Trailing Lewis & Clark Diary

We start out in Great Falls. Our plan is to stay here for a night and then meet up with the rest of the group in Fort Benton for the beginning of the trip. Great Falls is not really either, I have to say. It's the middle of July, hot, and the falls are more of a trickle compared to the impressive words Lewis &Clark used to describe them. I am here with Alan Austin, my videographer. Alan and I travel a lot for various productions and it's not unusual for us to find ourselves in strange towns where there's not a lot to do. But Alan says he knows one place in Great Falls not to be missed. The Sip ‘N Dip. I read about this place in Esquire Magazine a few months ago. They called it one of the best bars in America. Alan was there on a film shoot years ago and says it's not to be missed. And, folks -- you'll have to take my word for it -- it is not.

Next morning, Fort Benton. We meet the guides and the rest of the guests, load up an old school bus and head off to the put in. Without even a quick lesson on the J paddle, we're off, down the river in boats. It's pretty clear that some of us are more accomplished than others. Alan and I are quickly falling behind because we're trying to work out the balance of the canoe with all the camera gear. We've really got to watch out that we don't get any of the stuff wet, let alone drop it into the murky depths of the Missouri.

Finally we're doing all right and we start to shoot some stuff. Me rowing, me reading from the journals of Lewis &Clark, me rowing and, mostly, me sweating. It is so unbelievably hot right now. Already I am thinking, "I hate this. Who's idea was this?"

After a long hot day of paddling, we pull the canoes off to a bank and set up camp. Mostly this is done by the guides who are much more adept at these things than we are. Soon, a little tent city is erected. A cooler is out and everyone is sucking down their cold beverage of choice. It's 4:03p.m. and it's 95 degrees. All day long I kept trying not to think about the heat. But I have to admit that I felt like a hunk of halibut in a frying pan, sitting in that big canoe, no shade. Oh hot.

Tonight I can't wait to climb into the tent. The guides say it'll cool down a lot once the sun goes down. We'll see.

9:12p.m. Well the sun has just gone down, but the sky is still glowing. And at least it's cooler. It plummeted to 92. I just know this is not going to be a good night for sleeping.

6:30a.m. Breakfast is cooking. Smells good! All I want is coffee. I'm sitting in a folding chair, on a bank along the river. One of the guides shouts that the coffee is ready. It's too weak. I mean, it's kinda tea-colored and tastes like brown water. He offers to make a stronger pot, "More like what the guides drink." When I get some of that it is better.

Sleeping was rough, but it did eventually cool off. This morning is gorgeous, but, yes, hot already. It's 81 and only 7:00a.m. The guides are talking about how Lewis &Clark camped along these same banks and what they were facing. It's pretty interesting, but I am mostly trying to decide whether to wear pants and a long sleeved shirt or shorts and a t-shirt. I ask Alan about this and pretty soon everyone is talking about attire and sort of leaving Lewis &Clark back in history. The main thrust of the discussion is whether to slather up with SPF 2-billion and wear shorts and a t-shirt to stay cooler, or to go with long sleeves and long pants (mostly those zip-off kind where they can turn into shorts when you feel the sudden need to rip off your pants and go screaming into the shade but decorum prevents such a rash act in mixed company). Yesterday I went with shorts, but there's something about the blistering sun beating down on your skin that seems worse than having your limbs encased in space-age materials.

    I opt for the following outfit, from the bottom up:
  • Chaco sandals
  • North Face "convertible" pants, light synthetic material
  • Patagonia "wicking" t-shirt
  • Ex-Officio shirt with lots of vents and more "wicking" properties
  • Tilley Hat for shade

I feel like I am a study in beige from head to toe. But my hope is that I'll feel cooler if looking decidedly not. If looking decidedly geeky and somewhat like a senior citizen. So be it.

We start paddling and paddling and it's ungodly hot and it goes like that until we pull off and go up to this natural formation called "Eye of the Needle." It's an erosion in the sandstone that looks like, well, it sorta looks like the eye of a needle. Perhaps those sorts of monikers are mostly bestowed upon such formations by heat addled paddlers while trying to take their minds of the heat.

So we start off, en masse, hiking up to the thing. We get there, take pictures, take pictures of each other and then it's back to the boats.

I pull out my little altimeter/compass/thermometer and watch the numbers creeping, "89, 90, 91, 91..." When it gets to 95 I just put it back in my pocket. No need for that information. I do have to say that my long sleeve outfit is much better than shorts. It's still very hot, but at least the sun isn't so bad. And all my gear is working well. I am a gear freak and I love whittling down to the stuff that really works. I am most grateful for my old Tilley Hat. I know, it sounds like a shameless plug. But they are not paying me or offering any free gear (though if Mr. Tilley reads this; I'm a XXL and a 7 ¾). The hat is fabulous and has traveled with me all over the world. Yes, it looks a little silly.

