The Way to the Western Sea Lewis and Clark across the Continent Chapter 12

David Lavender© 2001University of Nebraska PressLincoln and London

TWELVE. The Great Portage

Eager though Lewis was to locate the falls, he had to call a halt after nine miles of walking because of another intestinal flare-up accompanied by a high fever. He had neither salts nor thunderbolt pills in his pack, a good thing probably. Recalling his mother's herbal remedies, he directed his men—he could hardly stand erect himself—to strip the leaves off a quantity of chokecherry twigs, cut the twigs into small pieces, and boil them until the water was black and bitter. While his companions feasted on the marrowbones of a fresh-killed elk, he drank a pint of the astringent fluid for supper and another pint an hour later. By ten o'clock the pain had left his bowels and he was sweating gently, preludes to a sound sleep. [1]

Another pint of the black brew sufficed to get him going in the morning. Shouldering their packs again, the five men climbed to the flat country atop the bluffs that bordered the river on the north. Walking there let them avoid the bends in the river gorge and circle around the heads of the narrow drainage ravines that sliced down through the side walls. By midmorning, however, thirst engendered by the day's suffocating heat drove them back to the water and, as events turned out, to a sportsman's breakfast. In a grove of cottonwood trees they killed two grizzly bears with their first fire, "a circumstance which I believe has never happened [before]." Then up the sides of the gorge onto the plains again, with the usual fantastic numbers of prairie dogs, wolves, antelopes, deer, and buffalo. A slight rise in the ground gave them a stunning view of the Rockies, ridge after snow-covered ridge trending slightly north of northwest, "an august spectacle ... rendered more formidable by the recollection that we had them to pass." After walking twenty-seven miles Lewis again called an early halt, blaming his weakness on his recent ailment rather than on the hot day's exertion.

The next morning, June 13, Drouillard, Field, and Gibson split off to hunt. Lewis and Goodrich held parallel to but well back from the river. Shortly they glimpsed what looked like tendrils of smoke feathering out on the wind. Soon the unmistakable thunder of a giant cataract reached them. For seven miles they pressed toward the increasing din and billowing spray until at least they came to the brink of the river trough. Two hundred feet almost directly below them the Missouri—for such it most convincingly was—poured over a precipice at least eighty feet high, part sheer drop and part a crashing course from ledge to ragged ledge.

Scrambling down the steep side wall, Lewis found a seat on a point of rocks from which he stared in delight and astonishment at "the grandest sight I ever beheld," a falling mass of water three hundred yards wide that broke, at the bottom of its plunge, "into a perfect white foam which assumes a thousand forms in a moment sometimes flying up in jets of sparkling foam to the height of fifteen or twenty feet," only to be overwhelmed by backwashes of tremendous, rolling, reverberating waves.

He sat for four hours on his rocky grandstand, exalted by this thunderous demonstration of the rightness of his and William Clark's geographic logic—and by the thought that from his pen, however imperfect, would come the world's first knowledge of this American wonder. Then, as the sun turned downward, he decided to camp a short distance from the bottom of the falls, on a small flat shaded by a few trees. He directed the hunters, who had overtaken him, to cut the meat they had obtained into strips for drying on a scaffold they would build. While they were working and Goodrich was fishing, he walked three miles down beside the rock-studded river, looking for a place where the boats could be taken from the water and carried to the top of the bluffs for portaging around the falls. No gateway appeared, though the Indians had said that a portage of half a mile would do the job. But he was still too elated to worry about that yet. That night he and his relaxed men ate sumptuously of buffalo hump, tongue, and marrowbones, parched cornmeal, and a new variety of trout Goodrich had caught, a subspecies that came to be called cutthroat trout because of the dashes of red under the jaw.

Before going to bed he wrote Clark a letter headed triumphantly "from the Great Falls of the Missouri." They were on the right path. But . . . and then truth broke in. No short portage would take the Corps past this cataract. In the morning he would scout upstream for the eagle's nest which, according to the Hidatsa horse stealers, was perched in a tall cottonwood growing on a small island at the foot of the uppermost falls. That would give them an inkling of how long the portage would be.

