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The Two Rivers of Lewis & Clark
Entries For June 15:
Captain Lewis (current)
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This morning at sunrise I dispatched Joseph Fields with a letter to Captain Clark, and ordered him to keep sufficiently near the river to observe its situation in order that he might be enabled to give Captain Clark an idea of the point at which it would be best to halt to make our portage. I set one man preparing a scaffold and collecting wood to dry the meat. Sent the others to bring in the balance of the buffalo meat; or at least the part which the wolves had left us, for those fellows are ever at hand, and ready to partake with us the moment we kill a buffalo. And there is no means of putting the meat out of their reach in those plains. The two men, shortly after, returned with the meat and informed me that the wolves had devoured the greater part of the meat.
About ten o'clock this morning, while the men were engaged with the meat, I took my gun and espontoon and thought I would walk a few miles and see where the rapids terminated above, and return to dinner. Accordingly, I set out and proceeded up the river about S.W. After passing one continued rapid and three small cascades of about four or five feet each at the distance of about five miles, I arrived at a fall of about 19 feet. The river is here about 400 yards wide. This pitch, which I called the Crooked Falls, occupies about three-fourths of the width of the river, commencing on the south side, extends obliquely upward about 150 yards, then, forming an acute angle, extends downward nearly to the commencement of four small islands lying near the N. shore. Among these islands and between them and the lower extremity of the perpendicular pitch, being a distance of 100 yards or upwards, the water glides down the side of a sloping rock with a velocity almost equal to that of its perpendicular descent. Just above this rapid the river makes a sudden bend to the right, or northwardly. I should have returned from hence; but, hearing a tremendous roaring above me, I continued my route across the point of a hill a few hundred yards further, and was again presented by one of the most beautiful objects in nature, a cascade of about fifty feet perpendicular stretching at right angles across the river from side to side to the distance of at least a quarter of a mile. Here the river pitches over a shelving rock, with an edge as regular and as straight as if formed by art, without a niche or break in it. The water descends in one even and uninterrupted sheet to the bottom, where, dashing against the rocky bottom, it rises into foaming billows of great height and rapidly glides away, hissing, flashing, and sparkling as it departs. The spray rises, from one extremity to the other, to 50 feet. I now thought that if a skillful painter had been asked to make a beautiful cascade, he would most probably have presented the precise image of this one. Nor could I for some time determine on which of those two great cataracts to bestow the palm on this, or that which I had discovered yesterday. At length I determined between these two great rivals for glory, that this was pleasingly beautiful, while the other was sublimely grand.
I had scarcely unfixed my eyes from this pleasing object before I discovered another fall above at the distance of half a mile. Thus invited, I did not once think of returning, but hurried thither to amuse myself with this newly discovered object. I found this to be a cascade of about 14 feet, possessing a perpendicular pitch of about 6 feet. This was tolerably regular, stretching across the river, from bank to bank, where it was about a quarter of a mile wide. In any other neighborhood but this, such a cascade would probably be extolled for its beauty and magnificence, but here I passed it by with but little attention, determining, as I had proceeded so far, to continue my route to the head of the rapids if it should even detain me all night. At every rapid, cataract and cascade I discovered that the bluffs grew lower, or that the bed of the river rose nearer to a level with the plains.
Still pursuing the river, with its course about S.W., passing a continuous scene of rapids and small cascades, at the distance of 2 1/2 miles I arrived at another cataract of 26 feet. This is not immediately perpendicular. A rock about 1/3 of its descent seems to protrude to a small distance and receives the water in its passage downward and gives a curve to the water, though it falls mostly with a regular and smooth sheet.
The river is near six hundred yards wide at this place: a beautiful level plain on the S. side only a few feet above the level of the pitch; on the N. side, where I am, the country is more broken, and immediately behind me, near the river, a high hill. Below this fall, at a little distance, a beautiful little island, well timbered, is situated about the middle of the river. In this island, on a cottonwood tree, an eagle has placed her nest. A more inaccessible spot I believe she could not have found, for neither man nor beast dare pass those gulfs which separate her little domain from the shores. The water is also broken in such manner as it descends over this pitch that the mist or spray rises to a considerable height. This fall is certainly much the greatest I ever beheld except those two which I have mentioned. It is incomparably a greater cataract and a more noble, interesting object than the celebrated falls of Potomac or Schuylkill, &c.
