A desk jockey relives explorers' soggy experience
Monday, May 05, 2003
Seattle Times staff artist
I had worked so hard waterproofing my elk-hide moccasins, rubbing bear's fat into the thick leather, sewing the seams tightly with deer sinew. But now I had a creek to cross, an icy-looking rush that my imagination told me had been snow just that morning. The water was nearly knee high, and my feet and legs would be wet for the rest of the day. Yet there was nothing for it: I had to take that first step.
After all, I had volunteered for this just as had the men who joined up with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark nearly 200 years ago. Hoping to get a feel for their historic journey, I dressed as authentically as possible, all the way down to my linen shirt, deerskin leggings ... and, yes, my wool loincloth.
Let me say from the beginning that I love my Polarfleece. Soft, light, warm. Wonderful stuff.
But some time ago, while camped one drizzly evening, snug in a high-tech poly-something-fill sleeping bag, listening to the squeaky rustle of my nylon tent, I had read a passage from the journals of Lewis and Clark.
"It rained hard the greater part of last night, which made it very disagreeable to us all. The greater part of our Men had nothing to shelter them from the rain, & were obliged to lay down in it, & their Cloathes were wet through. This morning continued wet & rainey.... "
Safe and warm in my high-tech cocoon, I still shivered. The party suffered these conditions during a monthlong winter storm while camped along our own Pacific Coast. How did they manage to survive?
I could not help but reflect that my wonderful modern gear, designed to take me into the wilderness, essentially protects me from that which I seek: a wilderness experience; a wild experience. Most of us can't imagine leaving home without cellphones, global positioning devices, perhaps even some flares. We rely if only mentally on that rescue helicopter that could whisk us out if need be.
The members of the Lewis and Clark expedition had no rescue, nor even, it seems, shelter from the rain.
What could that have been like?
Lewis had outfitted the group thoroughly before his Corps of Discovery started out from St. Louis in May 1804 exactly 199 years ago this month. His inventory included wool trousers, blankets and even waterproofed coats. But a journey such as theirs takes its toll, and things began to wear out quickly. Clothing, particularly footwear, became a frequent subject of the journals. As Corps member John Ordway griped back in July 1805, "one pair of good mockins will not last more than about 2 days. will ware holes in them for the first day and patch them for the next."
By the time the Corps reached the Columbia River, they had nearly worn out all their original clothing. From then on it became an obsession to make their own. Patrick Gass lamented:
"The rest of our people were employed ... in dressing elk skins for mokasins, which is a laborious business, but we have no alternative in this part of the country."
Gathering my own clothing for my trek, I had a wool flannel shirt, one thin, sorry-looking old linen shirt, and over this, a sort of jacket made of deerskin, called a hunting frock. The leggings are deerskin tubes reaching from my ankles to my upper thighs. The loincloth, or breechcloth, is a plain strip of wool about 12 inches by 50 inches long. It passes between my legs and over my belt before and behind me.
(This loincloth was standard frontier wear. It requires no sewing, and one size fits all. It is airy and comfortable well, sometimes too airy in winter, as the space between breechcloth and leggings leaves certain regions underprotected from cold winds and damp sitting places.)
Except for the one "luxury" of wool socks, I believe my clothing closely represented what the men of the Corps might have had during their time along the Pacific coast.
The rainy weather the day I arrive at the campsite offers the opportunity to find out just how well bear's fat works as a waterproofing; up to now I've held some pretty strong feelings about dry feet. Stepping out of the car and back into the 19th century provides the answer in a minute or two. My socks and feet are wet through.
Brrrrr. I'm feeling historic already.
In the morning I will meet up with a small band of other re-enactors for a day hike. For the present, I set to work in the rain to assure myself of a good night's sleep.
Or a least a better one than Clark described that dreary November of 1805:
"... It would be distressing to a feeling person to see our situation at this time all wet and cold with our bedding &c. also wet, ... our party has been wet for 8 days and is truly disagreeable, their robes & leather clothes are rotten from being continually wet, and they are not in a situation to get others, and we are not in a situation to restore them ... our Situation is dangerous."
The wet and rotting robes Clark had mentioned were buffalo hides with the wool left on, used for bedding. Years ago I slept under a buffalo robe and remember it as supremely cozy. But that was a dry buffalo robe.
Tonight I opt for a bed of wool blankets, and, unable to let go of the idea of shelter, an oiled canvas tarp 4 feet by 7 feet, just enough to provide minimal protection from rain.
Staking up the tarp is providing my first challenge. The ground is so saturated with rain, it's like driving a stake into a bowl of oatmeal.
After an hour's work, I manage to lash together a frame and tie the tarp onto two tripods I've also lashed together. Stepping back squishily in my moccasins, I study my small, rather motley-looking lean-to.
Maybe this is why they didn't bother with tents.
So, on to the next thing. Fire.
There is plenty of dead wood lying about, yet everything I snap in two is wet to the core. A habit of mine is to carry some dry pieces of wood in my pouch for kindling; I will really need it this time.
I start my fire using the same technology they used, flint and steel. It's usually surprisingly easy. My kit rests in a flat tin box and contains a C-shaped piece of steel called a striker, and a bit of hard flint stone. With these I also carry a greased leather bag of tinder; dry, very finely shaved wood I've formed into a nest shape.