At sunrise the next morning, Joseph Field started downstream with the letter. Lewis went the opposite way. Apparently he expected hard going, for he seems not to have taken his dog with him, an omission he would regret. Since the river in many places filled the bottom of the gorge from bank to bank, he could progress only by climbing to the ragged top of the north rim and working his way past its many transverse ravines. The land beyond the south rim looked as if it might afford easier going, but he could not cross the river to make certain.

During a walk of nearly seven miles, by his estimate, he saw none of the things he wanted to see. No eagle's nest, which, to be sure, was a tenuous thing to last throughout the years. And no break in the walls by which the dugouts could be returned to the water—assuming they ever got away from it. [2] He was on the point of turning back when he detected the distant growl of, and then saw, another cascade. Shaped like a rumpled horseshoe, it was only about twenty feet high. Still no eagle's nest. But as he moved closer, a greater roar came pounding through the noise of the crooked falls, as he already was calling the twenty-foot drop. Scrambling across a point of land, he beheld yet another astounding plunge, known today as Rainbow Falls. Curving ever so gently and stretching a quarter of a mile from wall to wall, the unbroken curtain of water crashed fifty feet into the rocky bottom, "where [it] rises into foaming billows of great height and rappidly glides away, hising flashing and sparkling as it departs." After struggling with comparisons between this and the lowest fall, he decided the upper cataract was "pleasingly beautiful while the other was sublimely grand."

A quarter of a mile farther on he glimpsed another noisy drop, only six feet high. He could see no eagle's nest there, either, so on he went, rifle slung across his back and his steel-tipped espontoon, which he often used as a walking stick, in one hand. After hiking two and a half more miles he came to another uproarious cataract, twenty-six feet high with a five-foot drop just beyond the main crest. Below the falls, partly shrouded by the swirling mist, was a small island. Perched high in one of the island's cottonwoods was a big, unkempt bundle of sticks that could only be the eagle's nest the Indians had included in their description of the uppermost cascade. Lewis must have let out a whoop then. For he had at last passed all the rapids and cascades that in the aggregate made up the Great Falls of the Missouri. What was more, the walls of the river's trough at last subsided, just above the final cascade, into low mounds across which the Corps's boats could be carried back to the water.

And there was a way to get boats out of the lower canyon. Lewis could see, south of where he stood at the upper falls, another range of isolated, snowy peaks, today's Little Belts. A stream must drain from them into the main river. Surely that confluence, which he had not walked far enough downstream the previous evening to see, would form an exit from the river and an entrance to a portage that would have to be at least sixteen miles long—a staggering ordeal.

Puzzlements flooded across him. Why had the Indians said the portage was only half a mile long? Why had they declared a person could cross the river dry-footed by walking along a ledge that ran from bank to bank behind the greatest fall's stupendous curtain of water? Could Lewis and Clark's interpreters have misunderstood the Hidatsas that radically and yet have placed the eagle's nest with absolute accuracy? The questions defy answering, unless the Hidatsas had been pulling the legs of the white men—a wilderness practical joke.

The Hidatsas had also accurately located the mouth of a river they called Medicine (today's Sun River). Lewis could see its bordering belt of cottonwoods only a little southwest of where he stood. Again his pulse quickened, for the sight made the waters of the once-distant Columbia seem all at once as real and as attainable as the eagle's nest. For the Medicine River, the Indians had said, ran northwest through the front range of the Rockies to within an easy horseback ride of a stream that flowed in the opposite direction. That west-flowing stream had to be the one Arrowsmith and after him Nicholas King and after them William Clark called "The Great Lake River" on their charts. Supposedly this river ran into the Tacoutche Tesse of Alexander Mackenzie, and the Tacoutche Tesse, the captains believed, was another name for the main stem of the Columbia. [3] Furthermore, notations on the maps declared that by following the Great Lake River, traveling Indians reached the sea in eight days.

Eight! That close—and yet the captains did not intend to follow the Medicine to the Great Lake River, for the former, again according to the Indians, was too swift and shallow to be navigated. Besides, the explorers would need horses to carry their supplies across the Continental Divide, and they might not be able to procure the animals at the headwaters of the Medicine. A surer place was the Three Forks of the Missouri, where the party hoped to meet Sacagawea's people, the horse-rich Shoshoni or Snake Indians. With luck, they might meet those equestrians even sooner. So the Missouri was the route to follow. Still, the Medicine offered the first direct connection with waters of the Columbia that Lewis had actually encountered, or so he thought. Romantic that he was, he wanted to dip his fingers in that exhilarating stream, even if the impulse kept him out all night and caused great worry to his soldiers, waiting for him at the camp near the lowest falls.

