On this Tuesday evening of June 4, I am sitting in the comfort of the Lewis and Clark Library in Helena, Mont., posting pictures and thinking about the wealth of experiences during my last week on the Lewis and Clark Trail through Montana.
My first stop was the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, which preserves the site of the June 25-26, 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.
My next stop was the confluence of the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin rivers, which are the headwaters of Missouri River at Three Forks Montana State Park not far from Bozeman. Lewis decided to name the rivers after President Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State James Madison and Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin.
My next principal destination was Fort Benton, 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 wildfires 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 on May 31, 1805. In a lengthy and poetic journal entry, Lewis described the effect of water.
“Breaking down the soft sand cliffs and worn it into a thousand grotesque figures…”
He describes the workmanship as, “So perfect that, I should have thought nature had attempted here to rival the human art of masonry had I not recollected that she had first begun the work.”
While spending a night in Fort Benton before my departure and another at the end of the canoe trip, I enjoyed walking along the picturesque historic river front viewing the displays and memorials. The one that I will never forget it the oversized bronze Shep Memorial.
As the story is told, 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 stayed near the hospital’s door where a a kind hearted nun would feed the dog. The sheepherder died, and his family requested the his body be sent back to his home in the East. The dog watched as the casket was loaded into the baggage car. Those at the station remember the dog whining as the door shut and the engine pulled away from the station. The dog, later named Shep, trotted down the tracks. Each day for the next five and half years until his death, the dog would return to meet the morning and evening train waiting for his master to return.
The Fort Benton community raised $75,000 to finance the sculpture on the 50th anniversary of the dog’s death.
On Tuesday, I drove from Fort Benton to the Gates of the Mountains recreation area and the Gates of the Mountains boat tour.
On July 19, 1805, Lewis’ river party arrived at the location he christened the “gates of the rocky mountains,” which is now known as Gates of the Mountains. As the explorers navigated closer the “vast columns of rocks mountains high” appear to part before them.
For anyone visiting Montana, I would highly recommend the Gates of the Mountains boat tour.
The next leg of my adventure will take me into Idaho and Oregon. This story to be continued.
Joe Burns is a photographer for the Washington County Pilot-Tribune and Enterprise.