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Idaho's index finger

The narrow Idaho Panhandle is such a strange appendage. Panhandle is an odd name to describe an index finger. We can blame Oklahoma for the panhandle nomenclature, but whom or what is to blame for that narrow digit? No state in the oversized west should have such constrictive borders; Idaho isn’t Vermont.  Idaho was part of Washington Territory that stretched from the Pacific to the Continental Divide, Montana was part of Dakota Territory that began on the northern Great Plains and stretched to the Continental Divide. Something very illogical occurred when Idaho and Montana were carved into territories of their own.

Rather than reasonably adhering to the older boundary of the Continental Divide, the new map makers bulged Montana territory west to include the Bitterroot Valley, Clark Fork River, Flathead Lake, Glacier Park, Missions, Cabinets, Whitefish ranges. That is a mighty nice chunk of real estate,

Some folks have joked that the 1863 surveyors were drunk and confused about their whereabouts. The survey crew would not need to have been drunk to get confused on a mountaintop in southwest Montana. William Clark did, probably on the same mountain.

Meriwether Lewis was camped with Sacajawea’s Shoshoni people on the eastern side of the Divide, trying to secure horses. Clark, after crossing the Continental Divide near Lemhi Pass, was scouting around for the best route west. Both men realized that this was the divide they had been seeking; all rivers now ran west to the Pacific. Clark travelled down the Salmon River to the rapids shown in my column photo above and rejected the “river of no return” as a route. He climbed the mountains north, became confused and wandered around for a few days, thereby naming the region Lost Trail Pass.

This region has very confusing geography. Chief Joseph was perhaps relying on this too much. He and his band of refugee Nez Perce had successfully avoided conflict and outflanked their enemies. The band had snuck into the Big Hole Valley on a little known side path that arises in the Lost Trail Pass region. It was there on the Big Hole river where the army attacked the sleeping families in the dawn mist.

One reason for the perplexing topography is that here the Continental Divide, which has been predictably wriggling northwest since leaving Wyoming, abruptly turns northeast. So abruptly—it is my hunch—that the surveyors missed it in 1863 and instead followed the crest of the Bitterroot Mountains, assuming they were along the Divide.

If the survey party saw the large river below flowing north, it fit their belief that they were on the Divide. Lots of rivers in Montana—i.e. the Missouri—flow north before turning east. Their work along these high peaks would have begun in the summer.  How many weeks of rough travel and rocky campsites did it take them to bushwhack along the crest of the Bitterroots before their mistake became obvious? How many hard won miles could be figured out, because the location of the surveyor’s Eureka! moment is known. The high site is one of only two places along the Bitterroot Crest that affords a view of a big river valley below, and one of those views—from upper Trout Creek—is often foggy in late summer.

My other hunch is that they, when seeing the big, sinuous Clark Fork River below, a big river flowing west, did not say “Eureka!”; they did not say, “Oh good, we get to backtrack a couple hundred miles, and start over again next summer.”

Whatever they said was written on the wind, but what they decided to do is written on stone. On Divide Mountain, in addition to the valley view of the big river, there is a monument of rocks and a plaque identifying the Idaho/Montana border. From this point, the surveyors struck a line straight north. No more wiggling along mountain crests, following a non-Continental Divide, no more fooling around; just a straight line north to Canada.

And there’s the index finger of Idaho. We in western Montana could feel guilty about Idaho’s loss, but it’s doubtful since so little guilt is expressed about Native Americans’ losses. All of us Montanans enjoy not paying sales tax. Many of us appreciate having a pragmatic person rather than an ideologue for governor. And most of us recognize that western Montana and the Idaho Panhandle are geographically united, and that we are all damn lucky to live here.

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Lou Springer Lou Springer lives in Heron when not out on a river somewhere.

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