2. Snowbank Camp to Indian Post Office
Clark's Map, September 15-16, 1805
From Moulton, Atlas, Map 70.
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Snowbank Camp, September 15, 1805
lark undoubtedly noticed the main trail continuing in both directions when he intersected it on the main ridge at the summit of the nameless mountain, and sketched a bit of it as a reminder for the return trip. He may, in fact, have been recording his short side trip to the top of the mountain an eighth of a mile east and 250 feet above the shallow saddle where they had reached the top of Wendover Ridge. "From this point," he wrote, "I observed a range of high mountains Covered with Snow from S E. to S W with Their top bald or void of timber." Presently the party dropped down into a shallow saddle at the 6,400-foot elevation and pitched camp "near a Bank of old Snow about 3 feet deep." It had been a long, thirsty climb since leaving the spring where Clark waited for the rest of the party to catch up, and now a hard-packed snowbank was their only source of water to wash down the remains of the horsemeat they had carried all the way from Colt Killed Camp. As any wintertime camper can imagine, melting enough snow to satisfy man and beast for a supper and a breakfast can consume a lot of time, fuel, and patience. Although none of the journalists mentioned it, the very presence of last winter's snow on those mountains in late September must have aroused the feeling that crossing the Rockies was going to be even tougher than they had figured.
Lonesome Cove Camp, September 16, 1805
n this map, Clark seems to indicate that the Indian road followed a more or less distinct ridgeline. One authority, however, maintains that from Spring Mountain the road — or at least one of its principal tracings — dropped down on the north side of the ridge some 1,500 feet to Moon Creek, followed Howard Creek, crossed over into Gravy Creek, thence up Serpent Creek back to the ridge.That is the route as shown on the most recent USGS maps.1 Another believes they descended into the Howard and Moon Creek drainages, and returned to the ridge at Moon Saddle.2 Clark shows the road descending into the Gravy Creek drainage, and places their camp of the sixteenth on a tributary that may be today's Horseshoe Creek.
On the other hand, Private Joe Whitehouse's journal for the sixteenth clearly indicates that Clark's sketch is generally correct. They "kept on the ridge of the mountain," he wrote. "Several high knobs to pass over but had more down hill than up." Towards evening they "descended the mountain; down into a lonesome looking Cove on to a Creek, where we encamped in a thicket of spruce Pine timber."
This was one of the most terrible days of the crossing. Some of the men (Whitehouse again) were "without Socks, and [were] forced to wrap Rags round their feet to keep out the cold." That couldn't have helped for long. They had wakened under two inches of new snow, and the storm continued until it was nearly six inches deep, some of it atop icy, compacted snowbanks left over from the previous winter. (Imagine hiking in wet rags through snow-covered ice!) They skipped breakfast simply for lack of anything to eat. At noon they melted snow and made some portable soup. Like bouillon before a five course dinner, it merely whetted their appetites without nourishing them sufficiently to cope with the cold and the work they faced. Captain Clark took seven shots at the only deer they saw that day, but the flint was loose in the lock and the gun didn't fire.
They made the best of the worst, however. "Killed a Second Colt," Clark explained, "which we all Suped hartily on and thought it fine meat." That decision impeded their timely departure the next morning, but not on account of indigestion.
-- 1806 --
Bears Oil and Roots Camp, June 27
n the twenty-sixth of June the Corps reached the cache where they had left most of their baggage nine days before, loaded up their horses, then "cooked and made a haisty meal of boiled venison and mush of cows[cous]."3 (And the hastier the better, as far as cooking was concerned, because the fire was digging its own hole in the snow, the hotter the faster.) The whole party was standing on snow seven feet deep, so there was nothing for the horses to eat. No one mentioned what either men or horses had for supper that evening, and the fact is that their cupboard was nearly bare. The next day they marched 28 miles "without releiving the horses from their packs or their having any food," and one imagines that hunger pangs made those animals restive and hard to handle. The party fared only a little better. "Our meat being exhausted," wrote Clark, "we issued a pint of bears oil to a mess4 which with their boiled roots made an agreeable dish." At least the people got a few calories and vitamins. Their bivouac that night was somewhere on Spring Mountain.
Twenty inches of the snowpack had melted while the Corps of Discovery was biding its time, but the going was still treacherous. Gass complained of "some of the steepest mountains I ever passed," explaining that the snow was so deep "that we cannot wind along the sides of these steps [steeps?], but must slide straight down." The horses' hooves generally sank only a few inches into the hard-packed snow, but once in a while a horse would suffer a jolting plunge to its belly, presumably in places where the snow was undermined by water from the melt. Fortunately, the men had recalled their experience on the snowy road the previous September, and carefully saved their socks until now. Otherwise, the day was pleasant, although Gass felt that "it appeared to me somewhat extraordinary, to be travelling over snow six or eight feet deep in the latter end of June."
Indian Post Office
f there was a rock cairn on the ridge between Post Office Creek and Howard Creek when the Corps of Discovery passed by, none of the journalists mentioned it, and none ever used the expression "Indian Post Office," which some unknown "authority" since then has hinted was a secret means that Indians once used to communicate with other travelers along K'useyneiskit. That theory is apocryphal, although actually it would have been the logical place for some sort of a marker, for in order to get around Indian Peak, from which there was no way to proceed westward, the Indian road took a sharp turn to the north, dove down into the valley, crossed Howard Creek to Moon Creek, then regained the ridge at Moon Saddle.
It was here, in the autumn of 1893, that three young twenty-something "sportsmen and gentlemen" from New York learned the hard way what the Corps of Discovery had realized in the nick of time: The Bitterroot Mountains in wintertime are a place more dangerous than unfamiliar wayfarers should challenge. They are certainly no place for the foolhardy. With a local guide and a cook named George Colgate, the five men entered K'useyneiskit from the west end on September 18. They reached Indian Post Office on the twenty-fifth, and eagerly made their way down the mountainside toward the Lochsa River in quest of big-game tropies in the vicinity of the hot springs and salt licks where Indians had once hunted deer and elk. With their eyes wide open they were descending into Hell. It wasn't long before Colgate, who was in poor health to begin with, was stricken with an illness that immobilized him. While the others nursed him — and hunted, of course — snow was deepening on the ridges and slopes above them, and a safe escape by that route was soon out of the question. Finally, the four men felt compelled to leave the suffering Colgate with some food and firewood — convinced he would die before he used either up — and preserve their own lives by floating down the river. But the river soon demolished the raft they had cobbled together, and their only recourse was to bushwhack through the riverside brush and over a long succession of dangerously steep cliffs and ridges. Half-dead from hunger, cold, and exhaustion, they eventually staggered into the view of a rescue party that had dragged and poled two boats some distance up the Lochsa's stair-step chain of riffles and rapids. Reports of the tragedy that resulted from the young hunters' folly soon grew into a scandal of nationwide dimensions. Months later a small party buried Colgate's remains where he had died. A highway rest area and wildlife-viewing site called Colgate Licks, at the largest salt lick in the canyon, is a memorial to the hapless victim.