A Lewis and Clark revival hits the Northwest

 

While tracing the steps of Lewis and Clark, Judy Anderson has stopped off at two dozen places where the explorers walked nearly 200 years ago. Among these, Pompey's Pillar, a lonely landmark on the plains of southeastern Montana, remains fixed in her memory. There, immortalized behind Plexiglas, she saw William Clark's signature carved into soft sandstone. For Anderson, a retiree from Minnesota, it was a fascinating link with the past.

"You can climb to the top and see the view he saw," she says.

Until recently, Anderson could have traveled the entire trail without meeting anyone on a historical journey like her own. Even though the route was named a National Park Service historical trail in 1978, it has remained largely the domain of Lewis and Clark history buffs. But as the 2004-2006 bicentennial nears, the anniversary is attracting a new generation of travelers captivated by Lewis and Clark history.

Jim Fazio, a University of Idaho professor and member of the national Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Council which is helping to plan the bicentennial, explains the fascination: "A lot of people are looking for heroes."

The popular Ken Burns PBS television special, along with Stephen Ambrose's book, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West, get much of the credit for sparking the nation's interest in the Corps of Discovery.

"You've got to understand that 2 million copies of (Undaunted Courage) sold. A history book normally sells 20,000 or 30,000 copies. That's how popular it is," says F.A. Calabrese, interim superintendent of the Lewis and Clark Trail for the National Park Service.

With help from local donors, the U.S. Forest Service built the 5,500-square-foot Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Great Falls, Mont., in 1998. Though the center expected no more than 70,000 visitors in its inaugural year, more than 100,000 people walked through its doors.

Just upriver, crowds are appearing on the Wild and Scenic stretch of the upper Missouri River in eastern Montana. Last year, this area saw 34 percent more river travelers than in 1997. National Park Service sites along the Lewis and Clark trail report a 25 percent increase in visitors during the same time period. Two years ago, there were only 12 river outfitters on the river; today, the BLM reports that number has more than doubled.

"We have no permit system as of yet, but I imagine we'll be doing that shortly," says Buck Damone of the Bureau of Land Management in Lewistown. "It's not drastic yet, but we're concerned what it's going to be in 2006."

It's a boon

In the forests of north-central Idaho, Triple O Outfitters has found a new clientele. As elk hunting has declined in Idaho's Lochsa country, the outfitting company has begun leading Lewis and Clark history trips in the Clearwater National Forest. It expects 120 clients this year.

"I'll tell you, there's a lot of interest," says owner Barb Opdahl, who adds that the bicentennial has come at the perfect time. "If we had to rely on (hunting) right now, we definitely would not be in business."

All along the route, chances to relive the Lewis and Clark experience are popping up. In North Dakota, the state historical society is inviting tourists to spend winter nights at Fort Mandan, where the Corps of Discovery endured blizzards and below-zero temperatures during the winter of 1804-1805.

The National Park Service has proposed a novel way of telling the story of Lewis and Clark: a park on wheels. Dubbed "Corps of Discovery II: 200 Years to the Future," this small convoy of three semi-trailers would trace the historic route for three-and-a-half years, making occasional detours in the off-season to bring the traveling, $29 million museum to cities. Plans call for a dazzling laser show and high-tech satellite uplinks. With help from what's known as the Lewis and Clark Caucus in Congress, the National Park Service could win funding for the project this year.

Historians such as Fazio hope that scenic portions of the trail are recognized without lining them with roadside attractions.

"My fear is that the agencies might try to overreact and get in on the development bandwagon," he says.

A wilderness 200 years later

As more people take to the trail, land managers like Damone are reminding travelers that though places such as eastern Montana are still wide open, people from the time of Lewis and Clark would be startled by the changes.

"The biggest change they would see is the weeds. The noxious weeds. People who come here (today) wouldn't notice that. But Lewis and Clark would," Damone says.

Farther west, in the Columbia River Basin, environmentalists trying to restore the river's salmon runs are instilling a sense of what's been lost over the last two centuries by using the journey's observations as an environmental benchmark.

"In 200 years, a profound change has taken place," says John Osborn of the Lands Council in Spokane, Wash. "(The commemoration) allows us to see this river and these issues by starkly contrasting what we see today and what Lewis and Clark saw 200 years ago."

One voice was missing

Allen Pinkham of the Nez Perce Tribe says the history of the expedition has left out details that ought to be told as the nation relives the experience.

For instance, the Lewis and Clark route followed the Nez Perce Ni Mi Pu Trail, which linked the salmon-rich mountain streams with the buffalo herds of the plains. The trail runs 100 miles through Idaho, from around Kamiah to Lolo Pass, and then east through Montana to the Plains. A new museum planned for the reservation would help complete the story of Native Americans' contribution to the expedition, says Pinkham, a member of the national Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Council.

As for the bicentennial, Pinkham says the tribes are planning a commemoration of their own, but it will not be festive.

"The Indians aren't going to celebrate this Lewis and Clark thing," he says. "To us, Lewis and Clark certainly aren't heroes."

Dustin Solberg is a former HCN associate editor.

You can contact ...

* Buck Damone, Bureau of Land Management, P.O. Box 1160, Lewistown, MT 59457 (406/538-7461);

* Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center, P.O. Box 1806, Great Falls, MT 59403;

* Allen Pinkham, P.O. Box 365, Lapwai, ID 83540 (208/843-2253).