Paddle a mile in their canoes

"We shall delineate with correctness the great arteries of this great country: those who come after us will fill up the canvas we begin."

- Thomas Jefferson, May 1804

Peter Geery isn't satisfied with just reading about the exploits of American explorers Lewis and Clark. He's been living them.

In his role as Sgt. John Ordway, Mr. Geery has reenacted small pieces of the team's epic journey.

"I've been on the river at 106 degrees, and I've been on the river at 36 degrees in wind and rain, standing in the bow of the boat and watching for semi- submerged debris," he says. "You can read the journals, but when you're wearing the clothing, and you're on the site, and you're living the talk, the journals take on a different presence."

Now Geery's reenactment group, The Discovery Expedition of St. Charles (Mo.), has a bigger prize in mind. Starting in 2004, exactly 200 years after the two Army officers set out across the western American wilderness to seek a water passage to the Pacific, the group will trace all the river-based portions of the trip, traveling in a painstakingly accurate replica keelboat and two authentic pirogues (large dugout canoes).

They won't often find the solitude encountered by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their party of about 40 - including American soldiers, a young Indian woman, and an African-American slave. According to early estimates, 25 million to 30 million Americans will explore some aspect of the 28-month, 8,000-mile trek that Lewis and Clark made by foot, boat, and horseback between St. Louis and the mouth of the Columbia River near Astoria, Ore.

The Lewis and Clark bicentennial officially begins on Jan. 18 at Thomas Jefferson's home at Monticello near Charlottesville, Va. That's the day when President Jefferson sent a confidential letter to Congress urging it to provide $2,500 for an expedition to the Northwest in search of a river passage to the Pacific Ocean. He appointed his personal secretary, Lewis, an Army captain, to lead the expedition. Lewis, in turn, invited friend and fellow officer Clark to be co-leader.

Exploring America's course today

Starting in 2003 and continuing into 2006, organizations and cities will engage in what planners say may be the biggest historical celebration in the United States since the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence in 1976. The festivities will mark every step of the expedition's progress. Public-service ads will tell how it raised issues still important today, and students from elementary schools to colleges will study it from every angle.

Books are in the works, and hundreds of Lewis and Clark websites already have sprung up. A new large- format film takes visitors soaring over dramatic landscapes and plunks them into the frigid river rapids the explorers had to run. Maya Lin, architect of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, has been commissioned to design four memorials to Lewis and Clark at sites in Washington State.

The bicentennial should be a way to "engage in a deeper conversation about what it means to be an American" and ask "what kind of course corrections should we be making in the 21st century," says Robert Archibald, who serves as president of the National Council of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial and is also president of the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis.

All the attention to what transpired 200 years ago will push people to ask themselves, "Can we stand in other people's shoes and see this land differently?" Dr. Archibald says. "That seems to be one of the powerful possible outcomes of this."

For Maurice Isserman, a professor of history at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., standing in Lewis and Clark's shoes went so far as tracing part of their route last summer - in an Isuzu Trooper instead of a canoe. He was scouting the route for a group of students he plans to take along in 2004. As he watched eagles drift overhead and pelicans wade nearby in Montana's Missouri Breaks region, Mr. Isserman felt he was experiencing "the scenes of visionary enchantment" Clark mentions in his journals.

Isserman followed a dirt Forest Service road up a trail that Lewis and three others had climbed in August of 1805. At the Lemhi Pass on the Continental Divide, Lewis had expected to look down on another river valley that would quickly lead to the Pacific. Instead, he saw the soaring Rockies, "row after row after row of snowcapped mountains," Isserman says. Quickly, Lewis realized that an unexpected and incredibly difficult journey still lay ahead. "That was the moment I really felt for Lewis," Isserman says.

Isserman is teaming up with geologist Todd Rayne and, they hope, a biologist, to travel with 24 to 48 students. He says Lewis and Clark, who kept journals about what they saw, provide great examples for his students.

"They were naturalists, geographers, biologists, folklorists, ethnologists," he says. "We want students to learn about Lewis and Clark. But, in a way, we want them to become Lewis and Clark. We want them to be able to see the world with eyes open to new experiences."

