Join our annual adventure — the Summer Lewis and Clark Cultural Tour on July 18-25 — through the famous White Cliffs section of the Missouri River and the most pristine portion of the entire Lewis & Clark trail, in the Bitterroot Mountains west of Missoula, Mont. Participants must be in good physical shape to participate. For those who do not wish to engage in the more strenuous activities, vans will be available with alternative delights, and we will all meet up for dinner.
The accommodations are perfect. Our favorite outfitter, Wayne Fairchild, and his crew move ahead of us, set up the camp, prepare the appetizers, make sure the beer is cold. On the four camping nights, two on the Missouri, two in the Bitterroots, your tent is set up before you arrive, with your preferred mattress or cot. Bring your own sleeping bag or ask Becky to provide you one at modest expense.
The food is excellent. Fresh ingredients, a cheerful and delightful kitchen crew, excellent hors d’oeuvres. For those with special food needs, Becky Cawley can make arrangements.
DAY 1, TUESDAY, July 18
Welcome to Great Falls, Mont.! Settle in, then gather in late afternoon for a welcome reception hosted by Becky and Lewis and Clark scholar Clay S. Jenkinson. Clay is with us through the entire adventure. After a quick orientation meeting with our Missouri River outfitter, we will depart for the Great Falls (named by Meriwether Lewis) at Ryan Dam on the Missouri. It’s more beautiful than you might think. At the falls enjoy an early-evening encounter with Capt. Lewis as he explains what his patron Thomas Jefferson had in mind for the journey and how what became Montana filled Lewis with such a sense of enchantment that he found it impossible to write a journal entry equal to the spirit of the place.
LODGING: La Quinta Inn Riverfront, Great Falls Montana
DAY 2, WEDNESDAY, July 19
Today our journey takes us to our launching point at the portal of the most beautiful segment of what Lewis called “the mighty and heretofore deemed endless Missouri River.” First, we’ll stop at “Decision Point” at the confluence of the Marias and the Missouri Rivers. When the expedition arrived here in early June 1805, nobody was quite sure which of the two streams was the Missouri. The captains rightly chose the right branch, but everyone else, including the trailsman George Drouillard, believed the Marias was the proper stream to ascend. This is one of the great photo ops of the Lewis & Clark Trail. As with most of our stops, Clay will provide a historical but often comic riff about burdens of discovery here.
The launch of our three-day canoe adventure begins at Coal Banks Landing, east of historic Fort Benton, Mont. In the next couple of days, you will have plenty of opportunity to hike through some beautiful landscapes along the Missouri River. Some offer petroglyphs, others teepee rings on bluffs high above the river. While our guides prepare dinner, our outfitter, Wayne, will take us through the intricate Slot Canyon. In a side canyon invisible from the river, wind and water have carved a beautiful white sandstone labyrinth, full of delightful surprises, on a route just strenuous enough to prepare us all for the fabled Wendover Death March. Back at camp, set precisely where Lewis and Clark overnighted two hundred years ago, hors d’oeuvres, wine, and cold beer await, followed by an excellent meal served over tablecloths and actual dishes. As always, an informal evening discussion with Clay.
CAMPSITE: Eagle Creek
DAY 3, WEDNESDAY, July 20
Coffee at dawn, a hot camp breakfast at 8:30, and now the real adventure begins. Eagle Camp, just across from a famous igneous plug named LA Barge, is the gateway to the famous White Cliffs section of the Missouri River, accessible only by water. The buffalo are gone now, but in almost every other way you are gliding quietly through the river as Lewis & Clark witnessed it (but downhill!). Five minutes after we start the day’s float, Clay will ask you to turn your canoe around to observe the Stone Walls, painted by the Swiss artist Karl Bodmer in 1833. You suddenly realize that you camped last night “in” Bodmer’s famous painting.
The rest of the day takes us past beautiful hoodoos, igneous dikes, sandstone formations in which Native Americans found spiritual messaging and other spectacular formations that led the rationalist Meriwether Lewis to speak of “scenes of visionary enchantment.” As Jefferson said of the Natural Bridge in Virginia, “it is worth a trip across the Atlantic to see this object.” After lunch under a lone cottonwood tree at the base of the famous Hole-in-the-Wall rock formation, we’ll work off our restless energy by climbing up to the summit, where you can be photographed standing in the Hole-in-the-Wall (or plummeting into the Missouri if you prefer!) This is one of the great hikes on the Lewis & Clark Trail, 40 minutes up and then 15 down. There is no way to explain the grandeur to beheld here. You have to earn it with your feet. After another leisurely float, those who wish it bob down the last mile to camp in their life jackets, feeling the gentle but inexorable tug of one of the world’s great rivers. It’s a perfect way to cool off on a hot dry afternoon and experience geomorphology at the molecular level!
In the evening, another fine meal, great conversation, and, if we are lucky, a lightning storm.
CAMPSITE: Slaughter Creek.
DAY 4, THURSDAY, July 21
Last day on the Missouri River. After breakfast and a leisurely paddle of 12 miles, we disembark at Judith Landing, where the river William Clark named for his future wife, Julia Hancock, flows sweetly into the Missouri. The American Prairie Reserve, dedicated to creating the artist George Catlin’s vast buffalo and range park in the American West, has recently purchased the PN ranch at the mouth of the Judith. Over lunch, Clay will discuss the near-extermination of the bison in the 19th century, and the painstaking work undertaken by the Smithsonian’s William Hornaday and his new friend, Theodore Roosevelt, to save and restore the species. We leave the canoe portion of the river just as it enters a wider, sagebrush zone known as “The Breaks of the Missouri.” By mid afternoon, we’ll get you to a hot shower at a historic hotel, laundry, grocery and hardware service, and time to retire your river gear as we prepare for the second half of our adventure. In the evening, live music on the hotel terrace and fine dining in the Grand Union Hotel, Montana’s oldest, built in 1882, seven years before Montana became a state. Shower as many times as you want.
LODGING: Grand Union Hotel, Ft Benton.
DAY 5, SATURDAY, July 22
This is what is known on the Chautauqua circuit as “jump day.” After breakfast in the hotel dining room, we’ll take an air-conditioned trail coach through some of the most beautiful country in western Montana. Our destination is the whimsical Lochsa Lodge, our headquarters in the Bitterroot Mountains for the last dozen years. This is Clay’s favorite resort in America — just enough frills to be satisfying, just enough of the rustic to be authentic. Great food, a wide variety of drink, the unbelievably beautiful Lochsa River five minutes by foot from your cabin, almost the platonic idea of a clear mountain stream. We often spend the late afternoon sitting in the river talking, sipping beer, trying, as always, to walk across it without tumbling in among the trout. On the coach journey, we’ll eat (and resupply) in Missoula, where there is an REI coop, and then climb over Lolo Pass into Idaho. Eat and rest well, friends. For tomorrow we make our ascent up to Wendover Ridge. For those who prefer not to undertake the Death March, we offer a satisfying alternative: a fishing weir known to Lewis & Clark, the expedition’s 12 Mile Camp, and Rocky Point Lookout, now decommissioned by the Forest Service, but available for overnight lodging next time you come to the Bitterroots.
LODGING: Lochsa Lodge.
DAY 6, SUNDAY, July 23
This is the day of days on Clay’s Lewis and Clark Adventure Tour. When Capt. Lewis discovered that the Shoshone guide “Old Toby” had led them astray, he ordered his company to make its way to the Nez Perce Trail straight up. One of our loudest customers, years ago, was heard screaming at mile four, “Didn’t those morons understand @#!@$#@ switchbacks?!” Our 8½-mile hike uphill, (a 3,000-foot climb in elevation), is follows the expedition’s Sept. 15, 1805, ascent through slushy snow leading pack horses. Here, more than anywhere else on the nationwide LC trail, you can be sure you are walking precisely in the footsteps of America’s most famous explorers. You can make the hike at your own pace. With luck, we will be led by the infamous Chad Jones (Clay’s “tree dork”), a wilderness guide who combines Herculean stamina with a low comic routines. Nobody who has begun the Death March has ever failed to make it to the top. In a sad historical note, Russ Eagle, who briefly held the record ascent of 3:01 (what he calls “three naught one” — he’s from North Carolina), has relinquished the world record to the Iron Man master Mike Harry of Franklin, Tenn., the site of “the last great battle of the Civil War.” In spite of Clay’s drama-queen exaggerations of the Wendover DM, this day is tremendous fun, and those who make the hike are filled with the pure joy of the “strenuous life,” as Theodore Roosevelt put it. Tonight’s camp, (another L&C campsite), is aptly named Snowbank. They melted snow here for drinking water. It is on this evening when our participants look around the camp circle to discover that we have become what Lewis called “the best of families.” Whatever shyness or urban tension you bring to the trip will have slipped away somewhere at mile five, and you will realize that you have discovered your soul again, and the joy of your body, the magic of the wilderness, and the esprit de corps that comes from relaxing our tightly-formed social identities. This trip changes lives. It renews lives. Just wait: you’ll see.
