Jean-Baptiste lived with William Clark, and was enrolled in the St. Louis Academy in 1820, now known as St. Louis University High School. Clark paid just over $8.00 per quarter for tuition. 160 years later, I enrolled in the same school.

Jean-Baptiste moved from St. Louis to present-day Kansas City, KS, then spent 6 years in Europe, then returned to St. Louis before moving west. He worked as a trapper, hunter, and fur trader, then as a military scout, wagon train leader, and gold prospector. He died in Oregon in 1865.

It rained and hailed in the week before the party left Fort Clatsop. On March 23 1806, Clark wrote: “The rain seased and it became fair about Meridian, at which time we loaded our canoes & at 1 P. M. left Fort Clatsop on our homeward bound journey.”

I did, too. I headed for the Astoria Bridge and crossed to the WA side for my return to Portland, OR.

View from OR of Astoria-Megler Bridge, 4.1 miles long, completed in 1966.

Construction had traffic down to one lane, so I snapped a couple more pix while we waited at the top of the 360-degree entrance ramp.

Looking up the Columbia above Astoria, OR.

The view from the bridge, looking toward the port of Astoria and the Pacific Ocean.

The area where the Expedition first camped upon arriving at the mouth of the Columbia can be seen in this picture:

“Roughing it” doesn’t quite do it justice.

A rest area and park mark the site of their miserable experience:

Their second camp is just around the point at the left of this picture:

Hmm…rocky and steep over there, too.

The Expedition stayed on the south coast for their trip back up the Columbia. I took the north side highways 401 and 409 back to Portland.

North shore waypoint in-joke for the family–Duffy’s in Gray’s River, WA.

I rolled back along the heavily-forested, hilly riverside road, thankful that neither I nor the BMW had experienced any illness, fatigue, or mechanicals. And thankful for 8 days of perfect weather. At Longview, I joined I-5 for the last few miles into Portland, OR, for a night on the town with Paige, who is flying out to join me for a celebratory dinner and a toast to a successful trip. One of our favorite splurges in the U.S.: dinner at Veritable Quandary and a room overlooking the garden at the ultra-modern Modera.

Knowing Paige would be waiting at the end of the continent was a powerful motivator! Also, there was chocolate soufflé.

It was another beautiful night on the patio, in every way the most beautiful night of all.

Cheers!

Very happy travels. 105 miles today in a few hours. Total mileage: 2853.

Tomorrow, we all head home.

Down the Columbia

I set out for the Pacific Ocean this morning from Camp Orofino. The moonset over the  Clearwater River downstream from camp:

Early start since the campsite itself didn’t have any people to talk to and I had close to 500 miles to ride to reach Astoria and the mouth of the Columbia. Plus another 20 or so to the campground at Fort Stevens. Another oatmeal breakfast as the sun came up on the last westward day of the trip. The lights of Orofino’s bridge district can be seen a couple miles upstream.

Gonna take it to the bridge.

I headed back up and crossed over the Clearwater River to return to Hwy 12 toward WA. Just downstream, the Clearwater’s North Fork runs in from the northeast. It is impounded by the Dvorshak dam, creating the reservoir and state park I’d seen on the map yesterday. The dam is almost two miles upstream from the mouth of the North Fork, but it’s visible from the shore opposite:

Here’s a closer look:

Ya, it’s tall! At 717 feet tall, this dam is the third-tallest dam in the United States after Oroville (CA, 770 ft.) and of course the Hoover dam (AZ, 726 ft., sez Wikipedia), and the highest of its kind anywhere (a “straight axis gravity” dam). The reservoir behind it is 53 miles long! There is a steelhead hatchery on the point in the foreground, established as mitigation for the dam’s blockade of steelhead and salmon from their spawning waters upstream on the North Fork.

The dam was completed in 1973. Here’s an artist’s depiction of the 19th-century confluence area, from a state park placard:

This huge dam project on a small river was embroiled in controversy from the outset.

In his guidebook, Idaho for the Curious, Cort Conley wrote, “There have always been more politicians than suitable damsites. Building the highest straight axis gravity dam in the Western Hemisphere, on a river with a mean flow of 5,000 cubic feet per second, at a cost of $312 million, in the name of flood-control, is the second-funniest joke in Idaho. The funniest joke is inside the visitor center: a government sign entreats, ‘Help protect this delicate environment for future generations.’ The North Fork of the Clearwater was an exceptional river with a preeminent run of steelhead trout, and the drainage contained thousands of elk and white-tail deer. The Army Corps of Engineers proceeded to destroy the river, habitat, and fish; then acquired 5,000 acres for elk management and spent $21 million to build the largest steelhead hatchery in the world, maintaining at a cost of $1 million dollars a year what nature had provided for nothing.”

This reminds me of the old Indian proverb/joke:  “When the white man found this land, Indians were running it. There were no taxes, no debt, plenty of fish, plenty of deer, clean running water. Women did all the work. The medicine man was free. Indian men spent all day hunting and fishing; all night having sex. Only the white man could be dumb enough to think he could improve on a system like that.”

The proximity of this structure to small towns and to the numerous parks and campgrounds near the mouth of the river–along with its history of structural problems–makes me think of the Taum Sauk reservoir breach in SE Missouri. In 2005, the overfill system failed, allowing the reservoir to overflow, washing away a portion of the northern retaining wall and leading to a catastrophic release of 1.5 billion gallons of water in twenty minutes. The campground below, one of the most popular in MO, was completely inundated with a 20-foot flood of muddy water, huge boulders, and massive trees swept from the heavily-forested slopes of Proffitt Mountain. The only thing that kept it from being an even larger disaster was the date: Dec. 14. Had this occurred during a summer weekend, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people would have been killed instantly. On the morning of the breach, five people living in the park–the park superintendent and his family–were swept away in their house, but all survived!

On dams and the massive projects which accompany them: these are trade-offs we make–and accept–as a civilization. Every time we flip on a light, camp in a scenic lakeside state park, enjoy a California orange or a Washington wine, or bake a loaf of bread grown from irrigated Kansas wheatfields. Compromises on behalf of our own advances: irrigation, recreation, drinking water, flood control.

But that’s enough sexism, racism and politics for one post. And this is not a blog about dams.

Lewis and Clark landed here after their grueling search for navigable water ended when they reached the Clearwater. They then marched downstream until they reached this large grove of Ponderosa pines that grew on the left side of the river. Here, the Expedition camped for ten days in order to make canoes for the remainder of the journey. The site is called Canoe Camp.

