Gray clouds move as low as smoke over the treetops at Lolo Pass. The ground is white. The day is June 10. It has been snowing for the past four days in the Bitterroot Mountains. Wayne Fairchild is getting worried about our trek over the Lolo Trail--95 miles from Lolo, Mont., to Weippe in Idaho, across some of the most rugged country in the West. Lewis and Clark were nearly defeated 200 years ago by snowstorms on the Lolo--the name apparently comes from Lawrence, a French-Canadian trapper killed by a grizzly in the area in the 1850s. Today Fairchild is nervously checking the weather reports. He has agreed to take me across the toughest, middle section of the trail--"but with this weather?"
When Lewis surmounted Lemhi Pass, 140 miles south of Missoula, on Aug. 12, he was flabbergasted by what was in front of him: "immence ranges of high mountains still to the West of us with their tops partially covered with snow." Nobody in what was then the U.S. knew the Rocky Mountains existed, with peaks twice as high as anything in the Appalachians back East. Lewis and Clark weren't merely off the map; they were traveling outside the American imagination.
Today their pathway through those mountains carries more mystique than any other ground over which they traveled, for its raw wildness is testament to the character of two cultures: the explorers who braved its hardships and the Native Americans who revere and conserve the path as a sacred gift. It remains today in virtually the same condition as when Lewis and Clark walked it.
In most seasons, the Lolo is passable only from July to mid-September. At the Lolo Pass (elev.: 5,233 ft.), the Forest Service is building a log cabin and a warming hut that will serve as a Lewis and Clark interpretive center when finished later this year.
The Shoshone guide who led the Corps of Discovery, old Toby, took a wrong trail almost immediately. He took the explorers down almost 3,000 ft. to the impassable Lochsa River rather than staying high on the ridgeline. They camped the evening of Sept. 14 on the riverbank. The men had to kill a horse to eat, and as they dined that clear evening, they heard ominous claps of thunder. The next morning it was snowing.
The Powell Ranger Station is built near the old campsite. Joni Packard, the ranger in charge, wonders why anyone would want to cross the Lolo in this weather. "The snowpack is 120% of normal, and the temperatures we are seeing now are...unusual," she says. The rangers have not been up in the high country since last fall. On our next morning we start hiking up the Wendover Ridge, the route that Toby eventually recovered. The narrow trail leads through cedars and Douglas firs, and we pass clumps of bear grass, huckleberry bushes, dogtooth violets and carpets of wild strawberry plants in the clearings. The smell of wild licorice is on the air. But the going is tough. "The road as bad as it can possibly be to pass," wrote Clark about this trail. "Emence quantity of falling timber." Several of the expedition's horses tumble down the hillside--one smashed Clark's writing desk; two others were too badly hurt to continue.