Prior River Experience

Chapter 6 of 8

Topical Summary: Clark's experience—The Mississippi in flood—Lewis's experience—Jefferson's circle—Has canoeing changed?—No, river tests—No, Mackenzie's journals—The Mackenzie and Missouri Rivers –"Reading water"—"Paddling" skill—Bill and Juliette examples—"Shooting the Rapids"

But in 1805, were Lewis and Clark and their crew familiar with various types of canoes? In fact, canoe designs were remarkably well known throughout the New World, because so many people travelled so far by canoe. The French voyageurs, influenced by the myriad of eastern woodland Indian boats, before Spain took over New Orleans from France in 1763, and afterwards, regularly canoed from their Great Lakes and Pennsylvania and Ohio territories to New Orleans, where they also encountered the South American and Carib ocean-going canoes which plied the Caribbean islands, where the French and British had colonies, and the U.S. mainland. Clark himself made the trip down the Ohio and Mississippi to Memphis, and then again to New Orleans in the years before the expedition began. He would have seen hundreds, perhaps thousands of canoes, designed and made anywhere from Montreal to Trinidad.

The sophisticated "express canoes" of the voyageurs were the fastest way from Quebec to New Orleans, and until the railroad came in the 1880s, such canoes were also the fastest way across Canada coast to coast. Those voyageur birch bark canoes had hull shapes quite similar to the French Canadian dugouts of the eighteenth century and to Indian dugouts and birch boats.

Lewis and Clark scholars sometimes say that Clark was "a better waterman" than Lewis,1 and that many of the crew were relatively inexperienced. Both observations might be true. However, they lived in an age of river travel, and we do not, so those observations can also be deceptive. That is, an amateur on rivers then might be an expert on rivers now. How many people do you know who have paddled or poled over a thousand river miles in a year or two? Both Lewis and Clark probably did. And they probably were quite familiar with many "standard" canoe designs, and their performance. Also, as we shall see, a rank amateur can learn canoe strokes very quickly.


Clark was the youngest of six brothers, and the oldest, George Rogers Clark, was an adventurous military officer well known and respected by Jefferson. He made an early descent of the upper Ohio in 1772, and in 1778 ran the river in high water, with ice floes still breaking up, and shot the falls of the Ohio (dropping 26 feet in two miles over a series of limestone ledges–what we call a "drop and pool" rapid). Both expeditions were by canoe. George Rogers' further expeditions included poling and rowing 100 miles up the Mississippi.

The Clark family bought a piece of land George had scouted just above the falls of the Ohio (within earshot) on the Kentucky side, and apparently moved there when William Clark was 15 years old, in a year when over a thousand boats with settlers–flatboats, barges, canoes–ran the falls.2

Young William Clark soon joined the army, and in 1789 he wrote that he built "2 canoos of bark" in Indiana to transport wounded men.3 Barks other than birch–especially elm–were sometimes used for canoes when necessary. We know that in service Clark must have seen many Indian canoes; in 1791 his detachment fired on Indians fleeing across the Wabash and, according to Clark, "destroyed all the savages with which five canoes were crowded."4 At his family land, he swam a herd of horses across the Ohio above the falls (we would call that an upstream ferry, with consequences).

As a rising officer, Clark was assigned increasing river responsibilities in the decade before the expedition. In 1793 he was given command of 12 soldiers and a Kentucky flatboat, to descend the Ohio and build a fort at the mouth of the Kentucky River; in June he was surprised by an order to command 24 men and three armed and heavily laden flatboats down the Ohio and Mississippi all the way to Memphis (they paid a pilot $6 to take them through the Ohio falls—even though Clark had lived there). They came back overland by horse.5

Later that year Lieutenant Clark with other soldiers went down the Ohio again. He visited his family, then the party ran the falls and ascended the Wabash at Christmas against ice floes, poling a flatboat. Returning in January, they went down the Wabash in the flatboat and up the Ohio. In 1795, he commanded a barge with poles and oars, and a crew of a sergeant, a corporal, and fifteen privates, down the Ohio and Mississippi to the Spanish outpost at New Madrid, pulling into an eddy of the Mississippi to receive an ambassador from the Spanish Governor. In two weeks they had descended about 350 miles of river. They came back in the barge, poling and rowing upstream against the "rappid and difficult" Mississippi current6 and up the Ohio. Another 350 miles, this time upstream.

