The first misreading of the trail, on Sept. 13, forced the party to move three miles out of their way before they recovered. The second error, on Sept. 14, had greater ramifications. After crossing Lolo Pass (elev. 5,233 feet), Old Toby missed a fork in the road and led the expedition downhill to the headwaters of today's boulder-strewn Lochsa River. They should have kept to the main trail that straddled the ridges above the river.
It took only four tough miles of travel on Sept. 15 for William Clark to recognize the mistake. Fortunately the explorers located a seldom-used Indian trail that zigzagged its way back to the ridge above them. The narrow, ill-defined trail showed few marks of traffic and for good reason. It consisted of approximately 10 miles of "high Steep ruged Mountain winding in every direction" as it rose about 3,500 feet in elevation. Two horses gave out after they "Sliped and roled down Steep hills which hurt them verry much." When the men made camp that evening, they had triumphantly returned to the main trail. But they also slept amid patches of snow.
Proceeding along the Lolo Trail tested the mettle of the Lewis and Clark Expedition as never before. The road kept to the hog-back ridge that separates the Lochsa drainage from that of the North Fork Clearwater. At an elevation approaching 7,000 feet, snow accumulated to 10 inches, simultaneously obscuring the trail, tiring the packhorses, chasing away deer and elk, and freezing the hands and feet of the men. Clark admitted, "I have been wet and as cold in every part as I ever was in my life, indeed I was at one time fearfull my feet would freeze in the thin mockersons which I wore."
Several years after the event, Clark remembered that "The want of provisions together with the dificuely of passing those emence mountains dampened the Spirits of the party." In an attempt to uplift the mood of the Corps, he split the party on Sept. 18, taking with him six hunters whose objective was to bag game and leave it for the slower main party. That afternoon, Clark climbed to a ridge and could see salvation in the distance. The next day, Lewis saw it, too: "when the ridge terminated and we to our inexpressable joy discovered a large tract of Prairie country lying to the S. W." He added, "this plain appeared to be about 60 Miles distant, but our guide assured us that we should reach it's borders tomorrow. the appearance of this country, our only hope for subsistance greately revived the sperits of the party already reduced and much weakened for the want of food." Sgt. Gass spoke for the enlisted men when he wrote in his journal, "there was much joy and rejoicing among the corps, as happens among passengers at sea, who have experienced a dangerous and protracted voyage, when they first discover land on the long looked for coast."
On Sept. 20, Clark's cadre broke out of the mountains and entered Weippe Prairie. Three miles into this "leavel rich open Plain" he encountered members of the NeMeePoo or Nez Perce tribe. His arrival, he said, "raised great Confusion" among a people who may have heard rumors about Euro-Americans, but had not yet been visited by one. "Those people treated us well," writes Clark, and they gave the men buffalo meat along with "roots, dried roots made in bread, roots boiled, one Sammon, Berries of red haws some dried." He found it all "tolerably good" until he became "verry unwell all the evening from eateing the fish & amp; roots too freely." The next afternoon, his hosts led Clark into the gorge of the Clearwater River to meet Chief Twisted Hair. At the end of the strenuous journey, Clark confided to his journal: "I am verry Sick to day and puke which relive me."
Lewis and the lagging main party, meantime, still struggled in the mountains on Sept. 20 and 21. One evening, they "dined sumptiously" on food left for them by Clark's hunters. The next night, they scrounged together a meal made from a few pheasants and a coyote, "which together with the ballance of our horse beef and some crawfish. . . make one more hearty meal, not knowing where the next was to be found."
Next Week: The Corps of Discovery reunites and begins the work of constructing canoes.
Robert Carriker has directed eight National Endowment for the Humanities seminars on the Lewis and Clark expedition and is author of Ocean in View! O! the Joy. When he's not out retracing the steps of the Corps of Discovery, he teaches history at Gonzaga University.