MHT Day 16: Great Falls and the Mountains

When I think a route is going to take four hours to ride, it’s likely to take six.  When I think I can go visit a museum in an hour, I usually spend two hours and should spend four.  Everything seems to take longer than planned or expected.

Lewis and Clark encountered the same problem, but on a much larger scale.  When they spoke with Mandan and Hidatsa at Fort Mandan during the winter of 1805-1805, they were told about a “great fall” on the Missouri River near the mountains.  The captains were looking forward to finding it, believing that it would require only a one-day portage around the falls and that they would be nearer to finding the source of the Missouri River, which had been one of their charges from Thomas Jefferson.

On June 11, 1805, as Clark and most of the party were depositing some of their goods in a cache at Decision Point, Lewis took four men and started walking up river, hoping to find the falls and scout the easiest portage for the boats that followed.  Two days later, he wrote, . . . my ears were saluted with the agreeable sound of a fall of water and advancing a little further I saw the spray arrise above the plain like a collumn of smoke which would frequently dispear again in an instant caused I presume by the wind which blew pretty hard from the S. W. I did not however loose my direction to this point which soon began to make a roaring too tremendious to be mistaken for any cause short of the great falls of the Missouri.

The next day, as he looked upriver for the best portage route, he came to another fall, and another, and another, and another.  Not one, but five falls blocked their route.  The hope of a quick, one-day portage disappeared in the mist of the great falls.


It would be nearly a month of the most arduous work on the entire voyage before the Expedition was once again on the water in search of the Missouri’s source and an easy passage over the snow-covered mountains, which at the Great Falls were clearly in sight. During that month most of the men hauled canoes and most of their remaining equipment and trade goods 18 miles over uneven, cactus-covered ground, up and down ravines, through oppressive heat and a ferocious hail storm that left them battered and bruised.  At the same time, others in the party prepared Lewis’s “Experiment,” the iron boat they had carried  since setting off from Pittsburg in August 1803.  Once the iron boat was assembled, wood slats made for the bottom, elk and buffalo hides attached and the seams caulked, it was launched.  And it sunk, as did Lewis’s spirits.  Additional delay was needed to make two more canoes to replace the now worthless iron boat.


The Giant Springs emerge from the ground yards away from the Missouri River, pouring 150 million gallons of pure spring water into the river each day.   Of the spring, Clark wrote on June 18, 1805, that it was the largest fountain or Spring I ever Saw, and doubt if it is not the largest in America Known, this water boils up from under th rocks near the edge of the river and falls imediately into the river 8 feet and keeps its Colour for ½ a mile 


One of the most impressive displays at the Interpretive Center shows men of the expedition hauling a canoe up a ravine slope.  I questioned a docent about the gradient and he admitted that there were none on the portage as steep as the one in the exhibit, but that there were several places where the men struggled mightily to get the one-ton canoes up a hill.  Note the wooden wheels made from cottonwood trees which the men called “trucks.”

The story of the Great Falls portage is the focus of one of the best interpretive centers on the Lewis and Clark Trail at Great Falls, operated by the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service.  Today I visited the Center for the third time and also saw the Giant Springs next door, found by the party as they explored the area near the portage. I spent an hour at Giant Springs State Park and Fish Hatchery, then spent four hours at the interpretive center, trying to learn as much as I could from the outstanding exhibits.


Jess the Intern is learning while helping others learn about the flora and fauna encountered by Lewis and Clark.

I was aided in my learning quest by two interns at the Center, Hanna from Montana, who filled in a couple of gaps for me on the boats used on the Expedition and Jess from Florida, who reminded me just how dangerous and prevalent grizzly bears were in 1805.  Scientists, she informed me, have determined there were once about 50,000 grizzlies in what would become the lower 48 states.  Today there are approximately 1,500 in the lower 48, and most of those are in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.  Jess also led a tour outside the building to look at some of the native plants the Corps of Discovery would have seen and used.

I had one more stop to make in Great Falls before heading for Helena for the night.  One of the great Western American artists, Charles M. Russell, lived and painted in a small studio next to his house in Great Falls.  Today, on the same property as the original house and studio, is a wonderful museum dedicated to the works of Russell and to other western artists.  Russell was himself a working cowboy before he took up painting full time, and his works are dominated by realistic scenes of cowboys busting broncs and roping cattle and of Native Americans whose cause he fought for most of his life.

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I toured both the studio, which is furnished today based on pictures of it taken while he was alive, and the house.  He built the studio, a log cabin, next to his house because his wife Nancy, who served as his business manager, insisted that he had to paint somewhere other than their living room.  He also wanted a place where Indian, cowboy and artist friends could gather and talk about the western life they loved but which they knew was disappearing.

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After I left Great Falls and headed to Helena, I realized, like Lewis and Clark, that my long days crossing the Great Plains were over.  The mountains truly are in sight, at least some of the smaller ones, and in a few days I’ll be headed through the most spectacular and difficult country they encountered.


I have reached the edge of the Rocky Mountains.


4 responses to “MHT Day 16: Great Falls and the Mountains”

  1. nuke53 says :

    I had not realized how many falls were on the river by Great Falls. Enjoy the mountains! Ride safe.

  2. johnwest2343 says :

    I would have spent a day in the Russell museum.

  3. Dan B says :

    Dennis! Love the ongoing pics and running commentary! Beginning to feel like I’m riding with you!

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