Retracing the Lewis and Clark Trail turns into adventure
Seattle Times copy editor
"Backtracking," Benjamin Long explains, is a method of tracking animals. Instead of following footprints in pursuit of a beast, you follow tracks back to where the animal has already been. You get to see how the creature interacts with other animals and with the wilds where it lives - not just how it flees when pursued.
It's an apt name for this book in which Long and his wife backtrack the route of Lewis and Clark, keyed to how wildlife and nature have fared since 1806.
What the couple find is relatively small, often-endangered pockets of grizzly bears, gray wolves, Columbia sharptail grouse, prairie dogs, white sturgeons, and other flora and fauna encountered by the Corps of Discovery.
When the Longs meet these creatures, it's on terms dramatically removed from the experience of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark - a gulf that aptly defines the nearly 200 years that have passed.
Long joins a Cessna-flying tracker whose mission of providing data to help repropagate wolves tragically extends to guiding helicopter gunners to wipe out a pack that's killing Montana cattle.
He spends time, too, with wildlife agents who trap and tag grizzlies, a bear Clark described in his journals as "a verry large and a turrible looking animal, which we found verry hard to kill.''
These modern grizzlies, however, are so thoroughly counted, tracked and researched as to have lost - in image at least - much of their wildness.
The bears wear radio collars linked to satellites. Hidden cameras in the woods spy on them. Long describes it as "Marlin Perkins meets George Orwell."
Long, an Idaho native, writes with a disciple's prose of the Western wilds and with humor about the couple's misadventures.
For example, there's a sleepless night of terror in a small tent when they're certain a grizzly has invaded their campsite. In the morning they find hoof prints left by a reckless and noisy mule deer.
The Corps of Discovery probably had such moments, too.
Long's book, winner of the Chinook Literary Prize for an original manuscript related to the Pacific Northwest, is divided into chapters defined by the animals and plants found by Lewis and Clark, who took seriously their charter to document such findings.
In recounting the author's own voyage of discovery, this enjoyable book is a call to preserve what America's most famous explorers saw nearly 200 years ago.