Northwest Adventure: Following the Lewis and Clark Trail

On May 28, 2019 – The Day after Memorial Day – I departed from my home in Blair, Nebraska on a month- long adventure through the Northwest United States.  My goal was to  visit significant historical landmarks along the Lewis and Clark Trail and  spend time in Olympic and Glacier National Parks.

Grave markers
Headstones mark the location where soldiers and Plains Indians fell during the Battle of the Little Bighorn, or Battle of the Greasy Grass.

My first stop in Montana was Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument which preserves the site of the June 25 and 26 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, known to the plains Indians as the Battle of Greasy Grass.  While this battlefield has no direct relationship to Lewis and Clark, it was a site that I have always wanted to visit.  The site is beautiful, and it recognizes and honors fallen Lakota, Northern Cheyenne Arapaho as well as Seventh Cavalry soldiers and Civilians. What I found most surprising is that there was only about 70 years between Lewis and Clark’s exploration of the western frontier and the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

After leaving Little Bighorn Battlefield I found a camping spot along the Bighorn river near the confluence with the Yellowstone River. The next morning I stopped along I 90 to spend an hour or two at Pompey’s Pillar National Monument. Pompey’s Pillar is a rock formation with a commanding view of the Yellowstone River and its surroundings.  While descending the Yellowstone on the return to St. Louis, William Clark described the formation in his journal and carved his name in the soft sandstone.  Clark named the landmark after Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, Sacagawea’s son, whom he had given the nickname “Pomp.”

Pompey's Pillar National Monument
Pompey’s Pillar National Monument

Leaving Pompey’s Pillar I followed I 90 southwest to Bozeman and then a short distance to Missouri River Headwaters State Park.   The park is located at the confluence of the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin rivers which flow together to  become the Missouri River.  Lewis  named the rivers after President Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State James Madison, and Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin.

View of the headwaters of the Missouri River.
Headwaters of the Missouri River at the confluence of the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin rivers at Missouri River Headwaters State Park in Montana.

The next stop on my journey was Fort Benton, Montana which was the starting point for my three day canoe trip into Missouri Breaks National Monument. I booked the tour through  Missouri River Outfitters and could not have been more pleased with the experience. Except for some hazy skies due to the fires in Alberta, Canada the weather could not have been better.

The roughly 50 miles of vertical white cliffs and eroded white sandstone columns, spires, toadstools and hoodoos are still much as Lewis describes in his journal.

Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery entered the White Cliff area of the river on May 31,1805. In a lengthy and poetic journal entry Lewis described the effect of water as,

“Breaking down the soft sand clifts and woarn it into a thousand  grotesque figures…”

He describes the workmanship as, “So perfect, indeed are those walls that, I should have thought that nature had attempted here to rival the human art of masonry had I not recollected that she had first begun the work.”

On my evening in Fort Benton before my departure and the day following my canoe trip I enjoyed walking along the picturesque historic river front viewing the displays about the history of the town as a fur trading post and later as a major steamboat destination point on the upper Missouri.

There are also a number of bronze sculptures dedicated to significant and colorful local characters including Lewis and Clark at one end of the river front and Shep at the other. It is the larger than life Shep Memorial that draws visitors from across the country to the rivefront.

Statue of dog
Statue to Old Shep who followed the body of his dead master to the railroad station and then for five and a half years met every day and night train waiting for his master to return. The restored Grand Union Hotel in the background.

As the story is told, in 1936 a sheepherder fell ill while tending his sheep and was brought to the St. Clair Hospital in Fort Benton. His sheep dog followed him to town and remained near the hospital door where a kind hearted nun would feed the dog.  The sheep herder died, and his family requested that the man’s body be sent back to his home in the East.  The dog watched as the casket was loaded into the baggage car and whined as the door shut and the engine pulled away from the station.  The dog that the locals named Shep followed the train for a short way and then returned to the station.  Until the dog’s death, Old Shep would return to the station each day to meet the four trains waiting for his master to return. Old Shep was buried on a hill overlooking the depot.

The story of Old Shep was featured in Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and years later the story was retold by Paul Harvey. In 1994 the town unveiled the larger than life Shep bronze

On Tuesday I drove from Fort Benton to the Gates of the Mountains Recreation Area and the Gates of the Mountains boat tour near Helena Montana.

Lewis’ river party arrived at the location he christened the “gates of the rocky mountains,”  on July 19, 1805. Visitors can take a two hour excursion boat tour from Gates of the Mountains Recreation Area through the narrow gorge where the high mountain cliffs tower above the river to the location to view the location Lewis describes.

Below the “Gates” the river widens, and as our excursion boat crossed from one side of the river to the other, the high cliffs do indeed appear to part before us.