Errand in the Wilderness 

Prepare for the first of many Lewis and Clark re-tracings

The Lewis and Clark bicentennial era will soon be upon us. Technically, it should run from May 2004 through September 2006, but due to the science known as marketing, it will probably begin much sooner, last longer and make us thoroughly weary of the trip before it begins. We will be deluged with Corps of Discovery trivia, history, coffee mugs and beef jerky, as well as reflections on a different America, how far we have come, what has been lost and personal reminiscences of things related to the great voyage of discovery.

Ben Long’s book, Backtracking by Foot, Canoe and Subaru Along the Lewis and Clark Trail, takes roughly the last approach and is a benign harbinger, kind of like the lone grasshopper that signals the coming of the swarm just over the horizon. Long employs a salubrious mid-life crisis, his skills as a journalist, his wife, and the device of the road trip to conflate his experiences and reflections in Lewis and Clark Territory with those of the Corps.

Long explains: “Tracing the idea [of the Great American Road Trip] back to its source, I tripped up on the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Mark Twain’s stagecoach in Roughing It. The Joads’ jalopy in Grapes of Wrath. Jack Kerouac hitchhiking in On the Road; John Wayne’s horse in Stagecoach to Susan Sarandon’s convertible in Thelma and Louise. All of them followed the idea—if not the exact route—that was branded into the American imagination by Lewis and Clark’s Voyage of Discovery.”

So, Long and his wife Karen, a photographer, having sold their house and quit their jobs, packed their Subaru so that it resembled “Grapes of Wrath meets Outside magazine” and headed out “to search out fragments of America’s primal wilderness.”

The focus of their peregrinations is clearly on the animals that inhabit those wild places Lewis and Clark first saw 200 years ago. The first stop is the Charles M. Russell Wildlife refuge home of the prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets. Prairie dogs, who probably once numbered around 5 billion, are now reduced to about 7 million. While ranchers and farmers see the these burrowing rodents as varmints, which means hunting season is always open with unlimited bag limits and no permits or tags required, ecologists say that prairie dog towns are the “supermarkets of the prairie. Prairie dogs themselves are the stock on the shelves, attracting predators from bobcats to golden eagles.”

One frequent shopper, the black-footed ferret, which traditionally relied on prairie dogs for 90 percent of its diet, has almost been declared extinct twice; now, the remnant of North America’s only ferret is a population of 1,000, most of whom live in captivity. Long closes that chapter reflecting, “Somehow over my lifetime I had come to accept that the great bison herds were a rational trade-off—the cost of converting the plains into a grain garden that feeds the world. Civilization demands farms. Farms demand space. Bison made way. But if our civilization isn’t big enough for the ferret and the prairie dog, we must be a small people indeed.”

In the Flathead National Forest, which is where they have to go to find the grizzlies that Lewis and Clark encountered in the plains, they ride along with trappers from Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP). Mixed in with the essential mauling stories and Lewis’ journal excerpts, grizzly expert Rick Mace of FWP puts human wildlife interaction into perspective: “Consider this. Eighty years ago, there were grizzlies leaving their tracks on the beaches right outside Los Angeles [there are none in California today]. … Our job is to look ahead, eighty years from now.”

In order to connect with bison, they paddle the Missouri in the area Lewis and Clark mistakenly took for a buffalo jump site. They find beavers there, too, go fishing (spincasting) for westslope cutthroat trout on Griffin Creek and watch the Columbia sharptail grouse dance in their lek. They encounter whitebark pine, Clark’s nutcracker, and Norman McLean’s muse William “Bud” Moore in the Bitterroot Mountains. Finally, we get perspectives on wolves and coyotes, sturgeon, and the Great Plains cottonwood.

Although the book is hung rather loosely on the twin pegs of Lewis and Clark and this idea of backtracking, it works just the same. It is essentially a naturalists update on the flora and fauna of the West today; written with a hooky journalistic style; many of the chapters begin with a good lead and end with a wry, nostalgic or heartfelt sentiment. Best of all, having grown up in Idaho near the Lewis and Clark trail, Ben Long is no carpet-bagger cashing in on the bicentennial bonanza, but a local boy acting out his childhood fantasies. As a youth he was so enamored of the “dynamic duo” that he played Lewis and Clark with his friends in the woods and rivers along the Clearwater, and wanted badly to name his dog after Meriwether Lewis’. Strangely, his parents refused to allow him to call his Labrador “Seaman.”

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