The presence of buffalo close by solidified the impulse. He could kill a fat cow for supper (a waste, but you can't shoot just part of a buffalo), look over the Medicine while the carcass cooled, then return to butcher as much of the hump as he needed, camp under a nearby tree, and rejoin his party the next day. Picking out a likely animal, he shot it through the lungs. Without reloading his single-shot rifle, he watched the animal sink slowly to the ground, blood streaming from its mouth and nostrils. At that point he saw a grizzly bear walking rapidly toward him. Would his dog Seaman have distracted the beast long enough for Lewis to have reloaded? Who knows? In any event, Lewis started briskly, with his empty gun, toward the tree under which he had planned to camp. The bear's step quickened. Switching directions, Lewis dashed for the river, which was closer to him than the tree. After jumping down its low bank, he splashed ahead until he was waist deep in water. At that depth the bear would be swimming, and its would-be prey might have a chance to fight back. Hooking his rifle across his back by its sling, he grasped his steel-pointed espontoon with both hands and confronted his pursuer. The unexpected aggressiveness apparently startled the bear. Unbelievably, it spun around and vanished at a dead run among the cottonwoods bordering the Medicine.

Lewis reloaded and followed. After looking over the Medicine lower reaches carefully enough to be able to write an accurate description, he turned back to the dead buffalo. The local wildlife was not yet through with him, however. He snapped a shot at what looked to be some kind of "tyger cat" that appeared ready to spring at him. Next he had to outface three buffalo bulls. Because "it now seemed to me all the beasts of the neighborhood had made a league to distroy me," he vetoed his plan of camping out and, omitting supper, returned through the dark to rejoin his companions, lacerating his feet on the prickly pear cactus that grew thick along the way. All in all, it was the most exciting day he'd spent since the standoff with the Teton Sioux.

On June 12, the day after Lewis and his five men had started walking upstream in search of the Great Falls, Clark set out with the main group by water. High, steep banks topped with stone cliffs confined the river. Islands split the quickening current into shallow channels where clusters of boulders constantly threatened to tip the dugouts onto their sides. "The fatigue," Clark wrote on the fifteenth, "is encretiatable the men in the water from morning untill night hauling the cord & [boosting] the boats walking on sharp rocks and round sliperery stones which alternately cut their feet & throw them down." Snakes abounded. One man, reaching for a bush by which to pull himself ahead, grabbed a rattler by the head, and yet no one was bitten.

All this while Sacagawea, half unconscious and doubled up with pain, huddled with her baby in the sun-blasted bottom of the white pirogue. Her distraught husband babbled about building a dugout and paddling with her back to the Mandan villages, a trip of about nine hundred miles. Clark ordered him to forget the insanity: the journey would be impossible for a sick woman attended by a lone man of no better qualifications than Charbonneau's. Besides, the captain somehow had to restore Sacagawea to health, for her and the baby's sake and for the expedition's, for she might be its chief resource when an opportunity arose to buy horses.

To relieve her distress he erected a sailcloth awning over the rear of the pirogue and moved her into its shade. Repeated bleedings having failed to help her, he prepared a poultice (he called it a cataplasm) of warm water, flour or bran, and "bark"—probably some of the pulverized "Peruvian" bark (cinchona) Lewis had obtained in the East as a specific against malaria. To the moist mass Clark added a dash of laudanum, which is a tincture of opium. Wrapping this in a cloth, he applied it to her "region," a euphemism for her genital area and lower abdomen, almost certainly a service he had not expected to render on the way to the Pacific. Supposedly the cataplasm would relieve pain and draw out of the afflicted parts whatever poisons were causing the trouble. Clark thought it helped the young mother, at least a little bit. [4]

At four o'clock in the afternoon of June 14, Joseph Field reached the camp with the letter Lewis had dated at Great Falls the morning of that same day. So: the Corps was on the right track. But: according to Field, close to twenty miles of rough, fast water lay between the boats and the first, towering falls. Beyond that cataract another seven miles of rapids led to four more roaring drops of varying height. Clearly, not boating water. However: on his way downstream, Field had passed, about five miles below the Great Falls, a side stream breaking into the main river gorge from the south—the stream Lewis had hypothesized as flowing into the Missouri from the isolated mountains to the south, today's Little Belts. That stream might take the Corps to a slope up which they could climb, with their dugouts and baggage, onto a level plain. A walk of sixteen or more miles would then bring them to the next navigable stretch of the river.

