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A Tough Trip, But Somebody Had To Make It

Tue., July 29, 1997

Under a scalding Saturday sun, 26 dugout canoes, hewn by hand from 1,500-pound logs, slip into the fast-running Clearwater River.

The plucky souls piloting these crude, tipsy craft wear buckskins and tunics of another era, although some of these pseudo pioneers are lacking in the authenticity department. One lanky gent sports too-tight polyester tan pants with brown fringe sewn down each leg.

Could fate have a fashion sense? The canoe he paddles makes it 10 feet before swamping like the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The crowd lining the shore jeers with approval.

Lewis and Clark had it plenty rough, sure, but I’ll bet the Nez Perce Indians never sat on the banks hooting at them.

“Sounds like we’re at a demolition derby, not a historical event,” remarks one of my shipmates. We soak in the spectacle from the dry safety of a food-laden media jetboat.

The canoe ride is part of the Lewis and Clark Experience, a historical tribute to America’s intrepid explorers. The event climaxed Sunday night in Clarkston. Documentarian Ken Burns, of “The Civil War” and “Baseball” fame, premiered excerpts of his new film on the fabled expedition.

Being a Clark supposedly related to famed explorer Meriwether Lewis made me a natural to witness all this.

At least I grew up thinking old Meriwether was kin. My father uttered this so often I accepted it as fact. True enough, his mother’s maiden name was Lewis.

But when I called my own dear mother for confirmation, my link to the greatest feat of westward expansion began crumbling like a sand castle in a gale. My late father, she reminded me, once told her he had won the Silver Skates award. She later learned the closest he had been to ice was an occasional bourbon on the rocks.

Maybe my Meriwether tie is a crock. But I set out anyway, enjoying the same thrill the unknown Lewis and Clark experienced in 1803 - when President Thomas Jefferson commissioned them to explore the wilds.

Like Lewis and Clark, I decided to chronicle my exploits in a diary historians will no doubt call the “Loose Clark Journal.”

Day One - July 25, 1997

Lewiston-bound. A late start makes the task ahead formidable. We must obtain press credentials before the Lewis and Clark Experience office closes at 5 p.m.

Lewis and Clark found help from Sacajawea. I have my wife, Sherry.

She is not related to Sacajawea, but claims a direct descendance from Pocahontas. “Let’s not go down that road,” I say, somewhat surly from post-Meriwether letdown.

Progress comes to an aggravating halt outside Colfax. Road construction creates a half-hour delay. No espresso stands in sight. Lewis and Clark would undoubtedly have turned back. We press on.

More trouble. This time at Lewiston’s Grand Plaza Hotel. The press office is still open, but our room, a shocked maid discovers, has been given to a CBS reporter.

“Dan Rather?” I ask. She shakes her head no.

“Throw the louse out.”

The maid leaves muttering. At the front desk, I tell the manager I don’t appreciate the view of the Skipper’s from our replacement room.

“Aren’t you supposed to be roughing it?” says Robin Spencer, rolling her eyes.

I crank up the whining. Spencer agrees to let us have the Governor’s Suite. “Last weekend,” she says, “Richard Gere stayed in it.”

My wife suddenly becomes extremely interested. “The Richard Gere?” she says. “The Richard Gere was here?”

“He was buying an appaloosa horse for his girlfriend,” adds Spencer.

We take the Governor’s Suite on condition we will be out early the next day before professional golfer Chi Chi Rodriguez plays through.

The suite is very luxurious even by Lewiston’s high standards. It comes with silk flowers, an empty wet bar and a chess set. My wife examines the bedspread hoping to find whatever is left of Richard Gere’s cooties.

We take a “Pretty Woman” bubble bath in the Jacuzzi, dropping a history book from our press packet in the water. What happens next is none of your business.

Day Two - July 26, 1997

Fresh aiiiiir … Yikes! I haven’t been to Lewiston in years. I forgot it often smells like grandma died in the outhouse.

“It’s the smell of money,” explains Lorraine Roach, a perky member of the Lewis and Clark Experience crew.

