At 3 o'clock in the afternoon–the hottest hour of a very hot September eleventh–after the last two of the horses that had strayed the previous night were recaptured, Old Toby led the Corps of Discovery out of Travelers' Rest camp toward the Bitterroot Mountain barrier. At the seven-mile mark on the wide, water-level road, they reached the mouth of today's Anderson Gulch,1 where they made an early stop for the night near some old Indian lodges. Across the valley to the south loomed ithe two snow-mantled summits of Lolo Peaks.
Wakening on the twelfth to a crisp, frosty dawn, they continued westward for two miles, passing an earth-covered Indian sweat lodge. At that point the canyon floor narrowed down and became choked with underbrush, so the Corps "assended a high hill & proceeded through a hilley and thickly timbered Countrey for 9 miles" to a fork in the road at Grave Creek where they stopped for "dinner" (lunch). Travel conditions worsened by the hour. The road was "verry bad," said Clark, "passing over hills & thro' Steep hollows, over falling timber &c. &c." They encountered "Some most intolerable road on the Sides of the Steep Stoney mountains." Along the way Clark noted a number of ponderosa pines that been partly peeled for high-energy food. At 8 P.M. Clark and some of the men descended "a long Steep mountain" to a camp site; for some unknown reason the rest didn't get there until 10:00. The last terse statement he found the strength to write was "Party and horses much fatigued."
The water-level road they followed as far as "swet house Creek" probably stayed closer to the foot of the mountains on the north side of today's U.S. Highway 12 in order to stay out of the dense brush in the bottoms, and to get past the creek's meanders that swung back and forth across the narrow valley floor. The first wagon road up the canyon was hacked and scraped out of the previously impassible canyon in 1888. Where it couldn't squeeze past a meander, horses and wagons, and later automobiles, forded and re-forded the creek 29 times in 30 miles. Early in the 20th century, highway engineers simply shoved the creek out of the way. For example, in the center of the picture above notice the old creekbed north (right) of the highway, arching against the base of the mountain, and and then find the long straight stretch of relocated channel that hugs the south shoulder of the highway today.
Intolerable roadEach rectangle represents one square mile.
On their return trip, having left behind "those tremendious mountanes," as Clark called them, "in passing of which we have experiensed Cold and hunger of which I shall ever remember," they "proceeded down the Creek, Sometimes in the bottoms and at other times on the tops or along the Steep Sides of the ridge to the N of the Creek." With scarcely a nod toward their campsite of the previous September 11 they rolled on another eight miles at top speed. Shortly before sunset, with what was surely an overwhelming sense of relief and accomplishment, they sailed into their "old encampment on the S. Side of the Creek a little above its enterance into Clarks river." There they settled down, Clark wrote, "with a view to remain 2 days in order to rest ourselves and horses and make our final arrangements for Seperation."
1. Mileages estimated when they were traveling on horseback were the most accurate of all, since horses will walk at an average of about 3-1/2 miles per hour.
Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Cultural Trust.