Clark continued up and down the river on military business from Washington to the western frontier at the Mississippi, often visiting his family at the falls. In 1798, however, five years before the Expedition, he undertook his most difficult river trip, this time on family business, taking a large flatboat with hired hands, loaded with tobacco packed in casks, down to New Orleans, recently reopened for trade. On the way Clark bought a canoe (given its durability, apparently a dugout), and was joined by four other boats in a flotilla. The wind was very bad that March on the Mississippi, and they were often driven to land. They made it past the Chicksaw Bluffs and guided the laden flatboat through the rapids of the Devil's Raceground–if you have ever been in big water, over 100,000 cfs, you can imagine handling a clumsy, heavily laden flatboat or a small solo canoe in spring runoff: eddies, whirlpools, waves, wind.

The Father of Waters in flood

If you have not paddled big water, you might get a better impression from Clark biographer Landon Jones, who quotes Charles Dickens (about forty years after Lewis and Clark) on the undammed Mississippi:

An enormous ditch, sometimes two or three miles wide, running with liquid mud, six miles an hour: its strong and frothy current choked and obstructed everywhere by huge logs and whole forest trees: now twining themselves together in great rafts, from the interstices of which a sedgy lazy foam works up, to float upon the water's top; now rolling past like monstrous bodies, their tangled roots showing like matted hair; now glancing singly by like giant leeches; and now writhing round and round in the vortex of some small whirlpool, like wounded snakes.7

Jones continues with Clark's journal of his trip–at the end of March, in lowland spring runoff and rains, but before the Missouri would crest with mountain snowmelt:

March 30, 1798: "Raned hard set out early wind rose we continued landed on a Sharp Point a Dangerous part of the river. One boat far behind and can't get in at the port . . . bank falling in all night."

Disaster finally came on April 1. Another monstrous wind rose up, driving Clark's canoe into an embedded stump that smashed the bow. The canoe then hit a "sawyer"–a partially submerged tree trunk–which "nearly sunk her." Finally a third trunk "held her fast." In his notebook Clark wrote resignedly, "Here I am at twelve oclock canoo stove."

It got worse. One of the trader's boats, weighed down by its full load of merchandise, was sunk by the same sawyer Clark hit. The surviving flatboats were then driven up against the bank by the raging current, "a very dangerous situation." Surveying his bedraggled men, Clark wrote, "my hands fritened."8

The smaller canoe is more maneuverable for landing, but much more vulnerable to swirls and debris; the flat boats are stable, but not maneuverable. No matter the craft, this is real river experience–the wind, the strong and unpredictable current, the swirls, the rolling trees in runoff, pulling eddies to land and leaving the eddies–whether in a raft, barge, pirogue or canoe, with oars, sweeps or paddles–is difficult boating.

High Water

The passage from Dickens is certainly dramatic, but is not necessarily exaggerated. There is high water, in a normal channel, and then there is really high water, by informal degrees of river runner jargon: high, really cooking, very high, bank full, in flood (over the banks), record breaking. Each degree matters. This is not just an issue of another few inches of height, another 10% of cubic feet per second (cfs). A river drastically changes its characteristics when it approaches bank full, or flood. It's a quantum leap. Why?

A river in flood is not comfortable in its bed. That is, its bed was carved by the flow 90% of the time. But very high water lasts only a few weeks of the year, flood may be a few days, near record highs once a decade or two. The water is not very high for enough days to carve a bed fit for that volume of water.

A river in high water is not just a bigger river, it is a different river. Some rapids are washed out and much easier. Others are unrunnable; still others appear where there were none before. But most importantly, the flow of the river is constantly being distorted, impeded, confused in its attempt to descend a channel too small for its volume. The result is boils, eddies, swirls, all unpredictable, forming and dissipating, changing every second: not just more water, but troubled water. Dickens captures that very well.