These tree trunks are parallel, it’s just hard to get a good vertical panorama. The Ponderosa is perfect for making dugout canoes: its wood is easy to work, and its long, straight trunk is free of knots. The Corps’s boats could carry 7 men and half a ton of equpment and supplies. The boats were huge and difficult to maneuver. Clarks’ canoe sprung a leak in just the third set of rapids they encountered. They overturned numerous times, risking supplies and lives in the swift, rocky water.

This dugout is about 40 ft. long. The party made one this large, and four more, each 50 ft. long!

The Clearwater winds down to the Snake River on today’s WA/ID state line, carving its shallow valley into the basalt and sediment. The river drops 300 feet in about 40 miles.

US 12 follows the river all the way to Lewiston, ID, on the WA state line. There, it joins the Snake River, known in these parts as Lower Granite Lake.

Looking upstream from the bridge over the Snake River. Lewiston, ID on the left. Clarkston, WA, on the right.

Looking downstream at Lower Granite Reservoir. Clarkston, WA, on the left. Lewiston, ID, on the right. Photoshop skills waning.

The Snake continues NW, then W into the Palouse region of east central WA, while US 12 heads W, then SW, crossing the Tucannon River, then following the Touchet River for 10 miles before arriving in Walla Walla, where I grabbed a few more envelopes of freeze-dried backpacker food. The region has been a major wheat-producing center since before the Civil War.

Tilled wheatfields. Just like Kansas, only with mountains.

Also flyover country. Contrails near Walla Walla.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, there are numerous fires burning in WA. This one was was less than a mile from Walla Walla’s city limits.

The central mountains of WA are the site of dozens of much larger fires. They are all well north of my route, with two notable exceptions burning near the I-84 corridor through the Columbia River Gorge. The OR side fire is mostly contained, and the WA is one ridge removed from the gorge.

It’s 30 miles of rolling prairie and river valley through Touchet, where US 12 drops down to the Walla Walla River, finally to the gates of the Columbia.

Looking back upstream, just south of the Snake River.

Or, as they call it around here, Lake Wallula, which is created by the McNary Dam almost 20 miles south of the mouth of the Walla Walla. US 12 turns north toward the Tri-Cities, which bristle with hydro-electric generation and nuclear waste storage, while Hwy 730 falls in along the southern shore of the Columbia River–I mean, Lake Wallula. Where the river once crashed its way from the inland plateau toward its titanic collision with the Pacific Ocean, there is now still, deep water up to the max-fill line: I-84. But the high gorges remain.

The road clings to the water, with a few excursions to the ridge tops, many of which were covered in windmills. These creatures of the wind seemed to be getting along with their hydro-powered brethren of the waters:

Wind power above the John Day Dam.

Sculpted by a once-raging river.

Along the Columbia. I mean, Lake Umatilla.

The passenger train The Pioneer ran on the tracks along the Columbia as part of its service from Chicago to Seattle until it was discontinued in 1997.

Lots of pull-outs for fishing, boating, windsurfing and kayaking. Watch out crossing the interstate.

Approaching The Dalles, smoke from yet another fire began to fill the valley.

Lake Celilo, just east of The Dalles.

On October 24, Lewis and Clark arrived here with their canoes to find a tremendous falls and rapids. The entire river passed over a falls of 20 feet, swept through a opening of 45 yards, then another falls of 8 feet, then another 40-yard opening. This was later known as the Short Narrows of The Dalles. Clark described this gorge as an “agitated gut-swelling, boiling and whorling in every direction,” but believed, along with their best waterman Peter Crusatte, that they could pass the Dalles in their canoes!

And they did, with the numerous lodges of locals turned out to watch the daredevil white men run the rapids. The picture above is taken alongside Lake Celilo, named for the underwater city of Celilo and the falls which once existed here. About 100 members of the Yakima tribe had inhabited Celilo until it was submerged in 1957. At that time, Celilo was the oldest continually inhabited place in North America. I proceeded on.

At The Dalles, WA, the dam is a run-of-the-river type, meaning it does not control the flow of water or store water. But a shallow lake still forms behind it.

There are two large fires on the south slope of the Columbia valley, near Hood River and Mosier, OR, just 15 miles downstream from The Dalles. They were both over 50% contained, but their stubborn remnants and a few new, smaller fires still put out plenty of smoke.

The party made one more difficult run through the rapids at the Cascade of the Columbia (now covered by the lake behind the Bonneville Dam), before arriving at the first sign of tidal waters, near today’s Beacon Rock. They were still almost 150 miles from the ocean, but they were getting close. They passed Multnomah Falls on their left:

I arrived in Portland around 4 p.m.

Crossing the Willamette, looking downstream (north) toward Sauvie Island.

Downtown Portland, where I-84 ends and US 30 and crosses the Willamette River (pronounced will AM it), is about 5 miles upstream from the actual mouth of the Willamette. On the way northwest on US 30, I passed under the St. Johns Bridge.

Bridge with lamppost in the foreground.

Another 5 miles downstream to the north, Sauvie island divides the main channel of the Columbia from the mouth of the Willamette. The Expedition camped on the north bank of the Columbia, across from this island. According to Ambrose, they did not realize the Willamette joined the Columbia on the other side of the island. Today, Sauvie Island is home to about one thousand people. They, like everyone in the Porland-Seattle corridor, are very close to a lot of volcanoes.

The view from above US 30 just south of Scappoose. I think Mounts St. Helens and Adams are not quite visible to the northeast in the center of the pic. Mt. Hood is hazy behind the towers at right.

Here’s a slightly better shot of St. Helens (left, 8364 ft.) and Adams (right, over 12,000). Adams is farther away.

The pics aren’t great but it was a convenient overlook above US 30, looking to the east.  I continued past Longview and its long bridge:

The wide confluence valley where the Willamette meets the Columbia is ten miles across, but narrows to about 2 miles just west of Longview and continues for another 40 miles westward. At about 20 miles from the ocean, the Columbia widens and becomes quite shallow.

Looking across to the WA side of the Columbia Bar. The Expedition tried to camp at the base of the hills.

The Columbia meets the Pacific across the Columbia Bar, a shifting, dangerous, three-mile-wide, six-mile-long navigational hazard formed by the flow of sediments in the river and the force of the tides and waves of the ocean. The channel is dredged and there is a special squad of ship captains who board and pilot all ships over the bar. The area is known as the Graveyard of Ships. Over 2000 shipwrecks have occurred here, the most recent in 2002, when a crab ship ran aground 5 miles south of the Columbia’s opening to the sea. In the last 30 years, 16 wrecks have claimed 26 lives.