It was not a happy prospect, but at least it led toward horses, the Continental Divide, and after that—so they thought—a blessed downhill float to the Pacific. By exerting themselves "as much as possable with the towing lines" (Ordway) and as the noise of the still-invisible falls swelled in their ears, they toiled upward to within a mile of the side stream Fields had told about. At that point they were blocked by a choppy stretch of water over which they could not take the dugouts, let alone the white pirogue, in which Sacagawea still burned with fever.

While two men went ahead to explore the side stream, the others set up camp on a small, shady meadow that contained enough dry wood for cooking fires, a rarity along that section of the Missouri. They were still bustling about when Lewis and his four companions rejoined them, carrying on their backs, in addition to their personal gear, about six hundred pounds of partly dried buffalo meat and several dozen large, dried trout. At about the same time the explorers of the side stream returned with their report. About a mile above the creek's canyoned mouth, a difficult slope did indeed open a way to the plains. Those plains, however, were slit by impassable ravines draining toward the river. It would be better to forget the south and find a way along the north side of the entrenched Missouri.

Lewis and the men who had been with him on the north side shook their heads. True, the meat they had brought to camp showed that goods could be carried along the north side. The route was arduous, however, and the northern plains were also sliced by ravines. More important, a route up there would run along the outside of the curve the Missouri followed between the falls. A trail south of the river would draw a chord across the inside of the arc and hence would be much shorter.

But, said the captains, remembering the impasse at Maria's River, they would not choose blindly. The next day, June 17, Clark and a small party would start upstream on foot. First they would make, for the government, an exact survey of this astounding stretch of cascades. On their return they would search out the best possible portage trail across the plains to the south of the river. If that route proved impossible, then they would have a look at the north. Meanwhile Lewis would supervise preparations for the carry . . . on the south side; he was sure of that, and the Corps could not waste time sitting around waiting for reports. Some of the men would build wagons for carrying the log dugouts; others would unload the boats and rebale the goods into bundles suitable for backpacking; a few would hunt both for food and for the thirty or more elkskins needed to cover Lewis's iron boat frame. For the white pirogue was too heavy to be transported overland and would have to be hidden in a copse, as its red counterpart had been at the mouth of Maria's River. Some of its cargo, including Lewis's desk, would be cached. The rest would be hauled and carried across the portage and reloaded into the iron Experiment, a triumphant justification of Meriwether Lewis's foresight in having brought the untested craft across many thousands of miles from Harpers Ferry.

None of the hurrying and scurrying touched Sacagawea. She lay torpid in the shade of a tree, gaunt, feverish, her pulse faint and irregular. Her fingers and the muscles in her arms twitched spasmodically, probably because of dehydration brought on by bleeding, purging, vomiting, and fever. Clark, at his wit's end, gladly turned over the doctoring to Lewis, who decided against further bleeding, perhaps because of its failure to produce results earlier. He did continue the poultices and also prevailed on the young woman to choke down a few doses of water-softened, pulverized bark and laudanum. Taken internally, the opium might help alleviate pain and induce sleep.

While waiting for the medicine to take effect, he directed a couple of men to fetch back, in a dugout, some casks filled with vile-smelling, vile-tasting water from a sulfurous spring he had noticed bubbling up on an elevated terrace opposite the mouth of the portage creek. He knew of a spring like it in Virginia, one reputed to be therapeutic. So poor Sacagawea had to swallow as much of the stuff as she could stomach. Something worked— Peruvian bark, opium, sulfur water that combated her dehydration, the deep concern of her companions, or perhaps just her own tough constitution. By the next day she was nibbling at bits of broiled buffalo meat and buffalo broth laced with a few drops of sulfuric acid.

