A river runs to it A voyage across Montana -- and time -- follows Lewis and Clark's trail to the fringes of the American frontier.

September 28, 1997|By Robert D. Hershey Jr. | Robert D. Hershey Jr.,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

With one unceremonious toot on the horn and an offhand "Away we go," Larry Cook nosed our simple craft, Westwind, out into the brown, rain-swollen Missouri River to launch a voyage of 3 1/2 days across central Montana and 200 years back in time. Our journey -- from Fort Benton to the James Kipp Recreation Area -- proved to be one of splendid isolation that I was not sure could still be found in an America where even the most far-flung motel now offers dozens of channels of cable or satellite TV.

As we shed most modern trappings -- when was the last time you went half a week without even seeing a car? -- we were drawn into a natural world populated mainly by beavers, eagles, bighorn sheep, pelicans and, of course, the spirit of the trappers, traders, Indians and explorers whose feats are the substance of American history.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, in fact, dominated our thoughts, since most of our congenial band, organized by Cook and his wife, Bonnie, had been inspired to make the 150-mile journey by "Undaunted Courage," Stephen E. Ambrose's best-selling account of the epic 1804-1806 expedition. (The explorers' journey also will be chronicled by Ken Burns on PBS early November.)

"Of all the historic and/or scenic sights we have visited in the world, this is No. 1," writes Ambrose, who has made our trip 11 times. He is referring specifically to the area where the Upper Missouri River has carved the White Cliffs, which impressed Lewis himself and can be seen only by those in small boats like ourselves.

Such extravagant billing invites disappointment but, with the vital cooperation of near-perfect weather, my wife and I could do little but marvel at the unfolding delights.

We moseyed down the Missouri, an officially designated wild and scenic river, at about 12 miles an hour. It was an appropriate pace, we thought, for the 32-foot-long turquoise riverboat, shaped like a butter dish and sporting the 15-star American flag of the fledgling nation that President Jefferson was so eager to enlarge. (Even though there were 17 states in the Union at the time of the expedition, it was not until 1818 that legislation was enacted that added a star for each new state.) Informed commentary by Cook and Dave Parchen, or Parch, an amiable local teacher, artist and Corps of Discovery buff, brought Lewis and Clark's journals alive.

"See over there?" Parch asked not long after we cast off, pointing to the Marias River, named by Lewis for his cousin, that threaded into the Missouri off our port side. That, he said, is where the two leaders, bucking the opinion of every other member of the expedition, insisted that the Marias was not the continuation of the Missouri, thereby avoiding a northward swing that would have meant probably irredeemable error.

Pain of the prickly pear

We camped on the very bottom-land sites where Lewis and Clark camped, falling asleep to the sound of the river lapping gently near our tents and of coyotes howling in the undetermined distance. And we hiked to spots of unspoiled beauty, imagining that many of our steps were on ground never before trod by human, while learning firsthand of the pain inflicted by the prickly pear that bedeviled the ill-shod explorers, who walked far more than they rode.

And we did these things with an admirable balance between modern amenity and the desire to avoid impinging on our pristine surroundings and on the experience of glimpsing the West as it was when the American frontier reached scarcely beyond Ohio.

The Westwind had no microphone to help Cook or Parch describe things to their 15 passengers. We conversed directly, aided in our understanding by such reference books as "Karl Bodmer's America," a work we used repeatedly to compare the famous landscapes of the young Swiss artist (who accompanied Prince Maximilian of Germany on his Western travels in the 1830s) with the scenes before us.

Our escorts further evoked the era by wearing, for example, a sash or a capote, the latter a hooded cloak formed from a colorful blanket. No radio or Walkman was heard, newspapers and television were out of the question, and even the Cooks' cell phone was usually out of operating range.

On the other hand, this was not an exercise to see how closely we might imitate the almost unimaginable hardships of Lewis and Clark, who had to shoot or catch most of their own food, battle a strong current while often armpit-deep in mud, and proceed, fair weather and foul, with only the scantiest idea of where they were going.

I call what we did tenderfoot camping, with the Cooks not only providing three meals a day but even, to our mild embarrassment, putting up the tents they also supplied. The only thing approaching a chore was the gathering of wood for the evening's campfire.

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