A dog's eye view of Lewis & Clark

By Tamie Meck


A dog's eye  view of  Lewis & Clark | Authors,

Photos by Tamie Meck Musician Randy Utterback plays old-time tunes on the fiddle while Laura Lee Yates signs her new novel, "Bound For the Western Sea." The novel, about the Lewis & Clark expedition, is written entirely from the perspective of Lewis's Ne

The story of the Lewis & Clark expedition is among the most well-known and studied voyages of all time. It has been told and retold from the human perspective. But what did the dog see?

Laura Lee Yates spent years pondering that very question. She records what she believes he saw in her historical novel, "Bound for the Western Sea: The Canine Account of the Lewis & Clark Expedition."

While there are children's books about Seaman, the Newfoundland dog of Meriwether Lewis, who survived the entire journey, Yates' book imagines the expedition from his canine eyes, ears, nose and mind, and even his heart. But it's not written for children. "It's a book for adults who want to have fun while getting some good history," she says.

Getting that history right was critical for Yates. And while she's read and written extensively about the history of the West, it was her partner, Harry Harpoon, who helped her to see from the perspective of the early 1800s.

"We're not exactly in this century yet," said Yates, who recently got her first cell phone. She's a 1960s person, "But I'm at least in the 20th. Harry's more in the 17th century person."

Harpoon, an Americana blues musician, was born 200 years too late to two half-Cherokee parents. "I was raised to live in the woods, even though I was born in East L.A.," said Harpoon, who moved into a tipi in 1972. As a kid it confused him that his friends went to dances and concerts, while he went to powwows on reservations. "I really didn't really get it until later on in life."

Mountain men like expedition members John Colter and Jim Bridger and the history of the fur trade industry were part of his childhood education. He's well-read on Lewis and Clark, has covered much of their trail, and knows fur trapper jargon. This book is different, he says, "because it's so pure. The dog has no agenda."

"And thank God he didn't care about maps," said Yates, who admits she is "geographically challenged."

The story focuses on Seaman's relationship with Meriwether, who bought him for $20 and wouldn't trade him for all the furs in the Northwest. In the book, "Why Sacagawea Deserves the Day Off and Other Lessons From the Lewis and Clark Trail," Stephanie Ambrose Tubbs writes that Meriwether probably had Asperger's Syndrome and was an alcoholic. In the end he was definitely addicted to laudanum, says Yates, and he was manic-depressive.

She gets that. She lives with obsessive-compulsive disorder. "I especially admire Meriwether because he had so many challenges," she says. "If life had been easy for him, he wouldn't have accomplished so much."

Seaman, she posits, possesses faith in a higher power and believes he was "born for this adventure." He develops a taste for beaver tail and buffalo, and develops his own opinions about the characters of the Corps of Discovery. He grieves for his fellow canines when the expedition turns to dog meat for survival -- they ate some 200 dogs, and fears for his life since he has a great deal of meat on his own bones. Yet he survives, and is even revered by the natives for his great size and breeding qualities.

The idea for the book came while she and Harry were winding through the Wind River Canyon of the Columbia River, through which the expedition passed, on their way home from a rendezvous in northwestern Montana. Their female Bernese Mountain Dog was between them and Yates began to wonder how Seaman viewed the expedition. She asked Harry if he thought it would make a good book.

"I thought it was the best idea she's ever had," he said.

The book became an immediate obsession. Their next stop was at a bookstore, where they picked up a book on expedition sergeant Patrick Gash, a Corps of Discovery member who published the first journal of the expedition.

Yates already had extensive experience with books, and was hired by Myrna Westerman to work at the Paonia library without any prior experience because of her vast knowledge of books. She began to read and write at an early age. Her first original story was about horses, for which she was accused of plagiarism by an elementary school teacher. While other writers dream of having their book on the best-seller list or Oprah, Yates dreamed of having a book on the library shelves.

As a journalist she wrote for the small weekly Bodega Bay Navigator, which hired her after she submitted a story on wetlands. Her position as features editor led to many adventures, including sea kayaking and whale-watching with the U.S. Coast Guard. In 1993 she was awarded a Fish Trap Fellowship for "clear thinking and good writing in and about the West."