The weather and tides are infamous on the northwest coast, and the Corps experienced the worst of it during their short stay on the north side of the opening. They also struggled with theft and very hard bargaining by the Indians they met in the last 200 miles of the Columbia. For ten straight days, rain and wind soaked the explorers and their gear; their canoes filled with water; they camped in driving rainstorms; they were beset by fleas. Still, once below the Cascades, they traveled over thirty miles a day on the fast-moving river.

Lewis and Clark arrived on the north side of the broad opening to the Pacific on November 7, 1805, near Pillar Rock, and camped almost 20 miles from the sea. Looking out over the huge estuary, they thought they saw the ocean. Clark wrote; “Ocian in view! O! The joy!” Lewis wrote that there was “great joy in camp, as we are in view of the Ocian, this great Pacific Octean which we have been so long anxious to see. and the roreing or noise made by the waves brakeing on the rockey shores may be heard distinctly.”

The horrible weather continued for the duration of their stay on the north shore. It rained for 11 straight days. It hailed. The wind blew water from the river onto the hillsides where the party crouched. Clark wrote: “…our present situation a verry disagreeable one…we have not leavel land sufficient for an encampment clear of the tide, the high hills jutting in so close and steep that we cannot retreat back, and the water too salt to be used, added to this the waves are increasing to such a hight that we cannot move from this place…all very wet and disagreeable”

Their canoes were tossed by the waves. “Every exertion by the party was scercely sufficient to save our canoes from being crushed by those monsterous trees maney of them nearly 200 feet long and 4 to 7 feet through. our camp entierly under water dureing the hight of the tide. At this dismal point we must spend another night as the wind & waves are too high to proceed.”

Nov. 11: “Wind verry high from the SW with most temendious waves brakeing with great violence against the shores, rain falling in torrents. we are all wet as usial–and our situation is truly a disagreeable one; the great quantities of rain which has loosened the stones on the hill sides; and the stones fall down upon us, our canoes at one place at the mercy of the waves, our baggage in another; and our selves and party scattered on floating logs and such dry spots as can be found on the hills sides, and crevices of rocks. rained all day.”

Nov. 12: “Tremendious wind from the SW, with lightineng and hard claps of thunder and hail which continued until 6 a.m.” Nov. 13: “rain continued this morning…tide came in with great fury. Nothing to eat but pounded fish.” Nov. 14: “Rained all the last night without intermition, and this morning, wind blows verry hard. one of our canoes is much broken by the waves.”

The party needed a place to spend the winter, and the north shore, with its steep, rocky terrain, would be impossible. Lewis went to explore the south shore after getting reports from some visiting Indians that game and timber, as well as inhabitable land, were more plentiful on the southern side. 24 days after arriving in view of the Pacific, the party moved to a location about two miles inland from the coast, on the western shore of the Netul River, one of the many tidal creeks which lace the southern margin of the estuary. It is now known as the Lewis and Clark River. There, they build a 50 x 50-foot log stockade and named it Fort Clatsop. It would be their winter home until March, 1806.

I arrived at the ocean under fair skies with a few clouds, just in time to grab a key for a yurt and make it down to the beach for sunset.

A kitesurfer skipped across the low waves as an ocean liner crossed the horizon.

To the south, Tillamook Head stuck out into the Pacific.

The wreck of the Peter Iredale sinks into the beach. It ran aground in Oct., 1906, and was swallowed by the sands before weather abated enough to allow a salvage attempt. the ship was 285 feet long.

A bystander offered to take a picture of me with the bike. With my eyes closed.

And the Beemer takes a bow. 2748 miles covered.

I turned to the east with a fistpump and a shout out to every mile I’d just traveled. A shout of triumph, relief, and gratitude for the chance to travel this beautiful country. Yessss! in my best Ed McMahon. I headed to my very nice yurt, started dinner, and dreamed of tomorrow’s date with Paige, who is flying into Portland to meet me! What a life!

528 miles from Orofino to Astoria. The Corps spent 30 days traveling from Canoe Camp to the mouth of the Columbia. I made the trip in just over 10 hours.

Across the Great Divide

I awoke before dawn to the delightful sound of the Salmon River running past my balcony window.

The Salmon River, with the Bitterroot Mountains in the background.

I jumped up and headed downstream to the mouth of the Lemhi River at its confluence with the Salmon.

Much of the shoreline is on private property, but I saw a woman sitting on her porch as I poked along the road looking for access to the water. She said I could walk down behind her house for the picture above, which looks to the SW. Nice setting for a house, or a hotel.

The valley between the Bitterroots (on the east) and the Lemhi Mountains (on the west) was the homeland of the Shoshones. Sacagawea had been kidnapped by a Hidatsa war party around 1800 at the age of 12, and taken to North Dakota, where she met Toussaint Charbonneau, who became her husband. Four years later, Meriwether Lewis recognized her value as a guide and Shoshone interpreter when he hired Charbonneau as an interpreter of Hidatsa, a language spoken among tribes of the northern plains. When the Expedition arrived at the Lemhi River, Sacagawea was reunited with her brother, Cameahwait (who was by then Chief of the Lemhi Shoshone), and one of the other women taken prisoner by the Hidatsas.

It was Cameahwait who told the party of the Indians who traveled to the waters of the Columbia, and that their route was ten miles plus three day’s walk north of the mouth of the Lemhi. Lewis wrote that Cameahwait told them that ‘the road was a very bad one…and they had suffered excessively with hunger on the rout being obliged to subsist for many days on berries alone as there was no game in that part of the mountains which were broken rockey and so thickly covered with dense timber that they could scarcely pass.” De Voto describes this information as “vital” and “correct.”

Lewis continues: “knowing that Indians had passed, and did pass, at this season…my rout was instantly settled in my own mind. if the Indians could pass the mountains with their women and Children, that we could also pass them.”

I returned to the hotel for a u-cook waffle breakfast, managing to make the last one before the breaker box gave out from the strain of two waffle makers, two toasters, and twenty other electrical breakfast and foodservice devices. I sat across from a Boise couple who were on a 3-day, 2-night motorcycle loop from Boise to Kooskia to Salmon and back. They were 2-up on a Harley and were headed back to Boise after breakfast. There were four other Harleys in the lot, one was an Ultra Classic with an amazing iridescent blue and purple paint job. The owner’s son was a firefighter and was camped just north of Salmon.

