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Elpel column 7

I custom-built a desk to fit in the dugout canoe.

“I sent out 4 hunters this morning on the opposite side of the river to kill buffaloe; the country being more broken on that side and cut with ravenes they can get within shoot of the buffaloe with more ease and certainty than on this side of the river. my object is if possible while we have now but little to do, to lay a large stock of dryed meat at this end of the portage to subsist the party while engaged in the transportation of our baggage &c, to the end, that they may not be taken from this duty when once commenced in order to surch for the necessary subsistence.”

—Meriwether Lewis, June 20, 1805

The Corps of Discovery worked unimaginably hard dragging heavy dugout canoes upstream against the current. They famously ate nine pounds of red meat per person per day, the equivalent of eating thirty-six quarter-pound hamburgers... minus lettuce, pickles, tomatoes, and buns. Feeding the expedition for one day required either four deer, an elk and one deer, or one whole buffalo. Suffice it to say, the members of our Corps of Rediscovery are eating somewhat less, and we haven’t yet shot any deer, elk, or buffalo—not even a grizzly bear.

Perhaps the most under-appreciated accomplishment of the Corps of Discovery was their preparation work. Originally envisioned as an expedition of twelve soldiers with Meriwether Lewis in command, Lewis bucked convention by naming army buddy William Clark as co-captain. The rank was rejected by the War Department, yet Lewis and Clark snubbed authority and maintained the fiction of two equal captains throughout the expedition.

Together they enlisted as many men, boats, guns, supplies, and trade goods as they deemed necessary for a journey of unknown duration into unknown lands. They enlisted boatmen, hunters, cooks, and translators, with most men serving double-duty to dress skins, make clothing, or improvise repairs as necessary without hope of resupply. Increasing the size of the expedition required more boats and more equipment, yet they calculated the magic numbers of essential men and equipment.

Self-sufficiency was paramount, so their equipment emphasized guns, lead, and gunpowder over actual food rations. They carried dehydrated “portable soup” and other rations for emergencies, but largely depended on hunting for the duration of the 2 1/2-year, 8,000-mile journey. As their clothes wore out or rotted away, they tanned hides and made their own. They also carried extensive trade goods to exchange for food and supplies from native tribes. Although largely destitute by the end, they successfully completed the mission.

Through it all, Meriwether Lewis had a desk for his journals and writing implements, and probably spent much of the expedition sitting in a canoe journaling while the men dragged the boats upstream.

Preparations for our Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery were less critical, since we have the option of resupplying in numerous towns and cities along the way or even receiving packages at post offices.

My primary obsession ahead of the canoe trip was to build a custom desk for the dugout canoe. I had forgotten about Lewis’s desk, but as a writer, I always pack books, notebooks, and writing utensils first. My desk has a wood writing surface that can be opened to reveal a built-in solar panel for charging electronics. Inside the desk is a small library of Lewis and Clark books, field guides, teaching tools, binoculars, a harmonica, snacks, and trade goods, such as the expedition bandannas we gift to people along the route.

At twenty-feet, Belladonna Beaver is the biggest canoe in the fleet, so she carries an assortment of group gear, such as a bow saw for cutting firewood. A rusty old gold pan serves as a fire pan to avoid leaving fire scars where fire pits are absent. Collapsible canvas buckets ensure a supply of water near the fire. My fishing bow is used by all to hunt carp. We do most cooking in a wok. We thrust a shovel in the ground in the middle of camp to facilitate digging cat holes when there are no toilets.

Other essential gear includes a big sponge recycled from an old couch cushion for mopping out the canoe, plus a livestock stake that can be driven into the riverbank to tie up the canoe. Chris, my main paddle partner, and I each have a ten-gallon locking barrel for clothing and personal gear, plus I have a barrel for food and a small cooler. He has a dry bag and bucket for food, and we have random food and gear tucked into every remaining space. There are no actual seats in the canoe, but we place our bedrolls in dry bags and sit on those.

As for food, everyone prepared in their own way. I opened up the kitchen cabinets and shoved every partial bag of rice, lentils, flour, pasta, oatmeal, raisins, snacks, etc. into my barrel and called it a month-long food supply. We barely touched our dry goods in the first three weeks of the trip, but topped off with a resupply of cheese, summer sausage, bagels, yams, sweet potatoes, onions, pasta sauce, and snacks for the upcoming month-long gap between Fort Benton and Fort Peck, 300 miles downriver.

Having passed through the towns of Craig, Cascade, Ulm, Great Falls, and Fort Benton, we’ve been largely subsisting off burgers, burritos, sub sandwiches, and pizza. We are excited to disappear into the wilderness and return to fishing, foraging, and cooking from our own provisions.

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Thomas J. Elpel is president of the Jefferson River Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation and the author of seven books. Go to www.Elpel.info to learn more about the Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery, Tom’s books, and the expedition fundraiser for a new public campsite on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.

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