Paddling through history

November 7, 2005 

The two dugout canoes belonging to the Discovery Expedition of St. Charles, Mo., had collected 4 inches of water overnight Friday.

It was one more piece of historical accuracy in the volunteers’ re-enactment of the Lewis and Clark Expedition 200 years earlier to the day.

Despite the joy of completing their mission, William Clark, Meriwether Lewis and their company spent most of their time on the lower Columbia River wet and miserable. They had laid the way across the continent to the Pacific Ocean, but their uniforms were rotting, they hated salmon and they were bedeviled by fleas.

“We landed unloaded and drew up our Canoes,” William Clark wrote in his journal Nov. 8, 1805, four days after he prematurely declared, “Ocian in view! O, the joy!”

“Some rain all day at intervals, we are all wet and disagreeable,” Clark continued, “as we have been for Several days past, and our present Situation a verry disagreeable one ...”

The members of the Corps of Discovery may have been American heroes (and a heroine), but they were not happy campers.

The re-enactors are considerably better off. They are in the last days of their 21/2-year journey retracing the Lewis and Clark Expedition. All along they’ve followed maps instead of making them and they’ve known they were bound for Fort Clatsop, Ore.

They have the combined conveniences of campgrounds, an entourage of vans and motor homes, Safeway, neoprene and the U.S. Special Forces.

On the other hand, their average age is about 25 years older than the original members. In one case, the gap is 41 years.

Warren Keller, 77, of Lebanon, Ill., is paddling the part of blacksmith and hunter John Shields who, at 36, was the eldest member of the original party.

Saturday morning at Frenchman’s Bar Park on the Columbia River out of Vancouver, Wash., Keller was sniffing from a fresh cold.

“It’s been enjoyable, until I caught this cold,” Keller said. “We were soaked coming down the river.”

Shortly after 7:30 a.m., the re-enactors were finishing a breakfast of oatmeal, frosted flakes, cookies and bakery apple pie in the kitchen tent, one of their five canvas shelters.

Nearby, Buckley National Guard members of Alpha Co. 1st Battalion, 19th Special Forces were shaking the rain off their nylon tents. They have been escorting the re-enactors since Oct. 8, when they took on the responsibility in a ceremony in Clarkston, directly across the Snake River from Lewiston, Idaho.

Bryant Boswell, taking two-plus years off from his work as a dentist in Star, Miss., to play Meriwether Lewis, was already into his neoprene wetsuit, period watch coat and broad-brimmed hat.

“Never let it be said that the captain only orders jobs to be done,” he said after helping to bail out the canoes, then shove them into the river. It took six men, heaving together, to budge each dugout canoe.

Upriver, Sgt. Rick Schultz, 37, of Port Orchard and Staff Sgt. Dave Rosander, 41, of Stevenson, were tending to one of the Special Forces’ three Zodiacs.

Capt. Scott Roney, 29, of Steilacoom, was going over the route with retired Army Lt. Col. Norman Bowers, of Maryland, who plays Sgt. Nathaniel Pryor. Bowers is the re-enactors’ leader for this leg of the journey.

They hoped to make it 25 miles to Kalama. They would keep toward the middle of the river, they agreed, clear of sandbars and snags near the bank. They would be mindful of the wake that a tug pushing a barge upstream would throw their way.

Then they were off, three Special Forces crew in each Zodiac, seven re-enactors paddling each log canoe, all under a sky that, for a change, was keeping it moisture to itself.

Schultz maintained radio contact with nearby Coast Guard vessels and Rosander tended the outboard, which prefers speed to the pace of a log canoe.

Roney explained the mission: His team shepherds the expedition through bad water and marine traffic, reconnoiters the river, locates camp sites and emergency pull-outs, posts a night watch at the camp and, if needed, rescues the men in the canoes.

Last week, coming around a bend, the party encountered 7-foot waves.

“Those canoes are pretty stable,” Rosander said. “They don’t bob in the waves. They plow right through them.”

