Highlights from My 3,300 Mile Journey along the Lewis and Clark Trail
The following is a guest post from the legendary Buck “Colter” Nelson. His bio can be found at the bottom of this post. Check out his other guest post here. Have a story you’d like to share on The Trek? Submit it here.
It was perhaps the greatest adventure in the history of American exploration. In 1804 Lewis and Clark set off from St. Louis, with the goal of traveling up the Missouri River and across the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. It must have been thrilling, faced with that great blank spot on the map, a region so little-known that President Jefferson hoped they would find living mammoths!
Before my first thru-hike I had just finished a book about John Colter, a member of the “Corp of Discovery.” Despite having been gone for three years, on the home-bound journey he got permission to turn around and head back to the Rockies. Inspired, I took the trail name “Colter.”
Wouldn’t it be great to retrace their westward journey? I’d paddled a short distance up the Missouri myself once. It was hard going. Doing the whole river seemed nearly impossible. A year ago I found a couple of accounts of people who had paddled up the Missouri River in modern times. Unsurprisingly, it had been exceedingly difficult. On the lower Missouri they had both nearly drowned crossing partially submerged wing-dams, which reach part way out from shore to channelize the river. L&C members often walked the shore. I could walk the lower part of the Missouri, past the wing-dams, and paddle up the last 1,500 miles. 1,500 miles upstream?! Yikes.
I began planning in earnest. A stranger volunteered to receive and store my kayaking gear in Yankton. I made up two gear lists: hiking and kayaking. I researched portages and resupplies and mileages.
Time flew. On the evening of March 24, 2016, I stood on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, looking at it’s confluence with the Missouri: big, cold-looking rivers. It was incredibly exciting to be at the start of such an epic journey.
I camped in a quiet forest along the Mississippi. I started hiking early the next morning, north along the river, seeing many whitetails and turkeys. I crossed the Alton bridge and later in the day reached the Katy Trail, a wonderful part of the Rails-to-Trails program. That evening I left the trail for a quiet camp along the Missouri.
For the next ten days I followed the pleasant spring-time trail near the Missouri River, crossing old bridges and passing rock bluffs and blooming trees and rich looking Missouri farmland. Each evening the Lewis and Clark journals came to life as I read their descriptions of the the country I was passing.
When the Katy Trail left the river, I began hiking back roads, passing farms and woodlands and little towns of Missouri and then Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa. I camped along the Missouri or wooded creeks. It was spring: there were red cardinals and black squirrels and crowing pheasants and thousands of geese.
Early one morning a violent rainstorm struck. The wind blew and rain pounded down so fiercely that standing water threatened to soak my sleeping bag. I quickly packed up and started walking in squishing shoes.
Near Sioux City I visited the grave of Sgt. Floyd, the only member of the Expedition to die, likely of appendicitis. At the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center later in the day they were very interested in my journey and generously allowed me to camp in their yard that night.
My kayak was waiting for me in the garage of my new friend at Yankton. I’d hiked 800 miles. I took a day to re-outfit from hiking to kayaking, mailing off items I didn’t need, and doing a big resupply in town.
My new kayak felt tippy when I launched in the morning. After a few hours my back and butt ached. I’d adapt, though. Right? I experimented with sitting positions and padding which helped.
That first day was on a reservoir, Lewis and Clark Lake. It was May 4. I paddled through a marshy delta at the head of the lake and then began fighting the current, making steady progress despite having a headwind as well. However, at one place the river swept around a point. I paddled madly but when I looked up, found I was actually going backwards! I got out and waded, pulling the boat for the next hour.
For weeks, for months, I paddled up the Missouri, alternating between freeflowing river and big reservoirs. Trees began disappearing, Cactus, mule deer, prairie dogs and prairie chickens appeared here and there as I entered the West. It was easy to imagine the excitement of the Corp of Discovery. High winds and large waves would sometimes shut me down on the lakes, but I could do big miles under good conditions. On the freeflowing sections waves were rarely a problem but there was current to fight and the miles came hard. Each night I’d read of Lewis and Clark struggling with some of the same things: storms, current, fatigue, insects. No standoffs with hostile tribes for me though!
One day, near Sacajawea’s village, I saw something near the water’s edge: a buffalo skull! I was thrilled. Later in the day I found a horn and then another complete skull in the water as I pulled my kayak against the wind and current.
Some days there were numerous giant petrified stumps that must have weighed hundreds or thousands of pounds. On others fossil imprints of leaves were preserved in ancient mud.
