“Saw a great abundance of the common thistles; also a number of wild onions of which we collected a further supply. there is a species of garlic also which grows on the high lands with a flat leaf now green and in blue but is strong tough and disagreeable. found some seed of the wild flax ripe which I preserved; this plant grows in great abundance in these bottoms. I halted rather early for dinner today than usual in order to dry some articles which had gotten wet in several of the canoes.”
—Meriwether Lewis, July 23, 1805
Botanizing the River
President Thomas Jefferson tasked Meriwether Lewis with more than merely following the Missouri River to its source to seek a potential water route to the Pacific. Jefferson commanded Lewis to study the geography and geology of the route, to note any useful resources, and to document the plants, animals, and fossils encountered along the way.
Herein is the enduring appeal of the Corps of Discovery. Rather than blindly race to the end, they engaged in a scientific journey of discovery, collecting samples and journaling about their observations. Lewis’s recorded the above observations near Townsend, Montana, on their ascent of the headwaters, very near one of our own campsites.
In a similar vein as Lewis and Clark, our six-month canoe trip down the Missouri is more about discovering the river than merely paddling to the end. Time along the river offers an opportunity to identify new plants, forage for wild foods, hunt carp with bows and arrows, learn to identify new birds, and seek to better understand bird language. The end goal of paddling to St. Louis provides a convenient excuse to spend six months camping, hiking, and exploring, slowly changing scenery as we migrate downstream. Otherwise, if the objective were merely to get to St. Louis, I would probably drive there.
The need to overcome nature, to climb to the top of a mountain or to paddle to the end of a river, is built into our culture, embedded in our history of conquest and colonization. It is symptomatic of a fundamental disconnect with nature. Plants are green and birds sing songs. We don’t know the plants and animals in our neighborhood; we are largely blind to species we encounter every day. Yet, we still have a longing to connect with nature, and not knowing how to do that, we treat nature as an adversary more than a dance partner. We pit human endurance against nature and seek to overcome her. We bask in the glory of our accomplishment while missing nearly everything along the way.
Lewis and Clark were the very face of conquest and colonization, yet they also sought to learn about and understand the land and its inhabitants. Lewis recorded many species of plants and animals, made detailed observations about them, and inquired into the customs of native peoples along their route. In two and a half years, the expedition cumulatively wrote more than a million words in their journals, providing readers today an opportunity to experience the journey through their eyes, to see what they saw and to better understand ecological changes over the past two hundred years.
As a botanist and author of Botany in a Day and Foraging the Mountain West, every outing I undertake becomes a botanical adventure, an opportunity to discover new plants and potential new wild foods. We are enjoying great salads of dandelions, plantain leaves, watercress, and wild mustards. We are feasting on carp, fried and batter-fried, plus an abundance of morel mushrooms. I am exploring new recipes, like gathering the male flowers from willows and grass to blend with flour for flatbread.
My crew mates, Scott, Chris, John, Josiah, and Adam, are learning botany and foraging from me, yet I am not the only one teaching. Each person has something to share, and the group is constantly practicing skills, making bow and drill fire sets out of different woods, twining cordage from yucca fibers and wild licorice stalks, sharing bushcraft philosophy and carving techniques.
Paddling the river is easy, mostly drifting with the current and steering as necessary. We are not dragging our canoes upstream as Lewis and Clark did. However, we do have one challenge to deal with that they didn’t. There are fifteen dams on the main stem of the Missouri and 700 miles of flat water behind them, the equivalent of paddling from Seattle to San Francisco on a lake. Canyon Ferry became our first major challenge, paddling into the wind and waves for hours at less than 0.5 mph while looking for a safe place to get off the water. I made me appreciate what Lewis and Clark endured dealing with wind and waves at the stormy mouth of the Columbia River.
We finally reached a sandy shore, only to get completely swamped by waves coming over the side. Three of our four canoes were partially or wholly swamped. Then the wind died down, we bailed water, repacked, and were blessed with at tail wind to push us along at 3 mph using handheld sails. Upon finally reaching camp, we did as Lewis and Clark did, taking time to “dry some articles which had gotten wet in several of the canoes.”
On the river we could paddle through variable weather, but exposed on the lake, we were forced to layover and wait for wind and weather to pass. After two additional days bobbing around in the wind and waves, we eventually reached the end of the lake and portaged around the dam with help from friends and family. As the skies clear, the journey continues.
Thomas J. Elpel is president of the Jefferson River Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation and the author of seven books, including Botany in a Day, Participating in Nature, and Foraging the Mountain West. Go to www.Elpel.info to learn more about the Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery, Tom’s books, and the expedition fundraiser for a new public campsite on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.