How Lewis & Clark Crossed the Rocky Mountains

Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia by Charles Marion Russell; Opaque and transparent watercolor over graphite underdrawing on paper

It is nothing short of a tragedy to find just how little appreciation is given to the momentous feats of the souls who came before us, upon whose legs and backs our country came into its rightful greatness. The Lewis & Clark expedition of 1804 – 1806 is one such feat. In our world of fast-travel and instant communication, the achievement of the expedition comes off as nothing short as quaint, when in reality it was one of the defining projects of modern western society, in which great faith was placed in nothing more than the tenacity and intelligence of a highly motivated band of citizens.

Today, crossing the mighty Rocky Mountains is something that can be done while watching episodes of your favorite sitcom on an airplane seatback. In the first years of the 19th century however, it was an undertaking the likes of which simply cannot be imagined by our overly comforted minds. Drifting snows, freezing temperatures were the small matters; grizzly attacks and native raids were among the larger ones.

1800’s Tech: Navigating Without Google Maps

One of the most important things to consider about the Expedition’s plan to cross the Rocky Mountains was that they had no reliable way of knowing either how long it would take or how strenuous it would be. While there were some privately commissioned maps at the tame, many had glaring inaccuracies, and many more were entirely fake altogether.

Apparently, the map the Thomas Jefferson was using to plan the Expedition showed the Rockies as a single, mostly straight line of mountains that were not very wide. Their initial hopes were that all they would have to do is scale one side, then slide down the other, and that would be the end of it.

Fortunately, the men who made up the expedition were a bit smarter than that.

Towards the Pacific: Crossing the Rockies

Clearwater River; Lewis and Clark 1805 expedition route, Idaho | Joseph Sohm

The Lewis & Clark Expedition sought to follow the line of the Columbia River upwards from its source in the Northern Rocky Mountains. Their route took them through the center of present say Montana and Idaho, both of which feature significant chunks of the greater Rockies.

Of all the many journals and accounts that exist, there was a general agreement that this stage of the journey was the most arduous by a long shot. Seeing as how that area was full of grizzly bears back then and there weren’t any roads, it is perhaps not too hard to imagine.

Here’s Meriweather Lewis, describing what it felt like to leave the Rockies behind:

“[sic]…the pleasure I now felt in having tryumphed over the rockey Mountains and decending once more to a level and fertile country where there was every rational hope of finding a comfortable subsistence for myself and party can be more readily conceived than expressed, nor was the flattering prospect of the final success of the expedition less pleasing.”               

– September 22, 1805

There & Back Again: Crossing the Rockies (The Second Time)

You can almost hear the grumbles of the 9 Expedition members of the Expedition that were assigned to Meriwether Lewis to chart and explore an alternate pass through the Rockies on their way home. No doubt the notion seemed exhausting to a group of men who had already been through it once.

Today it’s known as Lewis & Clark Pass, and it is one of the most authentic, non-motorized Rocky Mountain crossings in the Lewis & Clark trail systems. In 1806, however, the year that the return journey was made, the alternate route that Lewis wanted to chart was already an oft-used path by a number of different Native American groups, and it became one of the most-used Rocky Mountain passes as the gold rush and the Pioneer Era came to be a few decades later.

Crossing Lewis & Clark Pass these days is one of the best ways to experience the landscape the same way that Lewis & his men did … in the direct and visceral way that is needed to appreciate the Rockies for what they are.

But for what it’s worth, they look pretty good from a plane window as well.

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