In a stupid moment long ago, Rod McIver and I decided to canoe the Alberton Gorge of the Clark Fork in a record flood; instead of running about 40,00 cfs in high water, it was closer to 75,000. We took my decked three-hole canoe with spray skirts. Paddling the gorge non-stop usually takes about an hour; we took 20 minutes, and had trouble even recognizing where we were. After 3 minutes we knew it was dumb, but there was no turning back. We had a dory behind us as backup; he had done the Grand Canyon many times. At one turn a huge slab of rock on the outside of the bend, usually fifteen feet above water, was gone: the river was pouring over it, into a giant reversal. But the problem was the boils. The canoe would rise two feet up on a boil and slither sideways, and you had to invent skidding strokes to keep it upright. Charley Stevenson and I had similar conditions on the famous "Figure 8" rapids on the Nahanni, a surge of water through an S curve between cliffs. The river was not in flood, but it was high, and that three-hundred-yard curve is always chaotic water. The river doesn't fit its bed, because the cliffs prevent it from cutting a different channel. We would rise up on a boil, move thirty yards sideways, and be dropped into a swirl.

You can see the worst of this kind of water, the worst on earth, in a new video by kayakers making the first descent of the Congo River's Inga rapids, 1.6 million cfs: Steve Fisher, Congo: The Grand Inga Project. Watch it, and then tell me Dickens was exaggerating.

While of course Lewis and Clark were not attempting radical whitewater canoeing, it is easy to overlook that they were in fact ascending the Missouri in high water, lining 3,000 pound boatloads up a river of about 40,000 cfs that had become brown, swirly, surging with debris and logs, cold from snowmelt and unpredictable. At night, the man probably heard rocks, recently fallen from the cliffs, clunking as they were rolled downstream. The journalists simply say, "very rappid" or "strong current today." And remember, they had to keep paddling across that swirling river for better lining on the other shore. "Without a murmur."

Some commentators have surmised that the crew's troubles on the Clearwater and the Snake may have come from having upstream experience, but not downstream. Especially for canoes, I think that's not valid. Even when ascending the Missouri, anytime they put into shore, using eddies, and came out, they needed an arsenal of upstream and downstream techniques–braces, draws, backpaddling, sculling–and the same goes for those myriad crossings of the river to visit Indian villages, and hunters in the scout boats going up or downriver and then returning to camp. I suspect they had trouble on the Clearwater and Snake because those were difficult rivers to negotiate in heavily laden canoes.9 Certainly Clark, Lewis, Cruzatte, and a few others had extensive downriver canoeing experience.

From the upper Ohio to the Mississippi, and later all the way down to Memphis, and then later down to New Orleans, and back and forth on many military missions in the Ohio watershed, and growing up in a family that had pioneered Ohio river travel—Clark knew rivers and boats.


Lewis had less experience, but as suggested above, in our time he, as well as Clark, might be judged an expert. Although in the absence of bridges he probably had considerable knowledge of boats in Virginia and on the Potomac and Chesapeake, Lewis' early military experience in the Ohio region was mostly marching and on horseback. When he was made regimental paymaster in March of 1799, however, he began to travel extensively by boat: "He roamed the West, up and down the Ohio River . . . . He learned the craft of a waterman on western rivers."10

I cannot find an account of every journey, many over a hundred miles round trip, but they must have totaled over a thousand miles in a year. In spite of Ambrose's assumption, there is no record of which trips were by boat, and which by horseback. When the question of Lewis' river travel was put to the Lewis scholars, Clay Jenkinson and Thomas Danisi, Danisi replied: "In my opinion, Lewis was a knowledgeable and practiced waterman by the time he reached Pittsburgh. The documentation, at this time, is severely lacking."11

When Jefferson asked Lewis to command the expedition, and Lewis asked Clark to accompany him, it is noteworthy that Jefferson trusted Lewis, and Lewis trusted himself, to order the "keeled boat" and pirogues and canoes made to his specifications. Clark was not involved. Then, as the expedition commenced, Lewis commanded the boats down the Ohio until they picked up Clark at Louisville, on the way. That trip included a challenging descent of the Ohio in the heavily loaded fifty-five foot keeled boat in very shallow September water. They were frequently jumping out to push the boat when it had run aground. This would teach anyone, quickly, to read water: where is the deepest channel? Where will it likely be at the next bend, two hundred yards away?

It may seem counterintuitive, but "reading" slow, clear, shallow water—where's the deepest current?—is quite difficult, especially heading west into the afternoon light.