Tales of the men's "undaunted courage" (as the late historian Stephen Ambrose described it in his popular book) have become a kind of American Odyssey - full of strange encounters, heroic suffering, and ultimate survival.

Some observers note that the expedition of nearly 2-1/2 years took about the same time it would take today to reach Mars by spaceship. Others have called the expedition a greater achievement than landing a man on the moon, because Lewis and Clark were isolated from any communication with their home base.

But those involved in the bicentennial hope it will do more than celebrate the heroism and courage of the expedition members. It's seen as a time to raise important issues about not only America's past, but also its future.

Native American perspectives

One prominent theme will be the role of native Americans. The best-known Indian in the Lewis and Clark saga is Sacagawea, the young woman whose assistance as a guide and interpreter was crucial to the expedition's success.

"Sacagawea is my hero," says Bruce Neibaur, director of "Lewis and Clark: Great Journey West," a giant-screen film produced by Destination Cinema for the National Geographic Society.

The expedition, Mr. Neibaur says, forged a way for the US to become a nation that stretched from sea to sea.

"How do you measure the impact of that?" he asks. "It's enormous. Now was that good or bad? It depends on your point of view. If you're a native American, [your] point of view might well be, 'It's not so good: Look what happened to us.' "

Americans may be surprised to learn that Lewis and Clark encountered some 60 tribes on their journey, and nearly all the contacts were friendly - in some cases life-saving.

"It was far from an empty continent," says Roger Kennedy, past director of the National Park Service and author of the forthcoming book "Mr. Jefferson's Lost Cause: Land, Farmers, Slavery, and the Louisiana Purchase." The expedition headed across land that, from the Indians' point of view, was already occupied. "So it's a pretty imperial activity.... We commenced our 'Big Stick' activity not with Theodore Roosevelt but with Thomas Jefferson."

As Lewis and Clark traveled, they weren't actually naming things, "they were renaming things," says Bobbie Conner, a member of Confederated Tribes of Umatilla near Pendleton, Ore., and a co-chairwoman of the council of tribal advisers appointed by the national bicentennial group. "That's a simple idea to convey, but it has vast consequence when you explore it. All these places [already] had names, identities, and populations. But most people think of this as the unbounded, unoccupied wilderness in the West.... We were civilized. We were complex. We were diverse."

Many hope that Americans' knowledge will expand beyond what little they've heard about Sacagawea. "As native American people, we know everything about Americans," says Wilma Mankiller, a social activist and former chief of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. "We go to their schools, we attend their churches, we read their literature, we see their films, partake in their popular culture. But they know very little about our government, our history. They have no context to use to understand our contemporary lives."

She adds that as the bicentennial approaches, she's looking forward to "having some genuine dialogue ... about the aftermath of Lewis and Clark."

Ms. Conner says she hopes this bicentennial will fare better than 1992's 500-year commemoration of Columbus landing in the New World, which was seen as bringing disease and enslavement to native peoples. "It could be a debacle," she says, adding, "We don't use the Big C - 'celebration' - word here." The anniversary should be a more neutral "commemoration" or "observance," she says.

"We want to tell our own stories," Conner says. "We don't want people to tell them for us."

One issue native Americans plan to raise is the protection of burial grounds and other sacred sites: An increase in water and foot traffic along the route could expose old graves.

Conner does expect that tourism could have a positive effect, as well. "We want to share in the economic boom that will occur," she says.

Another piece of the Lewis and Clark story - how Sacagawea and Clark's African-American slave, York, were allowed to vote along with the white men on the crucial question of where to build winter shelter along the Columbia - may strike many as a poignant reminder of the belated enfranchisement of blacks and women into the American political system. After playing an important role in the expedition, York chafed at returning to his life of servitude, and he eventually persuaded Clark to give him his freedom.

Reconnecting with the rivers

Conservation issues will top many people's bicentennial agendas.

