Now and Then


Linda Burton posting from Helena, Montana – You can’t throw a rock around here without hitting something named Lewis and Clark. Helena is the county seat of Lewis and Clark County; the Lewis and Clark National Forest is all around. It’s no wonder their names are everywhere, because Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had quite an impact on this part of the country. And this part of the country had an impact on them, as we can read in their journals. We have the Missouri River to thank for their visit; one might say that in travel and exploration, mountains are walls and rivers are the roads through them. The Missouri River road brought Lewis and Clark (and Sacajawea) here; between July 16, 1805 and July 24 to be exact; their Journal entries tell us what they saw, what they did, and how they felt about it all. Lewis writes that they killed a buffalo near the river on July 16, and dined on it for breakfast. On the 17th he notes the sunflowers blooming abundantly in the river bottom. The next day he writes of his eagerness to meet up with the Shoshone as he hopes to get information from them. But it’s the entry of July 19 that stirs excitement for me today, as I head for the “gates of the mountains,” to see what Captain Lewis described in his journal.

July 19, 1805, Journal of Captain Meriwether Lewis

“the Musquetoes are very troublesome to us as usual. this morning we set out early and proceeded on very well tho’ the water appears to encrease in volocity as we advance. the current has been strong all day and obstructed with some rapids, tho’ these are but little broken by rocks and are perfectly safe. the river deep and from 100 to 150 yds. wide. i walked along shore today and killed an Antelope….

this evening we entered much the most remarkable clifts that we have yet seen. these clifts rise from the waters edge on either side perpendicularly to the hight of 1200 feet. every object here wears a dark and gloomy aspect. the tow(er)ing and projecting rocks in many places seem ready to tumble on us…from the singular appearance of this place I called it the gates of the rocky mountains.”

I’m with Captain Don today, along with 30 other people; our boat is the Sacajawea, I’m glad to see. I’m not bothered by mosquitos, but it is very hot. Our captain turns the boat so we can get the view that Lewis saw that day; he lowers his voice and repeats the words from Lewis’ journal; “I called it gates of the mountains.” It’s a photo op moment for sure, despite the pesky speedboat headed our way, messing up the image.

Am I seeing today what Meriwether Lewis saw 207 years ago? We are assured that nothing has really changed except the depth of the water due to the damming of the Missouri; with the cliffs rising straight up from the water’s edge the width is about the same. There is no commercial development here; no billboards or paved roads.

The other amazing bit of history we experience today is the tour itself; the Hilger family has been conducting tours through this area of the Missouri River for 186 years! That’s right, before any dams were built; before noisy engine-powered boats. That’s a good story too; a family settling on the land to stay; a man enamored of the landscape and its meaning; legendary stuff. Recognizing that people were interested in retracing the journey of Lewis and Clark, Nicholas Hilger purchased a 55-foot sternwheeler in 1886 and used it to take tourists through the Gates of the Mountains. In 1922 his son David formed the Gates of the Mountains Transportation Company and operated tour boats on a regular basis; today the Gates of the Mountains Foundation continues the tradition, allowing us to see this part of the world “as Lewis and Clark saw it.”

A little now, a little then, a good day overall.

Gates of the Mountains boat tours

Lewis and Clark in Montana

Follow the Lewis and Clark Trail in Montana