[Note- This post is the first of four describing my 2012 Road Trip]
Head west! It has served as a siren call for many and I’m no exception. Prior to my heading west on the 2012 road trip, I read “The Journals of Lewis and Clark,” the 200th Anniversary Edition, edited by John Bakeless; and “Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West” by Stephen E. Ambrose, for inspiration and preparation. A longtime friend, Jon H., joined me on this trip to pay homage to the explorations by Lewis and Clark (L&C) in their 1804-1806 expedition of the wild lands up the Missouri River and west of its headwaters, in search of a northwest passage to the Pacific. We followed much of their journey from the Great Falls of the Missouri River in north central Montana, to just south of where they left Idaho at Lewiston, entering Clarkston,WA.
We headed out in early August, stopping to camp for a couple days at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western ND. Checking out the Park headquarters and gift shop, I found a copy of “Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail,” by Theodore Roosevelt which includes 83 illustrations by Frederic Remington- what a find!
Within a week of starting the trip, we’d reached the Three Forks area of Montana, about 30 miles west of Bozeman. Our destination was the headwaters of the Missouri River, a significant waypoint for the L&C expedition.
Missouri Headwaters State Park was where we set up camp for two days, just as the L&C Corps of Discovery expedition did 207 years before. The site is the confluence of the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin Rivers flowing north, and converging to form the Missouri River. L&C named these rivers when they visited the area in late July, 1805. The rivers were named after President Thomas Jefferson; James Madison, then Secretary of State; and Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury. President Jefferson had purchased this land as part of the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803. This $15 million purchase included lands from the mouth of the Mississippi River north, and all the lands through which the Missouri River and its tributaries flowed. At the time, Jefferson didn’t know the extent of these lands and subsequently, the Lewis and Clark expedition was created to explore and fill the void.
The merging rivers in the flatlands, framed by mountains in the distance were indeed a sight to behold. Exploring the rivers, we spotted an osprey flying low across the water as it dropped to grab a fish and then flew up and over the trees to the far shore. It was a very quiet night and as we retired for the evening, I could feel the spirits of the L&C expedition, who likely camped within a quarter mile from where we were.
From Three Forks, we proceeded north to Great Falls. After camping several nights in MN, ND and MT, it was a treat to stay in town. Being big fans of Charlie Russell, cowboy and renowned artist, the C.R. Russell Museum, which houses an exceptional collection of his art and memorabilia, was a must stop. Nearby on a scenic bluff overlooking the Missouri River is the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center. On their trip west, L&C approached the five “great falls” on June 13, 1805. The Mandan Indians in ND had told L&C about these great falls during the winter of 1804-1805.
From Great Falls, we headed west to Augusta, MT and stopped at the Lewis and Clark National Forest Information Station. Our camping and backpacking destination was the Bob Marshall Wilderness but we learned that forest fires were burning everywhere we wanted to go. After weeks of planning, to be so close but not be able to move forward was a major disappointment.
Luckily, with our good maps of ‘The Bob’ and great conversations with the Park Ranger, Jon and I found a suitable alternative area where we could camp and day-hike. So we wasted no time heading west out of town toward Sun Canyon Road, and a washboard dirt and gravel road about 25 miles long—about an hour’s journey. The scenery seemed smokey, but nonetheless amazing as we crossed the alkali flat-lands (4,000’ elevation) and approached the front-range ‘wall’ of the Bob Marshall Wilderness (aka L&C National Forest). The ‘wall’ was just that, rising to 7,000-8,300’ in elevation over a half-mile distance (the Castle Reef ridgeline stretching northward and Lime Ridge running to the south). We followed the Sun River Road through Sun Canyon and found the Mortimer Gulch Campground about 5 miles ahead on a hill just north of the Gibson Reservoir.
Surprisingly, the campground was pretty much deserted except for a large black bear out on the prowl for food. We tried a different campground loop and found a single site toward the top of a hill and set up camp. Dinner was an old-fashioned dehydrated meal, fresh cold water and an energy bar for desert.
