Fall 2002 Forward to a Friend

Text and photos by Dennis Coello

in three boats – two pirogues (dugout canoes) and a 55-foot-long keelboat – pushed off from a muddy bank of the Mississippi River just north of St. Louis late on a warm and buggy spring afternoon almost two centuries ago. After fighting the current across the Mississippi, the boats entered the mouth of the Missouri River to continue their long and dangerous transcontinental passage. From the Mississippi, their trail took them through the leafy woodlands of today’s Midwest, across the seemingly endless Great Plains, up and over the snowy Rockies and, finally, down the other side to their goal – the blue Pacific Ocean.

It’s a long trip, even by today’s standards. Lewis and Clark’s round-trip journey of more than 7,000 miles took almost 2-1/2 years. Celebrating the bicentennial of that historic expedition today by driving the route is going to require more than a couple weeks off work.

So, if you have limited time, yet you’re fascinated by this historic tale of exploration and adventure, plan on seeing the very best parts – those that haven’t been paved and billboarded. That way, you’ll be able to imagine what it was like two centuries ago. These sections of the trail allow you to not only see it, but to experience it on a mountain bike. There’s no finer way to get to know the country than to feel it firsthand. And there are no finer miles for doing so than the two sections along the Lewis and Clark Trail in Montana – the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument and the Lemhi Pass. Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery passed through both sections as they traveled west in 1805 after spending the winter in North Dakota.

The thin, blue ribbon of Missouri River north of Billings, Montana, is called “the Breaks” because of the radical change in the topography. It was created as the river cut through the tan prairie hills of shale and sandstone. Clark called this dry, barren (and amazingly scenic!) region “the Deserts of America.” Later, French fur trappers were less poetic, referring to it as the mauvaises terres – the “Bad Lands.”

But what the French labeled as “bad” has made it the least-changed stretch of trail in the entire route. Lewis and Clark worked their way upstream against the gathering current through this geographically unique landscape. The expedition rowed, poled and pulled their boats (with elk-skin ropes that broke often under the strain), surrounded by the same terrain that you can see today: high hillsides and colorful, layer-cake formations rising hundreds of feet skyward in the White Cliffs part of the monument.

These are the last free-flowing miles of the Missouri, the section designated as a “Wild and Scenic River” in 1976. In January 2001, President Clinton signed the act in the East Room of the White House making the area a national monument. Coincidentally, it’s the same room in which President Jefferson and Meriweather Lewis planned the expedition two centuries earlier.

The very best mountain biking in the monument lies just across the highway from the James Kipp Recreation Area campground, along the northern part of the “Missouri Breaks Backcountry Byway.” The route includes various white-knuckle roads descending from the byway to the river. For the most part, the riding isn’t technical, but it is aerobic. Sucking in the thin air isn’t easy, especially during climbs, but by riding quietly, you’ll stand a much better chance of seeing the elk, bighorn sheep, antelope, white-tailed deer, mule deer and raptors that inhabit this still-wild place.

At this location in 1805, Sacagawea, who had joined the party with her French-Canadian husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, and her baby, Pompey, proved herself in a crisis. When her husband (an unskilled waterman) swamped the pirogue in a sudden squall, expedition member Pierre Cruzatte saved the craft by threatening to shoot Charbonneau if he didn’t stop pleading to God for salvation with both hands and instead use his hands to turn the boat into the wind. Two other crew members began bailing furiously with kettles, while the teenage Sacagawea calmly and coolly saved some of the “light articles” that were washing overboard. Among them were the maps, journals and scientific instruments that, though light in weight, would have been a heavy loss indeed had they floated away.

Later in 1805, the expedition passed over the Continental Divide at Lemhi
Pass, a stunningly scenic saddle in the high Beaverhead Mountains. Today, Lemhi Pass is part of the alpine border between Idaho and Montana. This is where Lewis and Clark found what they considered the source of the Missouri – a tiny rivulet “...in surch of which we have spent so many toilsome days and wristless nights.” More crucial to their expedition, this is where they met the Shoshone Indians. The expedition needed horses to help cross the remaining mountains – horses they hoped to get from the Shoshone. Finding that Sacagawea’s brother Cameahwait, whom she had not seen for four years, had been made chief of the Shoshone during her absence made negotiations for the horses much easier.

The trail to Lemhi Pass goes through the beautiful green-and-tan open country of Horse Prairie, described by Lewis as “roling or high wavy plains through which several little rivulets extend their wide vallies quite to the Mountains... forming one of the handsomest coves [valleys] I ever saw.” The final dozen miles to Lemhi Pass are much smoother than the Missouri Breaks Byway. These dirt miles make for the best “historic” mountain biking, for you’ll never forget climbing under your own power to the Continental Divide. Here you can straddle the Missouri where, as Lewis wrote, expedition member Hugh McNeal “ ... exultingly stood ... and thanked his god that he had lived to bestride the mighty & heretofore deemed endless Missouri.” While catching your breath at the top (elevation: 7,323 feet), you can look west to the incessant mountainsides in Idaho and imagine the explorers still having to trek onward for several more months – all the way to the Oregon coast!

If you can’t participate in the bicentennial celebration by following the route taken by Lewis and Clark in its entirety, consider traveling the Breaks and the Lemhi Pass by mountain bike to see the best parts of this timeless trail.

Dennis Coello has authored 13 books on bicycling and edited about 50 others. His work as a photographer has taken him throughout North America and to some 30 countries overseas.

MOUNTAIN BIKERS share more than an appreciation for the terrain with Lewis and Clark. They get “hungary,” too!

If you’re a mountain biker, be thankful that you won’t have to kill, clean and cook the deer, elk, buffalo, bear, fish, birds, crayfish, dogs and horses that often made up the expedition’s meals. Even Lewis was amazed at the exertion-produced appetite of his men. “ ... we eat an emensity of meat,” he wrote, “it requires 4 deer, an Elk and a deer, or one buffaloe, to supply us plentifully 24 hours.” That works out to as much as eight pounds of meat per man per day. Duplicate that kind of consumption, and you’ll have problems even if you’re car camping.

The expedition also took along food for times when they couldn’t find animals to kill or plants to eat. They carried portable soup, parched corn, flour and “poark.” When they could, they traded for pemmican – that wonderful staple of old-time explorers. This ancestral trail mix is the granddad of gorp, the precursor to various “power bars” that bikers stuff into their packs and jersey pockets today. Pemmican consisted of buffalo or elk or deer meat cut thin, dried and pounded into fibers, then mixed with an almost equal amount of melted fat (and dried fruit and berries, if available) and packed in parfleche (rawhide with the hair removed). There it remained, for years sometimes, without spoiling, waiting for the Indian or trapper or explorer unafraid of a little cholesterol.

So the next time you’re unwrapping an energy bar on the trail and muttering about the cost, consider its parfleche precursor ... and thank your lucky stars.

Bicyclist Dennis Coello briefs you on critical safety measures to take when riding in the backcountry.