Under the circumstances, one imagines that Clark kept only brief daily notes during the crossing of the Bitterroots, and hastily expanded them into permanent journal entries sometime later. The road they followed on the fifteenth, he then wrote:
leaves the river to the left and assends a mountain winding in every direction to get up the Steep assents & to pass the emence quantity of falling timber which had falling from dift. causes i e. fire & wind and has deprived the Greater part of the Southerley Sides of this mountain of its gren timber, 4 miles up the mountain I found a Spring and halted for the rear to come up. . . . Several horses Sliped and roled down Steep hills which hurt them verry much The one which Carried my desk & Small trunk Turned over & roled down a mountain for 40 yards & lodged against a tree, broke the Desk.
The horse "appeared but little hurt," although there were "Some others verry much hurt." In fact, his courses and distances for that day concluded, "Two of our horses gave out to day and left. the road as bad as it can possibly be to pass." Today the Forest Service trail up Wendover Ridge is somewhat easier to follow, but its grade is still relentless, and it can take as much as six hours to accomplish the 3,000-foot gain in elevation between the river and the vicinity of the expedition's "Snowbank Camp."
John Ordway tells us that when they reached the top they estimated they had covered about ten miles since leaving the river. They "travvelled untill after dark in hopes to find water, but could not find any." He remembered that they finally stopped, melted some of the old snow nearby to brew more soup, and "lay down without any thing else to Satisfy our hunger." Clark, however, recalled that they also boiled some "Coalt meat" and made "Supe."
It is a tedious and time-consuming task to melt snow into water and then bring it to a boil in order to cook food. It also requires much more fuel than ordinary cooking, making extra work for the woodchoppers. The process is all the more irksome for those who have been burning up calories in strenuous travel since dawn, all the while perspiring and exhaling water from their bodies, who now have little to do but stand idle in the cold and wait for the results. The ratio of snow to water content varies widely depending on the character of the snow. It can be as low as 100-to-one, but it may be three-to-one or higher. That is, a kettle full of snow might melt down to one-third to one-half of a kettle of water, at most.1
The horses were no doubt suffering more from the lack of water than the people. In mild weather an idle adult horse needs ten to twelve gallons of water a day. Given that, the animal can survive for three weeks or so without feed. Without water it will die of dehydration in five days. Even Seaman needed more water than usual.
By "old snow," Ordway meant that it had apparently been on the ground there since the previous winter. In modern terms it would be called firn, or névé, which consists of granular, partially consolidated crystals, and is in an intermediate stage between snow and glacial ice. It is possible that the snowbank which the Corps relied on for water had been around for more than one summer. The year 1805 was in the declining phase of the "Little Ice Age," which had begun about 1500 A.D. and was to end around 1850. Except for the rare occurrence of temporary climatological anomalies, old snow has not been seen anywhere near the supposed site of "Snowbank Camp" in recent memory.
The company's ration of water that day probably was no less disappointing than their entreés for lunch and supper. Portable soup was a decoction of meat—possibly meat "byproducts" such as heart, kidney and liver—and perhaps some vegetables boiled into a paste that was cooled, dried, and cut into cakes that could be reconstituted with water to make a clear soup resembling modern bouillon or consommé. If the men did not particularly relish portable soup, that undoubtedly was because it failed to satisfy their need for nourishment. For comparison, an eight-ounce can of "beef broth" today, when diluted with water, will make two servings, each containing a mere 15 calories—one-third of a day's need for sodium, and no carbohydrates or fats, far from those men's daily requirement of some 5,000 calories each. The horsemeat helped a little, of course, but at its best it is not very fatty. No wonder they were "much reduced" in weight by the time they reached Weippe Prairie. (Even a 2,500-calorie supersized burger-and-fries from a 21st-century fast-food emporium would have fed one of those 33 hard-working adults for only half a day!)2
1. Today the water content of snowfall in the Bitterroot Mountains is measured telemetrically on a regular basis. By this means it is possible to predict the extent of local valley flooding that may accompany the spring thaw, the amount of water that will be available to farmers for irrigation throughout the summer, the relative severity of the next summer's forest-fire season, the potential impacts on the spawning cycle of salmon and steelhead trout, and the implications for commercial shipping on faraway rivers.
Funded in part by a grant from the Idaho Governor's Lewis and Clark Trail Committee