When Clark's small party started along the river's edge early in the morning of July 17, they took with them a two-pole chain, a device used by surveyors to mark off points one rod (sixteen and a half feet) apart. So far the explorers had made little use of the apparatus; eyeballing distances between landmarks along the river went faster and sufficed for Clark's strip maps. But in the captains' minds the Great Falls would prove to be one of the wonders of the new territory and as such merited accuracy. [*] So rod by rod the party measured the chasm's length, a process that also provided Clark with base lines to use when calculating, by trigonometry, the elevation of the falls and the total drop of the river along this scenic stretch. The activity was one of the few bits of precise triangulation turned in by the Corps of Discovery.

Thus Clark found that 286 "poles," or rods—nine-tenths of a mile—separated their camp beside the Missouri from the mouth of Portage Creek, as he was already calling the escape creek on his maps. (Today it is Belt Creek.) The full stretch of cascades and rapids came to 4,747 poles, or 14.8 miles. In that distance, Clark computed, the Missouri dropped 360 feet and two inches. The first and biggest waterfall was 87 feet and ¾ inch high; the next-tallest (today's Rainbow Falls, which Lewis had estimated at 50 feet) turned out to be 47 feet 8 inches. [5] A bonus was the discovery, a mile or so above Rainbow Falls, of a huge, fan-shaped spring that each day pours, according to later calculations, nearly four hundred thousand gallons of crystal-clear, blue-tinted, ice-cold water over a ragged six-foot ledge into the river. Today that limpid pool, one of the largest natural springs in the United States, is the heart of a charming Great Falls city park.

There were misadventures on the trip. Clark nearly fell into the river at the big falls. The men watched aghast as a huge herd of buffalo began crowding down a narrow trail to drink from the river a little above Rainbow Falls. Impatient animals in the rear crowded scores of the leaders into the water. Those unable to swim across the swift stream were swept by the current over the lip of the cataract, mangled on the rocks below, and carried downriver to become food for vultures, magpies, wolves, and grizzly bears. And an unexpected blast of wind irretrievably tore several sheets of Clark's notes from his hand, an episode not without moment later on, as we shall shortly see.

After climbing beyond the uppermost cataract (today's Black Eagle Falls), the surveyors swung south, passed the mouth of the Medicine River, and came to a cluster of three islands. Deciding this was a suitable location at which to end the portage, Clark set up camp. Hoping to store meat for use during the carry, he and most of the group waded out to the closest island, where many animals grazed. After dropping one beaver, one elk, and eight buffalo, the men began lugging the meat to camp. The local grizzlies did not take kindly to the intrusion. (Earlier Lewis had noted that the huge beasts were "tenatious of their right of soil in this neighborhood.") [6] One came growling along the tracks Clark had left after butchering an animal he had killed. Before overtaking him, it bumped into Alexander Willard, who was returning for another load of meat. It charged. Willard yelled and dashed for camp. The men there frightened the monster away with volleys from their rifles and then followed it, fearing it might vent its wrath on John Colter, still afield butchering another kill. A lucky presentiment. The grizzly had already chased Colter into the water and was about to follow when the hunters again drove it away. By then dark was near and the vengeful men dared not follow their quarry into the thick brush, eager though they were to rid the neighborhood of so dangerous a competitor. Because of the episode they named the three islands the White Bear Islands. Soon the region would become an outright battleground between bears and men.

During the next two days the surveyors lined out and marked with wooden stakes a carrying trail between the White Bear Islands and the mouth of Portage Creek. As measured by pole chain, the way was eighteen and a quarter miles long. By staying two to three miles south of the river, the route headed all but one of the gullies, Willow Run (now Box Elder Creek), that knifed down into the Missouri. Willow Run's steep, brushy sides would cause trouble, but its bottom contained enough room for a camping place, a small creek of good water, and tangles of sweet willow trees whose wood, tougher than cottonwood, might come in handy for repairing the wagons Lewis was building. The hardest part of the route definitely lay between the mouth of Portage Creek and the far (western) side of Willow Run, a distance of roughly six miles. [7]

By the time Clark reached the lower camp, Lewis's men had concealed the white pirogue in the thick, riverside brush. They had dried much of the baggage and had built two wagons, each mounted on four solid wooden wheels about twenty-two inches in diameter that had been hewn from the trunk of the only sizable cottonwood tree in the area. Axles had been cut from the mast of the white pirogue. Since the wheels were small, the wagons were low. The dugouts—six of them, ranging in length from twenty-five to about thirty-five feet—could be mounted, one at a time, on the running gears of a single wagon and used as a sort of crate for holding relatively fragile baggage. Or flat beds could be made by laying poles side by side along the wagon's running gears—the captains' tepee poles, for example. Both wagons were equipped with long tongues, to which several men could be harnessed like draft horses. Additional force could be applied by soldiers tugging on the sides of the mounted dugout or pushing from the rear. [8]