Of equal importance are pieces of charred linen. It is this pre-burned cloth that will grab the spark when I quickly rasp the steel against the flint. The glowing spark is caught in the charred cloth and, when I blow steadily on it, grows and spreads and heats up until (I hope) it lights my nest of tinder.
I get it started easily enough, but the wood is too wet and won't stay lit. After several attempts I finally manage to produce enough heat for the fire to dry itself out while it is burning. Another hour's work.
I stand up, watch my tiny fire sizzling and spluttering weakly, and reward myself with a restorative dose of Kentucky whiskey. Just to ward off the chill, of course.
(Lewis and Clark's poor crew had enjoyed the last of their "ardent Spirits" while not halfway through their journey. Lewis had stocked up with a whopping 120 gallons of whiskey as well as an unknown quantity of rum and another 30 gallons of brandy, but they used up the final drops in celebrating the Fourth of July, 1805.)
Come morning, I forgo the struggle of starting another fire in the still wet and dripping forest and instead breakfast on cold jerky and a handful of dried berries.
Food became a critical issue for the Corps as they approached the Pacific. There were plenty of elk, but the men complained much of a lack of fat, considering elk too lean to sustain or satisfy. Lewis stated simply: "on this food I do not feel strong."
They adored fat. They talked of it constantly. They needed it to give them the energy to get through their long hours of exertion and toil.
Lewis had rejoiced after one particularly busy day on the plains:
"My fare is really sumptuous this evening; buffaloe's humps, tongues and marrowbones, fine trout parched meal pepper and salt, and a good appetite; the last is not considered the least of the luxuries."
He had reason to exult: Unless fresh meat was available, on every third day the men were issued lard mixed with cornmeal, which was then rolled into a ball and fried. Yummm.
My own low-fat breakfast is beginning to seem pretty lame.
Still gnawing on jerky, I gather with the rest of the party at the trailhead and assess my minimal belongings: small items such as a sewing and repair kit, extra socks and moccasins I've placed in a wool blanket and rolled up in my oilskin tarp, now carried slung over one shoulder on a thick leather tumpline.
Other items carried over one shoulder or the other are a haversack filled with food, and a thick-walled, heavy copper kettle, my tin canteen, powderhorn and a leather pouch filled with lead musket balls.
Tucked into my belt are my fire-starting kit, skinning knife, and a tomahawk. Carried in hand, and feeling rather heavy, is my musket. All in all, I'm toting about 32 pounds of sundry goods.
As we start down the trail, the morning's mist has settled low on the forest floor. Shafts of sunlight dodge around giant old-growth firs. Ahead, I see our troop of men marching in their frontier clothes, and for a moment it seems too easy to believe I am traveling with a party of ghosts.
My feet are wet again, but as long as I'm walking they're staying warm. The trail is soft, and I'm enjoying the sensations I get by not having an inch of lug sole between me and the ground.
Rum and target practice
Before they embarked, Lewis and Clark had chosen their men with care, seeking "robust young backwoodsmen of character helthy hardy young men, recomended." They rejected wealthy adventure seekers, "as they are not accustomed to labour." It was clear they knew what was needed for what became a long and arduous journey.
At midday we stop for lunch, more jerky and dried berries. Someone has brought along corncakes and parched crickets. There is the expected joke, "they taste like chicken," and then we're on to a little exploring, bushwhacking our way through a beaver swamp, ankle deep in muck. We come across an old elk carcass, its wet, yellow bones glistening against the brown forest floor.
A tankard of rum is passed around as a few of us gather around a small fire and the rest move down a ways for some target practice with muzzleloaders.
It's a diverse bunch I'm with. Some call what we're doing today experiential anthropology, some use the less ambitious term historical trekking. There are hardcore outdoorsmen and hunters among those present, while some are obviously desk jockeys like myself. What we have in common is the drive to study our forebears. The talk displays a deep respect, almost reverence, for our country's history.
They seek to understand America's beginnings not just through literary research, but also by doing by taking history out of the past and into the senses. The smell of black powder, the weight of a bedroll.
I know I will never read history the same way again, whether it be about George Washington's ragtag troops at Valley Forge, or Lewis and Clark's more than two-year adventure. History is about people, after all, real people doing real things sometimes exceptionally, sometimes badly. It has been enlightening for me to personalize it, even in this tiny way.
Back at home, I find myself drawn again into the journals, searching for more clues. This time a passage stands out, William Clark describing his feelings upon beholding the Rocky Mountains for the first time:
"Whilst I viewed those mountains, I felt a secret pleasure in finding myself so near the head of the heretofore conceived boundless Missouri. But when I reflected on the difficulties which this snowy barrier would most probably throw in my way to the Pacific Ocean, and the sufferings and hardships of myself and party in them, it in some measure counterbalanced the joy I had felt in the first moments in which I gazed on them. But, as I have always held it little short of criminality to anticipate evils, I will allow it to be a good, comfortable road until I am compelled to believe otherwise."
Perhaps an experience is more in the attitude you carry than the gear.
Paul Schmid: 206-464-2169 or email@example.com
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