Lewis' theoretical understanding of river issues is hard to gauge, but he grew up as a member of Jefferson's inner circle, and was given an entrée to the leading scientists, adventurers, and instrument makers of his day. Furthermore, he spent twenty-three months as the President's personal secretary, and almost a year preparing for the journey and ordering equipment. He and the president must have discussed boat designs, including displacement and weight issues pertaining to his 36-foot iron-framed and hide-covered portable boat. It is hard to recapture, or underestimate, the intellectual acuity of Jefferson's friends and household, which biographer Dillon said "served as an ideal finishing school for Lewis."12

Thank you, Mackenzie

When I first puzzled over Boss's diagram of a canoe with no chines, a flat bottom and straight-up sides, and when I saw the first replica dugouts made on similar lines, I was surprised, but I also wondered if my own assumptions were wrong. Had rivers changed? Did 2,000 pound, straight-sided canoes have characteristics that I had not imagined? That is why I felt we needed a river test of the replicas, with excellent paddlers: maybe we would discover a secret. But they were just very heavy canoes–and as I have said, stable by virtue of ballast, which severely reduced their capacity to carry large loads. The journals of Lewis and Clark are notably lacking in canoeing details, so I wondered too if my modern assumptions were wrong; what if both the canoes and the canoeing in 1800 were very different from what I knew, in ways no scholar had yet explored or explained?

However, when I read Mackenzie, who is full of canoeing information, I found the river world of 1800 completely familiar–familiar in the boats, in the canoeing strategies, in the techniques. And since Lewis had read the same pages before the expedition, I knew that whatever river experience Lewis had was greatly augmented by a knowledge of Mackenzie's canoeing practices on western waters. On the Missouri, in high water, Lewis would be ascending a river quite similar to the Mackenzie River, which Mackenzie ascended coming back from the Arctic ocean to the Great Slave Lake. Both rivers are fast near their origins, and are big volume plains rivers for most of their length.

Instead of simply listing issues, I will quote a number of Mackenzie passages from his journals. The quotations, full of detail, are a kind of rhetoric; we can almost feel Lewis, in Jefferson's library, soaking up such useful, vivid, sobering reports, and thinking of his own trip west, in a year or two.

At Montreal:

  • "eight or ten men in each canoe [the huge, 35' canoe de maître] . . . sixty-five packages of goods [at 90 pounds each, a load of 5,800 pounds per boat] . . . a sail, an axe, a towing-line, a kettle, a sponge to bail . . . gum, bark, and watape to repair birchbark canoes . . . . An European on seeing one of these slender vessels thus laden, heaped up, and sunk with her gunwale within six inches of the water, would think his fate inevitable . . . but the Canadians are so expert that few accidents happen." This is from Montreal up the St. Lawrence to the Great Lakes. Beyond that, they changed to smaller canoes.13
  • "In each of these canoes are a foreman and steersman; the one to be always on the look-out, and direct the passage of the vessel, and the other to attend the helm . . . The foreman has the command, and the middle-men obey both . . . . Independent of these, a conductor or pilot is appointed to every four or six of these canoes, whom they are all obliged to obey . . . a person of superior experience."14

Beyond the Great Lakes:

  • "The voyageurs are frequently obliged to unload their canoes, and carry the goods upon their backs, or rather . . . suspended in slings [tumplines] from around their heads. Each man's ordinary load is two packages." (180 pounds)15
  • "Over this portage, which is six hundred and forty-three paces long, the canoe and all the lading is carried. The rock is so steep and difficult of access, that it requires twelve men to lift the canoe out of the water: it is then carried by six men." 16 (Note: That equals about one hundred pounds per man when carrying a canoe on a difficult portage.)
  • "The [Portage La Locke] rapid is upwards of three miles long . . . . [T]here is, however, no carrying, as the line and poles are sufficient to drag and set the canoes against the current."17

Wind, on the Great Slave Lake and Mackenzie River to Artic Ocean:

  • "[T]he wind blew so hard he was obliged to put to shore."18
  • "steered SW 9 miles under sail."19
  • "In the blowing weather to-day, we were obliged to make use of our large kettle, to keep our canoe from filling, although we did not carry above three feet sail."20
  • "Though the wind was close [not from behind], we ventured to hoist the sail, and from the violence of the swell it was by great exertions that two men could bail out the water from our canoe. We were in a state of actual danger."21

Techniques ascending the Mackenzie River (comparable to the Missouri):

  • "We proceeded with the line throughout the day, except two hours, when we enjoyed the sail."22
  • "[W]e continued our course, but, in a very short time, were under the necessity of applying to the aid of the line, the stream being so strong as to render all our attempts unavailing to stem it with the paddles." [The day before was "very fine," and they had lined all day. Perhaps on this day the banks were not as conducive to lining, thus paddling was the first choice.] "At ten, we had an aft wind, and the men who had been engaged in towing, re-embarked."23
  • "[T]he current had relaxed its force, so that the paddle was sufficient."24
  • "We did not find the stream strong to-day, along the shore, as there were many eddy currents; we therefore employed the sail during some hours."25.