When a group of Russians from Totma visited Bodega Bay and asked to make it its Sister City, she was working on a story about Fort Ross, the oldest Russian settlement in the U.S. "It's kind of an unknown story," and is written from the perspective of a Russian man. She traveled to Russia as a diplomat, and after returning, she moved to Colorado. "I'm trying to complete it, but it's slow going," said Yates. "I had a lot less trouble writing as a dog than writing as a Russian man. I don't know if it's the Russian part or the man part."

Another book, "Moon Over the Mountain," is ready to publish. The novel, written for young adults, is about Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce Indians of the Wallowa Valley of Oregon and their co-existence with early settlers. "It's an important book," she said, and one that she and Harry agree would make a good screen play. "I'm really proud of that book."

She also has another book in her head, but it will require a trip to Ireland. "That's my next dream," she says. "If anyone wants to donate flyer miles or knows anywhere to stay..."

In 2001, with the approach of the Lewis & Clark bicentennial, completing the book took on a sense of urgency. She would revise, Harry would read for accuracy, and she'd revise again, But by the time the bicentennial was in full swing, she only had a draft, and the opportunity was gone. When their marriage hit some major bumps, she put the book aside and she and Harry split up.

They reunited about a year and a half ago, and decided it was time to finish the book. Last summer she asked historian Todd Weber, the father of Paonia artist Seth Weber and a living history presenter and educational tour guide specializing in Lewis and Clark, to read it for accuracy. "He cried," she said, and they knew they got it right.

Todd had been asked by a publisher to submit something on Lewis and Clark, said Yates. He declined, but told the publisher about Yates' book, and she submitted it. "He really liked it, but he's not a fiction guy," she said. "He's a history guy, so he was interested from the history angle. Then he wanted it to be a kids' book because he did publish kids' fiction."

She wanted to publish the book for adults. "I'm an adult, sort of," she said. But it's also appropriate for kids as young as 10 or 12, as long as parents understand it has some strong language -- what is a female dog, after all? And that while it contains humor, "It's not a happy ending," she said. Meriwether Lewis dies, she believes by his own hand, and leaves Seaman behind.

After five months of back and forth with the publisher, they decided to self publish.

It's very affordable, said Yates, who did it without going into debt. But she warns that there's a big learning curve. It also requires one to be technically savvy, which she admits she isn't. She got her first cell phone late this spring. ("She also got her 'I-thing' three months ago," added Harry.)

More importantly, she said, the writer has to love the story, because self-publishing is "about the story, not the money."

"Bound for the Western Sea" is available in print and e-book on Amazon. A hard-back collector's edition with liner notes and companion CD will soon be available on library book shelves. The CD includes fiddle tunes by Randy Utterback and period music by Harpoon, including "Oh Shenandoah," "Greensleeves" and "Froggy Went a Courtin'." Rick Stockton and Helen Highwater recorded the CD at Valley West studio in Paonia.

"It's a real collaboration, said Yates.

The book is selling well locally. At her first reading, the Paonia Library was standing room only and they sold 91 copies. "It's a wonderful community and I felt really supported by everybody," she said.

A week before the reading she watched "The Champions," a documentary on the rescue of Michael Vick's pit bulls, at the Paradise Theatre. She was so moved by the story of redemption that she committed to donating one dollar of every book they sell to Delta County Citizens for Animal Welfare and Shelter (CAWS).

Yates and Harpoon said the book is taking on a life of its own. They plan a trip to the Northwest, with readings in Colorado, Montana and Oregon. They will also visit some of the Lewis & Clark Trail sites and attend the Rocky Mountain National Rendezvous.

At every signing, Yates makes it a point to thank everyone who supported her on her journey, including North Fork author Mary Simmons, whom she calls her "book midwife." Simmons formatted the text, designed the cover using an original map of William Clark and an early 20th century image of a Newfoundland, and kept her from going insane.

Library lead staff member Jane Kelso allowed her to be flexible with her hours, the staff helped fill in, and the Delta County Libraries have hosted readings. Delta County Library staff and board members have been very supportive, she said.

When she tells Harry how much she appreciates his support, he smiles and tells her he's proud of her.

In honor of Meriwether, whom President Jefferson described as possessing "courage undaunted," she chose to publish under the name "Undaunted Press." And to honor Seaman's contributions, with every book she signs, she stamps a black paw print on the title page below her own signature.