HAMILTON, Mont. Ted Hall is hoping to solve a mystery more than two centuries old.
On this morning, hes tromping his way over deadfall along a ridge covered in blackened trees.
Aiming for a rocky outcrop just southwest of the Lost Trail ski resort, Hall has his eyes on an open patch running the length of the next ridge to the west.
Thats where they went, he said. And just over the hill is where they camped.
In his minds eye, Hall can almost imagine the weary men dragging their horses up the steep ridge and across its rocky length as they made their way through uncharted territory.
Its been almost 20 years since Hall first began attempting to follow in the footsteps of Meriwether Lewis and William Clarks Corps of Discovery in their first journey across the Rocky Mountains.
Armed with an engineers mind and a pair of willing legs, Hall spent years attempting to follow the trail using the expeditions own maps and compass readings. He employed the young legs of David Brabec to handle portions of the trail that he couldnt conquer.
Last week, Hall led his own small expedition down Colter Creek to the small meadow where hes convinced the famous explorers spent the night of Sept. 3, 1805.
I know that is their campsite, Hall said. Im convinced of it now.
SEARCHED LONG AND HARD
Of the 407 miles covered by the Corps of Discovery beginning at Camp Fortunate in what is now Montana on Aug. 24 and ending at the Nez Perce canoe camp, near present-day Orofino, on Sept. 26, 1805, there was no place quite as intriguing for Hall as the portion now called Lost Trail.
Historians have debated the Corps route ever since it passed through that section of country, which is now along the Montana and Idaho state lines.
To this day, no one can say for certain where the tired men camped on the night of Sept. 3, 1805.
Ive searched long and hard to find someone who has hiked this section using the expeditions maps and compass readings, Hall said. I have yet to find a one.
Hall believes the conventional wisdom that the expedition followed Moose Creek is wrong, based on information that he gained with his own two feet following Clarks maps and compass readings.
Hall also depends greatly on an unpublished manuscript titled Lost with Lewis and Clark: A Mystery Solved. Written by Martha Edgerton Plassman, the document presents research accomplished by a man named James West Gallogly just 25 years after the famous expedition.
Gallogly wrote in 1830 that the Moose Creek route was blocked by dense growth, and he surmised that the explorers went up the North Fork of the Salmon River instead.
TRYING TO PIN SITE DOWN
Hall said the information points to the very ridge that he focuses on today. Better yet, that same ridge runs precisely in the direction documented by Clarks compass.
A former finalist for National Geographic magazines Peoples Choice Adventurers of the Year award, Jon Turk joined Halls recent expedition into the potential campsite.
It made so much sense when you saw it for yourself, Turk said. They said we followed a ridge 30 degrees west of north, and on the map, its the only ridge that runs 30 degrees west of north.
Considering the explorers had 32 horses with them at the time, Turk said he was convinced they wouldnt have dropped back into Moose Creek to camp.
I wouldnt lose that kind of elevation after I had worked so hard to gain it, he said. It fits the compass readings and it just looks right. Its really kind of cool.
PEOPLE OFTEN GET ALL EXCITED
Dan Hall of the Missoula-based Western Cultural Resource Management Service also made the hike. Hall was instrumental in documenting the location of the Corps of Discoverys camp at Travelers Rest along the Bitterroot River in Montana.
After taking a hard look at the potential Lost Trail campsite, he said he wasnt ready to make any pronouncement.
I dont know if its the right place or not, Dan Hall said. The features he showed me were more recent and probably occurred within the last 15 or 20 years.
The question about the trail still needs to be answered before Dan Hall said he would be ready to investigate further.
That answer is beyond me. I dont have the knowledge or the ability to make that decision, Dan Hall said.
People often get all excited about some kind of discovery that theyve made. They often dont realize how high the threshold has to be. There is a tremendous amount of research that has to be done before any kind of project like that could occur.
Bitterroot National Forest historian Mary Williams said anyone hoping to start an archaeological project at the potential campsite would have to obtain an Archaeological Resource Protection Act Permit first.
That needs to be accomplished for the protection of historical resources on public lands, Williams said. It ensures that any work done at the site would be completed to professional standards.
THE WORK CONTINUES
Lewis and Clarks actual path through the Lost Trail area has been one of the biggest mysteries of their journey ever since they came through this way, Williams said. If hes found the correct route, then more power to him.
Anyone following the trail and looking to uncover history on national forest lands needs to know the Forest Service is responsible for protecting archaeological sites, she said.
We sure dont want to discourage investigation of a site like this, but at the same time we want to make sure that everything is done correctly and legally, Williams said. These are resources that belong to all Americans. If people find an artifact, they need to leave it where they find it.
Meanwhile, Hall plans to keep looking for something that will prove him right.
Sgt. John Ordway traveled with the Corps and kept his own journal. He wrote that the company stayed in a cove near the head of a branch running early an opposite course from the branch we dined on at noon.
Hall believes firmly that the little meadow just off Colter Creek he discovered almost by accident years ago matches that description.
From my perspective, Im at peace, he said. I know Clarks maps are right. I know the compass readings are right. I dont know anyone else who has used both to follow their path through here.
If someone has, I wish they would let me know.