This last series of entries is very interesting. First, advancing upriver by using eddies means crossing the river often, at least at every bend. Second, sailing up eddies and (presumably) crossing the river under sail, is pretty adventurous! Perhaps they steadied the boat by low braces with the paddles when breaking through eddy seams. But an upstream side wind would tend to bury the upstream gunnel. Canoeists will appreciate the risk of leaving the eddy, and entering the main current, with the upstream gunnel driven down by wind and sail. On the other hand, with good rigging, a square or lateen sail can be dropped in a few seconds, without being put away (the mast remaining up, the booms lying across the boat), and then raised when needed. Such rigging is necessary for a canoe in any gusty wind. Nineteenth century drawings and early photos often show lateen sails on canoes.

Mackenzie's entries above tell us more about river canoeing techniques than all the 13 volumes of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Lewis could have learned here (and from hundreds of other similar entries), that sailing upriver with a tail wind was possible and preferred; that if there was insufficient wind, and current allowed, paddling was possible; that if the current was too strong they would line (though that depended on the quality of the bank), that they could pole as well as line (Lewis' preferred method, if the water was not too deep at the shore); that they sometimes could advance only by crossing the river from eddy to eddy. Most usefully, Lewis would have learned that they would be switching techniques many times during most days.

The entire first Mackenzie trip (Vol. I) was a failure: they reached the Arctic to the north, not the Pacific to the west. However–and Lewis could not yet know this–the Mackenzie River is quite similar to the Missouri, and the techniques used would be valuable previews. On his second voyage, narrated in Volume II, ascending the Peace River and upper streams to the divide (and then the Coast Range to the Pacific), Mackenzie reported real horror stories of danger and fatigue.

Reading one sequence,26 Lewis would have gained respect for the immense challenges possible, including a canoeing nightmare: they came to a huge rapid; they had to cross to the other side, "with some risk, in such a heavily laden canoe," then they had to line up and around a difficult point (comparable to problems in the Missouri Breaks for Lewis). Mackenzie's canoe is "driven on strong shore . . . considerable injury" to boat; the steep shore prevents lining further, but now the canoe cannot cross the river again, "extremely dangerous" with impassable rapids below, sheer cliffs above; some men leave the canoe and walk down river to a place where they can climb to the top of the 300' cliffs, and begin lining the loaded boat from above with 60 fathoms of rope (360'); if the rope breaks all their gear will be lost and they will be stranded in the Rockies; the management of the line "was rendered not only difficult but dangerous, as the men employed in towing were under the necessity of passing on the outside of trees that grew on the precipice." After the cliffs, they are back at streamside in impassable rapids, gear is being portaged and some men line the canoe, while others stand in the boat poling, "though the rocks were so shelving as to greatly increase the toil and the hazard . . . . [T]he agitation of the water was so great, that a wave striking on the bow of the canoe broke the line . . . . [I]t appeared impossible that the vessel could escape from being dashed to pieces, and those who were in her from perishing." But enough men were able to grab the boat quickly to keep it from disappearing. They were too tired to continue: "the river above us, as far as we could see, was one white sheet of foaming water."27

Further on, for Lewis, a nearly textbook sequence:

"We proceeded by hauling the canoe from branch to branch. The current was so strong, that it was impossible to stem it with the paddles; the depth was too great to receive any assistance from the poles, and the bank of the river was so closely lined with willows and other trees, that it was impossible to employ the line."28

Perhaps Lewis was wondering if canoes were such a good idea. A few pages later, Mackenzie answered:

At one time I thought of leaving the canoe, and everything it contained, to go over land, . . . but a very brief course of reflection convinced me that it would be impossible for us to carry provisions for our support through any considerable part of such a journey . . . as well as presents . . . and ammunition" [for hunters, and defense.]29

Lewis was not unacquainted with extreme canoeing issues.

