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Summer 2001: Following the Lewis and Clark Trail

Posted by Linda Swantson 10/20/2016 11:20:42 AM

"I asscended to the top of the cutt bluff this morning, from whence I had a most delightfull view of the country, the whole of which except the valley formed by the Missouri is void of timber or underbrush, exposing to the first glance of the spectator immence herds of Buffaloe, Elk, deer, & Antelopes feeding in one common and boundless pasture..."     Meriwether Lewis, April 22, 1805

I had no idea what I was getting us into. "It'll be fun!" and "Think of it as an adventure!" were a few of the phrases I used to convince my two daughters, ages 10 and 13, to join me on the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Wagon Train. My husband wanted none of it.

Pure selfishness was my motivation. I love the outdoors, I love camping and I love horses.  I wanted my daughters to not only ride real horses, but also to learn what it might have been like back in the days when horses and wagons were the principal means of transportation. There would be no TV, no Game Boys and no video games. In the end, pure force prevailed. I made them come with me. Not that they had to be dragged kicking and screaming, they just didn't think this sounded like that much fun.

That was in 1999. We loved it so much we went again last summer and hope to make it a yearly tradition.

As Lewis and Clark's legendary journey nears its 200th anniversary, the West River Teamsters decided to celebrate the occasion by inviting the public to join them in retracing a small portion of the famous explorers' trail.  The West River Teamsters are a group of people dedicated to preserving a part of history (horses and covered wagons) that was important to the settlement of this part of the country.

So,in covered wagons and on horseback, teamster members lead the wagon train and their paying guests from Fort Abraham Lincoln south of Mandan to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center at Washburn to nearby Fort Mandan.  The four-day trip offers outdoor adventure, a step back in history and a chance to experience a spirit of kinship and fun on the open prairie.

After driving across North Dakota and making a last minute stop for flashlight batteries and bug spray, my daughters and I arrived at the Fort Lincoln campsite in mid-afternoon. Throughout the day the horses and wagons have been gathering.  Old friends say hello and we pitch our tent close to a horse trailer to shelter it from the constant wind.

We eat a hearty supper then drift toward the blazing campfire on that first clear, starry evening. A fiddler and three guitarists play tune after tune. Some people even get up to dance by the firelight. At the end of the evening the trail boss announces that breakfast will be served at 6:30 a.m. Several groans and mutterings are heard as everyone disperses for bed, tired but excited for the journey to begin.

Wagons ho

The next morning we wake to the sound of horses whinnying just outside our cozy tent. I make a mental note to pitch our tent farther away from the horses for the rest of the trip. We crawl out in the pre-dawn light and see the wagon masters bringing the great Clydesdale and Percheron horses to the watering tank. After breakfast the horses are saddled and wagons are packed for the day ahead. As the trail boss lets out a mighty 'Wagons Ho!' the wagons creak into motion. The sight and feel of this moment is incredible.

Time after time I find myself gazing into the vast expanse of the beautiful North Dakota landscape with rolling hills and cattle grazing, without a road or building in sight. Out on the prairie like this you can't help but imagine what it must have been like for the pioneers. 

David Bannon brought his family of five from New York to join the wagon train. They met with six other family members to sort of make it a family reunion adventure. Bannon said, "We had a great time - all of our kids really enjoyed it too, and it's not easy to please all of the ages we had along."

The best memory for Bannon was the wide-open North Dakota prairie. "It was great to be able to go riding with my kids and the rest of our family under the big, open sky, and it's just the way it was back in the 1800s."

Evening camp the second night was in a breathtaking little valley along the Heart River. Dinner included barbecued ribs, baked potatoes, salad and homemade pie. That night when the campfire got going, Foxy, a West River Teamsters (WRT) member, got out her guitar and sang old-time gospel and campfire songs. Foxy owns a beauty salon and insists she was born in the wrong century. She rides in different wagons throughout the day and if youÕre nearby, you can generally hear her belting out a tune.

Many of the WRT members own their own wagons and teams of horses. The great Clydesdales, Percherons and Belgians can weigh up to 2,000 pounds each. Kenny Shultz drives a team of Percherons, Bob and Babe, and sometimes lets a guest drive the team. Under rein these horses are as responsive as the steering wheel on a car; but off rein leading a hungry Percheron through a pasture of tasty clover is not as easy as it might sound. If Bob decides the clump of clover just off to his right looks tasty, you go along for the walk, like it or not.

The wagons these horses pull weigh about 1,000 pounds empty and quite a bit more when loaded with people and supplies. No wagon is the same on this trip. Some are new, replicas of historic wagons. Some are modern with rubber tires and springs. Some are the real thing, well over 100 years old, lovingly restored by their owners. They are all covered, providing welcome relief from the sun on hot days.

Crossing the Heart River

The following morning we prepared to cross the Heart River. There was no bridge, so we crossed the riverbed in the wagons and on horseback. The river was not very deep at the crossing and everything went well. After that excitement everyone settled in for the day.  If a rider got tired, there were many kids and adults ready to ride.

It's interesting going on a trip like this. There are people from all over the world. You can't help but get to know the people you're eating supper with every night.

Gary Vinney rides his own horse that he keeps with a friend in North Dakota. Originally from North Dakota, Gary lives in California and builds satellite systems for the space program. He wants to move back to North Dakota some day, buy some land and be a real cowboy. Gary's hobby is leatherwork and his skills were in great demand when folks found out he had his toolkit along. At night he repaired saddlebags, stirrups, reins and more.

"Sometimes," Gary said, "while I was riding alongside the wagon train, I'd watch the men driving the teams and listen to the sound of the wagons.  150 years ago the same kind of people crossed these plains. For me, it was truly a way to touch the past."

"There are so many good memories of the trip - like being treated as a member of the group, not just as a guest; riding with real, hard-working cowboys; having my horse under me for five days straight and feeling the saddle mold to my legs; being able to see the horizon every day; the cool, sweet smell of the prairie in the mornings. And the stars! Never have I seen stars like those above the North Dakota prairie," Gary said.

The next night we stayed at the Price Ranch. The WRT hosted a pitchfork fondue where steaks are threaded onto the prongs of a pitchfork then submerged into a vat of boiling oil. Once the sun went down, the campfire was lit and the music began.  Toward the end of the evening, a lone fiddler played sad, haunting tunes from the 1800s. Going to sleep to that music was an experience I'll never forget. I felt like I had been transported to another time.

The next day was particularly hot. When we stopped for lunch I flopped down in the shade of some trees in the tall grass. I remember looking up, through the blades of grass and the leaves of the trees at the bright blue sky and thinking about what an amazing experience the trip was for all of us. That afternoon we passed a field of bison and later a herd of elk. Evening brought us a beautiful view of the mighty Missouri River and more great food and entertainment. A blacksmith demonstrated horseshoeing on one of the big workhorses and a young family sang the songs of the early pioneers.

The last day we made an early start so we could cross the bridge over the Missouri River into Washburn. With traffic on both ends of the bridge stopped, you could only hear the cloppity clop of the horses' hooves and the loud clattering of the wagons. The sight of all of the wagons, horses and riders crossing the bridge was incredible.

That last night we camped at Fort Mandan, where the Corps of Discovery spent the winter of 1804-5. It was a fitting place for the end of the Lewis and Clark Wagon Train. Tired and dusty, my daughters and I pounded in our last tent stake that night and wished we could start all over again.

The dates for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Wagon Train are July 26-29 in 2001 and July 25-28 in 2002. For further information, call toll-free 877-865-8627 or visit

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