This is Hal’s report of Hal and Nancy’s Lewis and Clark excursion with Road Scholar (the program “The Corps of Discovery: Montana to Oregon by Land & River”). It was a combination bus tour with Road Scholar from Great Falls, MT, following Lewis and Clark to Idaho, and then a seven-day cruise on the Snake and Columbia Rivers to the Pacific, ending up in Portland. It was my (Hal’s) 21st Road Scholar learning adventure, Nancy’s 19th.
This report is in two parts:
We flew Alaska Airlines via Seattle to Great Falls, MT. (The air travel was included with the Road Scholar package, so they got to choose the flights. Normally I would have selected United through Denver.) The Springhill Suites by Marriott hotel sent cabs to pick us up. I experienced a full hour of frustration on the phone with AT&T about an iPad data plan problem that eventually fixed itself by reseating the SIM card, although I had periodic repetitions of the problem throughout the trip; it just came and went at random. We took a nice walk in an adjacent park along the Missouri River. At 6 we met for a catered dinner (decent barbecue buffet) and intros to the tour and participants. There are 15 of us old folks (probably the smallest tour we’ve ever encountered, thanks COVID) and two Road Scholar staff: Roger Dammarell is our tour director (a former radio DJ from the Bay Area!) and Ned O’Malia is our Study Leader (a retired college professor with a long history of leading tour groups, including on Route 66).
Early start today: hotel breakfast bar at 6:30, on the bus at 7:15. It’s a giant 52-seater for our small party, but the legroom was pathetic and I had to sit alone in my own seat; manspreading was my only option. We drove about an hour to Decision Point in Loma MT while Ned gave us the background to the expedition. It was here that the Corps had to decide which river at the junction they would follow. They chose (correctly) the continuation of the Missouri, rather than the Marias River, which headed north toward Glacier Park. We took a group photo at an overlook about 100 feet up, with nice views of the two rivers.
We spent an hour walking around Fort Benton, the “birthplace of Montana,” the farthest west steamboats could go up the Missouri. There were lots of statues and roadside displays, although few about Lewis and Clark. There was a dilapidated keelboat used in the movie Big Sky called the Mandan, which could be considered reminiscent of the Corps’ boat. A small monument commemorates the death of Thomas Francis Meagher, the Civil War Irish Brigade commander, who died here under disputed circumstances. We visited the Union Hotel, the grandest building in town. There were four museums in town, but none open before Memorial Day. We crossed an old pedestrian bridge over the Missouri. There was a statue of Shep, a famous local dog, a story too sad to repeat here. The town is an access point for trips through the picturesque Missouri Breaks, a 50-mile section of the river surrounded by white cliffs. The original Great Falls on the Missouri, about 97 feet high, is now topped by Ryan Dam. It was actually the first of five cataracts on the river, around which the Corps had to do a laborious 18-mile, 28-day portage. There was a slightly precarious suspension bridge to Ryan Island for a panoramic view of the dam and falls.
The highlight of the day was the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, part of the US Forest Service. There we had a catered lunch with chimichangas, presumably commemorating all the Mexican Americans who accompanied Lewis and Clark. We enjoyed a lecture by a lady ranger on local wildlife with a bunch of skulls. There was a movie about the Great Falls Portage, excellent exhibits about the full expedition, and a brief walk on a trail next to the river. Giant Springs State Park has a spring that was discovered by Lewis and Clark, bubbling up 150 million gallons of fresh water per day. The resulting Roe River, 200 feet long, is one of America’s shortest, but feeds into the Missouri, America’s longest. The neighboring state fish hatchery ships four types of trout to lakes around Montana.
After another catered buffet in the hotel, we enjoyed a presentation by a guy named Nearly Naked Norman of the army uniforms worn by members of the Corps. It’d be hard to imagine clothing less comfortable by modern standards.
We had a more leisurely start today, on the bus at 9:30. First stop was a statue of Lewis and Clark overlooking the town. Then the C. M. Russell Museum, celebrating the cowboy artist. (Everyone on the bus seemed to be familiar with him, but I wasn’t. The only western artist I know well is Frederick Remington.) They had plenty of his work as well as other artists, and I have to say it was difficult to differentiate his watercolor style from the others. The original Russell family house and his log cabin art studio are open on the property and are more interesting than the paintings in the museum proper. Down in the basement is a large set of exhibits about bison. There were cool wildlife statues out front, most by modern artists.
First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park. Bag lunch in the visitor center. The “Ulm Pishkun” located here was the largest buffalo jump in North America, one of 200 in Montana. The Indians practiced this barbaric harvesting mostly before the 18th century and the introduction of the horse for hunters. Ranger Alice gave us a quite a fascinating explanation of the techniques used, even though I feel bad for the innocent bison tricked and scared into suicidal jumps off the cliff. The view of the big sky country from up at the top of the cliff was really beautiful, so at least the poor beasts had that to think about in their last few desperate seconds.
Then we drove on MT-200 through the Rockies to Missoula. We rest-stopped briefly at a jerky gift shop, so the full trip was about 3.5 hours. One highlight was crossing the Continental Divide, Rogers Pass at about 5600 feet.
We checked into the Doubletree Missoula and had yet another catered buffet dinner in a conference room. Normally Doubletree hotels give you a free chocolate chip cookie, but perhaps Roger confiscated them all. Ned presented about an hour of mostly random PowerPoint slides about Lewis and Clark.
Another early morning, bags to the bus at 7:15. We drove about 30 minutes to Travelers Rest State Park, which opened early for us. The Corps rested here after eleven tortuous days crossing the Bitterroot Mountains; on the return trip, they decided here to split into two parties. The park manager took us on a brief walk on a path through the park. We crossed Lolo Creek, although it’s not clear that it’s still in its 1805 location. We saw Corps camping areas and particularly their latrine, where archeologists found traces of mercury that persisted from Dr Rush’s laxative treatments. They also found a button and a bead and some melted lead, which established this area as the only archeologically proven campsite of the Corps.
We drove back to Missoula to get on I-90 and headed northwest. We rest-stopped in St. Regis and enjoyed a huckleberry shake, strongly recommended by Rhonda, our bus driver. They have a slightly interesting trout aquarium. Next stop was Wallace, Idaho, for lunch at the Fainting Goat restaurant and wine bar, where we returned to the Pacific time zone. This was a nice restaurant and we had the best meal of the trip so far. The town of Wallace is quite picturesque, its downtown protected in full by the National Historic Register. We visited the Northern Pacific Railroad Depot Museum, which was the old depot for the railroad that doesn’t serve the town anymore, featuring lots of details and memorabilia about the town and the station agents. It’s not the kind of museum with actual locomotives or rail cars on display, but our guide, “Colonel Wallace,” was enthusiastic and quite interesting.