By fall 1805, the Corps of Discovery was following Lolo Pass through the snow-covered Bitterroot Mountains. The men were near starvation when Sergeant John Ordway recorded in his journal: “We followed down the main creek about 4 miles had nothing to eat but Some portable Soup we being hungry for meat as the Soup did not Satisfy we killed a fat colt which eat verry well at this time …” — September 14, 1805
Off the Grid
The men of the expedition were suffering through early winter-like conditions and negotiating steep mountain terrain. They were in serious trouble when they made camp near present-day Powell Ranger Station and slaughtered the colt. Jeff Arpin and I are also feeling famished when we pull off U.S. 12 at the station entrance. Our nostrils sting from a nearby forest fire’s acrid smoke; a restaurant waiter says the uncontrolled fire is only a few miles away. After a hasty lunch, we remount the Can-Ams and push on, hoping the fire doesn’t block our path.
Motorcycles & Gear
Two 2012 Can-Am Spyder RT Limiteds
Clinging to the serpentine course of the Lochsa River, U.S. 12 writhes through steep canyon walls, topped off by the pine-blanketed Bitterroot Mountains. A prominent yellow sign warns “Winding Road Next 99 Miles.” Swaying through seemingly endless curves with unobstructed river views and dramatic vistas makes for an intoxicating brew, and we’re drinking it all in. The contrast, though, between our navigation of the Bitterroots and that of the Corps of Discovery couldn’t be more different: They were struggling to survive, and we’re zipping along in a rider’s Seventh Heaven.
With no scent of smoke, our day’s journey ends at a log cabin perched on the banks of the Clearwater River in a beautiful, rustic landscape. With day turning to evening in the narrow gorge, sounds of laughter echo from a couple rafting down the river. They wave, and I wave back.
Columbia River Bound
“Set out this morning a little after sun rise and continued our rout about the same course of yesterday or S. 20 W. for 6 miles when the ridge terminated and we to our inexpressable joy discovered a large tract of Prairie country lying to the S. W. and widening as it appeared to extend to the W. through that plain the Indian informed us that the Columbia river, in which we were in surch run.”
— Meriwether Lewis, September 18, 1805
While the Corps of Discovery was only too glad to finally sight level ground, we’re hoping that U.S. 12’s twisty path through the scenic grandeur of the Bitterroots will never end. I read somewhere that if you could flatten out all the mountains in Idaho, the state would be the size of Texas! I’m sure Lewis and Clark would have believed that, but then again there wasn’t a Texas back then for comparison.
There are fewer pine trees in the increasingly tawny, arid landscape. This flatter section of Idaho is known as the Camas Prairie, a portion of the ancestral homeland of the nomadic Nez Perce tribe. In late September 1805, the Nez Perce befriended the Corps of Discovery and provided them sustenance and lodging. Since the remainder of the expedition’s journey west would be by canoe, their horses were left with the Nez Perce until the return trip in 1806.
After awakening to a cool, crisp, pine-scented morning, we’re riding under an unrelenting afternoon sun—temperatures have climbed into the 90-plus range. Like Lewis and Clark in October 1805, we follow the Clearwater River to its confluence with the Snake River in the present day twin cities of Lewiston, ID, and Clarkston, WA. (One doesn’t have to wonder very long about the inspiration for those two names.) We find our own sustenance and renewal in the eclectic, air-conditioned ambience of Hazel’s Good Eats in Clarkston.
From Lewiston to the mouth of the Columbia, the Snake and Columbia rivers are essentially lakes impounded by dams. Locks allow the passage of huge shipping barges. The Port of Lewiston has the distinction of being the most inland port on the West Coast.
Motoring deeper into southeast Washington, we depart U.S. 12 and head north on State Route 261. A surreal landscape of treeless, rolling hills surrounds us in all directions. On all but the steepest gradients the land is carpeted with wheat. There are no valleys or ridges inherent in this otherworldly but beautiful landscape. The undulating landforms closely resemble the haphazard topography of sand dunes made of silt, or loess, blown in from other locations. The play of light, shadow, and color is captivating to the eye. The Palouse area ranks as one of the most productive wheat-growing regions in the world.
At Lyons Ferry, WA, we ride skyward on the cantilevered Snake River Bridge. To the left, a freight train stretches the 3,920-foot expanse of the Joso Bridge, a dizzying 194 feet above the river, while shipping traffic on the Snake is visible far below.
Out of the Palouse and into flatter terrain, we finally reach the mighty Columbia River in the tri-cities of Kennewick, Pasco, and Richland, WA. Strolling on a dock adjoining our hotel, I watch a magnificent sunset paint the river and sky in brilliant reds.