Lewis & Clark’s Camp Fortunate


There’s not a lot to see as you travel between Butte, Montana and Idaho Falls, Idaho.  You’ll only pass one town worth mentioning: Dillon, MT, a farming community with just a few thousand residents, that’s just big enough to provide a radio station for your listening-while-driving pleasure (including, if you’re lucky, a farm report).  At least the scenery remains beautiful, with mountains ranging from far-off to nearby, until you cross into Idaho.

Unless you need gas or a snack, you’ll probably blow right past Dillon.  But it would be a mistake to pass a poorly signed point of great historical interest, Lewis & Clark’s “Camp Fortunate”, at the Clark Canyon State Recreation Area.

The Clark Canyon Reservoir and Recreation Area is about 20 miles south of Dillon, MT on Interstate 15.  You’ll see the lake from the highway.

There are several things worth noticing at this exit.  The first is the manmade lake, created by the Clark Canyon Dam, which you will drive over to reach the second point of interest, the Camp Fortunate overlook.

Camp Fortunate was a turning point for Lewis & Clark’s exploration.  It was here that they met the Shoshone Indians, and Sacajawea was reunited with her people (she was kidnapped by another tribe around the age of 12).  They sampled salmon for the first time.  Most important of all, they were able to stock up for the trip over the Rockies, and to the Pacific.

Of course, in 1805, there was no dam here, and no lake.  Camp Fortunate was located on land that’s now underwater, between the dam and the island in the middle of the lake.

There are a couple of different places to stop, look out over the lake, and perhaps read an interpretive sign or two.  You can also see this hollowed-out canoe, presumably similar to the ones Lewis & Clark used. (In order to understand why there’s a red mug on the canoe, you’ll have to visit my other website, www.bigredmug.com.)

One more point of interest worth checking out, before you hop back on the interstate, is the 45th parallel sign atop the dam.   the sign marks the halfway point between the Equator and North Pole.  Unfortunately, if you want to stand next to the sign for a picture, you’ll have to park at the end of the dam and walk across (there’s no stopping allowed on the top of the dam, and I imagine a potential terror target like a dam would have some kind of security–although I didn’t see any).

Back on I-15, I crossed into Idaho, and the landscape quickly became boring.  The mountains were pushed back into the distance, leaving nothing but monotonous flatlands near the road.  The only surprise was a very brief appearance of a ray of sunlight, beyond the western mountains.  It’s the first time I had seen the sun in two days, so I quickly pulled off to the side of the road, deployed a tripod, and snapped a few pictures.

In the 10 minutes or so that I stood there beside the interstate, only two cars passed.  That’s a seriously lonely interstate.  I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you’ve ever had the desire to stand in the middle of a freeway, drop your pants and sing the Star-Spangled Banner, this is the place to do it.  And no, to answer your question, no I did not.  I just thought of it as I wrote this.  But if I ever go back, well, I can’t make any guarantees.

From here, I drove in darkness to Idaho Falls.  It’s a boring hour-long drive that seems much farther, as you stare down a straight highway with a vast nothingness on either side.

Note: This trip was first published in 2006.  Much of the same area was covered in the Big Sky trip in 2014.

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