HAMILTON, Mont. (AP) — Ted Hall is hoping to solve a mystery more than two centuries old.
On this morning, he's tromping his way over deadfall along a ridge covered in blackened trees charred in the 2000 fires of the Bitterroot.
Aiming for a rocky outcrop just southwest of the Lost Trail ski resort, Hall has his eyes on an open patch running the length of the next ridge to the west.
"That's where they went," he said, as he stops and raises his hand. "And just over the hill is where they camped."
In his mind's eye, Hall can almost imagine the weary men dragging their packhorses up the steep ridge and across its rocky length as they made their way through uncharted territory.
It's been almost 20 years since Hall first began attempting to follow in the footsteps of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark's Corps of Discovery in their first overland journey across the Rocky Mountains.
Armed with an engineer's mind and a pair of willing legs, Hall spent years attempting to follow the trail using the expedition's own maps and compass readings. He employed the young legs of David Brabec to ground-truth portions of the trail that he couldn't conquer.
In 2000, Stevensville's Stoneydale Press published his book, "The Trail Between the Rivers," that matched the trail the two men had walked and studied with USGS topographic maps.
Last week, Hall led his own small expedition down Colter Creek to the small meadow where he's convinced the famous explorers spent the night of Sept. 3, 1805.
"I know that is their campsite," Hall said. "I'm convinced of it now."
Of all the 407 miles covered by Corps of Discovery in that long hard month beginning at Camp Fortunate on Aug. 24 and ending at the Nez Perce canoe camp on Sept. 26, 1805, there was no place quite as intriguing for Hall than the portion now called Lost Trail.
Historians have debated the Corps' exact route ever since their passing through that rugged section of country along the present-day Montana and Idaho border.
To this day, no one can say for certain where the tired men camped on the night of Sept. 3, 1805.
"I've searched long and hard to find someone who has hiked this section using the expedition's maps and compass readings," Hall said. "I have yet to find a one."
Now Hall has done just that.
He believes the conventional wisdom that the expedition followed Moose Creek is wrong, based on information that he gained with his own two feet following Clark's maps and compass readings.
Hall also depends greatly on an unpublished manuscript titled "Lost with Lewis and Clark: A Mystery Solved." Written by Martha Edgerton Plassman, the document presents research accomplished by a man named James West Gallogly just 25 years after the famous expedition.
Gallogly wrote in 1830 that the Moose Creek route was blocked by dense growth and he surmised the explorers went up the North Fork of the Salmon River instead.
Hall said the information points to the very ridge that he focuses on today. Better yet, that same ridge runs precisely in the direction documented by Clark's compass over 200 ago.
A former finalist for National Geographic magazine's People's Choice Adventurers of the Year award, Jon Turk of Darby, joined Hall's recent expedition into the potential campsite.
"It made so much sense when you saw it for yourself," Turk said. "They said we followed a ridge 30 degrees west of north and on the map, it's the only ridge that runs 30 degrees west of north."
Considering the explorers had 32 horses with them at the time, Turk said he was convinced they wouldn't have dropped back into Moose Creek to camp.
"I wouldn't lose that kind of elevation after I had worked so hard to gain it," he said. "It fits the compass readings and it just looks right. It's really kind of cool."
Dan Hall of the Missoula-based Western Cultural Resource Management Service also made the hike. Hall was instrumental in documenting the location of the Corps of Discovery's camp at Travelers' Rest.
After taking a hard look at the potential campsite, Hall said he wasn't ready to make any pronouncement.
"I don't know if it's the right place or not," Dan Hall said. "The features he showed me were more recent and probably occurred within the last 15 or 20 years."
The question about the trail still needs to be answered before Dan Hall said he would be ready to investigate the potential campsite further.
"That's the first question that has to be answered," he said. "That answer is beyond me. I don't have the knowledge or the ability to make that decision.
"People often get all excited about some kind of discovery that they've made. They often don't realize how high the threshold has to be. There is a tremendous amount of research that has to be done before any kind of project like that could occur."
Bitterroot National Forest historian Mary Williams said anyone hoping to start an archaeological project at the potential campsite would have to obtain an Archaeological Resource Protection Act Permit first.
"That needs to be accomplished for the protection of historical resources on public lands," Williams said. "It ensures that any work done at the site would be to completed to professional standards."
Lewis and Clark's actual path through the Lost Trail area has been "one of the biggest mysteries of their journey ever since they came through this way," Williams said. "If he's found the correct route, then more power to him."
Anyone following the trail and looking to uncover history on national forest lands needs to know the Forest Service is responsible for protecting archaeological sites on national forest lands, she said.
"We sure don't want to discourage investigation of a site like this, but at the same time we want to make sure that everything is done correctly and legally," Williams said. "These are resources that belong to all Americans. If people find an artifact, they need to leave it where they find it."
"It doesn't do anyone any good if they pick it up and put it on their mantle," she said.
Meanwhile, Hall plans to keep looking for something that will prove him right about the trail and campsite.
Sgt. John Ordway traveled with the Corps and kept his own journal. He wrote the company stayed in a "cove near the head of a branch running early an opposite course from the branch we dined on at noon."
Hall believes firmly that the little meadow just off Colter Creek he discovered almost by accident years ago matches that description.
"From my perspective, I'm at peace," he said, looking back over toward the ridge. "I know Clark's maps are right. I know the compass readings are right. I don't know anyone else who has used both to follow their path through here."
"If someone has, I wish they would let me know," Hall said.