Just above this is another cascade of about 5 feet, above which the water, as far as I could see, began to abate of its velocity, and I therefore determined to ascend the hill behind me, which promised a fine prospect of the adjacent country; nor was I disappointed at my arrival at its summit. From hence, I overlooked a most beautiful and extensive plain reaching from the river to the base of the snow-clad mountains to the S. and S.West. I also observed the Missouri, stretching its meandering course to the south through this plain to a great distance, filled to its even and grassy brim. Another large river flowed in on its western side, about four miles above me, and extended itself through a level and fertile valley of three miles in width, a great distance to the N.W., rendered more conspicuous by the timber which garnished its borders. In these plains, and more particularly in the valley just below me, immense herds of buffalo are feeding. The Missouri, just above this hill, makes a bend to the south, where it lies a smooth, even, and unruffled sheet of water, nearly a mile in width, bearing on its watery bosom vast flocks of geese which feed at pleasure in the delightful pasture on either border. The young geese are now completely feathered except the wings which, both in the young and old, are yet deficient.
After feasting my eyes on this ravishing prospect and resting myself a few minutes, I determined to proceed as far as the river which I saw discharge itself on the west side of the Missouri, convinced that it was the river which the Indians call Medicine River, and which they informed us fell into the Missouri just above the falls. I descended the hill and directed my course to the bend of the Missouri, near which there was a herd of at least a thousand buffalo. Here I thought it would be well to kill a buffalo and leave him until my return from the river, and if I then found that I had not time to get back to camp this evening, to remain all night here, there being a few sticks of driftwood lying along the shore which would answer for my fire, and a few scattering cottonwood trees a few hundred yards below, which would afford me at least the semblance of a shelter. Under this impression, I selected a fat buffalo and shot him very well, through the lungs.
While I was gazing attentively on the poor animal discharging blood in streams from his mouth and nostrils, expecting him to fall every instant, and having entirely forgotten to reload my rifle, a large white, or rather, brown, bear had perceived and crept on me within twenty steps before I discovered him. In the first moment, I drew up my gun to shoot but at the same instant recollected that she was not loaded, and that he was too near for me to hope to perform this operation before he reached me, as he was then briskly advancing on me. It was an open level plain, not a bush within miles nor a tree within less than three hundred yards of me. The river bank was sloping and not more than three feet above the level of the water. In short, there was no place by means of which I could conceal myself from this monster until I could charge my rifle.
In this situation, I thought of retreating in a brisk walk as fast as he was advancing until I could reach a tree about 300 yards below me, but I had no sooner turned myself about but he pitched at me, open-mouthed and full speed. I ran about 80 yards, and found he gained on me fast. I then ran into the water. The idea struck me to get into the water to such depth that I could stand and he would be obliged to swim, and that I could, in that situation, defend myself with my espontoon. Accordingly, I ran hastily into the water about waist deep and faced about and presented the point of my espontoon.
At this instant, he arrived at the edge of the water within about twenty feet of me. The moment I put myself in this attitude of defense, he suddenly wheeled about as if frightened, declined the combat on such unequal grounds, and retreated with quite as great precipitation as he had just before pursued me. As soon as I saw him run off in that manner, I returned to the shore and charged my gun, which I had still retained in my hand throughout this curious adventure. I saw him run through the level open plain about three miles, till he disappeared in the woods on Medicine River. During the whole of this distance he ran at full speed, sometimes appearing to look behind him as if he expected pursuit.
I now began to reflect on this novel occurrence and endeavored to account for this sudden retreat of the bear. I at first thought that perhaps he had not smelled me before he arrived at the water's edge so near me, but I then reflected that he had pursued me for about 80 or 90 yards before I took to the water, and on examination saw the ground torn with his talons immediately on the impression of my steps; and the cause of his alarm still remains with me mysterious and unaccountable. So it was, and I felt myself not a little gratified that he had declined the combat. My gun reloaded, I felt confidence once more in my strength, and determined not to be thwarted in my design of visiting Medicine River, but determined never again to suffer my piece to be longer empty than the time she necessarily required to charge her.
