A Campfire Discussion

Campfire DiscussionFor our television program on Lewis and Clark in Idaho, we gathered five experts around a campfire in the Bitterroot Mountains, to discuss the epic journey of The Corps of Discovery.

The section of trail through the Bitterroots, known as the Lolo Trail, is considered by many to have been the most difficult part of their entire journey.

Joining us were Steve Russell, a professor of Electrical Engineering at Iowa State University, who grew up in the Bitterroots, and who is the co-author of Across the Snowy Ranges: The Lewis and Clark Expedition in Idaho and Western Montana… Chuck Raddon, a Forest Service recreation specialist whose job it has been to interpret the Lewis and Clark experience... Norm Steadman, mayor of Weippe, where the Expedition first met the Nez Perce people... Cort Conley, author of several books on Idaho... and Alan Pinkham, a Nez Perce tribal leader.

  Listen to an extended excerpt of the discussion from "Echoes of a Bitter Crossing: Lewis & Clark in Idaho."

We asked them three general questions.

What Do You Think Is The Biggest Misconception About The Lewis & Clark Trail Through Idaho?

"What Lewis and Clark followed definitely was not a 'trail', yet this misconception pops up in all kinds of things."
-- Chuck Raddon
Chuck RaddonChuck Raddon, Recreation Specialist, Clearwater National Forest
My perception of the biggest misconception is the name itself, the Lewis and Clark "Trail." Most people think of a trail as a route, usually a couple feet wide that's dug across an area. What Lewis and Clark followed definitely was not a trail. Yet this misconception pops up in all kinds of things, where people say I want to follow the Lewis and Clark trail. What they followed really isn't available anymore. We have trails that are pretty close to the same location, but not the Trail.

"It was a definite route...but they by no means pioneered a trail or invented the trail themselves."
-- Steve Russell
Steve RussellSteve Russell, Professor of Electrical Engineering
I think the big misconception is that Lewis and Clark "made" a trail, that there was an actual trail that they made through the forest when they were traveling. Of course that wasn't true; at least in this area they were following the Nez Perce trail. So it was a definite route, well traveled by horses that they were following, but they by no means pioneered a trail or invented the trail themselves.

"They were probably at the weakest point they ever were when they hit the Weippe prairie. They were basically dead."
-- Norm Steadman
Norm SteadmanNorm Steadman, Mayor of Weippe, Idaho
I think they followed the route of least resistance at the time, and the most definite one particular trail of the day. Perhaps the Nez Perce had come back across from a buffalo hunt or something, and that was the most definite route of the day.

"They call it the Corps of Discovery. What did they discover? We were here first, so what could they discover?"
-- Alan Pinkham
Alan PinkhamAlan Pinkham, Nez Perce Tribal leader
It sounds like this trail came into existence when these two guys by the name of Lewis and Clark came over... the trail is actually the northern trail of the Nez Perce. They would travel from here to the plains states. That's the route we took. That's the northern route. We also had a southern route... so there's two trails. There's two ways we went to get to the plains. Sometimes the trail varied; it wasn't always exactly in the same spot and the same tread, even though it did come up the sharp ridge line; that was the only place you could walk or ride horses ... so there was specific tread, but sometimes the trail itself varied a bit.

Chuck Raddon
There were many different ways to get to the same place, and the Nez Perce used them all. And it's all part of the system, so there's no real definitive answer. Lewis and Clark were one little moment of time over a large system.

Alan Pinkham
In my perspective they were lost. They were wandering around here... Another thing, they call it the Corps of Discovery. What did they discover? We were here first, so what could they discover?

Cort Conley, author
They discovered you.

Alan Pinkham
Well, we discovered Lewis and Clark.

Norm Steadman
No, you recovered them.

Alan Pinkham
Well, yes. But that kind of bothers me. Looking back at it, I'd rather see some of the Nez Perce side of the story told. Part of that is 50% of our history as well.

"Lewis and Clark were one little moment of time over a large system."
-- Chuck Raddon
group pictureChuck Raddon
And to me, that's the big opportunity with the Bi-Centennial. When you look at what the Lewis and Clark Expedition was about, they knew where the mouth of the Columbia was. What they didn't know is what is present day Idaho, western Montana and the Columbia Basin. And so, they were coming to this area, and so essentially what they discovered was you, the Nez Perce. And to me that's a story that's really important and needs to be told during the Bi-Centennial.

Norm Steadman
If the Nez Perce hadn't been so inclined to be friendly to them and provide them with food, they were probably at the weakest point they ever were when they hit the Weippe prairie. They were basically dead. It would have been nothing to go in there and wipe that band out. They were a pretty formidable group whenever they were healthy - they had 33 guns - but once they got there, they were lucky to stagger into those villages and beg for food.

Alan Pinkham
The other thing that supports that they would never have survived without the help of the Nez Perce, is that the Nez Perce is closely related to all the Columbia River tribes. So the word went before us that these new people were coming down the river, and we went down with them to Celilo Falls, so without that assistance I'm sure they would have had more difficulty.

"The reason they call them the Corps of Discovery is because they were adding to the knowledge of a nation of people who lived on the east coast."
-- Steve Russell
group picture Steve Russell
The story of Lewis and Clark in Idaho is the story of Lewis and Clark and the Nez Perce, because they're following the Nez Perce trail and getting their bacon saved by the Nez Perce when they get over here.

