Spring is shouldering its way up Clearwater Canyon to vanquish mountain snowbanks and green the high swards. It is birthing-time, proffering new life day by day. Volumes of the animal kingdom high and low are there for study from end to end, inside and out: squirrels, reptiles, birds, insects, bears—grizzly-white Hoh-host and black-or-brown Yack-kah. Verities of the vegetable kingdom to fathom: roots, berries, flowers, grasses, shrubs, trees. Specimens of more than 50 new species of plants to press.
It is gathering-time. Clark: "We have Sixty five horses at this time, most of them in excellent order and fine Strong active horses—." Lewis: "On examination we find that our whole party have an ample store of bread and roots for our voyage, a circumstance not unpleasing." Four men are sent to Hohots Ilppilp's village on Commearp Creek to buy "some pack or lash ropes in exchange for parts of an old sain [sein], fish gigs, pieces of old iron, old files and some bullets," and to "procure some bags for the purpose of containing our roots & bread." Three men are detailed over to Lewis's River, where the spring salmon had arrived, to buy some fresh seafood. Sacagawea does her part, "gathering the roots of the fenel Called by the Snake Indians Year-pah for the purpose of drying to eate on the Rocky mountains."
It is healing-time. "Our invalids are all on the recovery." Fifteen-month-old Pomp has nearly recovered from an eight-day bout with something—mumps, maybe. An outpatient clinic for the neighbors—mostly eyewash. Lewis wishes he could use Benjamin Franklin's electric shock treatment to cure an elderly man of paralysis.
It is talking-time. Lewis explains "the views of our government with respect to the inhabitants of this Western part of the Continent, their intention of establishing tradeing houses for their relief, their wish to restore peace and harmony among the natives, the Strength welth and powers of our Nation &c. to this end we drew a map of the Country with a coal on a mat in their way, and by the assistance of the Snake boy and our intrepeters were enabled to make ourselves under stood by them altho' it had to pass through French, Minnetare, Shoshone and Chopunnish languages."
It is learning-time. How to build a rain-proof lodge of brush and grass; "is much the best tents we have." How the Nez Perce steam bear meat: "much more tender than that which we had roasted or boiled." How to castrate a "stone horse"—a stallion; "I have no hesitation in declaring my beleif that the indian method of gelding is preferable to that practiced by ourselves.—" Learning the Nez Perces' names for nine rivers east of the mountains. A lesson on money, namely blue beads, which "among all the nations of this country may be justly compared to goald or silver among civilized nations."
It is friendship-time. On May 26 a small canoe is finished, to serve for commuting across the Clearwater and back. Four days later it sinks (shades of the ill-fated "iron boat") and even defies the efforts of a large party of Indians to raise it. Neighborly Hohots Ilppilp says that whenever the explorers need meat they are welcome to kill any of his horses they wish. That is a gesture, Lewis admitts, "which would do honour to such as bost of civiliation; indeed I doubt whether there are not a great number of our countrymen who would see us fast many days before their compassion would excite them to a similar act of liberality." Betimes they seesaw with the Nez Perce over guide services. Play games, shoot at a mark, race horses. Tunnachemootoolt and Hohots Ilppilp arrive on the south side of the river "with a party of a douzen of their young men; they began to sing in token of friendship as is their custom." Good feelings.
It is biding-time. Waiting for June's full moon—watching the river rise—reading the daily calendar of nature's tassel-time. "We have summer spring and winter within the short space of 15 or 20 miles."
Elliott Coues, in 1893, will name this bivouac Camp Chopunnish.1 Its occupants know it only as "our camp." It lacks the seasonal permanency of a winter establishment like Fort Mandan or Fort Clatsop. Each man has a foot poised in his own mind, ready to step out for home on a moment's notice. The travel season in these northern latitudes lasts from ice-out to ice-in, and here in the canyon the hot sun drives men to the shade of their brush lodges by mid-day, reminding them that snow in the mountains is shrinking while they tarry. Every man can imagine what the High Plains look like, teeming with buffalo steaks and elk roasts on the hoof. By the first of June, nearly one-third of the open season is history, and still that icy barrier intervenes. Besides, they've run out of tradable stuff, and must get back to those caches at Fortunate Camp, White Bear Islands, and the mouth of the Marias River.
By the second of June Lewis is fed up with both the situation and the prospects:
having exhausted all our merchandize we are obliged to have recourse to every subterfuge in order to prepare in the most ample manner in our power to meet that wretched portion of our journy, the Rocky Mountain, where hungar and cold in their most rigorous forms assail the waried traveller; not any of us have yet forgotten our suffering in those mountains in September last, and I think it probable we never shall.
It will be almost mid-July before they are finally sprung from the bonds of the Rockies and speeding toward September next.
Monday, June 9:
our party seem much elated with the idea of moving on towards their friends and country, they all seem allirt in their movements today; they have every thing in readiness for a move, and notwithstanding the want of provision [the meat is all gone; they're subsisting on roots] have been amusing themselves very merrily today in runing footraces pitching quites [quoits], prison basse &c.
It was time to go.
1. Elliott Coues (pronounced cowz), ed., History of the Expedition under the Command of Lewis and Clark. . . . (1893. Reprint, 3 vols., New York: Dover, 1965), 3:1009n.
Funded in part by a grant from the Idaho Governor's Lewis and Clark Trail Committee