It was Lewis, not Clark, who, after reading Mackenzie and conversing with Jefferson and the leading minds of his day, designed the iron frame and hide boat, who in his requisition for "Means of Transportation" included a "keeled boat light strong at least 60 feet in length",30 and who in a letter to Jefferson said he had also ordered from Mr. Dickson, in Nashville (the keeled boat maker), "a large light wooden canoe." Possibly a pirogue. Emphases mine.31

It was Lewis who, with Dearborn's help, was to procure at Fort Kaskaskia, on the way, the "best boat at the post" and "eight good men who understand rowing a boat."32 By the time Lewis arrived at the Mississippi, there is no reason to think that he was not well acquainted with river travel, and with boat design. The expedition was to have many problems (including geographical ignorance), but naiveté about boats and rivers was not among them.

It's not complicated

In this examination of Lewis and Clarks' acquaintance with boats before the expedition, readers might well wonder why we have mentioned flatboats and other vessels besides canoes. The answer is simple, though two-fold: First, most canoeists will tell you that when descending, reading the water is three-fourths of canoeing. And the less maneuverable the boat (large rafts being the worst, kayaks the best), the more crucial the correct "read" of where the current is going. That is, a raft may have to decide fifty yards above whether to go left or right of that rock; a canoe might decide ten yards away; a kayak one yard away. Second, once you can read water (which takes years—or many miles—of experience), the various kinds of canoe strokes are not that many, or that difficult.

Reading the water: The river–you've never been down it–is approaching a large, shallow bend, sweeping around to the right for a few hundred yards; you can see, through the cottonwoods, some white water in the lower part of the bend, and at least one big rock, apparently out in the main current. Should you begin the curve ("set up") river left or river right? The inside of an unknown bend is usually safer, because it will probably have some slack current, because you will not be pushed against the outside bank by the main current, and because you might be able put ashore and scout. However, in your slight glimpse, the big rock seems to be near shore, on the inside of the bend. And the inside looks so shallow you might run aground. It is very hard to tell, 200 yards away and around a bend, how much of the current goes to the right of the rock, and how much to the left. Even fifty yards away, as you are in the middle of the current at the bottom of the bend and facing the rock, an experienced boatman may be undecided, waiting for the slightest clue from either his boat or the visible water–right or left? You want to avoid coming downriver to the rock broadside–that's what happened to Ordway on the Snake. So you choose right or left as early as you can "read" the water, get to that position, and straighten the boat out–that is, align it with the current. Even in a canoe, if you make the wrong choice, and after two strokes to the right you realize the current sets left, you can be in trouble, for if you decide to spin left and paddle hard, you are now coming down towards the rock broadside, and you'd better get to the left fast. Crunch time.

Now that is a very simple example. But even an excellent canoeist may make one or two wrong "reads" in a day on a Class II river he knows well. As the river level fluctuates daily, an inch difference in water level can make a different rapid–or at least change your choice of "line." Of no consequence–maybe two hard strokes as the paddler thinks "Geez, I was floating right down on that rock!" Now imagine that the rock at the bottom of this first rapid is also at the top of a major rapid you hadn't yet seen, and that you need to be on the right at the top of that rapid. But you've just chosen left of the rock, and it's too late to go right. Now think how Lewis and Clark, in big water on the lower Snake and anxious to make winter camp at the ocean, in fully loaded boats, both welcomed an Indian guide familiar with "the line" on each rapid, and also wished that they had taken more time to stop and scout the rapids.

Running rapids is difficult for pirogue crews, whether rowing upstream with their backs to the rapids while a pilot or steersman calls out maneuvers, or descending with rowers facing downstream, as in a modern inflatable raft, and rowing back up against the current to change position in the stream. However, experience in descending rivers in any kind of boat, increases your ability to "read" the water, which is three-fourths of the problem. In addition, only one person in the boat has to be a good "reader," often the stern or "steersman" position, and he or she can tell the crew what line they will take, or what strokes to use: "Draw left! Draw left! Good. Paddle ahead!" You have to know a draw stroke, but first you have to know whether to go right or left of the rock. In larger canoes (fur trade canoes 35' long and 5' wide) or in fast, rocky water, the bowman, who sees the water first and best, may take charge; even in a modern canoe, he is fifteen feet ahead of the stern man, with an unobstructed view downstream. There may be no time to talk. The bowman sees a rock and suddenly draws left, and the stern has to follow, keeping the boat moving sideways while staying aligned with the current.

