Lewiston Morning Tribune
by Eric Barker of the Tribune
June 27, 2002
This page was last updated: February 1, 2010
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The Salmon River below Hoover Ridge cuts its way through layers of basalt here where Deer Creek and Eagle Creek join the river. It is believe Sgt. John Ordway passed through this country nearly 200 years ago. Wapshila Ridge, which separates the Salmon river from the Snake River, is in the background.
Two modern-day explorers seek to map the route taken by a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition nearly 200 years ago.
Deer Creek - Steven Russell and John Barker are looking for faint remnants of trails long abandoned. The forgotten footpaths are overgrown with native bluebunch wheatgrass, Idaho fescue and in some places invaders like cheatgrass and yellow star thistle. Hovering high above the dramatically sculpted lower Salmon River Canyon gives them an ideal perspective. "There is a trail right there, but it looks too improved, doesn't it," Russell says over the intercom of a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter flown by Jim Pope of Clarkston. Strangely, the trails sought by the men are most difficult to see when they are directly under foot. But from a distance and with the right light, the subtle changes in topography and vegetation appear like faint wrinkle lines on an aging face. The men are looking for old Nez Perce trails used by Sgt. John Ordway and his men during a side trip of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The helicopter helps them determine the best candidates for ground truthing. The steep slopes of the lower Salmon River are crisscrossed with old trails, but it takes a closer look to determine which were worn by the feet of Nez Perce and their horses and which came later by the plodding of miners and ranchers. Prior to the flight Russell, a nationally recognized authority on the Lewis and Clark Trail, interviewed old-timers and ranchers who lived and worked along the Snake and Salmon river breaks and poured over the journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in search of clues. Barker, a rafting outfitter and retired Lewis-Clark State College professor, and Sam McNeill of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game received a grant to locate the route followed by Ordway during the expedition's return journey in 1806. "John and I wrote the grant and we roped Russell into helping us," says McNeill. Ordway traveled from Kamiah that spring to the Salmon River and then the Snake River looking for salmon to bring back to Long Camp, where the rest of the expedition was waiting for snow to melt in the Bitterroot Mountains so they could resume their journey. Game was scarce that spring and the expedition had resorted to eating a colt and surviving on roots. Russell thinks Ordway and his men crossed the Camas Prairie near Nezperce and dropped into the Salmon River gorge at Deer Creek. When they failed to find spring chinook there, he believes they traveled downriver to Wapshila Creek. From there he guesses they hiked up the creek and crossed over Wapshila Ridge to the Snake River. On the Snake he thinks they found a Nez Perce encampment at Cougar Bar Rapids and traded for salmon before heading back to Long Camp, retracing their path and climbing out of the Salmon River gorge via Hoover Ridge near Deer Creek. The men then passed by present-day Keuterville and Cottonwood and dropped to the South Fork of the Clearwater and followed it to its mouth near Kooskia before walking down the Clearwater River to Long Camp. The entire trip took eight days. Russell, Barker and McNeill want to locate, as much as they can, the precise route followed by Ordway. The helicopter lands and Barker and Russell exit to get a better look at one of the old trails they've spotted from the air. They find it quickly and begin following it to the river. But they aren't sure it's the one they are looking for. It appears one piece of the trail has been improved. Rocks have been rolled out of the path and it's wider than most Indian trails. "Well, there has been a lot of construction on this," Russell says. The Nez Perce did not improve their trails as much as white settlers did. "I don't know how they could have gotten up here to construct anything," says Barker, standing high above the Salmon River just after it leaves a five-mile-long hairpin turn called the Oxbow, and a little upstream of Eagle Creek Rapid. It is gorgeous country, especially now, when the vegetation is clinging to the last few weeks of its green spring cloak. Patches of wild onions shimmer purple in the sun and a gentle breeze keeps temperatures tolerable. Eagle Creek and Deer Creek tumble from Craig Mountain, cutting deep canyons before joining the Salmon River where Ordway and Pvts. Robert Frazer and Peter Weiser hoped to find salmon. The breaks are spectacularly steep and twisted, with basalt outcroppings and cliffs that limit the possible locations of foot routes between the timbered uplands and lush prairies above to the river bottom below. But there are a series of gentle benches that step down to the river. It is in these places that Barker and Russell look for the evidence of lost Indian trails. And the evidence is thin. It's been close to 200 years since Ordway and his companions traveled the route and many decades since the trails were heavily used by the Nez Perce. Since then, the canyon has been grazed by cows, sheep and big game animals and charred by fires. Still, the years of foot and horse traffic have left behind the faintest hint of their passing. They move slowly down the canyon, looking for another trail they spotted from the air. Russell is tired. It's just his second hike of the summer after nine months of desk work at Iowa State University, where he teaches electrical engineering. He wears denim overalls, a blue cotton shirt and felt hat. In one hand he holds a ski pole that serves as a walking stick and in the other a global positioning system that tracks his route. The faster-moving Barker, in blue jeans and T-shirt, ventures ahead. Russell was born at Lewiston and grew up in Weippe and Powell - where his family owned the Lochsa Lodge - and Stevensville, Montana. He has located many of the actual trail treads traveled by Lewis and Clark as they crossed the Bitterroot Mountains on what is now known as the Lolo Trail. But it's not as easy here, where there are fewer clues. In some cases you have good journal notes to look at," he says of his sleuthing work. "But in Ordway's case the notes were extremely terse - that is why this section has largely been ignored." For example, when describing his route Ordway used phrases like "down some distance," instead of more precise language like three miles to describe the length he followed a creek or ridge. Barker finds the trail about 100 feet down the steep ridge and then Russell spots another portion that leads down to his partner. "There it is," he says. The vegetation is tall enough to easily conceal the trail. Russell says at times his feet see better than his eyes. "This feels like something," he says. "If you walk in it you can feel it, but you can't see it very well." Moving down the slope, the trail is easily lost. Fortunately NcNeill has driven down Eagle Creek and is waiting at the river, where he will pick the men up and drive them out of the canyon. The sun is just right and the faint outline of the trail can be seen by McNeill, even though he is waiting at least 1,000 feet below. "It looks like it come right down the gut and then veers off to your left," he says via radio to Barker. They locate the path with his instructions and try to follow it to the river. It's difficult to tell if it's an Indian trail, cow trail or one built by settlers. Russell is looking for evidence that will indicate its origin and soon finds it. "Aha", he says when the going gets steep and the trail zigzags back and forth to soften the pitch. "Little short switchbacks are a good sign, John. This is good stuff. This here is a really typical Nez Perce trail we are on." Trails built by white settlers tend to have longer switchbacks, he says. After hours of hiking they reach the river and McNeill. The sun is down, but the sky still light. Russell will take the evidence gathered during the hike and, as best he can, map the route he believes Ordway and his men followed. The grant won by McNeill and Barker from the Bonneville Power Association, the Governors Lewis and Clark Trail Committee and the Idaho State Historical Society will pay for a kiosk to be built near th trail. The kiosk will contain historical information about the journey Russell calls Ordway's fishing expedition. Portions of the trail will be marked for more adventurous history buffs who want to follow Ordway's path and a brochure will be developed with more details. The work will take more than a year to complete, but McNeill says at least some of it will be done before the start of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial.