Lochsa River Canyon

Below Killed Colt Camp

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Lochsa River Canyon

On the morning of September 15, 1805, Old Toby, the Corps' Lemhi-Shoshone guide, led the party down the canyon "over Steep points rockey & buschey as usial," according to Clark. Private Whitehouse added that they "crossed Several Springs and Swampy places covred with white ceeder and tall handsom Spruce pine, which would be excelent for boards or Shingles."

Those "Steep points" where the river has shouldered its way between rocky mountainsides, are marked today by road cuts, which were necessary in order to make room for the highway that was completed through this stretch during the 1950s. Late in the 19th century the creek and the small pond were named Papoose and Whitehouse, respectively.

The "white ceeder" was the western redcedar; which is the more suitable for shingles and boards. The "tall handsom Spruce pine" was the tall (50 to 100 feet), fragrant, dark-green Engelmann spruce–"slender as a church spire."1 This tree's straight stems have often been used as telephone poles, though its most sublime destiny, owing to its singularly resonant quality that derives from the consistently fine, soft, straight grain, has long been used for violin bodies and piano sounding boards. In the 1990s many Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii Parry ex Engelm)2 stands throughout the Bitterroots were decimated by an infestation of spruce bark beetles.

From 1,200 feet in the air the river that Lewis and Clark later named "Koos koos kee"–which they understood meant "clear water"–looks placid, but at water level it is a continuous staircase of rapids that justifies the old Indian name, Lochsa, meaning "rough water." Along the thin line of U.S. 12 the way is level and smooth. The narrow canyon floor, most of it no wider than the river, binds the highway to the riverbank so tightly that the sharply interlocked curves warrant a posted speed limit of 55 mph.

The "springs & swampey places" that haven't been covered over by the roadbed are mostly indistinguishable to the motorist's eye, although one of those swampy places has been preserved as the Memorial Cedar Grove in honor of the conservationist and historian Bernard DeVoto (1897–1955), who camped there during his writing of the well known one-volume edition of the Journals of Lewis and Clark. That grove is on Crooked Fork Creek almost 2Ω miles upstream from the point where it joins the Brushy Fork to make the Lochsa River. That means that the Corps of Discovery never caught sight of those particular ancient giants of Thuja plicata that thrill today's travelers through the Lochsa Canyon.

The roads that wind through the mountains at center right and lower left are gravel-surfaced forest access routes to timber extraction sites. The light green areas are sites that have been "clearcut"–all trees have been removed, and seedlings have been planted that will in time replace the harvested timber. Forest access roads are also used by hunters and other recreationists.


1. Donald Ross Peattie, A Natural History of Western Trees (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981), 135, 217-18. Peattie believed (p. 218) that at their "Canoe Camp" on the Clearwater River the Corps of Discovery hewed their six dugout canoes from western redcedar. However, there is no evidence that that conspicuous species has ever grown anywhere near the site of that "canoe camp." If they had, their Nez Perce friends would have strongly recommended that the expedition choose them. Moreover, Clark himself noted (on September 25, 1805) that the trees he chose were "large Pine." In 1826 those trees he referred to were officially named Pinus ponderosa–literally large pine–by botanist David Douglas.

Sergeant Ordway claimed that Clark's "large Pine" trees were "pitch pines." But although as a native New Hampshireman he certainly would have seen the latter around his home in Merrimack County, there was a gap in his memory. Pitch pine (Pinus rigida) is native to eastern North America from Maine and Ohio to Kentucky and Georgia, mostly in small mixed stands. The 1.1-million-acre Pinelands National Reserve in New Jersey is the largest single-species stand of it. Although the needles of the pitch pine are grouped in fascicles of three, as are those of the Rocky Mountains' ponderosa pine, the similarities between the two species end there. In many parts of their range, pitch pines are often shrubby and gnarly, and the needles growing out of its bark clearly distinguish it from all other species of pine. At best it can reach a height of 40 to 70 feet, with occasional specimens reaching 100 feet (30m), and a maximum diameter of 35 inches (.9 m). Pitch pine has little value as saw timber because its multiple trunks are more or less curved, knotty, and resinous, characteristics which also would have precluded them from afterlife as dugout canoes. Their best use is as pulpwood; otherwise, the nearest they come to being commercially valuable is their suitability for 6-foot milled fenceposts or, when young, Christmas trees. Still, since the turn of the present century the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the USDA has actively sought to restore Pinus rigida to the few remaining habitats in places like New Hampshire's Merrimack County, mainly for the sake of the small wildlife species that once depended on it. Plants Database; Flora of North America, vol. 2; Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center Native Plant Information Network.

The explorers could easily recognize the differences between pine and "white ceedar," but from this point on they consistently mistook the latter, which was actually western redcedar (Thuja plicata), to be a greatly oversized variety of their familiar, eastern white cedar, Thuja occidentalis L. The species known as Engelmann spruce thrives in high, cold environments on the ridges of the Bitterroot Mountains, and not in the hot, dry habitat of the Clearwater River canyon where the expedition hewed their second flotilla of dugout canoes.

2. Picea [pie-SEE-a] is a Latin word for spruce; engelmannii [eng-gull-MAH-nee-eye] commemorates the German physician and botanist George Engelmann (1809-1884), of Saint Louis, Missouri, who was an authority on conifers of the northwest and cacti of the southwest.

Funded in part by a grant from the Idaho Governor's Lewis and Clark Trail Committee.