More like the smell of Potlatch, a behemoth pulp mill that fumes like Frankenstein’s lab at one end of town. Lewiston residents tolerate Potlatch the way a poor family endures a rude, rich uncle.

We board a quirky-looking maroon jetboat called a Duckworth. It’s loaded with enough Oreos, pistachios, sandwiches, pop and assorted goodies to feed a Third World nation, or Orofino.

Capt. Perry Heinecke, who owns the Duckworth company, powers us miles up the Clearwater to the launch site at Pink House Hole. The sandy patch of beach is lined with dugout canoes. A couple hundred spectators are here to watch the re-enactment.

Hungry visitors may buy a Lewis and Clark continental breakfast. For the thirsty there is bottled water called Lewis and Clark Clearwater Ice.

My appetite weakens. That disturbing smell of money hangs over the food court like a decaying lynch victim. This time we can’t blame Potlatch. Some idiot put the food tables downwind from the chemical toilets.

The idea to celebrate Lewis and Clark in a big way was hatched last year by Lewiston car dealer Jock Pring and two marketing men, Jim Soyk and Steve Leroy.

“People live here all their life,” says Leroy, who later took over the event, “and the only thing they know about Lewis and Clark is what they see in neon signage.”

A quick skim of the Yellow Pages reveals the Sacajawea Motor Inn, Lewis-Clark Karate, Meriwether’s restaurant, Lewis Clark Federal Credit Union….

After some windy speeches, the canoes take to the water. They are led by an advance group pretending to be Lewis and the gang.

Each canoe took about 150 hours to build. But despite all the effort, the Clearwater is soon bobbing with swamped canoes and riders hanging on for dear life. Those dugouts not dunked must be frequently bailed out as the choppy water spills in.

Even Lewis and Clark lost a canoe near the Big Eddy, a mean-spirited, frothy section that upends all but a few of today’s voyagers. Life jackets and quick-acting sheriff’s deputies on Jet Skis keep the day tragedy-free.

After a couple of hours of floating fun, the log armada reaches Myrtle Beach. Latter-day explorers will camp overnight and prepare for the final journey to Clarkston in the morning.

The pioneer life is indeed hell. My jaws ache from scarfing Oreos all day in the Duckworth.

Capt. Perry motors us to Lewiston in time to hear rock ‘n’ roll legend Randy Bachman perform in the grass behind our hotel.

Anyone fool enough to hop a log down a river would appreciate the sentiment contained in one of Bachman’s best-known hits: “Ride, ride ride, won’tcha let it ride.”

Day Three - July 27, 1997

Potlatch is my pal. We learn that the CBS interloper who stole our room took one snort of the smell of money and left town.

We strike out on a mission to find Ken Burns at the sprawling Lewis and Clark Experience site in Clarkston. The festival features tepees, Native American dancers, mountain men and a food court where you can barter for a Lewis dog ($2.50) or a Clark dog ($2).

At another booth an Indian gentleman offers “Ancient Nez Perce Astrology” charts for $11.50. I don’t know how ancient it can be. He’s using a computer.

After traversing the dusty, parched grounds with no sign of Burns, we retire to the air-conditioned comfort of the nearby Quality Inn bar.

Bartender Rena McCully has the pioneer spirits. She recently invented two drinks: The Lewis (amaretto, whiskey and sour) and the Clark (vodka, peach schnapps, cranberry and orange juice).

This area is suffering from historical hysteria.

Burns eventually comes out of his room. He’s a slightly built, bearded man in jeans and a blue work shirt. He’d be completely normal except that every time he moves his lips, Hal Holbrook’s voice comes out.

Ha, ha. Just a little documentary humor.

We walk from the hotel to the experience site where Burns autographs books before showing his film on a 30-foot outdoor screen to a crowd of about 500.

Nightfall soon plops over the land of Lewis and Clark like a musky horse blanket. Time to saddle up the Ford and head for the hills.

I think I just got another whiff of that money.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos

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