BILLINGS - Last month’s pilot project enabling 10 high school students to spend four days piloting the Missouri River the same way Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery did two centuries ago has left a lasting impression, float trip participants said.
“The fact that you get to see and hear about all these historic things about the Lewis and Clark expedition and see firsthand the places they were and the things they experienced — seeing it with your own eyes was pretty awesome,” said Spencer Noble, 17, a senior at Powder River County District High School in Broadus. “History hasn’t always interested me, but this trip sure broadened my attention — every time we talked about what Lewis and Clark were doing.”
Nine Powder River students joined Taehler Tobey, an eighth-grader from Laurel, on a trip paid for with a grant from the Lewis and Clark Heritage Foundation of Great Falls.
Together with her husband, Michael, a Lewis and Clark expert, Ella Mae Howard joined the students, their chaperones and an outfitter for the 46-mile journey. She secured the foundation grant that paid for the educational voyage, which occurred July 19-22 and began south of Big Sandy and concluded at Judith River.
With a strong wind blowing in their faces, “the first day out was pretty grim,” she said. “When we got in for our lunch break, the kids were discouraged, and I was discouraged. But then Mother Nature blessed us.”
Whether they were paddling their rafts or sitting around a campfire at night, students heard stories about what the Corps of Discovery was up to at various locations along the river.
“One of the life lessons we talked about was a fellow named (Private John) Newman, who was supposed to be part of the party but spoke about mutiny early on in the trip, before (the captains) decided who would go on as part of the permanent party,” Howard said. “He realizes his mistake and every day he does what the captains want him to do, but he was already kicked out.”
When polled, most students said they would have allowed Newman to remain, Howard said.
“The kids were very forgiving, but Lewis would not take him,” she said. “He ran a pretty strict military organization, so (Newman) wrote himself right out of the history books.”
Powder River teachers Jesse and Connie Barnhart, who also accompanied the students, said the trip was enjoyable for rafters young and old alike.
“We thought taking kids down the Missouri was the best way to spend (the foundation’s) money,” Jesse Barnhart said. “It was breathtaking scenery, and they were able to live a little piece of the Lewis and Clark experience. We were very fortunate to have such knowledgeable people as the Howards floating with us.”
“They had amazing experiences, and they gained a new appreciation for Lewis and Clark,” said Connie Barnhart, who photographed those experiences along the trip. “They’d put their tents up, do the cooking and clean up afterward. Then they’d listen to the (Lewis and Clark) journals.”
The bond students formed along the way made Jesse Barnhart, a history teacher, think of the bonds created long ago by the Corps of Discovery members.
“There is a correlation here,” he said. “When Lewis and Clark started off, it wasn’t a solid unit. But it turned into a close-knit military operation. These kids developed teamwork skills just like Lewis and Clark did. On that first day when we had a strong headwind, they had to paddle like heck. They soon found out it wasn’t going to be a picnic.”
The Howards also were careful to enlighten students about Native American influences, Jesse Barnhart said.
“We learned a lot about ancient geography and explored some of the Native American culture,” he said. “It helped that (Ella Mae) had given each of the students her book (“Lewis and Clark Exploration of Central Montana”) to read before we left.”
Chaperones praised the work performed by an important part of any successful float trip: the outfitter, which in this case was Great Falls-based Mountain River Outfitters.
“There was a fellow named Jay who took care of us the whole way,” Jesse Barnhart said. “He was very experienced, and he made it a very safe, enjoyable experience for the students. He made the trip with his very nice sense of humor.”
“And I’m pretty sure,” his wife added, “that Lewis and Clark didn’t eat like we did. They were quite well provisioned, much more so than Lewis and Clark. One night, they had laid out for us chicken Alfredo and a nice salad and they finished it off with pound cake.”
Upon their return, students took time to write to the Howards to express their appreciation and tell them what they learned during the expedition.
“What they wrote was amazing,” Jesse Barnhart said. “They wrote about how much they learned and how much fun they had. It was the trip of a lifetime, something most of us don’t do until we’re middle-aged.”