Though we don't know the exact river experience of Cruzatte and the French Canadian engagés, or of Gass or Ordway, it was probably extensive. Including Clark and Lewis, about one third of the Corps up to the Mandan villages may have had considerable river experience, in various kinds of boats. They could have "read the water." The rest could have learned the strokes quickly.

Canoe strokes: "The rest could have learned quickly." Are we sure of that? This section will be personal, because it is unassailably true, and surprising, and comes with pictures, and calls into question some scholarly assertions that the expedition crew was limited in their boating ability. Consider what one beginner learned in three days.

My wife, Juliette Crump, in 1986, had never paddled white water. We were invited on a canoe party descent of the Middle Fork of the Salmon for a week, with lots of class III and some class IV rapids (V is tops). I was going to go alone in my solo boat, but three days before the trip, Juliette decided to come. We had a three-hole, decked canoe with spray skirts, an Easy Rider which we had used on ocean trips, the perfect boat for big water.

Juliette had no chance to practice–not even an afternoon float down the Clark Fork to town to learn some strokes. She was busy heading the dance division at the University of Montana. I knew that as a professional dancer she was strong, and could quickly translate verbal directions into body motions.

So there we were. At the put-in on the (famous) Middle Fork, below Dagger Falls, there's about a hundred yards of easy practice water before you enter a channel, sweep around the cliff and face a mile or two of uninterrupted, difficult, fast, cliffside water with sharp curves. In that first hundred yards, I taught her a draw stroke, to both sides, and made sure she a) feathered her paddle out away from the gunnel at the front beginning the stroke, and then b) at the end took it out feathered away to the rear, so it wouldn't slam into our side and turn us over. She got it, a few yards before the fast water began. After fifteen minutes of havoc ("Draw left! Draw right!") we slid into the first slack water, and I immediately asked why she was now using a difficult cross-draw, turning her body to get the paddle to the opposite side without changing hands. "Because my hands are frozen and I can't let go of the damn paddle," she said. It was sleeting and snowing and she had not worn her paddling gloves.

Figure 33


A whitewater canoe shooting a rapid

unknown photographer

Figure 34

Drawstroke, Left

The person in front is leaning out and paddling in towards the side of the boat

unknown photographer

Figure 35

Plunging down La Chine

A voyageur canoe with a dozen paddlers shooting a rapid

Library and Archives Canada, Accession no. C002774

"Shooting the Rapids" (1879) by Frances Anne Hopkins (1838-1919). Oil on canvas, original size, 152.4 x 91.4 cm (60 x 36 in).

A day later, I taught her "backpaddling" simply by saying "slow it down" in Sulfur Slide, a long, fast, shallow rock garden, and she instinctively did slow reverse strokes with her paddle. Surprisingly, in a long rapid your canoe may begin to slide downhill, picking up speed so that you are going faster than the current, even without paddling. That means the rocks and decisions are coming up faster. You can gently backpaddle to stay at the speed of the current and give yourself more time to maneuver around rocks. The picture below by Charley Stevenson is near the bottom of Sulfur Slide, in Juliette's second day of canoeing. Note the bow wave–we are going faster than the current–and her slight reverse stroke. I do not recommend the sternman's 1950's hockey helmet.

Powerhouse rapid came on the next day, her third day of whitewater. By then all I had to say was "Draw left" in a rather animated voice and she did a strong bracing draw, knowing we had to stop the slide of the boat towards the outside of the curve and towards the huge rock which would have left our fiberglass boat in a thousand pieces, recalling Mackenzie's plight: "the wreck becoming flat on the water we all jumped out."33