At dams I would portage. I had a small cart which broke down for storage inside my kayak, but when assembled worked very well for moving my loaded kayak. At the Big Bend of the Missouri I chanced a major portage of over a mile across some hills. I pulled the carted boat as far as I could, and then shouldered the gear for the rest of the way over the ridge and down to the water on the other side. It was very hard work but saved me about 20 miles of paddling.
On June 14, I reached the confluence of the Yellowstone, and the next day, my 84th, I paddled into Montana. The upper Missouri was the most spectacular, wild and difficult, often with hours of pulling the kayak upstream through swift, shallow water. I’d shoot for 20 river miles a day when possible. After seeing five paddlers or less on the whole trip I began seeing many in the White Cliffs area.
One evening a black storm approached and I began to hear the patter of hail. As the hail got bigger I knew I had nowhere to go if it started punching through my tent, so I put my sleeping pad over my head and hung onto my single tent pole to keep my shelter from collapsing in the crazy winds. The storm passed, leaving the ground pocked with hail marks.
Just before Great Falls, Montana, I struggled up the toughest stretch of river; rapids and deep water up to shore with the water studded with huge boulders. While trying to maneuver my kayak around a boulder I heard a sickening crunch. Later I found a significant crack I had to repair.
The 20 mile portage at Great Falls was a long day which left me exhausted. What a relief to reach my hotel. When the clerk saw my kayak she refused to let me stay there. The kayak made her “uncomfortable.” Happily, another hotel several blocks away was very welcoming.
A few days later I flipped my kayak for the first time, when a strong current suddenly hit me as I crossed a rapids. It was uneventful except for a skinned shin. On July 28, day 127, mile 2,321, I lined and paddled my kayak to a gravel bar at Three Forks, the head of the Missouri. Two friends met me. One brought me to his nearby home for rest and resupply and to store my kayaking gear for me.
A day and a half later he brought me back to the river. It was good to be out of the kayak and hiking the next 500 miles. I walked up the Jefferson and Beaverhead Rivers.
What a great feeling it was to climb Lemhi Pass and look down onto the Pacific side of the Rockies! Imagine how it felt to Lewis and Clark? Eight years ago I’d crossed this same pass on the Continental Divide Trail.
I followed roads through Salmon, Idaho, then over Lost Trail Pass and Lolo Pass, then roughly followed the route of the Lolo/Lewis and Clark/Nez Perce Trail; in places gravel road, and in others old trail. Some trails were maintained, some had so much dead-fall it was a real challenge. I admired the long mountain views and wildflowers and enjoyed huckleberries. Mule deer wandered through my camp one evening. One morning a black wolf trotted around a trail corner!
I started finding lots of big, sweet blackberries and in some places near Orofino wild apples and plums. What a feast having all that fresh fruit!
My buddy brought my kayak to Canoe Camp on the Clearwater River. After all the struggling upstream on the Missouri, the Clearwater was very swift and it was exciting paddling downstream to the Snake River at Lewiston.
It would seem that it would continue to be easy paddling, riding the rivers to the sea, but there was a series of dams, and therefore lakes and portages, along the Snake. There were rugged, barren hills with amazing scenery as well.
On August 31, I reached the confluence with the Columbia River. I had some of the spookiest paddling of the whole trip on the Columbia when it’s famous winds would whip up waves that threatened to flip me.
Somewhere near The Dalles the arid, grassy bluffs morphed into heavily timbered mountainsides. Then one day a huge ocean-going ship towered high above me as it headed up the Columbia. What a different world.
It’s hard to express the excitement I felt when I rounded a bend and glimpsed the Pacific Ocean ahead of me! I’d been told about the potentially murderous Columbia River Bar and so I landed at Astoria. I hiked to Fort Clatsop where rangers allowed me to camp at the Fort that evening. Lewis and Clark spent the winter of 1805-06 there. It had been soggy for them but for me it was blue bird weather. The huge timber was magical.
In the morning I hiked off through the rainforest along the Fort-to-Sea Trail for the last few miles to the Pacific. It was September 14. Finally I could hear the ocean and smell the saltwater. Two old friends were there to walk with me down to the water. I’d been on the Lewis and Clark Trail for 175 days and paddled and walked about 3,323 miles. Whitecaps rolled in under a blue sky as I raised my arms in triumph.
Bruce “Buck” Nelson has documented a solo traverse of Alaska in his film Alone Across Alaska, and more recently survived 70 days in Alaska living exclusively on wilderness foods, a story told in his book Alone in the Fortress of the Bears. Both are available at www.bucktrack.com.
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