Thursday, June 12, 2014

"The Grandest Sight I Ever Beheld"

Swallows forage in the swirling air currents of Rainbow Falls in early June on the Missouri River

Two hundred and nine years ago today, a small group of explorers on foot clambered upon a series of five waterfalls in central Montana.

They were the first white guys to see these thundering falls that the local Blackfeet residents had known for generations. Even the Mandan, living weeks downstream in North Dakota, had told the party of explorers about "Minni-Sose-Tanka-Kun-Ya," the great falls. Still, the explorers could hardly believe their eyes, and their chief scribe had a hard time describing the scene in his journal.

"I hurryed down the hill which was about 200 feet high and difficult of access, to gaze on this sublimely grand specticle. ... immediately at the cascade the river is about 300 yds. wide; about ninety or a hundred yards of this next the Lard. bluff is a smoth even sheet of water falling over a precipice of at least eighty feet, the remaining part of about 200 yards on my right formes the grandest sight I ever beheld, the hight of the fall is the same of the other but the irregular and somewhat projecting rocks below receives the water in it's passage down and brakes it into a perfect white foam which assumes a thousand forms in a moment sometimes flying up in jets of sparkling foam to the hight of fifteen or twenty feet and are scarcely formed before large roling bodies of the same beaten and foaming water is thrown over and conceals them."

"I most sincerely regreted that I had not brought a crimee [camera] obscura with me by the assistance of which even I could have hoped to have done better but alas this was also out of my reach; I therefore with the assistance of my pen only indeavoured to traces some of the stronger features of this seen by the assistance of which and my recollection aided by some able pencil I hope still to give to the world some faint idea of an object which at this moment fills me with such pleasure and astonishment, and which of its kind I will venture to ascert is second to but one in the known world."

- Meriwether Lewis
June 13, 1805

The expedition had expected a half-mile portage around the falls. What they found instead was a month-long, 18-mile portage that included incidents with grizzly bears, a wolverine, mountain lion, three ornery bison bulls, lots of rattlesnakes, countless prickly pear and mosquitoes stabbing them, and torrential downpours with large hail. Welcome to summer in Montana...