Lewis and Clark documented 70 to 75 plant species, numerous bird species (including Clark's nutcracker and Lewis's woodpecker), four kinds of salmon, the grizzly bear, and bighorn sheep, all of which were unknown to Europeans. Today the men are often seen as "proto-environmentalists" who waxed rhapsodic in their journals about the natural beauty and abundance they encountered. While escaping from a party of angry Blackfeet Indians, Lewis famously jumped down from his horse to grab a sample of a plant that was unfamiliar to him.

With much of the journey taking place on the Missouri, Yellowstone, Snake, and Columbia Rivers, attention inevitably will be focused on their condition today.

The bicentennial is a "chance to do something meaningful to restore these great rivers," says Rebecca Wodders, president of American Rivers. The nonprofit conservation organization is urging the breaching of dams on the Missouri and Snake to return them to a condition closer to their natural flow and provide habitat for species like the piping plover and least tern. The Missouri, in particular, Ms. Wodders says, "is just a shadow of what Lewis and Clark saw."

The potential extinction of the Pacific salmon in theSnake River, if it should happen during the bicentennial, would be "a travesty," she says. Restoring these rivers would be the "highest tribute to the [Lewis and Clark] expedition."

Some cities along the Missouri River are taking this opportunity to reconnect with and improve their riverfronts. Among larger cities, Wodders praises Omaha, Neb., and among smaller cities she points to Nebraska City, Neb.

One clear legacy: awe

The Lewis and Clark story has always meant different things at different times in American history, says Archibald, president of the bicentennial council.

The history textbooks of the 1830s made almost no mention of the expedition. "It was a footnote," he says. "If there was something America had too much of [then], it was wilderness."

But then a young historian named Frederick Jackson Turner looked at the 1890 census and got up at a meeting of the American Historical Society and said, "It's all gone," Archibald says. The frontier had vanished. "That's amazing to me. Eighty-six years after the Lewis and Clark expedition set out and Jefferson [thought] he'd endowed America with land forever, it's gone."

While lively debates may develop over just what is the legacy of the expedition today, few observers deny that its participants were heroic.

"The Lewis and Clark Expedition will stand forever as a monument to the American spirit, a spirit of optimism and courage and persistence in the face of adversity," President Bush said last July 4 as he declared 2003 to 2006 to be the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial.

Those involved in making the film about the journey in remote areas of the American West "just came away in awe of what these people went through and endured," director Neibaur says. "You got a sense of how incredibly tough people were back in that age. Just tough, tough, tough people."

As for Geery and his Discovery Corps of St. Charles mates, they plan to recruit some 300 people to reenact the trip. Almost no one will be allowed to participate for more than three weeks at a time without taking a break to rest.

Referring to participants in the original expedition, he says, "The least of them have become very, very big men in our eyes."

May 14, 1804

Lewis and Clark's group, the Corps of Discovery, begins its journey by keelboat from St. Louis up the Missouri River.

June 16, 1804

The expedition reaches the mouth of the Kansas River.

Aug. 3, 1804

Lewis and Clark meet with chiefs of the Oto and Missouri tribes near present-day Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Nov. 4, 1804

Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian trapper living with the Hidatsa tribe near present-day Bismarck, S.D., is hired to be an interpreter. His wife is a captive Shoshone woman named Sacagawea.

June 13, 1805

Lewis, scouting ahead, finds the Great Falls of the Missouri River. The expedition begins an 18-mile portage around this series of five waterfalls.

Aug. 12, 1805

Lewis crosses the Continental Divide and Lemhi Pass to discover more mountains, instead of the Pacific Ocean as expected.

Sept. 11, 1805

The group begins the steep ascent of the Bitterroot Range of the Rockies. They emerge from the mountains on Sept. 23, near present-day Weippe, Idaho.

Oct. 16, 1805

The corps enters the Columbia River, the last waterway to the Pacific.

Nov. 24, 1805

They reach the Pacific Ocean and begin building a winter camp known as Ft. Clatsop, near present-day Astoria, Ore.

Sept. 23, 1806

Lewis and Clark return to St. Louis, nearly 2-1/2 years after their journey began.

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