By Michael Howell
The epic journey of the Corps of Discovery across the American west and back, and the records that were kept along the way, have provided generations of Americans a treasure trove of historical and scientific observations that continue to reveal new insights as time goes by. But the journals, as much as they convey, raise just as many unanswered questions. For instance, although we know the general area that Lewis and Clark passed through in Montana, we don’t know much about where they actually stepped on the ground or where they camped. But we are still learning.
It was only in 2002, for instance, that the first campsite on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail was verified by archeological findings and it was right here in the Bitterroot at Traveler’s Rest. So far it is the only site on the trail that has yielded physical proof of the explorers’ presence, including latrine sites with traces of mercury and fire hearths.
Following in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, it turns out, is not as easy as one might think. But it’s getting easier, thanks to the work of people like Ted Hall, John Stoke and Fred Cooper. According to Hall, who has already published one book on the subject and is about to publish another, he was intrigued by the idea that Clark and his crew might have gotten lost on their way into Montana coming over Lost Trail Pass.
Hall, who is an engineer himself, wondered what that word “lost” really meant.
“I thought, he was an engineer, he had maps and made maps, how is it that we came to think he was lost?” says Hall. He thought it was a simple matter to straighten things out. You just go back to where they got out of the Missouri River at Camp Fortunate and then you follow the map and the directions that Clark left us.
It was not so simple. It took years of work with a lot of help. He got help from his daughter Christine Hall and Dr. David Brabec who spent years actually “ground truthing” the journal entries over a 407 mile stretch of the trail. What they discovered was enough information to place a new section of trail on the national historic trail map depicting the actual descent trail used by Clark and company when they entered the Bitterroot valley in 1805. The search and findings are documented in a book published by Stoneydale Press entitled “The Trail Between the Rivers.”
According to Hall, the information gathered firmly establishes the location of the descent trail and the campsite area has been fairly well located. What remains unsure is the exact route that was taken to gain the ridge where the camp was made. In the book, two alternative routes to the top of the ridge were proposed.
“We are pretty sure about the campsite and we are certain about the descent trail,” said Hall. He said there was not much room for deviation on the trail down. If you follow the ridge down to the valley you walk over a span that is very narrow on top and very steep on the sides making it virtually certain that you are walking in the footsteps of the Corps of Discovery since there were 33 people and 29 horses in that group.
According to Hall, it was the late John Stoke and, following his death, Fred Cooper and his companions in the National Smoke Jumpers Association, who really stepped up to work with Bitterroot National Forest officials to gain official recognition of the trail. The smoke jumpers did a lot of work clearing the trail itself as it descends from the camp site on the ridge to the valley floor.
Last week several of these people including the Halls, Dr. Brabec, and several smoke jumpers were joined by Darby District Ranger Eric Winthers, Dan Wiley of the National Park Service and Kristine Komar from the Bitter Root Cultural Heritage Trust to celebrate the placement of a couple of signs and the promise of placement of a lot more to help tourists find and navigate the new section of trail.
Winthers credited Hall and his “dogged persistence” for getting the trail project approved.
Wiley said that the National Park Service was interested in promoting the entire national historic trail and that the new section of trail would be a part of that. He said there was enough confirmation by geographers and cartographers at this point to confirm the new section of trail and he was excited about the addition to the system.
According to Wiley, the Park Service has enlisted the help of a consulting firm and is working on a promotion strategy that would be “sustainable.” He said the plan was to keep it place-based, environmentally friendly, and emphasize local culture and history and promote local businesses at the same time. He said the national historic trail website should be up and running by the fall of 2018.
“The promotion is not being directed at the average tourist,” said Wiley, “but at tourists who want a genuine, authentic experience similar to that of the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery.” He said the agency was also looking at reconnecting with the tribes following the Bi-Centennial celebration. He said the funding involved in that was not sustainable but the Park Service was looking at a sustainable plan for the trail that could benefit the tribes as well.
The Park Service also plans on promoting local businesses along the trail. He said some local businesses would be included in the trail promotion but not all. As an example, he said, in the St. Louis area, where the trail begins, they discovered there were 437 barbeque joints.
“We don’t want to be a business index,” he said, “but we do want the good ones. So we are asking the locals, if you want to go out and eat barbeque, where would you go? That way we can get the best places on board.”
Hall said that, in addition to all the interest in Lewis and Clark, he believed the new segment of trail was going to be popular for other reasons too. Number one would be the amount of huckleberries in the area.
“It’s astounding,” he said. “I believe it is the largest huckleberry patch in Western Montana.”
The second reason the trail will become popular, he said, is the plant life in general that covers the ridge as it descends into the valley.