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Our Lewis and Clark Journal – Day 20

September 5, 2013

Day 20: Gates of the Mountains: From Great Falls to Dillon, Montana     (August 15)

We were slow moving this morning and got a late start. Are we getting tired? We drove south toward Helena, Montana toward a rock formation known as the ‘sleeping giant’ that really does look like a giant lay down in a valley and began to snore. Are we jealous? Our destination: a boat tour through The Gates of the Mountains.

From their website:

The evening of July 19,1805, was a hot one in the wilderness that would later become Montana. On the Missouri River, not far from present day Helena, the hardy members of the Lewis and Clark expedition toiled to move upstream. Rock embankments made towing from shore impossible, and the deep channel forced the men to row rather than pole their boats forward.

Suddenly, there loomed before them towering rock formations unlike any they had ever seen. From both sides of the river, limestone cliffs rose to a spectacular height of 1200 feet. “In many places,” wrote Meriwether Lewis, “the rocks seem ready to tumble on us.” At each bend in the waterway, great stone walls seemed to block passage, only to open like gentle giant gates as the expedition drew near. In his journal, Meriwether wrote: “I shall call this place: “GATES OF THE MOUNTAINS”.

The name stuck, and for nearly two centuries travelers have ventured down this stretch of the Missouri to marvel at its natural wonders. Today, most visitors enjoy the beauty of the Gates of the Mountains from aboard one of three tour boats – the “Canyon Voyager”, the “Sacajawea” (named after the only women and indigenous person on the Expedition), and the “Hilger Rose” (named after Nicholas Hilger, who began the tours in 1886 on a vessel named “Rose of Helena”).


That’s right: boat tours of the Gates have been taking place for 127 years. And it is clear why. They are imposing and serene. Several times I let real history go and imagined myself with the Fellowship of the Ring, passing through the Gates of Argonath on the River Anduin. The place clearly speaks to the imagination: our tour guide pointed out rock formations representing elephants, monsters, faces and castles. If you look carefully, you should be able to make out an elephant head in the middle of this photo. (The illusion is MUCH more impressive and effective up close).


The tour also took us past Mann Gulch, the site where 13 U.S. Forest Service smokejumpers lost their lives on August 5, 1949.  The story told by two survivors is the subject of Norman McClean’s Young Men and Fire, and transformed the way fire is fought today. Not all fires need to be fought, and some fires benefit the forest ecosystem.


Next stop was Helena, Montana, the state capitol. Across the the capitol building is the Museum of the Montana Historical Society: “Big Sky. Big Land. Big History.” The central exhibit was the Charlie Russell Collection – drawings, paintings and sculpture from from one of the West’s premier interpreters. Next to that was a very informative “timeline” exhibit of all the native cultures encountered by Lewis and Clark.


We arrived near the end of the day, and so had a very limited time to explore the museum. There was a very nice children’s section at the end of the native cultures where first I, and then Noelle, could dress up, act out, or otherwise explore with August what we had just seen on display.


Two real treats here: first, the special exhibition during our visit was a history of women on the frontier including homekeeping, childrearing, cooking, clothing, and a fascinating section devoted to undergarments and menstruation. In our experience, this was a unique kind of display of women’s history, paying close attention to their material conditions as well as their journals and writings.  In particular neither Noelle nor I have ever seen attention paid to how women managed menstruation in a museum and thought there examination was respectful, important and opened new windows into imagination and understanding.  Secondly, in the Charlie Russell Collection was his 1896 painting “Indians Discovering Lewis and Clark,” a nice reversal and portrayal of an encounter  we had tried to imagine several times on this trip: high up on a cliff, three Plains Indians have their first view of the Corps of Discovery far below as their boats make their way up the Missouri River.


And then there was this….


We camp tonight at the KOA in Dillon. At the swimming pool August and I met some Native American children on vacation from the Bitterroot Mountains (where we are headed tomorrow). The boy, a few years older than August, had never cut his hair, and my long haired son was impressed with the this boy’s hair that hung to his waist. I just smiled watching these boys talk about how they were each often mistaken for girls because of their hair. (“Yeah. Me too!”). Both children were very encouraging of August as he screwed up his courage to try the pool slide for the first time. Their mother helped me think about travel plans for tomorrow until the mosquitoes drove us all out of the pool and back to our campsites.

Our first and only attempt to build a fire failed tonight.

Recommended Reading: Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes: Nine Indian Writers on the Legacy of the Expedition, edited by Alvin M. Josephy, Jr. (Vintage Books, 2006). And as far back as Atchison, Kansas we picked up a copy of the Native American Resource Handbook provided by the Kansas Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commission.

The INDEX of blogs from Our Lewis and Clark Journey can be found here.


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