Not too many people in Utah probably even stopped to think that last Saturday had any historical significance. After all our state had little to do with the voyage of discovery that connected America together, but last Saturday began the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Knowing that exploration of the west beyond the Appalacian Mountains was important to the country, President Thomas Jefferson sent the exploratory group across the North American continent between 1803 and 1806. The Corps of Discovery, as the explorers were called, mapped the land, met many American Indians and endured many hardships as they helped establish the United States as a continental nation.
Growing up in Montana and later living in Oregon for several years, the significance of Lewis and Clark's work was much more recognized than it is here in Utah. Saturday was marked with the inaugural ceremony of the anniversary at Monticello, in Charlottesville, VA, where Jefferson requested funding for the expedition in late 1802.
President Jefferson wrote a secret letter to Congress requesting the $2500 for the crossing. To lead it, he appointed Lewis, the 28-year-old Army officer who was his private secretary.
Lewis invited his army buddy, William Clark to help lead the group. The boats were built in 1803 in Pittsburgh and from there they moved down the Ohio River, then up the Mississippi to the Missouri.
The significance of the Lewis and Clark trek began for me when my youngest son, Derrek, was still in grade school and somehow became fascinated with the voyage and the stories from the journals they left. I had already floated the Missouri River several times before he was born so I was familiar with the river and their journals. As he went through school we spent many of our vacations retracing the Lewis and Clark voyage from central Montana west through the treacherous Rocky Mountains and over the great divide into Idaho and through the Columbia River Basin of Oregon to finally end up at their winter camp near Astoria, OR.
Our memories as a family of retracing the route will be forever etched in my mind.
The all-but-impossible things Lewis and Clark did with their all-American band of travelers, a few dozen white men, a black slave, and an American Indian woman and her child, have long inspired my admiration. And this year as we begin the 200th anniversary, our family is again planning a trip somewhere along the Missouri River where Lewis and Clark once ventured.
About 10 years ago, if my memory serves me correctly, the boys and I rented canoes and retraced the 65 mile wilderness area of the Missouri River between Virgile and Fort Benton, Mont. This was the same route that the explorers had taken and we spent three days enjoying the mysterious white rocks that formed castles and spires among the canyons and pinnacles there. Other than the color the countryside reminds me a lot of parts of the San Rafael Swell.
There were times, while floating the rivers, I stood and tried to visualize Lewis and Clark and their party seeing this incredible country for the first time. The Lewis and Clark expedition journals were packed with descriptions of animals unknown to science before then; the grizzly bear, pronghorn antelope, coyote, jack rabbit, mountain goat and prairie dog were all new.
The party's arrival at the mouth of the Columbia ("Ocian in view! Oh the joy," exulted Clark in his journal) reinforced later American claims to the Oregon country. And with some exceptions, the expedition set a pattern of good relations with local Indian tribes that lasted until after the Civil War.
Now that my son, Derrek and his brother are grown we still talk about reliving the entire Lewis and Clark adventure by starting where the Missouri River enters the Mississippi north of St. Louis. We plan on leaving their first camp, named Dubois and making our way to Floyd Monument on the edge of Sioux City, Iowa. The next major stop will be Fort Mandan, where Lewis and Clark spent five long months at the encampment in one of North Dakota's coldest winters on record. It was from here that Sacagawea, the young Mandan mother, joined the party and became an important partner in the expedition.
As the river winds into Montana the vast Missouri becomes home to us, as we are familiar with the entire trip from there to the Pacific Ocean. A large part of this section of the river is designated as a wilderness area and looks much like it did 200 years ago when the government explorers first traveled on it. The river cuts deeply through alternating beds of shale and sandstone, sculpting miles of rock pillars and battlements.
To Lewis, it seemed that the "Seens of visionary inchantment would never have an end." Those charming misspelled words have been recalled by more than one modern camper drifting to sleep under moon-whitened canyon walls. The river there is unreachable by highway, but the kids and I rented canoes and paddled downstream.
In the last 15 years historical visitor complexes and interpretive centers have sprung up along the route in many areas tracing the explorer's route.
We spent several days in 1990 at Fort Clatsop, where a full-scale replica stands on the exact site just southwest of modern Astoria, Ore. The party crossed the Columbia River here in November of 1805 to have closer access to an elk herd. There they built quarters for the coming winter.
I find history fascinating and I am grateful that my boys and I can tie in our love of the outdoors and exploring with the historical accounts of how the west was opened up. That history, coupled with the beauty and the outdoor opportunities, makes the story of the Lewis and Clark exploration a life time project for our family.