by Steve N. Russell
Imagine a time before airplanes, cars, or trains. Imagine a time even further back when there were no horses to ride. All travel was on foot. This ancient time was the beginning of travel across the rugged Bitterroot Mountains for the Indian tribes of the northwest United States. This is a story of travel in those mountains from ancient times up to the present.
Looking eastward from the old trail, K'useyneiskit, toward the upper Lochsa River basin and the eastern summits of the broad Bitterroot range.
Foot Trails: Ancient Travelers
Few people today have had the experience of bushwhacking the fifty to one-hundred, or more, miles it takes to travel between major river valleys in these Bitterroot Mountains. Travel was very strenuous in many places. Heavy brush and timber downfalls often blocked the way in summer and snow blocked the way in winter. It was virtually impossible to travel alongside creeks and rivers as modern highways now do because of the heavy brush and steep slopes. Travel was difficult for other reasons as well. You might meet up with someone from an enemy tribe. You might also meet a grizzly bear or a mountain lion in search of an easy meal—you!
In spite of these hardships, the ancient people coped. They traveled the backbones of the extensive ridge systems using game trails where possible and natural openings when available. In early spring and late fall, they followed trails located on ridge shoulders with southern exposures, taking advantage of land melted free of snow by a vigorous sun. The melting and refreezing cycle of late spring also produced a snow pack so hard that a person could walk over snow several feet deep and barely sink in. Where the terrain afforded the opportunity, the people established trails on southern slopes at lower elevations to avoid the heaviest of snows. These ancient people also learned to set the ridge tops on fire in order to clear the brush, which kept the smaller trees thinned and greatly increased the viewing distance. This was a great help because travel became less strenuous and they could see greater distances to avoid potential enemy or animal attack.
Lolo Trail, Bald Mountain
segment of the original trail tread on Bald Mountain. Erosion and soil type have inhibited regrowth of vegetation.
The "roads" used by those first travelers were not the well-beaten traces we think of as trails today. Instead, they were faint paths of broken brush and twigs that were hard to follow without an expert guide. Knowledge of their methods of marking trails is lost to us except for remnants of rock cairns that can still be seen, although we do not know for sure that cairns were widely used as trail markers except during the past few hundred years.
Foot trail locations were pretty much like the trails of today—they stayed on the backbones of the ridges and followed the system of ridges and saddles from major valley to major valley. Evidence of these trails no longer exists because they were so seldom used and did not scar the land. On many of the routes, we suspect that the old foot paths were obliterated by the eroded traces of horses.
Trail locations were pioneered in ancient times much as wagon roads were pioneered during the settlement rushes of the Oregon and Mormon Trails. Someone would establish an "acceptable" trail between two points and others would start using it. Then, other people would explore the area for a somewhat better route and the old route would be abandoned. In this evolutionary way, the best routes were soon established through use over the centuries.
What about "beasts of burden"? Before horses, they were people and dogs. This made long distance travel very risky and time consuming. Only the barest of essentials could be packed across these mountains; carrying enough food for long journeys was out of the question. The only alternatives were totally living off the land or visiting other tribes where friendly relationships assured food and other amenities. In the river valleys and plains, semipermanent dwellings could be used over a period of many years. These supported migration from colder to warmer elevations as the food sources and seasons changed.
Funded in part by a grant from the Idaho Governor's Lewis and Clark Trail Committee