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Volunteers retraceLewis and Clark's trip

The 55-foot keelboat with members of the Discovery Expedition of St. Charles, Mo., is dwarfed as it passes the riverboat Eleanor Gordon on the Ohio River.Charles Rex Arbogast / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

In late 1803, Capt. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark went largely unnoticed as they navigated more than 1,000 miles on the Monongahela, Ohio and Mississippi rivers en route to where their historic expedition began near St. Louis.

Two hundred years later, volunteers with the Discovery Expedition, a living-history group based in St. Charles, Mo., have spent more than three months retracing that forgotten leg of the trip -- with a lot more fanfare.

The group was expected to arrive Friday at the historic departure point in the town of Wood River, across the Mississippi from St. Louis, passing this river town in the state's far southwest along the way.

The re-enactors are led by Scott Mandrell, who portrays Lewis. Like Lewis, Mandrell keeps a detailed journal of his travels. Unlike Lewis, Mandrell has a laptop.

"After 200 years of this story living in the shadows of American history books, it is exciting to be a part of the effort to expose it to the light of day," said Mandrell, a school teacher in the St. Louis suburb of Clayton, Mo. "It is America's 'Illiad' and 'Odyssey.'"

Traveling in replica boats, the volunteers dodge riverboat traffic 10 times the size of their vessels. School children have toured the camp and boats, and residents have lowered homecooked food to the re-enactors as they pass through locks and dams.

The Lewis and Clark expedition is legendary for its trip through the West, as the explorers unsuccessfully tried to locate a more direct trade route to the Pacific Ocean.

To prepare for that journey, Lewis had to marshal men, supplies and the 55-foot keelboat that carried them from Pennsylvania to Wood River.

Lewis had been the private secretary to President Thomas Jefferson, who tapped him to lead the expedition. Lewis recruited his old military friend Clark in Clarksville, Ind., and they arrived in the St. Louis area in early December of 1803.

They began the historic expedition from the mouth of the Wood River in May of 1804.

A rotating group of 25 to 30 men from the Discovery Expedition's 250 members have faithfully navigated the day-to-day events of Lewis and Clark since their departure from Elizabeth, Pa., on Aug. 31, 2003.

Times have changed.

Earthen dikes, locks and dams, and dredged rivers have transformed the pastoral water the original expedition navigated into muddy bottlenecks _ forcing the use of motorized boats.

Then there is the public.

Onlookers have gathered on the riverbanks to wave as the expedition passed by. In Ravenswood, W.Va., a woman asked the boat what they needed, then returned the next morning with meat from a deer she killed. In Mount Vernon, Ind., the members of an American Legion post invited the travelers in for drinks.

"We have seen the best of American generosity and kindness in the last thousand miles," said Jay Rotkin, 50, a pipefitter from Indianapolis.

Walking beneath a starry sky this month, just yards from the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, Mandrell said he enjoyed seeing the founding dates of towns become more recent as his group moved west.

"As we came down the Ohio we saw the America story unfold," Mandrell said. "Our river system is like the timeline of American history, and it's an unfinished story."

You can follow the Discovery Expedition at