The first load was to consist of pieces of the iron boat frame that Lewis had ordered made at Harpers Ferry and had named the Experiment. (The completed craft was to take the place of the abandoned white pirogue.) Tools for assembling and sheathing the vessel with leather, and the baggage of the men who were to work on it under Lewis's supervision—Sergeant Patrick Gass, John Shields, Joseph Field, and Robert Frazer—were added to the cargo. Sergeant John Ordway, Silas Goodrich, York, Charbonneau, and Sacagawea, who had recovered enough to go fishing, were detailed to watch over the lower camp. Charbonneau was appointed cook for the group and for the porters who would drift in and out. Drouillard, George Shannon, and Reuben Field had already been dispatched to the Medicine River valley to obtain elkskins for covering the boat frame. This left eighteen men, counting Clark, to handle all the portaging and provide food for everyone.

The start was inauspicious. There had been a rain a few days earlier. A vast, shaggy, shifting carpet of grazing buffalo—at one point Clark estimated he could take in ten thousand at a glance [9]—had pocked the muddy plain with a maze of hoofprints. The blazing sun that followed hardened the edges of the prints into sharp, choppy, unyielding ripples. Mixed with this painful footing were innumerable clumps of prickly pear cactus whose protective thorns looked and felt like steel needles. Moreover, this was the first trip. The gnarled sagebrush and cactus had not been crushed down; no one had cleared a way through the dense undergrowth of Willow Run.

The bearers spent Friday, June 21, stumbling up the rock-strewn, shallow waters of Portage Creek and the steep slope, a quarter of a mile long, that led to the plain. By dark several heavy bales were on top, along with a wagon loaded with the dugout. The dugout in turn held the unassembled pieces of the iron boat. The next day the long haul to the camp at White Bear Islands began. On the difficult descent into Willow Run, some of the wagon wheels, cut from soft cottonwood, collapsed and the rest gave signs of doing so. At the bottom of the run they were replaced with new wheels made from the wood of sweet willow trees. The climb out that followed was a killer. "the men," Clark wrote, "has to haul with all their strength wate & art . . . catching the grass and knobes & stones with their hands to give them more force in drawing on the Canoes and loads . . . and every halt, those not employed in reparing the course are asleep in a moment, maney limping from the soreness of their feet, some become fa[i]nt for a few moments but no man complains, all go chearfully on." [10] Darkness and a collapsed wagon tongue caught them half a mile from their destination. The weary men thereupon shouldered everything they could and trudged, bent almost double, through the prickly pears, to find that bears and wolves had made off with most of the meat Clark's surveying party had left for them.

Adjustments followed. When Clark and the porters returned with the patched wagon to the lower camp for another load, they managed to shorten the route by half a mile, to seventeen and three-quarters miles. At the camp they double-soled their soft elkskin moccasins with tough buffalo hide. The reinforcement helped the bottoms of their feet but did not keep toes from banging into cementlike obstructions or cactus spines from penetrating ankles. Another discomfort was the swift alternation between suffocating heat and chilling storms. June is a rainy month on the Montana plains. A boil of towering cumulus clouds fills part of the sky, lightning flashes, the wind roars. "it rained amazeingly hard," Whitehouse wrote on the 24th. The shirtless workers (it had been hot moments before) shivered uncontrollably, and the earth turned to a treacherous goo. But there were compensations. If the wind came from the right quarter, the workers could hoist a sail on one of the wagon-borne dugouts and let the enemy push the vehicle ahead for a ways. [11]

Another boost came from Meriwether Lewis. He ignored the prerogatives of his captaincy and made himself cook of the White Bear camp. He cut his own wood, hauled his own water, boiled or roasted enormous quantities of buffalo meat, and at least once "made each man a large suet dumpling by way of a treat." A greater treat, probably, was the sharing. In surmounting the portage, the Corps was welded into physical and spiritual unity. It has even been argued that out of this selflessness came the happiest, most exalted period of Lewis's short life. [12]

On the 29th, when transportation was slowed by wet ground, Clark decided to revisit the Great Falls with York in order to replace statistics he had lost earlier when wind had snatched some of his notes from his hand. Because Charbonneau and Sacagawea had not seen the cataract, he invited them along. Little Jean Baptiste rode, as usual, in a papoose carrier fastened to his mother's back. Clark carried in his hands a rifle and—an astonishing picture—an umbrella, more for protection from sun, probably, than from rain. Attached to his elkskin clothing were a tomahawk, a shot pouch, a powder horn, and a large compass.