The river valley north and south of the town of Salmon, ID, was the temporary home of thousands of firefighters, smokejumpers, helicopter pilots, and national guard personnel who were engaged with the Mustang fire complex, just northwest of Salmon.

I proceeded on down the Salmon. I passed this camp as I was headed north on US 93 toward Lolo, which is about 10 miles S of Missoula.

Firefighters and National Guard camp north of Salmon, ID.

The wind was blowing the smoke from Mustang across the Selway Wilderness and into the adjacent valley to the east.

In this valley, accompanied by a Shoshone guide called Toby, the Expedition got a difficult start on their search for navigable waters to the Pacific. It snowed on Sep 3 and 4, 1805, as they descended the Salmon, ascended Lost Trail Pass (losing three horses during the grueling climb), and met with the Salish Indians in the Bitterroot River valley. They confirmed Cameahwait’s information. The tribe who traveled this route, between the waters of the Missouri and the waters of the Columbia, were the Nez Perce.

I followed the Salmon to North Fork, where the river turns west into the Salmon-Challis Nat’l Forest. Lewis and Clark explored the Salmon, and found it to be impassable by boat or by foot. Its rapids were too steep and dangerous to paddle, and its high, rocky canyon walls provided no purchase. Hence, their exploration of a more northern route.

I continued north up the very twisty road to Lost Trail Pass, elev. 7014 ft. Descending from the pass, I picked up the Bitterroot River headed north. The Bitterroot valley has been heavily burned on its western slope. Most structures on the valley floor remain untouched by fire, but the hills have been laid bare.

At Lolo, MT, I gassed up at a non-ethanol pump (two other riders arrived and waited in line for the good gas while I was there) before starting up US 12 to Lolo Pass. Here, on Sept. 9, 1805, at the mouth of today’s Lolo Creek, the Corps established a camp called Traveler’s Rest, which would also serve as a base camp during their return trip over the mountains. They met their first Nez Perce, who described a route which was “five sleeps wich is six days travel” to his relations on the Columbia River.

They camped for three days, then proceeded up Lolo Creek, again crossing the Divide on a road Clark described as “verry fine leavel open and firm.” In three days, they crossed just south of Lolo Pass and encamped on the 14th at today’s White Sands Creek, which they called Killed Colt Creek. The road had turned bad, a sleetstorm had enveloped the Bitterroots, and they had found no game and were forced to eat one of their horses. Clark describes the road as “much worst than yesterday…we wer compelled to kill a Colt to eat and named the South fork Colt killed Creek.”

Mt. Lolo peeks out from the Bitterroots just south of US12.

The road ascends from the town of Lolo (elev. 3200 ft.) to Lolo pass (elev. 5235 ft.) in about 20 miles, and then begins a wonderfully scenic and enjoyable descent toward Lowell.

Woo hoo!

Just a few miles over the pass, US12 joins the Lochsa River all the way to its confluence with the Selway River and on down to the Clearwater River. The road is stunningly beautiful and an entertaining ride on a motorcycle! There are numerous Lewis and Clark sites along the river. In a grove of red cedars on the north side of the road, there is also a memorial to Bernard De Voto, whose book I’m carrying.

But the river is the thing.

As I mentioned yesterday, US12 and the Lochsa River are the northern edge of the Mustang fire.

Mustang fire map–the red line running from upper right to middle left is US12.

The hot spots in the northwestern part of the fire are quite close to the road. How close?

Mocus fire along Hwy 12

This is the Mocus fire, about 100 meters across the river from the road. Most of the upper Lochsa valley was smoke-filled:

The road was a slow cruise downhill to the west from Lolo pass, out of the smoke and down to the confluence of the Lochsa with the Selway River at Lowell, ID.

The Lochsa (right of the sand bar) flows into the Selway (foreground)

The Selway flows into the Clearwater River, which continues in a 50-mile arc to the NW from Kooskia, ID to its confluence with the Snake at Lewiston, at the WA state line.

The Expedition descended with great difficulty on both sides of the Lochsa and the surrounding valleys, climbing, descending, with horses often losing footing and tumbling down the precipitous mountainsides, which had been strewn with timber as a result of wind and fire. On Sept. 15, five miles below Killed Colt Creek, the party left the difficult Lochsa valley, headed north 5 miles and found the Nez Perce trail, which they followed along the ridge to the north of the Lochsa. What followed was a week of suffering and near-starvation condtions with only two more colts to eat–the last of their edible supplies.  It snowed, rained, sleeted. The horse carrying Clark’s desk and journals fell and the desk was destroyed. Two more horses gave out, “pore and too much hurt to proceed on.” They arrived at the top of a mountain to camp, and saw only “high ruged mountains in every direction as far as I could see.”

On the 16th, it snowed all day: 8 inches. Clark saw 4 deer and tried to shoot a large buck. His gun failed 7 consecutive snaps. Inspecting his weapon, he remarked, “what is singular is that my gun has a Steel fuzee and never snaped 7 time before…found the flint loose.” He proceeded on. At noon, his small advance party halted atop a of the mountain “to worm and dry or Selves a little as well as to let our horses rest and graze…I have been wet and as cold in every part as ever was in my life.” They proceeded on in freezing misery: “to describe the road of this day would be a repitition of yesterday except the Snow which made it much worse.”

The party was sick, miserable,”verry cold and much fatigued.” The next day, they found a wandering horse–evidence of nearby Nez Perce! On Sept. 20., Clark, in advance of the party, descended into the Wieppe Prairie in the valley adjacent to the Lochsa and reached a Nez Perce village about 5 miles above the confluence of the Lochsa with the Clearwater River. Finally after almost a month, often with “nothing to eat but dried fish and roots,” they descended this hillside

to finally reach navigable water: the Clearwater River, called by the Nez Perce the koos koos kee (and namesake of the modern town of Kooskia). They proceeded ten more miles down the Clearwater to another Nez Perce village, where they met Twisted Hair, a chief who would help guide them down the Columbia.

They had crossed the Rocky Mountains. They had reached the waters that would take them to the Pacific Ocean. As De Voto describes: “The expedition had made 160 miles since it left Traveler’s Rest eleven days ago. It was one of the great forced marches in American history.”