I passed through the plain nearly in the direction which the bear had run to Medicine River. Found it a handsome stream, about 200 yards wide, with a gentle current, apparently deep. Its waters clear, and banks, which were formed principally of dark brown and blue clay, were about the height of those of the Missouri, or from 3 to 5 feet. Yet they had not the appearance of ever being overflowed, a circumstance which I did not expect so immediately in the neighborhood of the mountains, from whence I should have supposed that sudden and immense torrents would issue at certain seasons of the year. But the reverse is absolutely the case. I am therefore compelled to believe that the snowy mountains yield their waters slowly, being partially affected every day by the influence of the sun only, and never suddenly melted down by hasty showers of rain.
Having examined Medicine River, I now determined to return, having by my estimate about 12 miles to walk. I looked at my watch and found it was half after six P.M. In returning through the level bottom of Medicine River, and about 200 yards distant from the Missouri, my direction led me directly to an animal that I at first supposed was a wolf. But on nearer approach, or about sixty paces distant, I discovered that it was not. Its color was a brownish yellow. It was standing near its burrow, and when I approached it thus nearly, it crouched itself down like a cat, looking immediately at me as if it designed to spring on me. I took aim at it and fired. It instantly disappeared in its burrow. I loaded my gun, and examined the place, which was dusty, and saw the track, from which I am still further convinced that it was of the tiger kind. Whether I struck it or not, I could not determine, but I am almost confident that I did. My gun is true, and I had a steady rest by means of my espontoon, which I have found very serviceable to me in this way, in the open plains.
It now seemed to me that all the beasts of the neighborhood had made a league to destroy me, or that some fortune was disposed to amuse herself at my expense, for I had not proceeded more than 300 yards from the burrow of this tiger cat, before three bull buffalo, which were feeding with a large herd about half a mile from me on my left, separated from the herd and ran full speed toward me. I thought at least to give them some amusement, and altered my direction to meet them. When they arrived within a hundred yards they made a halt, took a good view of me, and retreated with precipitation. I then continued my route homeward, passed the buffalo which I had killed, but did not think it prudent to remain all night at this place, which really, from the succession of curious adventures, wore the impression on my mind of enchantment. At some times, for a moment, I thought it might be a dream, but the prickly pears which pierced my feet very severely once in a while, particularly after it grew dark, convinced me that I was really awake, and that it was necessary to make the best of my way to camp.
It was some time after dark before I returned to the party. I found them extremely uneasy for my safety. They had formed a thousand conjectures, all of which equally forboding my death, which they had so far settled among them that they had already agreed on the route which each should take in the morning to search for me. I felt myself much fatigued, but ate a hearty supper and took a good night's rest. The weather being warm, I had left my leather overshirt and had worn only a yellow flannel one.
This morning the men again were sent to bring in some more meat which Drouilliard had killed yesterday and continued the operation of drying it. I amused myself in fishing and sleeping away the fatigues of yesterday. I caught a number of very fine trout, which I made Goodrich dry. Goodrich also caught about two dozen and several small cat of a yellow color, which would weigh about 4 pounds. The tail was separated with a deep angular notch like that of the white cat of the Missouri, from which indeed they differed only in color.
When I awoke from my sleep today, I found a large rattlesnake coiled on the leaning trunk of a tree under the shade of which I had been lying at the distance of about ten feet from him. I killed the snake and found that he had 176 scuta on the abdomen and 17 half -formed scuta on the tail. It was of the same kind which I had frequently seen before. They do not differ in their colors from the rattlesnake common to the Middle Atlantic States, but considerably in the form and figures of those colors.
This evening after dark Joseph Fields returned and informed me that Captain Clark had arrived with the party at the foot of a rapid about 5 miles below which he did not think proper to ascend, and would wait my arrival there. I had discovered from my journey yesterday that a portage on this side of the river will be attended by much difficulty in consequence of several deep ravines which intersect the plains nearly at right angles with the river to a considerable distance, while the south side appears to be a delightful smooth, unbroken plain. The bearings of the river also make it probable that the portage will be shorter on that side than on this. I directed Fields to return early in the morning to Captain Clark and request him to send up a party of men for the dried meat which we had made. I find a very heavy dew on the grass about my camp every morning, which no doubt proceeds from the mist of the falls, as it takes place nowhere in the plains nor on the river, except here.
Reprinted by permission of the American Studies Programs at the University of Virginia.
The complete text can also be downloaded for printing from their website.