Age of Discovery

At 71 years young, Tom Hekker '57 is re-enacting the journey of Lewis and Clark

By Ellen L. Hansen. Reprinted with permission.

Tom Hekker '57In his 60s, Tom Hekker bought his first Harley-Davidson, tried bungee jumping and ran with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. He has sailed the open ocean, and been a ski racer, racecar driver, and rodeo cowboy. Now, at age 71, the Sauvie Island, Oregon, resident is embarking on his biggest adventure yet: retracing the Lewis and Clark Expedition route - alone.

Hekker began his journey in St. Charles, Mo., 200 years to the day from when Meriwether Lewis joined William Clark and the Corps of Discovery - already a few days underway - to explore the uncharted West. Hekker will travel the way they traveled: rowing, sailing, walking.

The first seven months he'll make his way, mostly rowing, from Missouri to North Dakota, where the expedition spent the winter of 1804-05. Then on April 7, 2005, Hekker will pick up Lewis and Clark's route and schedule again, crossing Montana, trekking over the Continental Divide and paddling down the Clearwater, Snake, and Columbia Rivers to arrive at Fort Clatsop and the Pacific Ocean. He figures he needs to average 10 miles a day.

"Maybe a thousand people have done this expedition, but no one has gone to the exact places, exactly 200 years later. I'll follow their journals exactly, day by day," says Hekker. He plans to record what he finds and to donate his journals to Lewis & Clark College.

The journey has been six years in the planning. Hekker lives with his wife, Claire, on a Sauvie Island houseboat and runs a roofing company, Northwest Solar Structures Inc., with his eldest son. "We never work more than 10 months a year, and some years, we don't work more than six months. And so we go play," he says. "I'm so fortunate. I've lived my dreams. Whatever I've dreamed of doing, I've done. Persistence is the whole thing."

Inspired by reading

Like so many of his adventures, the idea of retracing Lewis and Clark's route grew out of Hekker's reading. In 1997, after he and Claire took a trip along the Missouri River with another couple, he started reading about Lewis and Clark. Now, an entire shelf in his study is devoted to books on their expedition.

Hekker started collecting other materials: two books of charts from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which show sections of the Missouri River in detail; the Atlas & Gazetteer for the states he'll pass through, which detail latitude and longitude; and a GPS unit. Two years ago, he began building a racing scull from a kit. Hekker will row that boat, a wherry he has christened "America," alone against the current of the Missouri River for the first half of his journey.

Lewis and Clark set out with four dozen men on a 55-foot keelboat, capable of carrying 10 tons of supplies, and two open boats called pirogues. Hekker's sleek racing boat, with its sliding seat and 3-foot beam, is 19 feet long. The 10-foot oars, made of white Chinese ash, are remarkably light. The "America" itself weighs 55 pounds, and after figuring in his own weight, Hekker calculates he can take about 200 pounds of gear.

Snakes and bridges

Lewis and Clark's supplies included such items as 193 pounds of "portable soup" (a thick paste of boiled down beef, eggs, and vegetables), 16 rifles, 24 large knives and an array of presents for the Native American tribes they'd meet. Hekker has stockpiled 187 freeze-dried meals for his journey ("Can't shoot a buffalo every day"), a waterproof humidor for his cigars ("Well, they smoked a lot of peace pipes") and plans on taking a machete and pepper spray. The most dangerous parts of the journey, he says, will be encountering cottonmouth snakes, dealing with whirlpools on the river and sleeping under bridges in Kansas City.

One of the greatest legacies of the Lewis and Clark Expedition were the detailed journals they kept, including maps and descriptions of 178 new plants, including the big leaf maple, Pacific madrone, prickly-pear cactus; 122 animals that include the coyote, grizzly bear and Lewis' woodpecker; and 48 Native American tribes they encountered, among them the Clatsop, Nez Perce, and Tillamook.

Hekker most looks forward to the people he'll meet. "I want to interview as many people along the river as I can. If I see a guy fishing, I'll ask what he's doing, what he thinks about the river. And I'll try to read the river." Hekker plans to shoot 20 rolls of black and white film. And because he's a better storyteller than writer, Hekker says he'll tape record his journal entries, which his wife will transcribe.

His own Sacagawea

Claire is, indeed, Hekker's Sacagawea. She will be transporting him, his boat, and his supplies to the start point, and will re-supply him every six to seven weeks, while picking up his tapes. She helped from the start, convincing him on a road trip a few years back, to stop at a casino, where he won the $10,000 jackpot that's paying for this adventure.

While steeped in the preparations for this trip, Hekker begins musing about the next adventure. "Wouldn't it be great to fly a biplane," he says, "fly open cockpit, across the states?" Claire - his wife of almost 50 years, mother of nine, grandmother of 19 - just rolls her eyes and keeps smiling. Talk about persistence.

dweggler@norwich.edu, January 2005

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