The expedition of Lewis and Clark
by Lynda Mapes, Staff reporter
ON THE COLUMBIA RIVER -- They are a most unlikely flotilla, these guys in their Lewis and Clark garb, paddling dugout canoes, tightly shadowed by a squad of National Guardsmen in motorized Zodiac boats.
"Don't be swamping them now, not this early in the day," jokes one of the guardsmen, swaddled like a Ninja Turtle action figure in his special-operations gear.
A sandbar rises from the river, forcing several of these intrepid Lewis and Clark re-enactors to hop out and give their clunky dugout a heave-ho.
Finding the current, their canoes raise a glimmering slipstream, and like the voyagers 200 years ago, they proceed on, toward the sea.
Now in its third year on the trail, The Discovery Expedition of St. Charles, Mo., has traveled more than 4,100 miles on the Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri, Snake and Columbia rivers. The group is re-enacting the more than 8,000-mile expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, which was commissioned in 1803 and ended in 1806.
On this 21st century journey some have flipped their boats; others wintered in a cabin so cold the snow never melted off a woodpile stacked inside; and some volunteers hunted buffalo with flintlocks. One of the very few injuries so far involved a hunting knife and an apple -- not pretty.
They also have negotiated the realities of modern life: Soaring fuel costs; liability insurance; camping permits; Coast Guard regulations; and rivers with so many dams they have little current left to help push them toward the sea.
And then there are the cold, wet, miserable mornings -- just like 200 years ago -- when Sid Stoffels, a retired mailman from Garden Valley, Calif., wonders why he is doing it.
"I wake up and I think, what was I thinking? I don't have to do this. What am I doing?"
But then he remembers: "What's the best way to look at the world differently? To look at the way they lived, and the differences between then and now," Stoffels says. "I understand myself better, I say 'thank you' a whole lot more. We take so much for granted."
Some 238 volunteers from 38 states have joined in this expedition, cycling in and out of the epic overland and river route to the Pacific, which they are expected to arrive at next week. The original explorers group numbered 33.
The expedition includes retired military men; a 77-year-old former professional baseball player; and Mike Dotson, a Wal-Mart employee from Monon, Ind., who says he has 8,000 volumes on Lewis and Clark and Western history in his library back home.
Dotson, who has been on unpaid leave since Labor Day, has taken the role of Capt. Lewis, even bringing his black Newfoundland dog Seaman along, just as Lewis did.
When possible, the group stays in the same campsites noted by the explorers in their journals and keeps to the explorers' schedule.
This voyage is made easier and safer with the likes of the National Guard troops, including medics and rescue swimmers.
Traveling through the heartland of America on foot, horseback, by boat, and when necessary, by car, the expedition has been the toast of small towns everywhere. So it was in The Dalles, Ore., on a recent evening in late October, when the local Fraternal Order of Eagles feted the expedition with a beef-stew dinner.
Piling into an SUV with their Lewis and Clark logo on the side, the re-enactors were glad to head on over to Aerie No. 2126. While not historically accurate, the warm, fluorescent-lit dining hall was mighty welcome after a night so blustery, the wind split open a canvas tent and toppled a portable toilet.
And hot showers? Maybe every three days, "and if not, you get the picture," said expedition member Joshua Loftis, 19, of Belleville, Ill.
Traveling today's rivers has taken ingenuity: Some boat ramps were two miles from the water because of persistent drought. And federal regulations required a motorized escort whenever the expedition paddled their dugouts through the locks at many a dam.
Not that they haven't gotten to know the rivers intimately. By now the expedition includes many so-called "Aqua Soldiers," a title earned for any full-body dunking by capsize or other mishap.
Derek Biddle of Rocheport, Mo., 18, was the first, accidentally walking right off a dock into the Missouri, laundry bag in one hand, sleeping bag in the other.
Lewis and Clark entered present-day Washington on the afternoon of Oct. 10, 1805. Their goal was to reach the Pacific, but first there was the Columbia to contend with.
To stick with the original explorers' schedule, this modern expedition has relied on tows from the Zodiacs because the Columbia, now plugged with dams, is so sluggish.
The group also has had to re-form continually, as required by the demands of real life. On a recent stop in The Dalles, volunteers assuming the roles of Sacagawea and Capt. Clark weren't along, but most of the rest of the Corps were mission ready.
