Fresh Eyes on the West

Tracing the path of Lewis and Clark helps us rediscover the meaning of home
Peter Fish

THE RIVER

Verne Huser steers his canoe past a cottonwood snag with the ease of a man who has paddled Western rivers for five decades.

"Clark was a much more experienced river man than Lewis was," Huser explains between strokes. "He'd traveled up and down the Mississippi and the Ohio."

We are paddling downstream on the Missouri River, on a trip run by River Odysseys West, for which Huser ― pioneering Western river guide and author ― serves as a Lewis and Clark historian and naturalist.

If you want one experience that will make you feel what traveling with Lewis and Clark might have been like, canoeing Montana's Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River is probably it. Lewis and Clark's journey was substantially a river journey. And while elsewhere the Missouri has been dammed and reservoired into submission, here it flows beautifully beneath sandstone bluffs, not so different from the river that the Corps traveled in two pirogues and six dugout canoes.

Remember, Huser notes, the Corps were traveling upstream. With the right wind, they could raise sails. Otherwise they would paddle. If the current grew too strong, they would pole the boats upriver or, worse, tow them by hand, struggling against muddy river bottoms and rattlesnake-infested banks.

"Imagine towing these boats through swift, cold water ― they were here in May, the river was running fast with snowmelt," Huser says. "It was tough. They worked their bones off."

We don't. The dozen of us on this trip are in that idyllic position of being vicariously thrilled by hardships we don't have to endure. We paddle easily downstream along a midsummer Missouri made for jumping into when the day gets hot, with plenty of time allowed for water fights and hikes and dinners around the campfire.

Still. What does come through is the newness of the land, its immensity. No European American had been here before Lewis and Clark arrived. We hike to Hole in the Wall ― a chiseled gap in the sandstone cliffs ― and view the Missouri curling lazy as a lizard below us. We note what Lewis noted: "The hills and river Clifts which we passed today exhibit a most romantic apperance. ... As we passed on it seemed as if those seens of visionary inchantment would never have and end."

Romantic. Enchantment. As usual, the poetic yet precise Lewis gets things right ― in this case, the effect this landscape has on you.

At the start of our voyage, we had paused to see where Marias River flows into the Missouri; Lewis named it for a cousin he may have been sweet on. Now, near trip's end, we pass the Judith River, which Clark named for the woman he would marry in 1808. The link between geography and passion seems appropriate. After five days on the river, we understand how the West can hit you with the force of new love ― the kind of love that makes you run away and change your life and become someone entirely new.

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