Lewis and Clark Cross the Continental Divide
The Corps of Discovery would next be crossing the Continental Divide (the point at which river and streams flow westward toward the Pacific). The trip proved extremely treacherous over steep cliffs in which their horses were in constant danger of slipping to their deaths. There were virtually no animals to hunt, and by September 3, the last of the salt pork had been eaten. Finally, the Corps of Discovery successfully crossed the Continental Divide and traveled into the valley of the Bitterroot Mountains. There, they traded with some local Indians and acquired some additional horses. On September 10, the Corps camped at Traveler’s Rest. Hunters from the Corps collected badly needed game as well as three Nez Perce Indians who agreed to accompany them through the imposing Bitterroot Mountains.
Unfortunately, the trip was delayed and the Indians abandoned the Corps. Old Toby, a guide who remained with the group, attempted to lead the expedition along the Nez Perce Trail through the Bitterroots, but became confused and disoriented. Meanwhile, the weather turned as rain, hail, and eight inches of snow stalled the journey. Food was in low supply. On September 17, several starving horses strayed from the camp. It took all morning to round them up. The men too were starving and near the limits of their physical endurance. The Corps resorted to eating the horses – but soon their were no more horses to eat. William Clark and several hunters were sent ahead to the plains in the hopes of finding game to send back to the main camp. After four days, one of the hunters returned to the main camp with fish and dried roots obtained by Clark from the Nez Perce Indians. That evening Clark and the rest of the hunters returned to camp.
Clark returned with vital information. He had met a Nez Perce chief named Twisted Hair who described the waterways that led to the falls of the Columbia River (the river the Corps knew led to the Pacific). The chief told Clark it was a ten day trip from his village to the destination. Twisted Hair also showed Clark how to make canoes more efficiently and agreed to watch the horses until they returned the following spring. On October 7, 1805, the Corps of Discovery, with newly built canoes, set sail with a westward current.
Despite losing supplies while trying to navigate dangerous rapids, the Corps of Discovery successfully reached and sailed the Columbia River. On November 7, 1805, Meriwether Lewis thought he saw the Pacific Ocean. In reality, it was the estuary of the Columbia. By the time they realized their actual location, it was too late. Bad weather and high waters trapped the Corps at Point Ellice. Overhanging rocks made it impossible for them to travel anywhere, including to hunt. Luckily, they were able to trade for food with the local Clatsop Indians, who were able to cross the estuary in their heavy coastal canoes.