But I think the reason they call them the Corps of Discovery is because they were adding to the knowledge of a nation of people who lived on the east coast, and that knowledge was supposed to be a knowledge of geography, a knowledge of the flora and fauna and the knowledge of the people. I look upon it as adding to the knowledge, rather than the more traditional interpretation of discovery.

Chuck Raddon
That's a good point.


What is Your Greatest Concern for the Lewis & Clark Trail?

"I'm real concerned...that development would occur to where this route would become an established trail of campsites."
-- Steve Russell
Steve RussellSteve Russell
My greatest concern for this trail is that right now, it's in a condition that is as close to the condition it was in when Lewis and Clark passed as we can hope for or imagine. My concern is that things will happen that will change the historic character of the trail so that we would no longer recognize it as an historic trail and no longer recognize this route and this land as what Lewis and Clark might recognize if they came through day.

If Lewis and Clark came through today, particularly Smoking Place, Willow Ridge, Bold Butte, down into Hungry Creek, except for some vegetation changes, I think they would really see essentially the same country they saw when they passed. But I'm real concerned about what I would call development, in the sense that development would occur to where this route would become an established trail of campsites, and lose that historic wild character.

"The number of people living in these mountains was greater in 1805 than it is today."
-- Chuck Raddon
Chuck RaddonChuck Raddon
I have to challenge you a little bit, Steve. My guesstimate is that the number of people living in these mountains was greater in 1805 than it is today. Today, we have people who go up and come out, and they don't stay very long. We've got a campfire here tonight, we'll be gone tomorrow, but in 1800 folks might have lived here for a week or two at a time. There were established campsites all across the mountains, at the meadows and streams and places where there was food.

"The portion through Idaho is the most natural and pristine portion Lewis and Clark traveled. This whole Lolo Trail corridor is nationally significant."
-- Steve Russell
Steve RussellSteve Russell
I'm talking about modern campsites with outhouses, and hardened campsites, and constructed trail with signs. Not the Nez Perce way, but the modern way. It's my concern that the modern way will result in a trail that's not recognizable as an historic trail.

Modern management doesn't address the historic trail. I don't think there's anything in the trail or the management guidelines that will address an historic trail, and that's why I think those guidelines need to be changed so that slopes that were adequate for the Nez Perce to travel 300 or more years are still adequate today for people who want that same experience to travel the same route.

"That's my greatest fear. I don't want to see the trail commercialized."
-- Norm Steadman
Norm Steadman and Chuck RaddonNorm Steadman
But then we have a lot of people who want to get four wheelers or motor cycles and tear up the trail, and that bothers me... That's my greatest fear. I don't want to see the trail commercialized. If someone wants to go up and enjoy the experience and not impact the trail, that's great. But when we devastate what we're trying to see, that's unacceptable to me.

Cort ConleyCort Conley
I have three concerns for the trail. Number one, Plum Creek logging. Somebody from Plum Creek put orange rings around trees within ten feet of where the Expedition slept. Number two, would be an apathetic Clearwater National Forest management, which I'm not saying we have. I think we're fortunate in the supervisor we have now. And number three is Senator Craig's so-called forest health bill, that could turn over to state management parts of the Clearwater National Forest that impact on the trail. And I think that would be a tragedy.

Steve Russell
I really feel that nationally this trail is very significant. The portion through Idaho is the most natural and pristine portion Lewis and Clark traveled. This whole Lolo trail corridor is nationally significant. We're not talking just about locally; we're talking about a heritage that this country currently has that can't be recovered if there are major changes to this trail. I feel it's that significant of a resource.


If You Could, What One Question Would You Like to Ask Lewis and Clark?

"I'd like to have asked Clark if, thinking back on it years and years later, he remembers seeing any country prettier than Idaho or meeting any Indians finer than the Nez Perce"
-- Cort Conley
Cort Conley Cort Conley
I'd like to ask Captain Lewis, did your death have to do with a woman, or was it just terminal writer's block?

Norm Steadman
It think it would be interesting to ask Lewis, since he probably secured most of the provisions, what he would do differently, what other provisions he would bring.

Chuck Raddon
I think about the mental attitude of the various folks on the trip. What were they thinking? What was in their mind as they came stumbling through here, for example, looking for something to eat and not finding much? Were they thinking about when are we going to turn around or were they fully optimistic that things were going to turn up, and was that what it took to survive in those days?

I would like to ask them, what did that bear oil and roots taste like?
-- Steve Russell
Steve Russell and Cort ConleySteve Russell
I'd ask a couple of things. I would intercept the party at Dillon, Montana, and I would have a discussion with Clark, and I would say, please make more accurate maps, because two hundred years later, a bunch of us crazy people are going to try to figure out where you went, and we need good maps to figure that out.

But the specific question I'd like to ask is, when I was a kid, I used to have to rub bear grease on the saddles to keep the beaver and critters from chewing on em. I would like to ask them, what did that bear oil and roots taste like?

Cort Conley
I'd like to have asked Clark if, thinking back on it years and years later, he remembers seeing any country prettier than Idaho or meeting any Indians finer than the Nez Perce

Alan Pinkham
And I'd like to ask them, what do you mean, Great White Father?

Cort Conley, laughing
and what are we supposed to do with this medal?

"I'd like to ask them, what do you mean, Great White Father?"
-- Alan Pinkham
Alan Pinkham Alan Pinkham, laughing
And what do you mean, which way to the ocean?

 

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