The party spent a week in Twisted Hair’s village, recovering from dysentery, gas and violent illness from their change from a meat diet to one of salmon and camas roots. While the party (including Lewis) lay disabled in camp, Clark continued with Twisted Hair 5 more miles down to the mouth of the modern North Fork of the Clearwater, camping where they could find the Ponderosa pines suitable for making five dugout canoes to continue the trip downstream.

I had hoped to get into WA a few miles before camping, but as usual, I’d pfaffed about a few too many hours in the morning along the Salmon River, so I started looking for the Dworshak State Park, dam and reservoir, which appears on the atlas to be right next to the town of Orofino, ID. When I got to Orofino, a sign said the park was still 27 miles away! That’s a 54 mile side-trip, but off I went. Fortunately, on the road up past the dam, just three miles downstream from the Orofino bridge, there is a small state fishing camp. And it’s a free campground. I pulled in and cruised downstream past the 10 riverside sites. There were 2 super-crappy-looking trailers that obviously had been there for months. Or longer. There was also one RV at the far end which appeared to be a traveler. I headed back to the most upstream site and set up. The place appeared to have been used for local partiers, with some beer cans and fast food trash around, most of it in the fire pit. Some not.

North Idaho campout!

I pitched camp and got dinner going, then went down to the river.

Looking down the Clearwater from near Orofino, ID

316 miles in 8 hours. The Expedition spent 30 days getting from the mouth of the Lemhi to the Clearwater River.

“To follow a creek is to seek a new acquaintance with life”

This quote comes from a passage by Peter Steinhart, quoted by William Least-Heat Moon in “PrairyErth,” his 624-page book about Chase County, KS. In it, the author makes a deep examination of the history, people, and land of a small part of the Kansas prairie. Highly recommended! Speaking of following creeks:

Great Falls, MT to Salmon, ID. This is the day.

The Gates to the Mountains. The Big Hole River. The Jefferson. The Beaverhead. Trail Creek. The headwaters of the Missouri.

Lemhi Pass.

In my Great Falls hotel pillow pile, with the curtain drawn against the thrum of River Drive traffic, I slept in, then had a leisurely waffle breakfast and wrote for an hour and a half, then wasted thirty minutes going to a hardware store on the west side of Great Falls looking for a fix for my cruise control.  Turns out they didn’t have a washer thin enough. Turns out I did already, in my kit of spares: a thin plastic one which I could cut and widen into a C shape. Worked perfectly. Now I can set the throttle, climb in the backseat and fix a snack responsibly at 75 mph. (65 in Oregon *frown*)

That said, this machine has been flawless on this trip. And by flawless I mean totally, monstrously, indubitably awesome!

The first section of the trip, from Great Falls to Helena, is the cure for what ails any interstate avoider. The highway follows the river quite closely, headed upstream to the SW, passing Tower Rock, threading between spires of granite, twisting and turning, leaving and rejoining the river.

The Dearborn River joins from the west

Much of the route of I-15 is along (or on top of) the route of Old US 91, which is now more preferred by drivers and motorcyclists who have the time. I did not, thanks to my morning lollygagging. One place I definitely wanted to see was the Gates of the Rocky Mountains, which Lewis described on July 19. 1805.

The west portal at the Gates to the Rocky Mountains.

Here, Lewis wrote of “the most remarkable clifts that we have yet seen. These clifts rise from the waters edge on either side perpendicularly to the hight of 1200 feet…the river appears to have forced it’s way through this immence body of solid rock for the distance of 5-3/4 miles and where it makes it’s exit below has thrown on either side vast columns of rocks mountains high.” Today, this viewpoint sits upon private land which has been set aside for this purpose just a half-mile from the highway.

Grabbed a sandwich at a Helena off-ramp and headed east on Route 287 to visit the Missouri Headwaters State Park in Three Forks. I had spent a night there while moving to Seattle in 1990. It is where the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin Rivers meet to form the Missouri. In 1805, James Madison was Secretary of State, and Albert Gallatin was Secretary of the Treasury. Lewis wrote on July 8, 1805: “We called the S.W. fork, that which we meant to ascend, Jefferson’s River in honor of that illustrious personage Thomas Jefferson [the author of our enterprize.] the Middle fork we called Madison’s River…and the S.E. Fork we called Gallitin’s River. the two first are 90 yards wide and the last is 70 yards.” It’s also the place where the water is first called Missouri.

But I was headed out of East Helena on 287 when I saw a very large orange sign that said, ”Road under construction: motorcycles use alternate route.”  Disappointing, but it sounded serious and I can take a hint. The moto weighs 615 + 85 luggage + me in my heavy armored gear and boots and helmet—the whole enchilada is around 900 lbs. With 40 miles of steep, twisty gravel roads already on the route today, I was going to be concentrating hard and going slow, so I didn’t want to A) ignore a pretty clear caution, risking at best a slow, rough ride and the derision of road workers who told me so; or b) get delayed when the last quarter of my route was mostly remote gravel mountain backroads miles from anyone.

If many of the pictures from today seem smoky, it’s because the west is on fire. In WA alone, over 60 fires are burning right now. In Idaho, in the conflagration known as the Mustang fire complex, which produced the smoke in today’s pictures, three 100-square mile fires burn along the south edge of the Lochsa River valley west of Lolo Pass. US 12 follows the Lochsa. That’s my route to the west tomorrow.

I-15 crosses a finger-like projection of the crest of the Continental Divide, formed by the head valley of the Clark Fork and including Butte, so the highway crosses from the Missouri to the Columbia watersheds and back again in about 20 miles.

It’s also where the first Rocky Mountains come into view. As a midwestern river kid who was fortunate to have parents who traveled the nation, and particularly the west, extensively and took me and my three, then five, siblings along, my earliest memories are peering out the front of a Galaxie 500 waiting for the mountains to appear as we made our way from St. Louis to the west. Or was it in the Squareback? Could have been the VW bus or the Econoline.

Northern edge of the Tower Rock formation near Hardy, MT. I can see the mountains!

Elk Park Pass near Butte, elev. 6368 ft. Clark Fork, at the bottom of the smoke-filled valley, drains to the Columbia.

Our Lady of the Rockies at 8,000 ft. above Elk Park Pass.

Deer Lodge Pass, 15 mi. south of Butte, elev. 5902 ft. At the bottom of the next valley is the Big Hole River, which flows into the Missouri.

Between Divide crossings, I-15 takes a short westbound jaunt along the Clark Fork, which drains to the Pacific, and then heads south again to join the Big Hole river, which drains east to the Jefferson, near which confluence the Expedition camped for a week before their march up the Beaverhead.

