LOLO PASS, Idaho – “Capt.” Bud Clark stood among the white canvas tents of his 1805 military encampment Tuesday on Lolo Pass and considered the approaching trip down the Bitterroot Mountains.
“I fully expect snow and nasty weather,” Clark said. “We”ll almost be disappointed if we don”t get it. … Hopefully, we won”t have to eat any of the horses.”
The latter was a joke, but until then he was serious.
Clark, the great-, great-, great-grandson of Capt. William Clark, is retracing the steps of his kin in commemoration of the Corps of Discovery”s trek across the country, and trying to do so as accurately as possible.
Clark wears a buckskin hunting frock, a powder horn slung under his arm, moccasins and tattered linen shirts like his predecessor, and he carries a rifle much like one Capt. William Clark carried 200 years ago.
But authenticity ends when it comes to butchering the outfitters” horses.
And while they sleep in their canvas tents, and use candle lanterns in camp, there have been times when they had to stop paddling or dragging their dugout canoes up the Jefferson River and simply towed them up the road on a trailer.
Clark, who”s from Dearborn, Mich., and other members of the Discovery Corps re-enactment team started in Pennsylvania in August 2003, 200 years to the day after the original Corps of Discovery, led by Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, began their mission to find an overland route to the Pacific Ocean.
And it was 200 years ago today that Lewis and Clark crossed to the Idaho side of the Bitterroot Divide, embarking on one of the most perilous stages of their journey, enduring freezing weather and near starvation to reach navigable waters to the Pacific.
This Thursday, 15 members of the Discovery Expedition will mount horses to ride the Lolo Trail to Weippe, Idaho. There, on Sept. 20, they will join Nez Perce Tribe members for a re-enactment of the first meeting between the tribe and William Clark.
“Our objective is to bring the people, particularly the kids, into the world of Lewis and Clark,” said Clark, one of four descendants of the original Corps of Discovery traversing the country together.
Clark said he”s always been involved in “things Lewis and Clark,” partly because of his ancestry. Now retired from Ford Motor Co., he has the time to pursue his passion nearly full time in a way that neatly fits his love of the outdoors.
And he hasn”t been disappointed.
“It”s the ultimate Lewis and Clark adventure,” he said. “They all call me Captain. I get a tremendous amount of respect – more than I deserve. What really makes this group tick is the camaraderie and fellowship.”
The experience has given him a sense of why the Corps was so successful, and how indebted it was to the tribes that provided horses and food along the way.
The Nez Perce greeted the explorers cautiously but shared their food, information about the route west and cared for the expedition”s horses when Lewis and Clark continued onto the coast by dugout canoe. The explorers described their hosts as “the most hospitable, friendliest, and honest people we encountered.”
Knowing what they know now, after years of broken treaties and near cultural genocide, would the Nez Perce go back and change that first contact between the tribe and Clark?
“If it wasn”t Lewis and Clark, it would have been the next person,” said Farren Penney, the tribe”s bicentennial coordinator, adding that a Nez Perce prophecy foretold the meeting.
While the Nez Perce aren”t celebrating the bicentennial, they are using the opportunity to share their story, said Aaron Miles, natural resources director for the Nez Perce.
“When we look at things in hindsight, we wonder, do we really want to be involved?” he said. “At the same time, you want to be able to promote tribal work and business for the welfare of the Nez Perce people.”
The tribe”s biggest role in the bicentennial is to host a national signature event next June called The Summer of Peace. The message they intend to convey, Miles said, is, “We”re not a dead society. … We”re here to stay.”
Along the trail, Clark said he has met with many American Indians, including some members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), who believe Lewis and Clark represent the death of native people and their culture.
Clark said he agreed with most of what the AIM members said, but he disagreed that the bicentennial is objectionable.
“Had we packed up our boats and funny clothes and gone home, a platform for them to convey their message would go home with us,” Clark said. “One way we can possibly help is to encourage people to listen with open hearts and open minds.”
After the re-enactment in Weippe, Clark”s group will join the Lewis and Clark Bitterroot Corps at an encampment in Kamiah, Idaho, and another at the historic canoe camp near Orofino, Idaho, where they”ll build dugout canoes for the trip down the Columbia.
Pullman-area resident Vern Illi, a member of the Bitterroot Corps, is helping organize the canoe camp. He already rode with a pack train down the Lolo Trail in 1998.
That experience gave him a sense of what Lewis and Clark felt 200 years ago as the first white men to cross those mountains. Like Lewis and Clark, Illi”s group saw no game on their crossing, and they had one horse balk and roll down a steep, rocky mountainside.
“The magnitude of the mountains was unbelievable,” Illi said. “It was a little humbling.”
In trying to cross the Bitterroots, snow fell heavily on the Corps and horses were lost, or stumbled and fell down steep ravines. Three colts purchased from the Flathead Indians as pack animals or, as a last resort, food, were butchered for lack of game.
Once they made their way out of the steep mountains to the plains, the Corps of Discovery encountered the Nez Perce Tribe, which shared its dried salmon, berries and camas root with the weak and famished expedition members. The radical change in diet wasn”t easily digested by the Lewis and Clark and their men.
“All complain of a lax and heaviness at the stomach,” Clark wrote Sept. 24, 1805. “Capt. Lewis scarcely able to ride on a gentle horse, which was furnished by the chief. Several men so unwell that they were compelled to lie on the side of the road for some time.”
In his book “Undaunted Courage,” author Stephen Ambrose wrote that the Nez Perce had an easy opportunity to take the weapons, ammunition, tobacco and other supplies from the infirm Corps of Discovery. That they didn”t, he wrote, is one of the great stories of American history.
“We were not a warlike tribe,” Penney explained. It helped that Watkuweis, an old woman who had once lived among white men, told the Nez Perce warriors to “do them no harm,” according to tribal lore.
“That was the basis of our summer of peace,” Penney said.