Were such dramatic canoe strokes and situations encountered in nineteenth century canoeing? The painting below is by Frances Ann Hopkins, wife of a Hudson's Bay Company executive and known for her meticulous attention to authentic details. The immense "six fathom" (36-foot long) fur trade "canoe du ma"tre" is apparently filled with guests, not furs (note the ample freeboard), as it runs the Lachine Rapids and it is probably nearly identical to the canoe in which Mackenzie would have left Montreal in the 1780s. The dynamics of water and canoes and paddles have not changed, and there is no reason to think that Indian or voyageur canoeing was "primitive." The bowman's expert cross-draw (like Juliette's when her hands were frozen), here drawing right without wasting time by changing hands, is one of the more sophisticated canoe strokes, whether in 2005,34 or in 1863:

A variety of sophisticated strokes were apparently used by native canoeists well before 1800. I was surprised (perhaps Lewis was too) to find these comments by Mackenzie on Indian canoeing:

"We came to a weir, . . . where the natives landed us, and shot over it without taking a drop of water. They then received us on board again . . . . I had imagined that the Canadians who accompanied me were the most expert canoe-men in the world, but they are very inferior to these people, as they themselves acknowledged, in conducting those vessels."35

"Soon after we met the chief . . . seining between two canoes . . . . He took us on board with him, and proceeded upwards [upstream] with great expedition. These people are surprisingly skillful and active in setting [setting a pole] against a strong current."36

Clearly, canoeing techniques were various and sophisticated before 1800, among both Indians and voyageurs.

You'll forgive me if I say, categorically, that if Juliette could learn such paddling in three days, that the young, robust, experienced outdoorsmen hand-picked by Lewis and Clark for the expedition, in descending the Ohio and crossing the Mississsippi to St. Louis and ascending the Missouri over fifteen hundred miles to the Mandan Villages in North Dakota in their pirogues and barge, dealing with cross-currents and landings and eddies and wind and waves, were very experienced boatmen by the time they carved their canoes at Fort Mandan, and for sure were expert canoeists by the time they had paddled their new canoes for three days upstream. All they needed was a few men to teach them, and one man in each boat to read water.

We know, then, that the canoes of their day, white and Indian, were not necessarily rough or primitive, and that Clark and Lewis had seen a lot of them, and that the expedition included enough experienced canoeists to teach everyone how to paddle.

Strickland's extraordinarily fine Ontario dugout pictured previously (Fig. 26) is an ideal, not a standard. But did Lewis and Clark at the Mandan villages have the tools and ability to make such a craft? Probably not the wood, and neither the time nor the need for such extreme refinement, but the tools and ability, yes, as we shall see.

  • 1. Ambrose, 97.
  • 2. I imagine that an intelligent teenage boy watched and learned something about what to do and not to do in rapids, and which boats worked better.
  • 3. Landon Y. Jones, William Clark and the Shaping of the West(Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, 2009), 56.
  • 4. Jones, 61.
  • 5. Jones, 70.
  • 6. Jones, 89.
  • 7. Dickens, quoted in Jones, 99.
  • 8. Jones, 99–100.
  • 9. See on this site, Testing Dugout Canoes.
  • 10. Ambrose, 50.
  • 11. Letter from Danisi to Jenkinson, 19 January 2012.
  • 12. Lewis apparently read Captain Cook's journals, which contained vivid descriptions of native canoes, and as Lewis read Mackenzie in 1802, he had a detailed preview of what he might face on western rivers. There is every reason to assume that Lewis and Clark, and perhaps Jefferson, gave informed consideration to the hull designs of their canoes.
  • 13. Mackenzie, I:lvi.
  • 14. Mackenzie, I:lxxi.
  • 15. Mackenzie, I:lix.
  • 16. Mackenzie, I:ix.
  • 17. Mackenzie, I:cxxiii.
  • 18. Mackenzie, I:208.
  • 19. Mackenzie, I:211.
  • 20. Mackenzie, I:219.
  • 21. Mackenzie, I:270.
  • 22. Mackenzie, I:285.
  • 23. Mackenzie, I:287.
  • 24. Mackenzie, I:290.
  • 25. Mackenzie, I:290-1
  • 26. Mackenzie, II:45-80.
  • 27. Mackenzie, II:57.
  • 28. Mackenzie, II:84
  • 29. Mackenzie, II:93.
  • 30. Jackson, I:73.
  • 31. Jackson, I:38.
  • 32. Jackson, I:103-4.
  • 33. Mackenzie, II:114.
  • 34. See also on this site Liz Stevenson cross-drawing a replica dugout.
  • 35. Mackenzie, II:251.
  • 36. Mackenzie, II:295.