As the party approached the headwaters of the Missouri and the homeland of the Shoshones in the late summer of 1805, the guidance of Sacagawea became more and more important. Her knowledge of the area and of their nearness to the Three Forks was a boost to morale—“information that has cheered the sperits of the party,” noted Lewis on July 22—an important point, as the Corps were in bad shape with sickness, injuries, and near-constant exhaustion. As the party ascended the Jefferson toward the Beaverhead, it was Sacagawea who noted the landmarks which led up the pass to the divide.

On August 8, the party had traveled 14 miles up the Jefferson when Sacagawea lifted the spirits of the Expedition again. Lewis wrote: “The Indian woman recognized the point to our right which she informed us was not very distant from the summer retreat of her nation on a river beyond the mountains which runs to the west.” The point was the rock for which the Beaverhead River is named.

This picture is looking to the northeast, down the Beaverhead River, which flows on the left of the valley, just out of the picture.

“She assures us that we shall either find her people on this river or on the river immediately west of its source.” The Lemhi River. “as it is now all important with us to meet with those people as soon as pssible I determined to proceed tomorrow with a small party to the source of the principal stream of this river and pass the mountains to the Columbia.”

The Big Hole River’s source is about 15 miles north of Lemhi Pass and the source of Trail Creek. It winds in a large clockwise path from 9:00 to 3:00, where I-15 runs alongside it for almost 20 miles. Then the Big Hole swings back up to the northeast to the Jefferson, while I-15 continues another 20 miles south to the Beaverhead at Dillon, MT.

Last gas.

Finally, after another 15 miles, I arrived at Clark Canyon reservoir, left the interstate, and headed up tiny route 324 on a course headed west for Lemhi Pass.

Here we go.

Headed up 15 miles of gravel.

On August 12, 1804, Lewis, along with three men (McNeal, Drouillard, and Shields), set out from camp near this site for the pass about 10 miles west. With two of the men on either side of the creek, and Lewis and McNeal near the water, they encountered their first Shoshone, one man on horseback, but Lewis could not signal his flanking men to halt, and the rider turned his horse and disappeared up the trail. Their first introduction was a failure.

Today, the road to the pass is a well-maintained gravel road that ascends into the Bitterroots. Crossing open range and a broad valley south of the gold fields of Bannack, the road becomes steeper and more twisted, with pronghorns and black cows roaming freely. Quite freely. In Great Falls, the hardware store clerk advised me to be very careful if I was headed up after 3 p.m.  As I turned onto the gravel, it was about 4:30 p.m.

These guys had just crossed the road ahead of me.

The road rose quickly to the pass, and after about 12 miles began a series of switchbacks which let me know I was getting near the pass. 2 miles below the pass, “McNeal had exultingly stood with a foot on each side of this little rivulet and thanked his god that he had lived to bestride the mighty & heretofore deemed endless Missouri.” The sign at right commemorates the event:

View east, looking back down Trail Creek.

View east from the top. The brown line of small trees marks the path of Trail Creek, and the road is visible to the left of the creek.

A mile from the top, the road enters the Lemhi Pass National Historic Landmark, then swings north and then back south for one final pitch before arriving at the top. There, on the east side of the pass, about 200 meters below the summit, the U.S. Forest Service has developed two sites.

One is a national monument to Sacagawea, established in 1932. The effort to recognize Sacagawea’s contribution to the success of the Expedition and to the history of the young United States was led by a woman named Laura Tolman Scott, who, along with the citizens of the adjacent counties in MT and ID, campaigned for years to have the site established in Sacagawea’s honor. Ms. Scott lived in Armstead, MT, near the Clark Canyon Reservoir at the bottom of Trail Creek.

The other is a simple rail fence surrounding the spring which I’d come to see. Lewis described the “most distant fountain of the waters of the mighty Missouri in search of which we have spent so many toilsome days and wristless nights. Thus far I had accomplished one of those great objects on which my mind has been unalterably fixed for may years, judge then of the pleasure I felt in allying my thirst with this pure and ice cold water.”

I did the same. Just a little. Giardia and all…

A river springs forth.

At last. I confess to being teary-eyed and emotional at the sight of this, the “farthest fountain” of the great river. But let us dispense with all that sentimental hogwash:

Bestride the mighty Missouri.

Lewis walked to the top and looked west to see this:

Imagine hoping to see a nearby river valley down to the Columbia, much as Trail Creek ran down the east side to the Beaverhead, and instead seeing lofty and forbidding mountain peaks as far as the eye can see.

“I discovered immence ranges of high mountains still to the West of us with their tops partially covered with snow.” Hmm. I don’t see any snow. Maybe it’s the smoke.

Lewis descended 3/4 mile into the valley at the left of the picture and took a drink from one of the headwater creeks of the Lemhi River. They camped ten miles farther down the valley in the hope of a proper meeting. As De Voto writes: “Lewis was deep into Indian country with only three men. He had a frightened Indian reporting back…that strangers were in the area.”

But more importantly, the view confirmed Lewis’s suspicions of the previous days that the main goal of the Expedition–to find a navigable waterway communing with Columbia–would not come to pass. It was clear that no such course existed. It was also clear to Lewis that, having crossed 80% of the continent, the complete drop of the waters of the Columbia watershed would be much steeper on average than anything they’d seen during the trip to date, “having in its comparitively short course to the ocean the same number of feet to decend which the Missouri and Mississippi have from this point to the Gulph of Mexico.”

But first, they had to find navigable water.

I checked out the steep descent to the Lemhi River:

Lewis had described this side as “much steeper” than on the opposite side. This road goes straight down the valley. Starting from the top. I’d guess this road was a 15% grade or more. I took Forest Road 184/5 to the north, to take advantage of its more gentle geometry, although it was 24 miles instead of just 12. I rolled down the road with only one serious pucker moment on a curve with very loose, deep gravel, but got down to ID 28 with plenty of daylight to spare as I joined the Lemhi River.

This valley was the home of Sacagawea’s tribe: the Lemhi Shoshone. The valley is 1-2 miles wide with the Bitterroots on the right as I headed downstream to the north.

The Lemhi runs north to its confluence with the Salmon River in Salmon, ID. That’s where I headed, too.

The Salmon River, Salmon, ID

The view from my room at the Stagecoach Inn, just a hundred meters upstream from the mouth of the Lemhi. It rained overnight, but not enough to wash the dirt of the day’s ride off the bike.