Loftis wanted to come along so badly he graduated from high school at 16 to join his grandfather Bob Anderson of Raymond, Ohio, 64, on the expedition. Both are distant relatives of Pvt. George Shannon, one of the original expedition members.
"I was born into this," Loftis said. "And I've been living with my grandfather for three years. No kids get to do that anymore."
His grandfather started taking him to reenactment events at age 12 -- a refreshing change for Loftis from textbook history. "Them teaching me how to fire a black-powder rifle and teaching me how to march, that was real," Loftis said. Loftis is amazed at how much he has learned -- and has been able to teach on the trail. "I've found out about things most people in America have no clue about. I remember a fourth-grade boy who raised his hand at one of our presentations and said, 'You mean there are still real Indians?' "
Mark Johnson, 49, of Portland, Ore., decided to join the expedition after surviving a brain tumor. "I'm resurrecting myself in this role," Johnson said. "It's fun, to meet a group of people living life to the fullest." A software engineer, he is spending his only two weeks of vacation on the trail.
They are a game bunch, determined to make each day's mission, whether it's waving to a bunch of school kids massed on the banks of the Columbia or manning a historic rock fort at The Dalles.
Leading this leg of the journey is Norman Bowers, a coin and jewelry dealer from St. Louis. With his booming voice and erect bearing, Bowers' more than 30 years of military service before retirement comes as no surprise.
Traveling with the expedition for months at a stretch "is just phenomenal," Bowers said. "It's fulfilled a very important part of my life, I wanted something exciting to do before sitting on my porch in a rocking chair.
"For me, it brings a realization of the importance of the expedition to the Manifest Destiny of this great country," Bowers said.
But the young nation's belief in its inevitable, even divinely blessed, expansion would be a death knell for the peoples already here.
Lewis and Clark's journey took them through the heart of Indian Country. When they arrived at Celilo Falls near The Dalles, they set up camp near five lodges where Wishram Indians were preparing salmon for winter stores and trading.
The tribes had been trading salmon at Celilo for thousands of years; for shells and feathers from the south; buffalo hide and horses from the east; and carved tools and artwork from the north, as far away as Alaska, Northern California and the Midwest.
The explorers called this place the "Great Mart of all this Country."
The roar of the falls was silenced by The Dalles Dam in 1957. Today, the Columbia River is girdled by dams, highways and railroads, and the wild salmon, once so abundant, are threatened with extinction.
It's one of many reasons why for tribes, the Lewis and Clark bicentennial marks not a celebration but a commemoration, said Bobbie Conner, executive director of the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation
"When you think about the unfurling of the American flag as it rolls across the landscape, like Manifest Destiny to the West, in that panoramic view of what happened, it was a dispossession, invasion and incursion. And it was unsettling. "It is all unsettling. Not only in your heart, but it is a physical act of unsettling all these people and other animals and species who lived here."
Within 100 years, cultures intact for at least 10 centuries were fighting for survival, a fight that continues today. The bicentennial is a chance to hold up a mirror and see more than the faces of the Corps of Discovery, Conner said. "I see the faces of the peoples who were already here."
As the expedition begins its final push of the outbound journey, some members are already dreading its end. The group stands down each winter and won't crank up again until spring.
Rob Durrett, 65, of Crawfordsville, Ind., has been traveling the trail along with his wife, who follows the expedition in a RV.
Sporting a full-body wet suit under his period garb, Durrett said he knows just what he'll need when this trip is over: "therapy."
"It's an addiction," said Durrett, a retired federal employee with 23 years as a scoutmaster. "To me it's being out, and the opportunity to get dirty and get away with it. And you step back sometimes and think, 'they had to have walked here' " he said of the explorers. "To me it's a recognition of what they did and accomplished."
When Stoffels returns to the real world between stints on the trail, he says culture shock sets in. "It's the pace, there's too much stuff. You go to a supermarket, and there is too much light, too many choices. Out here, it's whatever the meal is and whatever the river is."
And there was the thrill of rounding the confluence of the Columbia and Snake, and feeling a new and different wind, the wind coming strong and hard from the Pacific, the same as the explorers felt.
"We knew then that we were going to make it," Stoffels said. "Just as they must have known."
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