On Frozen Penises and Rivers Coated With Pelican Feathers: Reading Stephen Ambrose's "Undaunted Courage," About the Lewis & Clark trip of 1804-6

So I’m heading up to Montana/Wyoming in a month, to Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, and to get warmed up for it, I’m reading Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage (1996), which is in some ways a retelling of the Lewis & Clark voyage of North West Discovery in 1804-6. Now I have to admit I have a weakness for Lewis & Clark, that dynamic duo of intrepid explorers, and have read (and taught) their journals from this trip, and find it fascinating stuff. Ambrose is much more “romantic” and hyperbolic than I would be about this material. He tends to make them sound like Superheros, or Super Explorers—brave, valiant, wise, and trustworthy. And although I’m sure they had their flaws, it’s hard not to be in awe of their accomplishments. Plus it’s full of great visions of the American West before it was settled (and during the Little Ice Age, when it was colder): At one point they round a bend in the Missouri River and find a remarkable sight:
“On August 8, one of the bowmen called back to Lewis, who was working in the cabin. The captain looked up to see a blanket of white coming down the river. He went to the bow to stare down into the water. The keelboat and the white whatever-it-was came together. One close examination it turned out to be a sea of white feathers, over three miles long and seventy yards wide” (152).
(It turned out to be feathers from an enormous flock of White Pelicans. We still have them in the West, thankfully, and below is a picture from a lake in my area, where I went kayaking, and came upon some of them.) At times Lewis looks out on herds of buffalo as far as the eye can see, estimating them to be in the tens of thousands. (Until they cross the Rockies, that is, and then the buffalo are mostly gone.) Undaunted Courage (as opposed to, say, Cold, Clueless, and Lost, which could be the title for the Journals of Zebulon Pike, circa 1806) also contains sentences like this: “It was always cold, often brutally cold, sometimes so cold a man’s penis would freeze if he wasn’t quick about it” (191). Quick about it? What if you got stage fright, standing in a frozen field surrounded by a zillion buffalo? I’m just saying . . . .

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