by Dean Culwell
About the Author
Dean Culwell is commander of the Montana Coast Guard and has floated more than 2,000 miles of Montana waters and the routes of Lewis and Clark.
Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their group of explorers traveled more miles in what is now Montana than any other state in their historic trek to and from the Pacific Ocean.
Most of the exploration party's traveling time in Montana was spent in boats. Their 167 days and nearly 2,200 miles boating through Montana were not without peril. Thirty boating mishaps are recorded in their journals including capsizings, swampings, men overboard and even a few injury accidents, fortunately none too serious.
Most of the types of hazards encountered by the Expedition still exist and continue to plague modern-day boaters.
The westbound Corps of Discovery entered Montana on April 27, 1805, boating up the Missouri River some 734 miles to Three Forks. Eighteen accidents are recorded in the journals in this stretch, mostly related to river hazards and weather.
Even the short trip up Belt Creek to the portage around the Great Falls had problems, with a canoe overturning and two men nearly drown.
From Three Forks the party boated up the Jefferson River 83 miles and then 80 miles up the Beaverhead River to Camp Fortunate, at the confluence of the Red Rock River and Horse Prairie Creek at what is now Clark Canyon Reservoir.
Near Twin Bridges, they took an errant side trip up the Big Hole River about 9 miles. This mistake nearly resulted in a broken leg as a canoe overturned and the heavy log boat swept over a crewman. From Camp Fortunate until they reached the Clearwater River in Idaho, they traveled by horse, graciously provided by Sacajawea's people, the Lemhi Shoshone.
On the eastbound trip through Montana in 1806, the party split up several times to explore additional country. The first split occurred in the Bitterroot Valley, where Captain Lewis and a small party headed off by horse to explore a short-cut to the plains. Until meeting the boats coming down the Missouri, their only time on the water was rafting the Clark Fork River near present-day Missoula. Lewis was "drawn off the raft by a bush" and had to swim to shore.
Clark's party returned by horse to the canoe cache at Camp Fortunate on the Beaverhead River. They retrieved the canoes and retraced the route down the Beaverhead and Jefferson Rivers to the Three Forks where Clark's party split.
Sergeant Ordway and his party continued by canoe down the Missouri, hooking up with Lewis' group near the Great Falls. Clark and his party traveled by horse over Bozeman Pass striking the Yellowstone River near present-day Livingston. Since trees were not sufficiently large to construct canoes until they reached present-day Park City, the Yellowstone was floated by canoe from this point downstream 381 miles to the confluence with the Missouri (just east of the Montana-North Dakota Border) where Clark's party rendezvoused with Lewis' party.
In total, the Expedition boated just under 2,200 miles in Montana on seven different rivers and streams. Most of this was on the Missouri River with 1,468 miles traveled. Second was the return trip on the Yellowstone with 381 miles. The Jefferson totaled 166 miles and the Beaverhead 160 miles. The side trip up the Big Hole added 18 miles.
Belt Creek and the raft trip across the Clark Fork River each added a couple more miles and some excitement to the trip.