50. Fort Peck Lake

View north

Aerial view of Fort Peck Lake with a very complicated shoreline

© 2000 Airphoto—Jim Wark

"Close Calls"

The fourteenth of May, 1805, was a day of close calls. That evening, six men—"all good hunters"—took on a large grizzly. Employing a tested battle strategy, four concealed gunners hit it almost simultaneously from forty paces. As "this monster ran at them with open mouth, the two who had reserved their fires discharged their pieces at him," one shot breaking one of the bear's shoulders. This, however, "retarded his motion for a moment only." With no time to reload their weapons, the hunters flung them aside and leaped over a twenty-foot-high bank into the river. "So enraged was this anamal that he plunged into the river only a few feet behind the second man . . . when one of those who still remained on shore shot him through the head and finally killed him."

When the chastened hunters caught up with the rest of the party after sunset, they found their comrades shaken from their own hairbreadth escape. For the second time in a month, a combination of violent wind, vulnerable sail, and helmsman Toussaint Charbonneau—perhaps trying this time not to be "the most timid waterman in the world"—had nearly sunk the white pirogue and "almost every article indispensibly necessary to . . . insure the success of the enterprize," while the captains, three hundred yards away on the far shore, looked on helplessly. Fortunately, as Lewis reported, "the articles which floated out was nearly all caught" by Sacagawea.

The Missouri River the Corps saw that May averaged perhaps a quarter of a mile in width, and its banks were more or less parallel. But the fractal geometry of today's Fort Peck Lake shoreline, officially 1,520 miles in extent, defies meaningful measurement. The river was dangerous enough in 1805. Today this lake can be much rougher sailing.


From Discovering Lewis & Clark from the Air
Photography by Jim Wark

Text by Joseph Mussulman
Reproduced by permission of Mountain Press