A manifest journey in mapmaking ghost of Clark helps Vancouver author reconstruct sketches, fight heart condition

By DEAN BAKER, Columbian staff writer

November 15, 2000

For many of the past 27 years, Minnehaha historian and map maker Martin Plamondon II slept sitting up in a chair to ease the strain on his failing heart. When the pain of angina woke him at night, he came to expect a visit from the famed explorer Capt. William Clark.

Clark came to him while he was dreaming, Plamondon said, and helped him translate 200-year-old maps of the Missouri and Columbia rivers. Plamondon just published 153 of these reconstructed maps to rave reviews from scholars across the nation.

For skeptics, this notion stretches the imagination because Clark died in 1838.

But the volume speaks for itself. It’s the first of three books of maps that Clark and his partner, Meriwether Lewis, sketched roughly on the 7,400-mile epic march of their Corps of Discovery from the Mississippi to the mouth of the Columbia and back between 1803 and 1806.

The first volume is maps from Camp River Dubois, Ill., to Fort Mandan, N. Dak. The next two volumes are coming in the next two years.

“It’s a masterpiece, a really great addition to what we know about Lewis and Clark,” said David Nicandri, executive director of the Washington Historical Society. “I’m just amazed by this book.”

“William Clark would love these maps,” said Gary E. Moulton, editor of the multi-volume 2.5 million-word set of “The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.”

With modesty, Plamondon, 55, said he truly felt Capt. Clark’s presence real as life as he pored over the old maps.

“I came to think that God has guided me this way,” Plamondon said.

“Lewis and Clark have become like intimate friends to me after my 30 years and literally tens of thousands of hours of research, writing and mapping,” Plamondon wrote in the forward of the book. “Many were the times in the small hours of the morning, when the house was quiet and the lighting subdued, that, as I wrote or mapped, it seemed as if the two men were seated in the room with me.”

He’s working on Volume 2, which is to be published next July, and Volume 3, coming in July 2002. In all, there’ll be 500 maps.

“I told my doctors to keep me alive because I’ve got two more books to finish,” Plamondon said.

In his heart, he has congenital problems: extra electrical circuits that cause tachycardia, pinched heart vessels that cause angina, irregular heartbeats and hardening of the arteries. He also has lung damage suffered in the early 1970s when he was working with a blue-line mapping system that used anhydrous ammonia.

So he moves slowly. It takes him three days to complete a map nowadays when he’s working well. And there are days when he can’t work.

“When I get up in the morning, I can’t do much more than walk half the length of the house,” said Plamondon, who is the former head of Clark County’s map department.

While working with the maps, he has also completed a 1,600-page novel about Lewis and Clark called “Promises Made.” He has no publisher for it yet.

But Washington State University Press is eager to publish his map books, expecting to release the entire set just in time for the Lewis and Clark bicentennial, from 2003 to 2006, when 9 million visitors are expected to retrace the explorers’ trail, some no doubt stopping for a stroll, lunch and perhaps an overnight in Clark County.

Not until he publishes the last volume will readers see the two major Lewis and Clark sites in Clark County: Provision Camp at Washougal, where the explorers camped six days on their way back to St. Louis; and Cathlapotle Indian village near Ridgefield, where the explorers encountered 900 Chinooks.

When Plamondon finishes the next two volumes, he’ll have completed the best exact source available showing the trip route.

Earlier editions are much cruder than his, and less exact, he explained.

Plamondon’s book includes not only maps as drawn by the explorers but also fragments of journal entries on the same page, giving a flavor of the country and how its inhabitants looked to the explorers. He also has added modern landmarks, such as freeways, airfields and bridges, and the modern course of the Missouri and Columbia Rivers.

The rivers have moved markedly hundreds of feet or even hundreds of yards in the two centuries, he said.

Many old campsites of the explorers are under water now or far from the river, he said.

Just now, Plamondon is drawing maps of the Three Forks area of Montana from maps originally made by Lewis.

They’re much less expertly done than those by Clark, Plamondon said, and he has been having a hard time reconstructing them.

Still, he expects his pen to scratch up on the beach of the Snake River before next summer, riding along steadily on a stream of ink, until in 2002 he reaches the Washington coast.

“A lot of people are frustrated by having to wait to see this area,” he said. “But I have to go along as they went along.”

To compose his book, Plamondon used the daily measurements and notes from Lewis, Clark and their fellow expedition journal keepers: Sgt. Charles Floyd Jr., Sgt. John Ordway and Private Joseph Whitehouse.

“I think they all sat down around the campfire together and wrote these journals together,” he said, “except for Lewis, who wrote alone. The men often copied Clark’s phrases.”

Lewis, said Plamondon, was much less able as a leader than is commonly believed and far less respected by the men on the expedition. Clark was the true leader, he said.

Even so, he said, he had to correct some of Clark’s calculations.

“Normally, Clark was 25 to 40 percent too long in his distances … ,” Plamondon wrote in the foreword to his book. He said Clark’s compass may have been inaccurate.

“For whatever reason, Clark’s measurements occasionally are totally implausible,” Plamondon wrote. “If accepted, they would have placed the men and their boats several miles out on the plains.”

But the explorers’ data still was overwhelmingly valuable, Plamondon said.

His own involvement with the expedition maps began in 1972 when, as a science fiction writer who had completed two novels without finding a publisher, he decided to change subjects entirely and write about Indian tribes.

He visited a museum at Fort Clatsop, and suddenly realized the key to the Indians was the promises Lewis and Clark made or implied to the Indians.

“The story of the Indians now is how those promises were all broken,” he said.

He decided to delve into Lewis and Clark and hasn’t yet finished the job.

“I thought it would be a two- or three-year effort,” he said. “But you look around, and it’s 27 years later.”

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