Even though new trail signs are erected, we still missed the turnoff to the newly cleared section of the Lewis and Clark Historic Trail midway up Lost Trail Pass, which somehow seemed appropriate.
It was about two weeks and 212 years since the Lewis and Clark expedition passed through this area, and the conditions were similar to what they experienced – a clear but cold morning amid mountains covered with patches of snow.
Yet the weather wasn’t a deterrent for them, nor for the eight members of our group, led by Corps enthusiast Ted Hall. For two decades he’s been working on designating the trail where he believes the expedition’s route took them, and Monday he showed off the path cleared this summer by a group of retired smokejumpers.
In places the route is easy to find. But initially, we drove too far up Highway 93 because the turnoff sign is about 50 feet to the west of the roadway. Yet like the expedition, if you know what to look for you can find what you’re seeking, and the brown and white U.S. Forest Service sign points west to hit the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail No. 15.
“This is great,” Hall said, clearly excited about showing the route to his friends. “This is the only piece of trail where you can be certain, in some places, that you will be walking in the footsteps of the Lewis and Clark expedition.”
The top of this section of trail is accessed via Forest Service Road 279 that crosses the bottom flank of the Lost Trail Ski Area. We parked in a wide space in the road after spotting a small triangular sign nailed onto a tree this summer that helps delineate the route. They’re important, since the trail is a wilderness-style path that’s only 18 inches wide instead of the Forest Service’s standard of 3 feet, according to Hall.
As we set off up the trail, it’s easy to spot where the smokejumpers were busy cutting away low limbs that crossed the trail so they no longer strike hikers in the face. It’s less of a bushwhack now and more of a pleasant walk, noted Jim Randall, a friend who has accompanied Hall up here many times.
Most of the trees in this mainly lodgepole forest are less than 50 years old, according to Blaine Furniss, a retired botany and range scientist who has taken core samples from many of the area trees to find out their ages. What he found isn’t unusual, since this landscape is formed by fire, which brings the lodgepoles’ tightly sealed serotinous cones to life. The last fire here was in the 1960s, according to Darby District Ranger Eric Winthers.
Furniss stopped to pull boughs off a spruce and a fir. He rolled them between his finger and thumb, showing how the spruce needles are square and the fir needles are flat.
“Remember, spruce is sharp and square. Fir is flat,” said the former professor, using mnemonics as a memory tool. “Fir, flat. Spruce, sharp, square.”
We swung into a riparian area, where Furniss had taken core samples of a towering Douglas fir. It’s 210 years old. He later points to an Engelmann spruce that he also took core samples of; this one is 275 years old. Both trees are much more fire resistant than the lodgepoles.
“I took the samples Sept. 4, 212 years to the day that Lewis and Clark passed through here,” Furniss said, noting that the Corps of Discovery may have passed by the spruce when it was much smaller.
A couple times, the route crosses the historic Jerry Fahey trail, blazed in 1878, but doesn’t follow it for long. The smokejumpers’ efforts are visible here, too, where they’ve strategically placed tree limbs to show that the Fahey trail isn’t the route to take.
The trail also crosses Forest Service Road 279 a few times, but triangular signs nailed to trees show where the Lewis and Clark route resumes. Finally, we reached a sharp ridge, where Hall believes we’re walking in the expedition’s footprints because it’s too steep on either side for humans and horses.
Some disputes surround the exact route, but Hall is a former highway engineer who is convinced, based on the expedition’s surveys and maps, and 20 years of “ground truthing” their journals, that he now knows where they stood.
“Clark was an engineer and a surveyor,” Hall said. “To me, it was important to locate where they were. I get enjoyment out of that, using nothing more than what Clark left – maps, camps and descriptions of the topography.”
As we hiked downward, the snow melted to soggy ground and the only sound was our footsteps. We saw bear scat and elk sign, claw marks where a bear climbed a tree, and the dog flushed up three grouse. It’s easy to imagine the expedition moving through here – hungry and cold, according to their journal entries, and perhaps just a little lost at times.
Too soon, after passing through a stand of old-growth Ponderosa pines and areas cleared of downfall by the retired smokejumpers, we’re back at our vehicles after the 2.7-mile hike. The light rain is turning into a storm, and it’s time to leave.
Yet while it’s the end of the road for us, it’s not for Hall and Furniss. They’re teaming up for a two-hour class on the route and the botany, Sept. 28 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Darby High School, as part of an adult education class.
And they plan to return to the trail next year, when the smokejumpers return for additional trail maintenance. Hall already is making a list of areas where newly downed trees need removal, and where a few more small trail markers would be helpful.
“They’re retired and like to come out in the summertime and volunteer one week at a time to clear trails, because the budgets anymore of the Forest Service are really tight,” Hall said. “We’ve got some work for them to do.”