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Hiking through the wilds in explorers' footsteps

History does repeat itself, and the six participants in "Yellowstone Traverse/1980" are out to prove it. These skiing adventurers are launched on a five-week, semireenactment of a journey once taken by explorer John Colter in 1807-1808.

"Yellowstone Traverse" is a variation in vacationing, with a historic twist. While other vacationers head for theme parks, these men are off on a theme trip. They are the most recent of groups to put historic paths under foot, hoof, or canoe.

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Almost two centuries ago, John Colter crossed what is now Yellowstone Park with a 30-pound pack and a pair of snowshoes, after parting ways with Lewis and Clark on their famous expedition to the Pacific.

The six modern travelers aren't being that bold. They are taking refuge in down-filled everything, and brand new skis. Unlike Colter, they cannot rely on Indian encampments for food and lodging; they have to carry their own. Faced with that extra weight, even Colter might have shelved his cumbersome snowshoes.

Equipment has changed over the years -- it's lighter and warmer -- but the risks remain. hidden crevasses, avalanches, isloation, and sub-zero temperatures are the same in any age. It's a tough trip even on skis. Why attempt it?

"I wanted to do something unique," says Rick Wiggin of Boston, the trip leader. "As far as we know, ours is the first attempt to follow Colter's trip in the winter."

Rick, a businessman and accomplished outdoorsman (he participated in the first ascent of Mt. Denison in Alaska), had no trouble finding others who shared his interest. He placed ads in outdoor magazines which turned up five more enthusiasts.

It is a diverse yet compatible group. Among the six are a computer scientist , a real estate broker, and a photography student. Those Clark Kent exteriors conceal formidable outdoor achievements by all. Steve Beede, the real estate broker, is a member of the National Ski Patrol and is trained in avalanche rescue.

The Yellowstone Traverse Crew is not the first to discover the challenge of recreating historic journeys. A number of campers, hikers, and adventuresome history buffs have decided in recent years that reading about the past is fine, but acting it out is better.

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American bicentennial celebrations in 1976 showed the dramatic possibilities of restaging history. Conestoga wagons lumbered cross- country in imitation of pioneer ancestors, and the Tall Ships sailed into New York.

In 1978, a group of young outdoorsmen tackled La Salle's trip from Canada down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. They crafted their own canoes, made leather clothes, and paddled south, resembling victims of a time warp.

In 1977, Tom Bergin, an Australian zoologist, restaged the Burke and Willis expedition of 1860, which was the first to cross the island continent. True to tradition, Bergen and his associates covered the 3,000 miles on camelback.

St. Brendan's legendary voyage from Ireland to New-foundland was recreated in 1976 by five intrepid seamen in a vulnerable leather sailing vessel. The success of their trip heightened speculation that St. Brendan could have "discovered" North America 1,400 years ago.

If historic adventure sounds expensive and time-consuming, it can be. The Yellowstone group, which opted to use modern gear, cut costs by getting manufacturers to contribute products to test under extreme conditions so they could be marketed as official "expedition" equipment.

Once they return to Boston, the adventurers hope to capitalize on their experience by writing articles, a book, and producing an educational film.

Rick Wiggin is already contemplating a series of "On the Trail of. . ." expeditions. The trails of Marco Polo (Italy to China), Daniel Boone, and Huck Finn are possibilities, he says. "Ideally, I'd like to make such trips my livelihood."

Living history doesn't have to mean staging an epic journey. Famous Trails can be tackled in segments, and many local areas have their own folk heroes and histories waiting to be traced. The Boston Freedom Trail is one example -- and it's free.

Whatever their scale, historic reenactments often have tracks leading back to a public library. It's a good place to start.


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