Portaging Dugout Canoes

'Saleing on Dry land'

Canoe on Wheels, with sail

Model by Richard C. Boss for Fort Clatsop National Memorial; now on loan to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, Great Falls, Montana.
Jim Wylder photo.

On June 16, 1805, at the lower portage camp (near today's Belt Creek) below the Great Falls of the Missouri Meriwether the captains received "a very unfavourable report" concerning the prospect of portaging around the five falls. "As the distance was too great to think of transporting the canoes and baggage on the men's shoulders, we scelected six men, and ordered them to look out [for] some timber this evening, and early in the morning to set about making a parsel of truck wheels in order to convey our canoes and baggage over the portage."

One windy day during the portage, Clark wrote:

it maybe here worthy of remark that the Sales were hois[t]ed in the Canoes as the men were drawing them and the wind was great relief to them being Sufficently Strong to move the Canoes on the Trucks, this is Saleing on Dry land in every Sence of the word.

It is likely that all the canoes were fitted with masts of some sort. Back on the river a month later, suspecting that Indians were secretively watching them, Lewis remarked, "I ordered the canoes to hoist their small flags." Those could either have been the "stars and stripes," or else naval pennants such as Clark drew in his working sketch of the barge (see "The Expedition's Flags," fig. 8).

Circumstances favor the latter conclusion. The expedition was, after all, principally a waterborne journey, and was frequently—about 200 times, in fact—referred to in the journals as a voyage. On 7 April 1805. upon setting out again up the Missouri from Fort Mandan (7 April 1805), Captain Lewis compared it somewhat whimsically with the voyages of two famous oceangoing explorers.

Our vessels consisted of six small canoes, and two large perogues. This little fleet altho' not quite so rispectable as those of Columbus or Capt. Cook were still viewed by us with as much pleasure as those deservedly famed adventurers ever beheld theirs; and I dare say with quite as much anxiety for their safety and preservation.…we were now about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width, on which the foot of civilized man had never trodden; the good or evil it had in store for us was for experiment yet to determine, and these little vessells contained every article by which we were to expect to subsist or defend ourselves.