In the morning, we grabbed our day packs (loaded with water, first-aid kit, rain gear and snacks) to climb the Mortimer Gulch Trail about 5 miles, then swing east a couple of miles, and connect with the Blacktail Trail going south, returning back near the Sun River Road start point. It was a hot day so we decided to take a shortcut over to the Black Tail Trail after 3-4 miles. We found a path headed that direction and after a couple hundred yards, found ourselves bush-whacking our way through thick brush and 10’ alder-like growth. This was definitely Grizzly-country and I had my .44 magnum strapped across my chest, plus bear spray on my belt. Talking loudly to be sure any nearby bears heard us coming, since visibility was limited to about no more than 8’-10‘, I resorted to my standard protocol for such situations–yelling ‘Yo bear! Beer here, bear,’ and repeating. After a while, Jon persuaded me to back-track to the Mortimer Gulch Trail. I don’t know if he was worried about bears or getting lost, but when we returned to our camp site, I thanked him for his good call. And then it occurred to me, maybe he was just sick of listening to me talking to the bears for so long!
A new day– and we decided to cut our day-hiking stay in “The Bob” short and drive to Missoula a few days early. My wife was flying in later in the week to join us on the trail. Our in-town explorations included visiting six local brew pubs (Big Sky Brewing, my favorite, is near the airport), nice restaurants, a farmer’s market, a museum and Mountain Press Publishing–a local small publisher specializing in books about the west. One of my prize finds was a paperback “Charlie Russell, The Cowboy Years,” which chronicles the 11 years (1882- 1893) Russell spent on the open range of Montana working as a cowboy, prior to becoming the renowned cowboy artist. (Note: I would read the last half of the book about a month later at a campsite along the Pecos River in northern NM– but that’s a subject for another post.)
At the airport, my wife and her pack and bags crammed into the vehicle, we all headed west to Idaho, through the Lolo Pass. Our first stop was the Visitor Center, where we learned of numerous forest fires in the area. We were redirected to the Powell Ranger Station just up the road. Our intended destination was some campgrounds along the North Fork of the Clearwater River, but that was where the worst fires were burning. The Park Rangers directed us just south to the Lochsa River, where there were limited areas to camp and hike. Many roads and trails were closed due to the fires but we set up camp about half a mile from the Lochsa Lodge. No dehydrated food for dinner tonight!
When L&C’s expedition passed through this area, the only inhabitants were the Nez Perce, the Salish and the Shoshone (also known as the Snake people due to the proximity of the Snake River). L&C traded with them for food, receiving camas root and fish. Only a month earlier, they had traded with the Shoshone in southwestern Montana to get pack horses. The Shoshone also provided directions as L&C traveled to Lemhi Pass, the Lemhi River and north to the Salmon River.
The next morning, we began our day hike near the Lochsa River on Colt Killed Trail. L&C named a nearby creek, ‘Colt Killed Creek’ because it was where they killed a colt for food in early September, 1805. The smell of smoke was in the air and as we continued our hike, the smoke became plainly visible across the water and skyward. We accessed the river at several different points, camping a second night here. I’d like to return again, perhaps staying at Lochsa Lodge and hike the river again on a clear, sunny day.
The next morning, we headed southwest to Riggins. We followed the Salmon River south on Hwy 95, then east about 10 miles following the river upstream to the Lower Salmon River BLM Recreation Area. We found a campsite overlooking the river, with a steep, rocky hill backdrop. Climbing and traversing this hill proved a good afternoon workout.
After dinner we studied the maps to figure out exactly where we were going over the next couple of days. This area along the Lower Salmon was really beautiful. Further upstream, just north of the town Salmon, L&C had deemed the river unnavigable due to extreme rapids. To this day, that section of the river is known as ‘The River of No Return.’ I’d like to return again sometime in the future just to hike the surrounding hills overlooking the river and take more photos.
Our first stop the next day was Heaven’s Gate Lookout, about a 30 mile drive over some steep and narrow mountain roads. We were delayed at one point by cattle on the road. Eventually we reached our destination, parked the car and began climbing the trail to the top—the Lookout. The views were astounding, showing stark contrasts between the prior fire-scarred tree stumps and the new ground cover and colorful flowers. The mountains and ridgelines in all directions were breathtaking.
Heaven’s Gate is the highest elevation at 8,429’ on the Idaho side of Hells Canyon, with the Seven Devils Mountains to the south. The Seven Devils Mountains are part of Hells Canyon Wilderness, which includes both the Idaho and Oregon sides of the Snake River. After a humbling and exhilarating hike to glimpse “heaven” and ‘hell,” we departed, heading south and crossing the Snake River at the Brownlee Reservoir Dam, entering Oregon.
We drove north to Imnaha in the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area on the Oregon side, in search of another campsite across from where we were earlier in the day. Again thoughts of L&C and their explorations and discoveries lingered as we lay in our tents, but their journey had actually moved north of where we were now camped. The next morning took us to Bend, OR and more smoke- but that too, is another story…and a different post.