Sidebar – Building a Dugout Canoe with Lewis and Clark

October 21, 2014

In October of 1805 Captain William Clark and an advanced group of the Corps of Discovery stopped at this spot on the south bank of the Clearwater River just west of the confluence of the North Fork of the Clearwater and built 5 dugout canoes that they used to float all of the way to the Pacific. I have always marveled at the work it must have been to build those canoes, but I never really knew the facts.

They built 5 canoes out of Ponderosa Pines. Four of those canoes were 50’ to 55’ long and between 2½’ to 3’ feet in diameter. The fifth canoes was about 35’ long and 2’ to 2½’ feet in diameter. They had to haul a crew of 34 and each canoe carried a minimum of 7 men and 800 to 1,000 pounds of equipment each.

A display of a dugout canoe at the actual spot where Lewis and Clark built their 5 dugout canoes for their trip to the Pacific.

A display of a dugout canoe at the actual spot where Lewis and Clark built their 5 dugout canoes for their trip to the Pacific.

Consider how much time it would take to chop down a tree of that size and then hollow it out with hand tools. The Indians taught them how to use small fires and/or hot coals to help make the wood brittle and easier to chip out. After making their way over Lolo Pass and the continental divide they nearly starved to death and were then rescued by the Nez Perce Indians.

Today, a road follows the Clearwater from Orofino to Lewiston, where we often shop for groceries. They started down the river in October when the river runs pretty low and the Corps of Discovery ended up pulling and pushing their canoes in ice cold water for much of the first 30 miles. This real life adventure kind of kills my desire to have been a pioneer!

A actual canoe built by the Nez Perce Indians about a hundred years old.

A actual canoe built by the Nez Perce Indians about a hundred years old.

Cliff

Sidebar – more about Lewis and Clark

I continue to read about the journey of Lewis and Clark as it is a great way to find out about the area where we are working and since we are actually on their trail we get to visit many of the areas mentioned in their journals.

After crossing over the high passes in the Bitterroot Mountains, located on the border of Idaho and Montana, L&C descended the North Fork of the Clearwater River (this is a correction of an earlier blog). This is the river that is backed up by the Dworshak Dam.  Because they got to this area in late fall, the water in the river was very low and could not be navigated by canoe. Once they got to the confluence of the rivers, near our town of Orofino, they stopped and built 5 dugout canoes. Still, they ended up having to drag the canoes over several low area in the river. Once they reached the Snake River, near present day Lewiston, the river was deep enough that they were able to canoe almost 30 miles a day.

Looking west over the town of Orofino, ID at the Clearwater River.  This is where Lewis and Clark built their 5 dugout canoes.

Looking west over the town of Orofino, ID at the Clearwater River. This is where Lewis and Clark built their 5 dugout canoes.

This is also the lands of the Nez Perce Indians, whom they met as they were coming down the west side of the Bitterroots. Last Friday, I drove through two of their villages (Perce and Weippie) to get to one of our campgrounds. The Nez Perce fed them and taught them how to build dugout canoes, plus escorted them down river to the great falls of the Columbia. The Nez Perce tribes raised horses and used them to cross over the Bitterroots to go hunting for buffalo in the spring of each year. On L&C’s return trip they were able to buy enough horses from them to get back over the Bitterroot Mountains and they were able to follow them as they rode to hunt buffalo in Montana.

Cliff