Volume XI, Issue 4 ~ January 23-29, 2003

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A Bicentennial and the Bay: What Lewis and Clark Means To Us

You may have missed it because the local dailies didn’t pay much attention to the national kickoff of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial. Over the next three years, millions of Americans will be retracing the footsteps and paddling in the wake of the Corps of Discovery, who opened up the American West.

Theirs is a humdinger of an adventure story, the kind of heroic tale we yearn for in times when so much seems out of our control. But beyond offering good stories of courage and friendship, the celebrations also inspire Americans to find deeper meanings and to measure what has happened to their land in 200 years.

Bay Weekly traveled to the kickoff, at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, joining thousands of scholars, history buffs, students, political leaders and American Indians.

The gathering in Charlottesville also considered the state of a great American waterway — the 2,400-mile Missouri, the longest of our rivers and the expedition’s pathway.

Jefferson’s determination that Americans would follow the Missouri across the continent reassembled 3,000 chilly commemorators in Charlottesville for several days of seminars and events paying tribute to the famed Voyage of Discovery.

Among the impressions we bring back is how, across these vast distances, we’re all connected.

First, there’s connection across space. The first step in that epic journey was taken in Washington, where Congress approved Jefferson’s January 18, 1803, request for $2,500 to equip the Corps of Discovery. Preparation and the journey itself proceeded from Virginia to Washington to Harpers Ferry to Kentucky to Missouri and up that 2,400-mile river and beyond, across the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean.

For good and ill, that amazing journey pushed America’s horizon westward to another ocean, connecting America by its great watersheds.

By the fates of those great watersheds we’re also bound. With the Corps of Discovery’s return to St. Louis three years later in 1806, the way to the West was open — and the fate of the river that carried them sealed. “Today, Lewis and Clark would not recognize their river,” wrote the late Stephen Ambrose, author of Undaunted Courage, the wildly successful account of the journey.

In the last half-century, much of the sprawling, unpredictable river called “Big Muddy” has been channelized, dammed, diked and sped up for barges that seldom float there. In the process, the lively ecosystem the river nourished has been devastated.

Sound familiar?

There are, of course, differences between the Missouri and Chesapeake Bay. Navigation, safety from floods and agriculture drove the destruction of the Missouri. Our own far wider Chesapeake has not been so re-engineered. Nonetheless, because of development and pollution from its shores, the Bay ecosystem’s host of problems rival those of the Missouri River.

In the Lewis and Clark bicentennial — undertaken with high hopes for education, preservation, restoration and reconciliation and solemnized by musket fire and Indian drumming before a gathering of chiefs from many tribes and states — there are lessons for Chesapeake Country.

We still have a Bay to save. But, as Montana coordinator for the environmental organization American Rivers Mark Albers said of the Missouri and the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, “the door is closing quickly. Now is all the time we have.”

Here in Chesapeake Country, where the focus of many of our leaders has shifted to other problems, we had better not be deluded into believing that the Bay can survive on its own.

Because if we let down our guard, as they did along the Missouri River, we’ll have lost our historic treasure when our times to celebrate roll around.



Copyright 2003 Bay Weekly
Last updated January 23, 2003 @ 3:13am