That evening we have bison steaks for dinner. There's wine too. 95-degree red wine. I'm sure that's not the suggested pairing for this repast, but 95-degree water isn't much better.

After dinner we sit by the fire and listen to some stories about Lewis &Clark. I have to say it's gorgeous out here. The sky is amazing and at least there's some cold beer. Alan and I hang out with the guides for awhile, after most of the group heads off to bed. They tell some very funny stories about other clients that I cannot repeat here. I find out the next morning that a very thick rattlesnake cruised under my chair about five minutes after I went to sleep. That would have been cool to see.

After more paddling we finally reach the end of our stretch of the river. We unload our gear, pack up the boats and are off, back the Fort Benton, then back to the motel in Great Falls. We shower and get cleaned up, I type some notes from my little journal into my laptop and we head out for dinner.

The next day it's off to the Lolo Trail. We drive toward Idaho, across miles that took Lewis &Clark much longer than our speedy trip on the interstate. We spend the night at the Lochsa Lodge ( It burned a few years ago and it now back, better than ever. But it's a short night and soon we're at the head of the trail, heading up the steep trail into Idaho.

It's hot and I'm downing water like a madman. Right now our group consists of the three teachers, Alan, our guide Chad and I. We're huffing a bit as we get our trail legs underneath us. Along with the regular compliment of gear (water, rain gear, camera, ClifBars, etc) Alan and I are lugging some video equipment. It's not the heavy stuff we usually use, but it's still like bringing bricks along for a scenic hike. In fact, the trail is getting so steep and the weather so hot that the "scenic" portion of this is a tad lost on us. But we soldier on.

Chad is telling us about the hardships of the Lewis &Clark party. This is where they got into some of the worst situations of the whole journey. They lost their way, ate some dogs, spent a lot of cold nights in high camps in the Bitterroots. For us, it's just a tough hike. We eat no dogs.

When we finally hit camp we've climbed about 3500 vertical feet over the course of roughly eight miles. We're all ready to chill out in camp. Waiting is the van, which took the dirt road up here, and another guide who's already getting dinner ready. There are also a couple of other guys who've come up for some mountain biking. After seeing what we walked up today, I do not envy them the ride. Some cold drinks are passed out and we settle in for the evening.

The next morning I'm awakened by the smell of bacon cooking. Struggling out of the tent on sore legs I grab a cup of coffee and plop down in a folding chair. It's really pretty out here. The camp is enclosed by tall trees, but I can see the blue sky peeking through the branches. It's chilly, about 40 degrees, but it feels good after the heat of the last week. Eventually the other guys roll out of their tents and sit drinking coffee. Today we're off for more hiking and sight seeing. The biking guys are already limbering up for their ride.

It turns out to be a pretty good day. We see some interesting Lewis &Clark sites, places where they camped and wrote about. It's interesting; I feel a shift in this trip. There's something about being in the mountains and out of the intense heat of the river that lets me think more about the history of this trip. So much of what we've been doing is just plain coping with the weather, mostly the horrendous heat (Later, after I get back to Boise, I find out that the areas where we were traveling experienced some record highs and one of the longest stretches of 100-degree days in history). But now I find I am able to think about what those guys went through, all those years ago. I feel like I am becoming a bit less jaded and more in touch with the spirit of the trail.

It's July 21, Ernest Hemingway's birthday. I bet he would have liked these mountains.

Tonight the heat is back. As I write this it's 11:45p and it's almost 83 degrees. This is not going to be a good night for sleeping.

The next morning is warm, but not too bad. We're going to be heading back home soon. I don't want to ramble on too much about all the great scenery we've seen and all the history we're trying to absorb. I think watching our finished piece will tell you more than you need to know. But suffice it to say that after all the paddling and hiking and sweating, this turned out to be a pretty cool trip. I'm not sure whether I truly found the real "Spirit of the Trail," but I sure feel like I can understand a bit more of what Lewis &Clark went through out here. I guess it takes a few days of hard traveling to be able to shake off the way Lewis &Clark have been marketed to us all. They really are everywhere these days. Everything from coffee shops to podiatrist offices are named for them out here in the West. But once you get off the pavement, once you get some dirt under your feet, then you start to feel the real Lewis &Clark. I'm sure I can't bring that feeling to you with mere words, I probably can't do it with video and sound either. But I hope that when you watch the stuff we brought home, maybe you'll get a little closer to an authentic experience and a little further from Lewis &Clark shilling for your dollar.

So get out there, smell the clean air, see the distant vistas, endure the vicious heat and feel a part of history.

Just make sure you watch out for rattlesnakes under your chair and don't forget the Sip 'N Dip.

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