Another Brush with Death

"Steep sides of the ridge"

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interactive aerial photo showing the trail following a low ridgeline

© 2003 Airphoto, Jim Wark. All rights reserved.

The roads lacing the forest in this scene were built to get logging equipment and personnel into the forest and back, including trucks to haul the timber to mills. Many of the roads are closed permanently as soon as logging is done, while others are left open to accommodate hunters and other recreationists, and to facilitate access by forest fire fighters. The Howard Creek road (not named after the expedition's Tom Howard) connects the Lolo Creek valley with the Clark Fork River valley.

Those mountainsides may not look very challenging from 1,200 feet in the air, but they elicited a good many lamentations from the journalists on the westbound leg. Returning down this stretch on June 30, 1806, Lewis casually mentioned that after striking camp at the hot springs they "proceeded down the creek sometimes in the bottoms and at other times on the top or along the steep sides of the ridge to the N. of the Creek." Before they got very far, though, he had added another memorable brush with death to his own "chapter of accidents."

in descending the creek this morning on the steep side of a high hill my horse sliped with both his hinder feet out of the road and fell, I also fell off backwards and slid near 40 feet down thehill before i could stop myself such was the steepness of the declivity; the horse was near falling on me in the first instance but fortunately recovers and we both escaped unhirt.

Indeed, Lewis's accident could have could have been tragic, considering not only the distance he fell and the steepness of the slope, but also the numerous fallen trees that cluttered the forest floor. Ponderosa pine, lodgepole pine, and Douglas-fir all prune themselves as they grow, cutting off nourishment to lower branches until they die and break off under the weight of snow or the urging of stormwinds, leaving short, sharp stubs or snags a few inches long protruding from the trunk. When the tree falls, from whatever cause, a certain percentage of those potentially lethal hazards are pointing upward, so the odds against accidentally impaling himself on one of them were not good. Indeed, on July 18 Private George Gibson, who was with Clark's detachment on the Yellowstone River, "in attempting to mount his horse after Shooting a deer . . . fell . . . on a Snag and sent it nearly [two] inches into the Muskeler part of his thy.    he informs me this Snag was about 1 inch in diamuter burnt at the end." Gibson was laid up for several days, unable even to ride a horse for more than a couple of hours.


Lewis was lucky. He simply brushed himself off and went on with the business of exploring. In his very next breath he turned his attention toward the natural beauty around him. He took notice of the plant "which is sometimes called the lady's slipper or mockerson flower."

This page has been funded in part by a grant from the Montana Cultural Trust