The expedition got an early start on June 16 and they needed every bit of daylight to put 15 miles between camps. After midday the trail passed through "large quatities of snow yet undisolved," some of it three feet deep. Lewis bemoaned, "appearances in this comparatively low region augers but unfavorably with rispect to the practibility of passing the mountains, however we determined to proceed." Fortunately, the combination of cooler temperatures in the higher elevation with the setting of the sun allowed the snow to become "Sufficently firm to bear our horses, otherwise it would have been impossible for us to proceed as it lay in emince masses in Some places 8 or ten feet deep." The expedition camped on Hungry Creek. Clark described it as "Small at this place but is deep and runs a perfect torrent; the water is perfectly transparent and as Cold as ice." The next day, to his dismay, he would respect the accuracy of his description.
Hungry Creek is, arguably, the most isolated and untouched section of trail associated with the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It was unkind to the Corps of Discovery and it remains a challenge to 21st-century hikers and trail riders. Almost immediately on June 17, Hungry Creek exasperated the Corps of Discovery: "We found it difficult and dangerous to pass the creek in consequence of its debth and rapidity; we avoided two other passes of the creek," Lewis explains, "by ascending a very steep rocky and difficult hill." Ultimately the party pulled itself out of the creek drainage by scaling the high ridge overlooking today's Lochsa River. At this higher elevation the snow overwhelmed them.
Sergeant Patrick Gass records that "When we got about half way up the mountain the ground was entirely covered with snow three feet deep; and as we ascended, it still became deeper, until we arrived at the top, where it was twelve or fifteen feet deep." Gass continues: "We therefore halted to determine what was best to be done, as it appeared not only imprudent but highly dangerous to proceed without a guide of any kind. After remaining about two hours we conluded it would be most adviseable to go back to some place where there was food for our horses. We therefore hung up our loading on poles, tied to and extended between trees, covered it all safe with deer skins, and turned back melancholy and disappointed. At this time it began to rain; and we proceeded down to Hungry creek again." Lewis adds the perspective of a leader: "here was winter with all it's rigors; the air was cold, my hands and feet were benumbed ... if we proceeded and should get bewildered in these mountains the certainty was that we should loose all our horses and consequently our baggage instruments perhaps our papers and thus eminently wrisk the loss of the discoveries which we had already made if we should be so fortunate as to escape with life." He concluded that, "under these circumstances we conceived it madnes in this stage of the expedition to proceed." Clark labeled the retreat a "retrograde march" in his journal.
The observation of Gass that the expedition needed a guide was not lost on the officers. In the morning, Lewis and Clark sent two men back to the Nez Perce village to offer a rifle to anyone who would serve as a guide. Meantime, the rest of the expedition sullenly retraced their steps down the mountain they had conquered only the day before. One man fell from his horse and cut a vein on the inner side of his leg, requiring Lewis to apply a tourniquet quickly. A bit farther on, John Colter's horse tripped crossing Hungry Creek "and himself and horse were driven down the Creek a considerable distance roleing over each other among the rocks." The camp they made that evening, June 18, is where they would continue to stay through June 21. It was only two miles distant from where the expedition had camped on June 15, their first day of easterly travel on the Lolo Trail.
NEXT WEEK: Nez Perce guides escort the Corps of Discovery along the Lolo Trail.