The Clearwater River (Orofino, ID): July 20-27, 2011

Reminders: 1. Posts are in chronological order with most recent on top. 2. Pictures can be enlarged by clicking on them and then using the back button (not close) to return to the text.

The ride down from Deer Park was among the most beautiful we have experienced. This is the “Plains” section of Washington/Idaho, yet it was a mass of rolling hills for miles in every direction. And most were cultivated! Each one was planted with low crops save for edges where machinery couldn’t stay upright. After more than a hundred miles of this grandeur, we passed between Pullman, Washington, home of Washington State University, and Moscow, Idaho, home of the University of Idaho.

Twenty miles later, we arrived at the rim of a valley 2000 feet below, and reaching as far as one could see. Here lay the twin cities of Lewiston ID and Clarkston WA. That meant a very long 7% downgrade, and our Dodge Ram, with its combination of transmission braking and an exhaust brake, controlled our descent without concern. A left turn east led us to a 40 mile trip east along the Clearwater River, never more than 100 yards to our left.

We landed in Orofino at the Clearwater Crossing Campground. We drove into the campground through a logging transportation company and railroad depot. It is literally on the river, with just one long row of sites. The patio for our site, one of five “pull-throughs,” was ten feet from the fast moving current and, of course, a simply elegant view at the high-rising hills across it. As for the other side . . . it was a railroad storage yard, almost as close, containing over 200 parked freight cars. Parked is what they were; not one moved during our stay.

The town of Orofino is small; it’s got three markets, a nice hardware store, couple of restaurants (one fancy), gas stations, a NAPA parts store and services. For us, the area was a treasure trove of history.

Read ahead if you know the L&C story. Else, indulge me a few minutes. Their trek from Great Falls, Montana, to Orofino, Idaho was the most difficult passage – and almost the Waterloo – of the outbound journey. Local intelligence gained in North Dakota warned them that once they reached the end of the Missouri River, connecting to the Columbia would be demanding. The primary reason for bringing Sacagawea along was to help negotiations with the Shoshone, her native people from whom she was kidnapped. They needed horses for the portions they couldn’t traverse by boat. Without belaboring the story, they were successful in not only obtaining the horses but also being led by a Shoshone elder, Old Toby. That crossing, through the Bitterroot range of the Rockies, is called Lolo Pass. If you’ve read our Missoula segment (4/30 – 6/12), you may remember Traveler’s Rest; it was from that spot that the worst of the trek began.

Unexpected delays and the inability to obtain adequate food added to the challenge. Starting up the trail on September 12, 1805, The Corps sloughed on for over two weeks, arriving high above Orofino on Weippe Prairie. Starved, under-dressed for the early snow, ill and disheartened, they were saved by the Nez Perce, who helped them recover and renew their journey westward down the Clearwater to the Snake and thence to the Columbia.

Our exploration began with a backtrack to the Lewiston/Clarkson area –actually all the way back up to the top of Lewiston Hill to explore an alternate route down. In 1917, as motor vehicles were increasing in popularity, steep wagon trails were replaced by a ten mile roadway that snaked back and forth down the hill. We drove it, at 20 mph, passed frequently by natives used to the serpentine route. Numerous houses and a farm were tucked into the hillside. The right hand picture below shows thw Clearwater joining the Snake.

Then we started back. Ten miles east, we paid a visit to the Nez Perce National Historical Park Headquarters. Here, the NPS maintains an attractive museum and interpretive center, including a theater with a half hour historical presentation and live exhibits by native craftspeople. NPS also maintains 37 other Nez Perce commemorations throughout the four state area.

The Nez Perce were probably the most successful confederation of tribes in the U.S. Their territory covered NE Oregon, SE Washington, and a huge area of Idaho. Their influence also extended across the Bitterroot Range, where they hunted in Montana. The name by which they are known was given to them by French trappers; contrary to its meaning, few ever pierced their noses. L&C called them Choppunish and they called themselves Nimíipuu – The People.

Chief Twisted Hair took care of the Corps. He was generous in his trading, and he showed them how to make canoes more quickly by burning rather than adzing all of the interior. He accompanied them for many miles down the Columbia, smoothing their way with other Nez Perce. When the Corps reached the land of the Chinook, his enemy, he withdrew. But he agreed to keep their horses safe until their return trip – and he did.

A side note. Chief Joseph, the best known of the Nez Perce, fiercely battled resettlement by the U.S. Army in 1877 and then tried to escape over the Canadian border. He didn’t quite make it and, when captured, settled on a reservation. But his people are not today part of the Nez Perce community.

Continuing back to Orofino, we stopped at several key sites. One was a memorial to the 1838 mission of Henry Harmon Spaulding, who traveled west at the request of some Nez Perce to teach them Christianity. Another was the site of an archeological dig that unearthed pit houses in an area where tribal forerunners Perce are believed to have lived over 5,000 years ago.

And then the Canoe Camp itself. Here, from September 26 to October 7, 1805, The Corps built 5 dugout canoes to carry them to the Pacific. Today, it’s a roadside park with additional pit-house evidence of its early occupants.

On another day we stayed on our side of the river and explored the Dworshak Dam, named for Henry C. Dworshak, multi-term congressman and senator from Idaho, who twice was appointed to the Senate upon the death of elected members! The dam was extremely controversial , because it disrupted one of the major salmon and trout fishery resources in the entire Northwest. To placate the naysayers, a large hatchery tries its best to make up for the loss. Meanwhile, the dam, a 717 foot long massive wall of concrete, has created a 54 mile reservoir out of the North fork of the Clearwater.

Now for the real adventure. We decided to go up to Weippe (pronounced Wee-īpe) and visit the prairie where L&C made first contact with the Nez Perce. Following that, we would go southeast to Kamiah (pronounced Kam-ee-eye), where L&C wintered with the Nez Perce for almost a month on their way home in 1806, waiting for the snow to melt over the Bitterroots.

The Greer Grade up to Wieppe was tougher than the road down Lewiston Hill – tighter curves, narrower and more precipitous on the edge and fewer guardrails. We breathed a sigh of relief when it finally leveled out. The L&C celebration is in and around the library, consisting of many identified plantings first documented by Lewis and outdoor paintings of the town’s past. The walls of the library trace the entire Corps route, and the exhibit consists primarily of storyboards expanding on the nature they experienced.

Nearby is the town of Pierce. Not long after the L&C expedition, this region embraced the fur trading industry. In 1860, A party led by Capt. E.D. Pierce discovered gold in the region, and the rush was on. As many as 6,000 flocked to the area, many of them Chinese who stayed on after the veins began to pan out (pun intended) and work the leavings. Late in the century, the area adopted lumbering as its primary industry, and is still a mainstay of the economy.

Now on to Kamiah. We plugged it in the GPS, expecting to go back down the hill and on east on Rte 12. But she had a surprise for us – a shortcut. It started out paved, then gravel, then dirt. Then it became a rutted, one car wide, twisting and turning logging trail that made the Greer Grade seem like a turnpike. Despite my constant screams of fear, pilot Dot negotiated every one of the five plus miles and down to Kamiah. By this time, it was late; we were hungry and still shaking like leaves. So we partook of a nice lunch in town, snapped a few pictures, and headed back on the highway to the comfort of our camper.

One of the reasons for dropping down to the Clearwater was to experience Lolo Pass. We had passed it by on our way out to the coast but felt it was an essential part of the Lewis & Clark experience. So saying goodbye to the dozens of hummingbirds that shared our site and the Native Americans that guarded the entrance, we set out. That’s the next chapter.

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