In October of 1805, the Corps of Discovery launched five dugout canoes onto the Clearwater River near present-day Orofino, Idaho, and began their water bound journey to the Pacific Ocean. Almost immediately, according to the Journals, the Expedition experienced difficulties with their canoes.
On July 26, 1997, residents of Orofino, Lewiston, and surrounding Idaho towns launched about 20 hand-made canoes, as part of a celebration called The Lewis & Clark Experience.
The two-day event took the canoeists from Orofino, Idaho to Clarkston, Washington, over the same stretch of river that - almost 200 years earlier - Lewis and Clark had navigated.
Jack McKey was the man in charge of making sure the boats were "river-worthy." "These boats were developed for fresh water; they were developed for rivers with rapids, and so they have to be maneuverable. They have the weight to carry the vessel through almost anything you'll encounter. The only thing they don't go through too well is rock, so you try to stay away from that, of course. "You ship a little water and then you bail a little water, but you keep right on going and the boat handles it very well, due to their length. There's a lot of stability in length. This is one of the features that makes the dug out canoe quite a stable boat."
McKey says the Nez Perce method of building dugout canoes involved fire, which helped to season and fire-harden the vessels as the mass of wood was removed from the log. "The technique of building a boat was a little different after Lewis and Clark showed up. They had steel tools, they had smiths with them for shaping metal tools. They no doubt made them available to the Indians, although they did build their boats with fire."
Virgil Wilmarth was one of a handful of men and women who helped build the dugout canoes. "Hope the sucker floats. It's gotta float; it's made out of wood. The idea is to float with this side up; and if it doesn't float, it will make a real good hog trough when we get done." They used a more modern method to create The Pride of Orofino,, using colored wooden pegs, placed in the log at various intervals, to know just how deep to cut into the wood.
The fate of "The Pride of Orofino" rested in the hands of men and women with no experience paddling dugout canoes.
Ever wonder what would have happened if the Corps of Discovery had attempted to canoe the famed "River of No Return," Idaho's Salmon River? Idaho author and Salmon River guide Cort Conley thinks he knows.
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