Upstream With a Paddle
May 11, 2004 9:34 AM   Subscribe

Lewis and Clark traveled up the Missouri River from the Mississippi to the Rockies, over 2,000 miles. UPSTREAM. What the hell? If you have to explore the river, why not just get some horses and wagons and walk alongside it? Why kill yourself paddling against the current for 2,000 miles?
posted by luser to Travel & Transportation (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Couple of ideas:

1. Along the rivers, in the prairie states, there's lots and lots of trees. You can't walk alongside the river very easily. Forget horses and wagons (see #3 below).

2. When you get to a tributary to your main river, how do you cross that tributary? BTW - there are lots and lots and lots of tributaries to the Missouri - more than appear on maps.

3. Open ground "back then" was much different from what you think of as open ground now. It is rough.

4. By going upstream, you won't risk unexpectedly going over a waterfall.

5. They went upstream because they already knew where the river WENT, they wanted to explore where it CAME FROM.

6. They didn't paddle against the current; usually, they used poles, pushed agains the river bottom.

7. The Missouri River usually had a slow current anyway.

8. Where it would be possible to use horses, you can use a horse to pull the boat, rather than a wagon. This is a lighter load for the horse. See old Erie Canal documentation.

Disclosure: I live in South Dakota.
posted by yesster at 9:48 AM on May 11, 2004

No trails existed, and I doubt that off-road wagon technology had progressed as far as it has today. I would have been a constant struggle to get the damn things over rocks, out of mud, across unexpected streams, etc.
posted by mr_roboto at 9:50 AM on May 11, 2004

roads. that's why. rivers are hard, due to current, but they're generally barrier-free and offer a surefire way of finding your way back the way you came. going overland isn't easy at all, it's incredibly dangerous and time consuming with no roads. you don't get attacked by any animals on the river, you don't waste days going around swamps or ravines, you don't have to chop through undergrowth to cut a trail.

even with the roads, travel overland is harder. see any book on the westward expansion for details. overland, whatever you carry with you must actually be carried by something. boats in water allow you to load much more supplies per unit of trnasportation, as the bouyancy of the boat does most of the carrying for you. if you go overland with no road, you really can't take a wagonload of supplies without worrying about making a road to drive the wagon on, how you'll feed the animals that pull the wagon (thus increasing the need for supplies!), how you'll repair broken axles or wheels, etc...
posted by caution live frogs at 9:54 AM on May 11, 2004

That brings up a good point. If you go upstream, at any point you can quit and get home with zero effort.
posted by smackfu at 10:05 AM on May 11, 2004

In wilderness, rivers are the main routes for trade and settlement. You can haul a lot more trade goods and bring back more raw materials in a flatboat than on a horse's back. So you want to know and map the river routes. French Canadian voyageurs had been paddling around the interior of the Americas for a hundred years before Lewis and Clark.
posted by zaelic at 10:24 AM on May 11, 2004

This book will back-up what has been said above:Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West.
posted by Dick Paris at 11:01 AM on May 11, 2004

1) Hiking along the bank is problematic.
2) The goal was to find a navigable water route.
3) They spent plenty of time traveling overland.
4) Paddling a canoe upstream is hard, but much *faster* than hauling tons of gear over rough ground.

One of the problem of hiking along the Missouri is that you can get lost rather easily due to the high brush and trees. And there are many sloughs and cut-offs that make you think you're next to the river when you really aren't.
posted by y6y6y6 at 11:25 AM on May 11, 2004

The Ambrose book recommended by Ditk Paris above is an awful cut-and-paste effort with little genius, lots of spurious "quoting" of single words, and a good story wrecked by the ego of a hack writer. Still, it does contain the basis facts of the Lewis & Clark expedition, although given the 200th anniversary, I bet you could find better books on the topic at any bookstore. I particularly recommend the annotated journals.
posted by Mo Nickels at 12:00 PM on May 11, 2004

Am I the only person who wondered why they didn't just fly.
posted by seanyboy at 1:35 PM on May 11, 2004

Your right they could have gone overland. I think they were out to find a navigable path to the Pacific and going by boat was the way to do that. They thought they would have a short portage over Great Falls, but were struck a mighty blow by the Bitteroot Mountains.
posted by stbalbach at 8:41 PM on May 11, 2004

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