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It’s All About the Water

The first time I traveled the Lewis & Clark Trail was in 1997. I was participating in a FAM (that’s travelspeak for “familiarization tour”) with thirty or so other tour operators that the 14 trail states were hoping to interest in conducting tours of the trail during the upcoming Bicentennial commemoration. We all knew that President Jefferson’s directions to Captain Lewis included specific instructions that he was “to explore the Missouri River and such principal stream of it, as, by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, may offer the most direct and practical water communication across the continent, for the purposes of commerce.”

Since this was a direct order from the Commander in Chief, that’s exactly what the Corp of Discovery did. However, Jefferson’s knowledge of the West, like that of all Americans at the time, was limited. He would not know until Lewis & Clark returned that

“Beyond the Missouri there was no natural equivalent for the network of navigable rivers that had so magnificently furthered the agricultural occupation of the eastern half of the Mississippi Valley. The Far Western farmer would evidently have to depend on railroads [still decades in the future] to get his crops to market.”

Crops were not much on the minds of the Captains, however. They were ordered to locate the fastest water route to the Pacific to transport the riches everyone expected to find in the Louisiana Purchase. Every member of the expedition was surely aware that the meandering course of any river (but particularly the Missouri) added thousands of miles to their journey. They could have probably made it overland to the Pacific and back in one season. But with the nearly perfect lack of navigable roads in North America, it was unthinkable to try to transport goods and people overland, and in fact, it had been that way throughout history.

So Lewis & Clark knew this before they took a single step westward. We FAM participants, nearly 200 years later also knew this. But it has taken about a dozen trips along the trail for me to fully appreciate just how crucial rivers were to the development of the West, and every year there is more and more interpretation along the trail helping trail enthusiasts to understand the expedition and its ramifications more fully. And each year, we have added the best of them to the itinerary.

Actually, one of the things that REALLY brought it home to me was the epic Missouri River flood in 2011. We hadn’t run the tour in several years, and finally had enough passengers to go when nearly the entire length of the Missouri River from Bismarck to the confluence between Illinois and Missouri was inundated from bluff to bluff. Agricultural fields, interstate highways, parts of entire cities were underwater – not to mention many riverside hotels and parks, museums and even Fort Mandan which were included on our itinerary.

Some of the folks signed up for the excursion that year were a little put out with me for cancelling. But they didn’t know how much of our focus (and, indeed, how many of our activities, meals and hotels) were directly impacted by the flooding. I-29, tracing the western border of the state of Iowa, was closed for more than a month while the floodwaters slowly receded. It was a REALLY big deal.

Although we are watching the spring thaw closely, we’re not anticipating any disruptions of the riparian kind this year. We’ll set off on July 31 from St. Louis, to retrace the journey the Corps of Discovery began back in May of 1804, and follow the river to the ocean. Well, actually, we’ll follow the Missouri until it runs out in western Montana. Then pick up the Lochsa on the other side of the Bitterroots, to the Clearwater, then the Snake to the Columbia, which will finally lead to the Pacific. And we will no doubt declare with jubilation, just as Wm. Clark did in his journal. “Ocian in view. Oh, the joy!”

It is indeed a joyful experience, and a once-in-a-lifetime journey for most people. I’m just luckier than most!

This month’s Trail Talk is sponsored by


Shebby Lee is a historian, writer and tour operator specializing in the historic and cultural heritage of the Great American West. She is a frequent presenter at numerous history conferences and trade association meetings and is a regular contributor to Leisure Group Travel’s online magazine. Her early training was in the theatre and she served a tour of duty as an entertainer with the USO. She is also an Admiral in the Nebraska Navy.

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