More than 80 4th-graders from Westside Elementary School spent Monday learning about the Lewis and Clark expedition on ground very near to where the explorers actually trod nearly 200 years ago.
The students were at Maryhill Museum for the annual Museum Week, whose theme this year was “Lewis and Clark at Maryhill.” The kids participated in a series of activities, led by museum volunteers, designed to help bring the explorers to life.
“They went by this point, going down the river in canoes, on Oct. 21-22, 1805,” said museum volunteer Fred Henchell, pointing over the bluff in front of the museum. The students gathered around Henchell on the grassy bluff to learn about geography, mapmaking, and methods of transportation on the expedition.
Henchell handed out reproductions of maps the explorers had made of the area around Maryhill, which closely resembled today’s landscape — including an island in the middle of the river and the mouth of the Deschutes River opening into the Columbia.
“On their way back (the next year), we know one of the explorers hiked to the top of Haystack Butte,” Henchell said, pointing to a hill behind the museum.
“We don’t know that they walked right here,” he said, pointing to the ground where the kids sat, “but we know they were right near here.” Henchell passed around an old surveyor’s compass similar to the ones Lewis and Clark would have used, and demonstrated with a sextant how the explorers would have determined latitude and longitude. Henchell also talked about the importance of the journals the explorers kept, with detailed descriptions of everything from plants and animals to geology and weather.
“They went on this incredible journey that took two years and covered over 8,000 miles,” Henchell said. “It’s an amazing thing they accomplished.”
Another activity focused on the explorers’ journals and the descriptions and pictures they drew of their discoveries.
“They had to really notice what was going on around them and be really watchful,” said museum volunteer Alice Bonham. “Lewis and Clark were like that on their whole journey out and their whole journey back.” To give the kids their own chance to be observant, Bonham read a description of an animal to them without naming it, and the students drew their own renditions of it. Most of the kids thought it was a badger or a bobcat, but the “mystery” animal turned out to be a lynx. One of the big hits of the day was a living history presentation by volunteers Raunchy and Liska Crowley, who depicted the life of mountain men — one of the first of whom had been a member of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery — in the early 1800s.
“Why were the mountain men out here in the first place?” Raunchy asked. “For animal trapping.” He demonstrated how a beaver trap worked, then passed around a beaver pelt, explaining that beaver hats were the style of the day and mountain men could earn $4-5 for one pelt.
“In those days, farmers were only making about 50 cents to a dollar a month,” he said.
The Crowleys also passed around an otter pelt, explaining that Americans didn’t think much of them but they were in high demand in China, which opened up a whole new market for the mountain men. The Crowleys, who were dressed in period garb, showed how their clothing — adopted from the Indians — helped keep them warm and was much more sensible for living in the elements than was white man’s clothing.
Raunchy showed the students spears the mountain men forged out of metal and beads they used to trade with the Indians.
“The original plan of most mountain men was to come out here for two or three years and go home rich,” he said. “Very few of them did, but they did open up the West and did a lot of exploring. We owe them a great deal.”
The students had lunch on the museum grounds and finished the day with an interactive, audience-participation Lewis and Clark play given by the Actors in Action Theater in Portland.
The Lewis and Clark theme and the interactive nature of the day’s activities seemed to be a hit with the Westside students.
“I learned how they made their baskets and I learned what they carried in them,” said 4th-grader Frances Burns, after a demonstration in the Native American Gallery.
Kenzie Yoshimura, another 4th-grader, liked the mountain men demonstration. “I liked that they let us hold stuff,” she said. “I got to hold a coat and the beaver skins.” She looked around the museum for a moment.
“Oh, I love it here,” she said.