While the party was poking around the falls, storm clouds streamed over the canyon rim, accompanied by so fierce a blast of wind that Clark feared they might be blown off the ledge on which they were standing. Accordingly he led Charbonneau and Sacagawea (York was off hunting) into a sheltering ravine just above the falls, close to the spot where he had almost fallen into the river twelve days before. As they crouched under some overhanging rocks, they made themselves more comfortable by setting down their burdens, including the child.

Rain and hail came down like a volley from the heavens (Clark's simile). As a flash flood of mud and boulders pounded down the narrow ravine toward them, Sacagawea swooped up her baby with one hand and extended the other to Charbonneau, who started to pull her up the precipitous slope to safety—and then froze in terror. Clark shoved frantically from behind. The water was clutching at his waist before he was able to pull himself up beside the others, minus the gun and shot pouch he had instinctively grabbed up during the floundering. Tomahawk, umbrella, powder horn, and the compass, the only big one the party had, were also gone.

The cold bit to the marrow. To keep the exposure from harming the baby and his mother, Clark hurried them to the camp at Willow Run, where they could start a fire and get dry clothing from one of the bales. Several porters had also repaired there, bleeding and sorely bruised by hailstones so big that some of the men had actually been knocked off their feet. "I refreshed them [and Sacagawea] with a little grog," Clark wrote, and then the run began to flood and drove them out.

During the next three days the portaging was completed and Clark's compass retrieved by searchers. (They found nothing else he had lost, however.) Concentration shifted to the Experiment. As designed by Lewis, it was thirty-six feet long, four feet three inches wide, and twenty-six inches deep. [13] The unfamiliar work of assembling so many pieces—sections of keel, rib, gunwales, and so on—went slowly. Intense hunting had produced only twenty-eight of the thirty-two elkskins needed for encasing the craft; heavier buffalo hides would have to do for the rest. The hair on the elkskins was shaved off; the buffalo hides were singed. Days were spent searching for pliable bark and straight sticks that could be used to support the outer skin of leather, provide crosspieces, and give the oarsmen better footing. Lewis searched the driftwood that littered the shore for pine logs from which he hoped to distill tar for waterproofing the seams between the hides and the eyelets through which thongs were run for fastening the skins to the frame. The kiln he dug into the earth did not work, however—the juices may have dried out of the pine—and he realized uneasily that he was going to have to rely on pulverized charcoal and beeswax mixed into melted buffalo tallow.

The same heat, hail, rain, and wind that plagued the porters interfered with the work of the boatwrights. Whenever the air was still, mosquitoes swarmed unendurably. Grizzly bears padding around the camp at night kept Seaman barking in a frenzy. The monsters were so belligerent that Lewis ordered the men not to leave the camp except in pairs and to sleep with rifles at their sides. When the end of the portaging freed men for a hunt, Clark and twelve soldiers swept the area as if it were a battlefield. The bears had the advantage in the dense brush. Drouillard shot one through the heart—yet it almost nailed him before it died. All told the warriors killed only three by the night of July 3.

The drama of the bears and bison obscures how conscientious Lewis was in heeding Jefferson's behest that he describe as much of the West's flora and fauna as circumstances allowed. Pages of his journals dealing with the Great Falls area are devoted to berries, trout, handsome yellow-fronted meadowlarks, enormous flocks of fledgling blackbirds just learning to fly, thirteen-striped ground squirrels, Rocky Mountain pack rats, prairie rattlesnakes, and the shy, small, lovely Swift foxes that lived in underground colonies like prairie dogs and are now thought to be extinct in Montana. The world was indeed going to know Louisiana Territory when the Corps of Discovery returned to the United States. [14]

On the Fourth, the men who had not seen the falls celebrated by hiking over for a look. That night the cooks turned out a dinner of beef, bacon, beans, and suet dumplings. Afterwards they finished the grog except for a small amount saved for medicinal purposes. Cruzatte brought out his fiddle; the men danced and sang. "We have no just cause," Lewis declared, "to covet the sumptuous feasts of our countrymen on this day."

