Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Trout Trek Part I - The Corps of Rediscovery

Lewis and Clark lead the Corps of Discovery up the Missouri River in 1804.  In June, they found their way to The Great Falls of the Missouri, located in present day Montana, where they were forced into one of the most challenging tasks of their entire voyage: portaging (modern translation: DRAGGING) their equipment and supplies on an 18 mile land-trek around the various falls and rapids in this stretch of the River1.  Their efforts and success are well documented, though modern historians are still debating their exact methods of bypassing Holter Dam, further up river.  Clark's maps and Lewis' journals are remarkably short of details on that particular obstacle.

Today, nearly anyone can find their way to Great Falls, Montana, thanks almost entirely to the maps left behind by these hearty pioneers.  We can easily chart a course via land or river to arrive at this small city in northern Montana.  However, the feat appears to still be somewhat elusive for technology-dependent airlines.

The original marker left by Clark in 1804.
The Corps was also relieved to discover
the nearby state-maintained outhouses.2
In January of 2016, the Corps of Rediscovery was commissioned by executive order of Mrs. Fading Angler.  She has explored remote and primitive parts of the Bob Marshal Wilderness with local guides on elk hunts in years past. She successfully negotiated a treaty for safe passage and provisions in April from one of the guides.  The local guide could be found near a Montana encampment called "Craig," located upriver from Great Falls.  Again, the original Corps archives are sketchy on the details of how this place was given its name.  But at least one source claims that it was named after a bearded dude wearing a bandana and Maui Jim sunglasses, who sold Clark some trico and hopper patterns that were "guaranteed to slay, with a sweet drift on a 4 weight."2

I was given full control of the membership of the Corps of Rediscovery, and therefore recruited the Mrs.  We then began arranging the logistics of our journey.  To keep things authentic, we used the traditional 19th century approaches: web sites, airlines, rental cars, and digital cameras.  Rather than embarking from some forsaken place in Missouri and paddling upriver for several months, we decided to bypass the boring bits and fly from Minneapolis/St. Paul to The Great Falls of the Missouri River in Montana, then make our way upriver to Craig.  Our journey nearly ended before it began when we learned that there was no direct flight available that would fit our timetable.  Yet again, we swallowed hard, embraced the pioneer spirit, and accepted a grueling two-hour layover in Salt Lake City.  In coach.  Sergeant Ordway himself would have been proud, I think.

Lest I go too far with my tale, I'll invoke the wisdom of another great visionary leader: Prince Humperdink, ruler of the Kingdom of Florrin (any fans of The Princess Bride out there?) who said:

"Skip to the end...!"
The journey from Minnesota to our own "Traveler's Rest" (Concourse E at the SLC airport) on April 15, 2016 was smooth and uneventful.  Before embarking upon the second leg of our journey, the town crier announced news received via telegraph from settlers at the Great Falls outpost: a snowstorm was keeping visibility very low.  We boarded the 50-seat micro-jet and took off on this ill-fated flight anyway.

The original Corp of Discovery recorded their difficulties and trials using maps as well as words.  I am honor-bound to do no less.  Behold, the plan:

Borrowed from Google Maps with no permission whatsoever, then embellished

As we approached Great Falls, the captain of our tiny flying canoe spoke to us in a grave tone, explaining that the outpost was now engulfed in a winter storm and visibility had dropped below the minimum safety levels mandated by the FAA for landing.  I had to wonder how Clark and Lewis handled these FAA setbacks along their journey...

We circled the outpost waiting to be given clearance to land.  I carefully charted our progress with my pocket sextant, as well as what happened the rest of the day:

Also borrowed from Google maps.  I have submitted the name correction for "Billings"

Much time passed as we circled, trying to find the Great Falls.  It must have been weeks, because the captain of the craft informed us that we had run low on supplies and were diverting to another remote Montana outpost calling Billings.  I, being the Captain of the Corps of Rediscovery, invoked my powers and strenuously objected.  Why not a settlement nearer to the Great Falls?  The territorial capital, Helena, was much closer.  The wisdom of the reformed Corps was considered and quickly disregarded.  It became apparent that I would not be meeting with the frontier outfitters at Headhunters Fly Shop on Friday to test-cast some Sage fly rods.  There was much grief in the Corps.  Well, half of the Corps.

We spent many hours waiting at the Billings Territorial International Airport.  The telegraph was very active, providing more comedy than hope.  The sequence went something like this, with updates every 20 or 30 minutes:
  1. Visibility was increasing in Great Falls
  2. Visibility had increased enough to make a legal landing, but unfortunately a snow plow had hit something and knocked out all of the runway lights.  Therefore our required minimum visibility ceiling had increased, and the visibility was still below this new threshold. 
  3. Visibility had once again increased to an acceptable level, but this time the navigation beacon for the Great Falls airport had failed.  So had the backup beacon.
  4. The captain tried to obtain permission to attempt a GPS approach, but the airline and FAA refused for some reason having to do with aborting the approach. 
  5. I offered the use of my compass and flashlight.  Sadly, it appears that such reliable technology is no longer approved by the FAA.
  6. The storm increased in intensity, and the plane would now return to Salt Lake City.
At this point, my lieutenant mutinied made an executive decision and bolted off the plane.  She requested that our travel chests be removed from the craft's cargo holds.  We received our gear a short while later, and formulated a new plan: we, too, must engage in an historic grand portage to a region above the Great Falls of the Missouri.  With the benefit of existing relationships, we were able to secure an acceptable covered wagon (some model of Infinity SUV...?) and began our formidable portage.  We followed the course of the mighty Yellowstone River for many miles, then ascended a mountain pass that brought us to the headwaters of the Mighty Mo'.  There, we turned north and roughly followed the course of the young Missouri River until we were able to unload our gear at the Missouri River Lodge, some eight hours later than planned.  The innkeepers were kind, offering refreshing beverages and encouraging words.  Joe, proprietor and our guide for the next two days of flyfishing, had spent much of the day in Great Falls.  He assured us it was still there, and confirmed the area had received about four inches of snow.

Lewis and Clark were able to find Great Falls in 1804.  According to Mrs. Fading Angler, it was probably because they had a female guide who was willing to ask for directions.  Eventually, we'd get there, too, but first we had two more days of hard labor ahead of us...

Here's a shortcut to Part II (Amazing fish stories!)

1 https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/lewisandclark/gre.htm
2 Source of this data requested his identity not be revealed, as he was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.


  1. Having been to Wyoming, there's something remarkably believable here. I guess it's the fact that in the 21st century it's always a crap shoot whether you've ever be able to land when you get there or take off once you've been. Starting by for the rest of the story.

  2. I hope you believe it, because the snow, diverted flight, time in Purgatory, and extra drive... It's all true. I suspect the guy who gave me the info on how Craig was named might have been stretching it a bit. I don't think there were any Maui Jim sunglasses in 1804...

  3. Great post, anything about Lewis and Clark has always fascinated me. I have watched numerous videos dealing with the expedition mostly on the History and PBS channels. I wish Ron Howard or Steven Spielberg would make a movie about the expedition which would need to be at least three hours in length. You guys enjoy your trip and be careful. Thanks for sharing

    1. Uh... Now I feel a little guilty for embellishing the story of the Corps. It was a little humbling on our second day of fishing to realize that we were drifting through the same canyon where Lewis and Clark paddled. The tighter quarters brought that into focus.