Our current adventure on the 200th anniversary of the epic cross-country voyage of Lewis and Clark. Lewis and Clark set off from St. Louis in 1804 and for the next two years traveled, mostly by boat, all the way to the Pacific Ocean and back. Could we follow their journey by land? Out came the maps, and after a bit of research, we knew we could. We decided to break the journey into a number of separate trips. We would follow Lewis and Clark's route across the country, but would have the freedom to venture off their track to explore each region separately.
We hadn't even reached the Missouri River and the Lewis and Clark Trail when we took our first exploratory detour. A lonely two-track headed across the undulating landscape disappearing on the distant horizon. We followed it, entering the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge. We were in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, one of the largest grass-stabilized dune fields in the world. The "sea of grass," as early pioneers and travelers on the Oregon and Mormon Trail called them, are true windblown sand dunes that were deposited some 5,000 years ago and cover over 20,000 square miles (more than twice the size of Rhode Island and Massachusetts combined!). Some of the dunes would give even Lawrence of Arabia pause; they are over 400 feet high and over 20 miles long.
As we climbed higher along the ridgeline, we could see the Little Missouri River snaking i
Dunes might make one think of a desert, but south-central Nebraska is far from barren. Technically, the area is a "dry upland plateau." The lushness of the hills is in part due to the Ogallala Aquifer. This large source of underground water lies close to the surface, and in fact reaches the ground in numerous locations creating springs, marshes, lakes, and sustaining the scenic Niobrara River. In the midst of the Sand Hills is the 70,000-acre Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, home to herds of bison and elk as well as mule deer, whitetail deer, grouse, prairie chicken, turkey, coyote, rabbits, small rodents, over 150 different bird species, and-with 36 lakes-ducks, geese, and 45 different kinds of fish. We spent the day roaming over sandy two-track trails among the sand dunes and exploring numerous lakes.
We drove north, crossing into South Dakota and soon found ourselves on a high bluff overlooking the Missouri River, the Lewis and Clark "highway." We drove along the Native American Scenic Byway, following the river upstream. Oversized, undulating hills covered in lush grasses bordered the river. For miles we drove up and down the landscape with the wide, almost lake-like Missouri always in view. Climbing one of these mounds, William Clark wrote: "We beheld a most beautiful landscape. Numerous herds of buffalo were seen feeding in various directions." Further upstream, Meriwether Lewis commented that although it was hard to believe, he could see 3,000 buffalo at one view. In addition to buffalo, Lewis and Clark saw herds of elk, mule deer, and antelope. During our passage, large herds of horses watched us with interest.
We set up camp on the banks of the river, not far from where Lewis and Clark themselves had spent a couple of nights in the fall of 1804. We had planned to sit by the campfire and read the Lewis and Clark journals, but we were forced to retreat into our Coleman dome tent because, as Lewis noted 200 years ago, "Mosquitoes very troublesome!"
Early the next afternoon we entered Ft. Abraham Lincoln State Park. For more than 200 years, the site was home to the Mandan Indians, who built their village on the hilltop overlooking the river. The Mandan were an agricultural tribe that grew corn, beans, and squash along the river bottom and hunted buffalo on the plains. In 1781, tragedy struck. Smallpox, introduced to Native Americans by European and American fur traders and explorers, decimated the village, and the few who did not die of the disease fled the area. By the time Lewis and Clark reached the site, the village had been abandoned. Exploring the reconstructed village, we were surprised at the coziness and simple beauty of the earthlodges. They were spacious, roomy structures that reminded us of 1960s-style family dens.