While everyone else chafed at the slowness, the boat builders carefully applied handfuls of warm, greasy waterproofing to the Experiment's leather sheath. Sergeant Gass, one of the principal builders, was apprehensive, for as soon as the mix dried on the smooth surface of the shaven elkskins, "it cracked and scaled off." But perhaps the rough edges of the seams would hold the goop. When all was ready on July 9, part of the Corps carefully deposited the vessel in a quiet cove of the river. "It lay like a perfect cork," Lewis exulted.

He directed oars to be fitted and seats placed for the rowers. The dugouts were loaded, and the captains were on the point of ordering departure, at long last, from the Great Falls area when a gale descended on them. It "blew so hard that we were obliged to unload the canoes again; a part of the baggages in several of them got wet before it could be taken out." Far worse, the gale finished the Experiment. Water oozed through the seams "in such manner that she would not answer" for the rest of the river work.

Hindsight: the tallow stuck tight to the fuzz of hair on the singed buffalo hides. If there had been time to hunt for an additional thirty bison, skin them, and cover the boat once again—but "to make any further experiments in our present situation seemed to me madness." The next day they removed the skins, dismantled the frame, and cached the pieces in a hole in the ground, in case, presumably, the metal skeleton might still come in useful during their return journey. That done, Lewis went off fishing, to compose himself.

As far as the journals show, Clark took the episode matter-of-factly. The Experiment had failed, which was unfortunate; now it had to be replaced with dugouts. He went upstream with ten men, looking for cottonwoods of sufficient size. The Missouri flows gently there, looping broadly through lush bottomlands thick with trees. Small trees. The detachment went twenty-three miles by water—eight by land—before they were able to fell two suitable patriarchs. From their knotted trunks, the men hewed, at the cost of several broken ax handles, two dugouts, one twenty-five and the other thirty-three feet long, but only three feet wide. Meanwhile the rest of the crew brought the expedition's baggage up from the White Bear camp in relays, bucking heavy winds along the way. At 10:00 A.M. on July 15, six days after the sinking of the Experiment, the Corps of Discovery finally resumed its journey in eight wobbly craft—much to everyone's joy, Lewis wrote. It was a mood that would soon be dispelled by the labors of their travel and the elusiveness of the Shoshoni Indians.


1. From the Marias to the reuniting of Lewis's and Clark's groups at the foot of the Great Falls: II, 146–65; Biddle 224–36; Whitehouse in VII, 97–104. A concise description of the region's topography with a good map and pictures, is in Appleman, 309–17. (back)
2. It is hard to tell how far Lewis did walk on this stretch. Much of the time he was heading ravines, which would increase the distance between overlooks, but he was also cutting points, which would decrease it. Modern accounts say the two falls in question are separated by about five river miles. Gill, 8. (back)
3. The easiest of the various reproductions of Clark's 1805 map to follow with its rendering of the Medicine, Great Lake, and Tacoutche Tesse rivers is Moulton, Atlas, plate 32c. (back)
4. Cutright, Pioneering Naturalists, 160–62, and "Barks and Saltpeter"; II, entries for July 11–15, passim; Chuinard, 288–91; Will. (back)
5. II, 165–78, with map on 176. (These pages also include Lewis's record of events at the camp below Portage Creek.) Clark's survey figures: VI, 5–8; Biddle, 240–42. (back)
6. II, 163. (back)
7. A map of the portage route is in Appleman, between pages 310 and 311. (back)
8. The portage: II, 178–220; Biddle, 238–57; Ordway in Quaife, 235–44. (back)
9. Biddle, 251. (back)
10. II, 183. (back)
11. Whitehouse in VII, 107. (back)
12. Stevenson. (back)
13. II, 184. The account of the Experiment continues on and off through page 221. See also Gass, 122–28. (back)
14. II, 180–216, passim. Cutright, Pioneering Naturalists, 166–68. L. Thompson, 11–12. (back)
*. before the century was out, the stretch would be drowned by hydroelectric dams and power plants, and few Americans ever saw the ladder of cascades in their original glory. (back)