The American Rivers Guide to The Missouri River of Lewis and Clark
By Daniel B. Botkin
Illustrations by Garry Pound
In Passage of Discovery, renowned biologist and author Daniel B. Botkin retraces the Missouri River passage of that historic journey in the modern world by following the route of Lewis and Clark, guiding readers to nearly 50 legendary sites of historical and environmental importance, with driving directions all the way from the river banks of St. Louis to the river’s headwaters in Montana. The result is a unique travel guide for American history fans and anyone who cares about our environment and the natural world.
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Each of the 42 chapters in Passage of Discovery features one important aspect of the natural history of the Lewis and Clark expedition and the environmental changes that have occurred since, with more than 80 other travel destinations included. Relevant experiences from the Lewis and Clark journals are examined, with discussion about how the locations in their entries have changed since their travels. The result is a lively, compelling book that brings this amazing voyage of discovery to life in a way that is more relevant today than ever.
Travelers can use the book in several ways. For those who have picked destinations, they can refer directly to the main entries. Each is about one aspect of the natural history of the Lewis and Clark expedition and the changes that have occurred since the expedition. Each includes relevant experiences from the Lewis and Clark journals: What they did and what happened to them at the location. These are augmented by modern experiences of myself and others to suggest what you can discover and do there.
A second way to use the book is to select a general route and then refer to the main and short entries on that route to make a list of places to visit. Take the book with you and read each main entry at its location. A third way to use this book is to read it from beginning to end. Taken together, the introductory chapters and major entries form a whole story of nature, Lewis and Clark, and us.
Paperback, Perigee Trade; 1st edition, $10.00 (July 1, 1999)
Ebook, Croton River Publishers, $7.99 (May 2012)
In Great Falls take Fifteenth St. north, which is Route 87 north, crossing the Missouri River. Take Route 87 north six miles and turn right at a sign for Ryan Dam onto a paved road; follow signs, taking the right-hand road where it forks. The road descends deeply through the bluffs by the river to a parking lot where a sign says “Montana Power Company Welcomes You.” The total distance from Great Falls is fifteen miles. Walk across the footbridge to a park on the island in the river.
Lewis described the five falls on the upper Missouri River, for which the city of Great Falls is named, as one of the most beautiful scenes he had ever witnessed.
There they were, a small party in the midst of a huge region that was unmapped and unknown to his civilization. Reading his accounts, I admired the energy and ambition with which he rushed to see a place of beauty, when the expedition was about to be confronted with one of their most difficult tasks—portaging their equipment around these falls, which would take them about a month. But this was not what was in Lewis’s mind at the moment. He heard the sound of a great fall of water and rushed to see what he hoped would be a beautiful view.
At a fork in the road, a sign directed us to the right, and the road descended steeply along a sheer, almost vertical sandstone bluff to the riverside and a parking lot.
As he neared this point Lewis wrote, “I hurried down the hill which was about 200 ft. high and difficult of access to gaze on this sublimely grand spectacle. I took my position on the top of some rocks about 20 ft. high opposite the center of the falls.”
We parked and joined a summer crowd and strolled along a tree-shaded walk to a suspension footbridge that led over the river to Ryan Island. We walked over the bridge and strolled up the path to where we could watch the water cascading from the dam.
When Lewis descended the steep slope, he saw a double falls, one just behind and above the other. The second, which he wrote was “an even sheet of water falling over a precipice of at least 80 feet,” formed, with the first, “the grandest sight I ever beheld.” The second falls was especially beautiful, because “the irregular and somewhat projecting rocks below receive the water in its passage down and breaks it into a perfect white foam which assumes a thousand forms in a moment, sometimes flying up in jets of sparkling foam to the height of 15 or 20 ft. and are scarcely formed before large rolling bodies of the same beaten and foaming water is thrown over and concealed them,” he wrote. The rocks appear to be perfectly placed to break up the water most beautifully.
The next day, June 14, 1805, Lewis reached several more of the falls and was most impressed with one he called Rainbow Falls, which is now much altered by Rainbow Dam. This is “one of the most beautiful objects in nature,” he wrote. Lewis spent some time trying to decide which of the two, the falls he had seen the day before or this one, was the most beautiful. “At length I determined between these two,” he wrote, that Rainbow Falls was “pleasingly beautifull,” while the one he saw the day before was “sublimely grand.” These are the turns of phrase that were in use among the Romantic poets and their predecessors to describe aspects of beauty. “Beauty” was used then to refer to the classic Greek and Roman idea of beauty through symmetry, perfection in geometry. “Sublime” had come into fashion among the Romantic poets to refer to the awe-inspiring scenery of the great mountains in the Alps. Lewis was using phraseology that would have been familiar in the aristocratic drawing rooms of England, and in Jefferson’s Monticello mansion; but such a distinction would be unlikely to occur to other explorers of the American West in Lewis’s time or for decades to come—perhaps not until the great nineteenth-century landscape painter Thomas Moran reached some of the great scenery of the American West after the Civil War. Moran popularized the awe-inspiring scenery of the American West to the point of probably helping the movement that created American national parks.
Clark arrived at the falls a few days after Lewis, on Monday, June 17, 1805. In contrast to Lewis, Clark remained true to his propensity to report directly and to make quantitative measurements—the first step in the scientific process. “I beheld those Cateracts with astonishment,” he wrote, “the whole of the water of this great river Confined in a Channel of 280 yards and pitching over a rock of 97 feet 3/4” and also that the mist extended “for 150 yrds. down & to near the top of the Clifts” so that the “river below is Confined to a narrow Chanel of 93 yards haveing a Small bottom of timber.”