309 miles today in 7.5 hours. The Corps took 28 days to reach Lemhi Pass from Great Falls.

The Missouri Breaks

It rained on and off most of the night during my first night in Montana, but when I awoke below the massive Fort Peck Dam before daylight, a warm wind had picked up and the concrete tabletop in my campsite was dry. Before coffee even, I headed over to the downstream waterside.

The eastern end of the Fort Peck Dam can be seen above this pond

Petrified trees

That’s the Missouri flowing out at 10,000 cubic feet per second, from right to left. Three miles around the bend on the left, the Milk River flows in from the north, carrying the southern Alberta silt which lends its color and name. Lewis described it as “being about the colour of a cup of tea with the admixture of a tablespoonfull of milk.”

Speaking of tea–how about some coffee?

Morning routine

The Milk crosses the U.S.-Canadian border twice after flowing out from its origins near Glacier Park in western Montana. This would have been of interest to Lewis and Clark, who hoped and suspected, like President Jefferson, that the Missouri watershed extended north of the 49th parallel. And it was the watershed of the Missouri which Jefferson intended be the definition of American expansion. The Treaty of 1818 formalized the 49th parallel, thus ending American claims to the northernmost part of Louisiana.

The Milk is the northenmost tributary of the Missouri, and its long, gentle east-west valley became a natural conduit for James Hill’s St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba Railway (later the Great Northern Railway), and for US Highway 2. Before that, the Milk was a travel and trade route for Mandans, Hidatsas, and European trappers. It was also the only known northern tributary of the Missouri. It was my route, too.

The green amidst the gold–the Milk River valley

In a vast dry space Lewis described as “high country on either side of the river one vast plain, intirely destitute of timber back as far as the eye can reach,” the Milk River valley is a 300-mile long oasis paralleling the lake and then the Upper Missouri Breaks. I followed it as far as Havre, where I turned to the southwest on Hwy 87 toward the mouth of the Marias River at Loma. US 2 carries on due west, while the Milk curves to the northwest, where it flows out from under Fresno Dam.

The route traveled by the Expedition lies 200 feet below the surface of Fort Peck Lake. But they also explored the Yellowstone (which westbound I-94 follows upstream to the southwest from where I crossed), and Maria’s River, which Lewis named for his cousin, Maria Wood.

The Marias River at Loma flows in from the west. This picture is 500 meters from its confluence with the Missouri.

The Milk and Marias (modern spellers and historians have dismissed the apostrophe) together provided the Corps with one of their most important choices. Since the Milk, as far as any tribe or trapper had ever reported, was the only known northern tributary of the Missouri, the discovery of the Marias as a north fork was confounding to the Corps. There was a debate about which river to follow, and the captains were outnumbered by the rest, who believed that the northern fork must be the main stem. But Lewis was certain that the southern fork was the Missouri: it was clear, rocky, and characteristic of a river flowing out of the mountains. The north fork was turbid, some gravel but mostly mud–very similar to the Missouri they’d been traveling for so long. This convinced the rest of the party that the north fork was the main river. So they sent six men up each of the branches. Lewis, with his octant, determined in three days that the north fork went too far north. They knew from previous reports that the Missouri curved south, and had a great series of falls after exiting the mountains. Clark came to the same conclusion after two days traveling up the south fork. On June 8, 1805, the parties rejoined and continued their journey up the Missouri and through the Upper Missouri Breaks.

The Missouri Breaks are a long series of canyons which the river has carved into the soft Virgelle sandstone of the northern Montana plains. Lewis and Clark passed through the Breaks in May of 1805. Lewis wrote: “the hills and river clifts which we passed today exhibit a most romantic appearance. The bluffs of the river rise to the hight of from 2 to 300 feet and in most places nearly perpendicular; they are formed of remarkable white sandstone which is sufficiently soft to give way readily to the impression of water…”

From a distance, on the surface of the prairie, the Breaks barely reveal themselves, as the picture above shows. But on the river, they are spectacular.

At the southern end of the Breaks, I dropped back down to the river at Fort Benton, which was established as the most far-flung trading post on the Missouri in 1847 by my fellow St. Louisans, Auguste and Pierre Chouteau, and named for Thomas Hart Benton (the senator from Missouri) by the US Army, which bought the post from John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company in 1865. There is a Lewis and Clark interpretive center there, along with a narrow gauge railway, the Great Falls & Canada Railway, which ran between Lethbridge, Alberta, and Great Falls, Montana, filled with Canadian coal starting in October 1890. For thirty years, before the ascendance of rail in the west, Fort Benton was a major steamboat port for traders coming upstream and for prospectors coming downstream (north) from Montana’s new gold fields near Bannack and Virginia City. It is one of the oldest settlements in the West, and is considered the “birthplace of Montana.”

Sandstone atop a subsurface of Marias River shale at Fort Benton

Southern boundary of the Breaks, just south of Ft. Benton

Back onto 87 for the push to Great Falls. I’d considered trying to get as far as Helena or even Three Forks, but side trips had delayed me so I pulled into Great Falls. The thing about Great Falls is this: the falls are not so great. In fact, they are not so “falls,” either. Rather, they are now a series of dams and small reservoirs along the length of the five cataracts.

Rainbow Falls, the fourth of five falls

The small black truss bridge in the upper left above the dam is 90 feet high. It carried the Chicago Milwaukee Saint Paul and Pacific Railroad. There was another falls just beyond the bridge, but it is submerged under the reservoir created by Rainbow Dam. The rocks still look fearsome, and it’s still possible to imagine the challenge of portaging around them, but only one of the falls (the last of the five) is still open. Lewis reported hearing the falls from a great distance.

After a quick spin around the riverfront area, I found a riverside hotel with a pizzeria next door. With a nice Big Sky Amber Ale, it’s a meal I’m sure the Corps would have enjoyed as much as I did. I’m sure they would have enjoyed the pillows in my room, too.

Meanwhile, my throttle lock has totally failed. Not really a problem for the bike, but after 13 hours of holding the throttle open the last two days, I’m having some difficulty with gripping and writing with my right hand. I have figured the problem out and tomorrow morning, I feex!

Also tomorrow, I will make the crossing over Lemhi Pass, deep in the heart of the Bitterroot Mountains and overlooking the Shoshone homeland of Sacajawea. At the top, I will reach the “farthest fountain” of the Missouri River, a spring at the head of Trail Creek, just a few hundred meters below the pass. My family’s history lies along the Missouri from St. Louis to Leavenworth, KS.  I grew up near the confluence of the Missouri with the Mississippi, and have traveled the Missouri river valley east and west for most of my life. The site of this great river’s origins is a place I’ve been looking forward to seeing since the earliest planning for this trip.