L&C CAMPSITE: Snowbank.
DAY 7, MONDAY, July 24
Today, we wander west on the Lolo (Nez Perce) Trail. Our transport is minivans, but we stop half a dozen times during the day to look at Lewis & Clark historic sites. We are now in the heart of the heart of the Lewis & Clark trail, in a remote, still largely inaccessible high mountain terrain with what Lewis called “range after range of impenetrable mountains in every direction.” This portion of the Rocky Mountains is heartbreakingly beautiful. Our fearless guides will take us to such LC sites as “Bears Oil and Roots,” “Indian Post Office,” “Lonesome Cove,” “the Sinque Hole” and “Smoking Place.” You will stand “in the journal entries” of the expedition’s diarists, in places no casual tourist ever visits. This is Greek Spanakopita night, after a “we cook for the crew” initiative that Clay insisted upon a few years ago, until the crew said it is just so much easier to do it themselves! After Greek salad, kabobs and spinach pie, we climb up Bald Mountain to view as beautiful a sunset as you will ever see. Later, back at camp, dessert and guitar music either by members of the outfitter crew or the kind of lame crooners we attract on this trip.
L&C CAMPSITE: Dry Camp.
DAY 8 TUESDAY July 25
Because they were explorers, Lewis and Clark could not know just when their troubles in the Bitterroot Mountains would end. When Clark and a few iron men finally punched their way through to the end of the Bitterroots, they rejoiced to see a smooth plateau in the haze to the west. They named this vista “Spirit Revival” ridge. We visit it after breakfast on the last morning of our time in the mountains. The expedition tumbled into a Nez Perce camp, exhausted, malnourished (unlike us) and frightened. The Nez Perce held a formal council to decide whether to assist the poor Anglo refugees or to kill them and get it over with. Thus began one of the best white-Indian friendships in the history of the American West (until 1877, that is). Clay will explain how a Nez Perce woman named Watkuweis saved the expedition and how the remarkable Nez Perce helped the expedition fashion canoes (at Orofino, Idaho) and guided them to the Great Falls of the Columbia River.
After a final mountain lunch, we will hike down off the mountain. This time, it’s more than nine miles, but gravity is on our side for once, and at the end, we’ll be greeted by bottles of ice cold water and one of the prime swimming holes in the Lochsa River. For those who have the patience, there are thousands of huckleberry bushes along the trail.
Back at Lochsa Lodge, an evening of endless mirth, good drink and the satisfaction of having triumphed over what Lewis called “those tremendious [sic] mountains.”
LODGING: Lochsa Lodge, Powell, Idaho Meals: BLD
DAY 9, WEDNESDAY, July 26
After a lodge breakfast, you’ll meet a guest speaker, who brings new perspective to our LC adventure. Often enough, this is the great David Nicandri, occasional guest host on the “Thomas Jefferson Hour,” or Allen Pinkham, an elder of the Nez Perce Nation. This is a day of leisure and farewell. After lunch, you have the afternoon on your own, but almost everyone winds up in the magnificent Lochsa River. The day ends with a formal farewell banquet in which Clay claims that Becky tried to drown him yet again this year, that “next year” he is going to scamper up the Wendover DM like a bighorn sheep, and that no one ever quite recovers from walking off the map of the known world.
LODGING: Lochsa Lodge.
July 27 Homeward bound. After your last huckleberry breakfast at Lochsa Lodge, a 45-minute ride delivers you to the Missoula International Airport, or to your vehicle at a cooperating hotel.
To book, Becky Cawley, 208-791-8721.