With so many people at breakfast on Saturday morning, we got started early and it was buffet style. And a bloody delicious buffet it was too. There was more chat with the Big Sandy posse, and umpteen invitations to hang around and join in the fun. “We’ll have you married off within half an hour.” I was more tempted by the great weather and the chance to have longer on the river but I had to be on my way.
Next stop on the Lewis & Clark Trail was just down the road. Decision Point. Here’s the deal. The Corps reached the confluence of the Marias and the Missouri, but didn’t know which was which. If they’d arrived today it would be obvious, the courses have changed slightly and the Missouri is much bigger relatively. The Marias also came down from the north, which was compelling for an expedition seeking the northwest passage. Pierre Cruzatte (the one-eyed fiddler – every expedition needs one) opted for the Marias, and as the leading boatman his view had some credibility.
The two captains thought it was the Missouri fork because the Mandans had told them that the river came down from the mountains, which would mean it would be clearer than the muddier Marias. However the Indian tribe hadn’t mentioned such a major fork in the river, so they weren’t infallible.
The Corps ended up spending 10 days in the area sending out canoes up each river for several days. To a man they believed it was the north fork. Only Clark agreed with Lewis that the south fork made more sense and thus that was the direction they took. It was a big call.
Of course the captains were right. The Marias was named after Maria Wood (the Maria’s originally) who Lewis may have asked to marry him after his return and been rebuffed. And she got a river and everything. Women!
I learned this latter fact in Fort Benton at the Missouri Breaks centre (that’s the name for this part of the river) from a L&C expert who clearly ran the gig, while the newbie Bureau of Land Management ranger Lena (from North Dakota) looked on in awe. Fort Benton has an interesting history – it was as far as steamboats could go on the river and was the start of the Whoop-Up Trail of illegal whiskey smuggling between here and Canada. It was once one of Montana’s major towns, but now is rather sleepy.
Great Falls is the next stop. The clue is in the name. This proved to be the first of the big obstacles in the Corps’ route west. They knew there was one change in river level to deal with – they weren’t expecting five. Forget the risk of taking the Marias – the Great Falls instantly put pay to any hope of getting to the coast and back before the end of 1805. The story of the portage around the falls is one of the more remarkable of an altogether astonishing journey. It is a story told more expensively at the Great Falls L&C visitor centre than probably anywhere since the St Louis Museum of Westward Expansion.
To bypass the falls, the men had to manhandle the canoes and all their kit 18 miles across land covered in thorny shrubs. They had to do this many times. In total, they covered 130 miles from June 22nd to July 2nd. It was brutal, yet the Captains reported that the men’s spirits remained high despite complete physical exhaustion. If true, this must be testament again to the leadership skills of L&C. It took them all two weeks to recover.
The falls are all dammed now, but the biggest of them all (the ‘Great’ fall) is still mightily impressive (and also is a great picnic spot L&C fans).
My two hours on the river the previous day hadn’t quite exhausted me, so I took in the Charles M. Russell gallery. Not heard of Mr Russell? No. Me neither. But it came highly recommended from several people. Russell was a bit of a fantasist (this is my take rather than received wisdom). He was a competent artist who harked back to the days of Cowboys & Injuns long after the reality of such conflicts had faded. He lived in Great Falls, where he hankered after the Wild West lifestyle.
I wasn’t that impressed with the art to be honest – he was all part of the glamourising of the west that was carried along with the dime novel and Hollywood films. Around here he’s something of an icon it seems – I preferred his sculptures personally.
The Corps stayed in the area for almost a month, resigned to spending another winter on the trail (and they still hadn’t seen the extent of the Rockies). They might have stayed longer if the O’Haire Motor Inn had been in operation. This otherwise fairly straightforward hotel has two quirks. The first is an obsession with rubber ducks.
The second is the Sip’n’Dip Lounge, which secured an entry into GQ magazine’s Greatest Bars in the World list a few years ago. The bar has a window that looks into the swimming pool. Into. Not over. Into. Like an aquarium. Earlyish in the evening it’s full of kids, which is a bit odd frankly. Then after 9pm, a mermaid appears. Literally. If by mermaid you mean a reasonably attractive woman wearing a scallop-shell bikini top and a sort of sari sewn together at the bottom to resemble um… a mermaid. So that was weird.