It took one wave to fill the boats and only minutes to get everyone out of them.

“The lead man was swept back,” Roney said. “It was a mad free-for-all within 20 seconds.”

“… most tremendious waves brakeing with great violence against the Shores, rain falling in torrents, we are all wet as usial - and our Situation is truly a disagreeable one.”

William Clark, Monday, Nov. 11, 1805.

Paddling with the river, the men in the canoe were making 4 mph, and singing “Leave her, Johnny Leave Her,” making up verses as they sped on.

“Well Old George Truman paddled on his knees,” sang out Bud Clark, the great-great-great-great grandson of William Clark.

“Leave her, Johnny, leave her,” responded the crew.

“I don’t know if it’s true, but I hear he’s got fleas.

“And it’s time for us to leave her.

“Leave her, Johnny, leave her!

“Oh, leave her, Johnny, leave her,

“For the voyage is done and the winds don’t blow,

“And it’s time for us to leave her!”

Rosander is impressed by the re-enactors’ fidelity to the spirit of the journey.

“Every day, they read from the journals,” he said.

One of the canoes, with Dick Brumley at the bow, came up alongside the Zodiac.

Brumley, 67, of Lewistown, Mont., had taken the re-enactors for a hike when they stopped there in July.

“They thought I could hike pretty well, so they invited me to come along,” he said.

“He’s my hero,” Schultz said as they paddled away. “Look at him dig in with that paddle.”

“Oh where oh where can my baby be? The Lord took her away from me,” floated up from the boat. The men were singing “Last Kiss.”

The wind was at their back. It seemed all was right with the voyage.

At 11 a.m., five miles down from camp, the sky opened, and stayed that way. The singing stopped. The paddling continued.

“We make a safety call,” Roney said. “We don’t make a too miserable call.”

“This is inclement weather,” Schultz said. “Bad weather requires goggles.”

“This is our best yet,” Josh Loftis, 19, of Belleville, Ill., called over from his canoe. “We’re moving at 5 miles an hour! It doesn’t get much better than this!”

Loftis, a descendant of Pvt. George Shannon, the youngest member of the expedition, started planning for this voyage when he was 12.

“I worked ahead in high school so I could graduate early and go. I graduated when I was 16,” he said.

He’s kept in touch with his friends by cell phone and each winter visits home. He has not had time to look at or apply to colleges, but he wants to study marine biology. He was undaunted by the increasing rain, the rising wind.

“Still inclement,” said Schultz, the dry wit in a wet boat.

“The rain continues all day. all wet. the rain [etc.] which has continued without a longer intermition than 2 hours at a time for ten days past has destroyd the robes and rotted nearly one half of the fiew clothes the party has.”

William Clark, Thursday, Nov. 14, 1805.

The team had planned a 25-mile journey, punctuated at 10 miles by a meeting with canoes of the Chinook tribe. They could take the boats out there and truck them to camp in Kalama, or they could paddle into a weather report of gale winds and worse rain.

The Zodiacs pulled alongside the canoes, the re-enactors took hold of the lines, and the outboards powered the pairs through the rain, and the meeting with the Chinooks.

Fresh, dry and sleek, the Indian canoes sped out to meet them in a slough, and the expedition met them paddling on their own. Clark ordered oars raised in salute and delivered a formal greeting. The men handed gifts over, and received gifts.

The crowd on the riverbank watched in wet delight.

The canoes headed for the marina, and the highway. William Clark would have been pleased with the decision. There again was a good 4 inches of water in the boats.


Today: Re-enactors plow through soggy weather to the mouth of the Columbia River.

Tuesday: State tourism tied to the bicentennial hasn’t exploded, but there’s still hope.

Wednesday: Tacoma’s David Nicandri has seen his life consumed by Lewis and Clark lore.

Thursday: A trip to the Lewis and Clark national and state historic parks.

Kathleen Merryman: 253-597-8677

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