320 miles today in 7 hours. The Corps spent 36 days traveling from the Milk River to the Great Falls of the Missouri.

Where the dinosaurs roam

Awoke before dawn to the sound of a large fish jumping out of the water. Might be one a them Chinooks I hear they put in this river. I mean, lake.

Confluence of the Heart and Missouri at sunrise

The small point in the center left of the picture divides the Heart River in the foreground from the Missouri in the background. The Abraham Lincoln Campground’s waterfront is very well maintained and pleasant, with a walkway and plenty of park benches.

The Expedition saw a herd of 300 buffalo, killed 10 deer, and caught several beaver every day during the week before they arrived at the Heart River. I went out at sunrise to hunt buffalo, but did not see any buffalo, so I returned to camp to have my usual breakfast.

Made some coffee (with my now-venerable press) and enjoyed the waterside. A few sounds carried across from the east–they’d been even more audible the previous night. There were only 10 or so occupied campsites, and only one other tent. It’s occupant was a dead ringer for Canadian rocker Geddy Lee of Rush, and his voice would not be out of place coming out of Geddy’s mouth. Sorry, no picture. He was a birdwatcher from Edmonton, AB, and had been out on the road in his Corolla since Sep. 8. He’d gone as far south as the Platte River in Nebraska, and was on his way to Yellowstone Park. He said he was disappointed in the number of birds along the Missouri. Curiously, he hadn’t seen any Canada geese. (I’d seen many flocks in the hour or so between my arrival and sunset the previous night.)

I got up to start some oatmeal when another couple strolled up with a dog and asked if I’d been cold last night. (Temps had been in the low 40s, so I was plenty warm in my tent and bag.)


Larry and Nancy were also headed from Oregon to the upper midwest, between the Twin Cities and Duluth, MN. But they are both originally from Chanute, KS. They live in Oregon between Corvallis and Eugene. They said traffic on the three roads along the ND/MT border was lousy with oil trucks, roughnecks, and crazy drivers. This was repeated to me by another camper in Mandan.

The area along the state line is known as the Bakken formation, an oil-rich shale and dolomite formation of about 200,000 square miles in ND, MT, and Saskatchewan, Canada.  In the last 5 years, the frackers have been going crazy up there. Hotels, shanty towns and apartment multiplexes are springing up in the middle of nowhere, rural schools are suddenly overcrowded, and the traffic is apparently a serious problem. There are only three roads linking the two states north of I-94, and all of them are in the middle of the new oil boom. One of the reasons I’d decided to avoid interstates is to avoid traffic, so I wasn’t about to intentionally throw myself into any.

Map from wikipedia

But here was a problem: I’d planned on visiting the North Dakota river town of Washburn, where I’ve heard there is an excellent interpretive center. Washburn is just downstream of the Knife River settlements where Lewis and Clark overwintered in 1804-5. My dilemma: should I head west like any sane person who realizes his vulnerabililty in the face of entropic motor traffic like that near the fracking fields by taking the interstate and bypassing almost certain mayhem; or should I live out my dream and just harden up, cheat death and brave the chaos for the sake of a museum?

To the interstate, then.

But first, I lounged in camp for a while, writing and taking pictures, had a shower in their excellent comfort station, then went to the park commissary and used their wi-fi for a post. Then, I went back to my campsite and packed up before lounging by the water for a while longer. By then it was almost 11:00, so I rousted myself from the banks of the lovely Heart River and grabbed a sandwich in Bismarck, where a fellow customer saw my moto and asked where I was headed. “Montana,” I replied. “Well, stay away from Williston and Sidney,” he said. “People are just getting killed up there!”

Okaaay. I decided to take the extra 100 miles and move farther into Montana, and following Tom and Annette’s advice I headed up to Fort Peck Lake near Glasgow, MT. This would mean about 150 miles of I-94 to Glendive, MT, where I’d cross the Yellowstone River.

It turned out to be a good choice, as a 15-20 mph south wind was sweeping the plains, which is not too bad on the Beemer, whose swoopy aerodynamic body cuts through the wind pretty well. But there were a few extensive lane closures which had traffic sharing the eastbound lanes, and the combination of wind and oncoming truck traffic in the adjacent lane made the trip a little more interesting, as the interruptions of the wind, alternating with the blast from the trucks just 10 feet away, created strong impacts as the trucks passed.  300 miles of truck-jammed two-lane state or US highway in these conditions would have been brutal. But on the open 4-lane, I made good time.

I was not driving when I took this pic. I was in the back seat, with my feet up, enjoying a chocolate milk. Unfortunately, my cruise control seems to have lost its frictive force (it’s a Throttlemeister–a throttle lock, not a true cruise control), so I have to actually control the speed by holding onto the twistgrip like an animal. It’s barbaric, but at least I don’t have to carry my boats around the Great Falls. Or eat my horses.

On the way, I-94 passes Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which includes the North Dakota Badlands and the Painted Canyons of the Little Missouri, which has carved these hills on the journey to its confluence with the Missouri 60 miles to the northeast.  There is a bison in this picture.

There is a bison in this picture, too.

Yeah, some people still need to be told this.

I crossed into Montana and took the first exit, crossed the Yellowstone River and headed toward the remote Montana dinosaur fields of Garfield and McCone counties. The trip across Hwy 200 was a series of immense landscapes and lonely highway.

I turned north on 24 toward the lake. This stretch is 60 miles of empty road leading into the Hell Creek formation, which is one of the richest veins of dinosaur fossils known. Half of all the T-Rex skeletons on display around the world are from this area, which was covered by a shallow sea 65 million years ago. The local geology is a fossil hunter’s fantasyland.

I saw three vehicles on this stretch of road. Two of them were together.

Northern harriers launched from the roadside as I skirted the east side of the Dry Arm of Fort Peck Lake. Lewis and Clark reached the Dry Arm on May 9, 1805. Lewis described it as the “most extraordinary river that I ever beheld,” because it was as wide as the Missouri (1/2 mile at this point), but had not a drop of water, save a few puddles. Today, it’s covered in 200 feet of water in the deep end of the lake.

I headed to the downstream campground, having covered only 326 miles. The Expedition took 35 days to get from the Knife River settlements of their Mandan hosts to the Dry Arm. I needed about 6 hours.