Well, where do I start?
Our group for this trip consisted of Doug DesJarlais, Marvin and Barb Sowers, and James Pettit. Our four-legged group consisted of Danny, Dougs half arab, ex-endurance race horse which set a fast pace the whole trip. Behind him was Rambo, a half percheron with a tendancy to step towards moccosined feet during loading. Behind him was Josie the mule. Behind her came Marvins arab called Ibn and Barbs arab Bask. Bringing up the rear would be Jims newly purchased mare Nickers and then Goldie, a part thoroughbred, part appy who was along just for the experience.
Friday the 29th of September, we camped at the North Fork of the Blackfoot trailhead. Marv and Barb had met Jim enroute, and were surprised that Doug wasn't already there. He arrived later, explaining that he had spent some quality time with his wife before leaving. Wind, rain, and a touch of snow showed us what we could expect during the next few days. The wind in the dead trees of the old burn(1988) sounded like the description of an irish banshee wailing. Rambo, Dougs half percheron horse spent part of the night sorting out the equine pecking order. Saturday morning we fixed breakfast and loaded up the horses and headed out. An old guy in the parking area tried to scare us into waiting due to the danger of falling trees if the wind came up. Since we had all seen that situation to an extent before, we took off anyway. We timed it just right. It drizzled all day and the wail and screech of the wind in the old snags accompanied us. Two to Three miles easy through the burn, then a couple of miles of narrow trail clinging to the side of the mountain with drop offs of a couple of hundred feet to the river. Some really good looking fishing holes down at the bottom to try someday with no horses along. The horses all performed well at a bridge and river crossing. Another 5 miles or so following the river, then the turn off up the Dry Fork. It looks like there must be lots of runn-off in the spring, but no water now. Off to the right, we admired the fine location of another groups camp at the fork. A few mule deer greeted us at the turn off.
Another 10 miles or so of steady climbing. The rain didn't amount to much more than dampness and our greatcoats kept even our legs dry. Gusts of wind often threatened to take our hats. Off in the distance a sound like automatic gunfire reaches us. Only there is no automatic rifle and the "whoomph" at the end of each shot identifies it as an age old tree falling in the woods, followed by another and another. We looked at the relatively open areas we were riding through and then over our shoulders at the stands of burned trees on the far side of the valley where the sounds came from. Frequent crossings of that wide, deep, but dry creekbed, combined with signs marking a high water route, reminded us that sometimes the Dry Fork must not live up to its name. A steep narrow section of trail caused concern as Goldie's saddle slipped. However, she sensibly stood still as Marv and Jim rearranged her load. Doug and Barb had their hands full keeping the rest of the animals from getting tangled or stepping off the narrow trail into space. As we continued to the top of the ridge, some horses being led, Bask continually tried to pass Barb on a trail wide enough for only one of them. So maybe we still have a few training issues before the next trip.
Far hillsides clad in green trees continued to beckon us from beyond the last few miles of the burn. A nice wide valley reminded us of beaver and moose and the reasons the original explorers would have come here. Small sections of creek bed that actually held water caused us to start looking for a campsite. A wide section of valley with some available grazing drew us to the mouth of a smaller creek.
After unloading horses and mule, and finding spots to picket them, we began constructing a shelter for ourselves and gear. Four flat sheets of canvas artfully combined with poles quickly took a shape similar to a teepee. A nearby tree provided relative shelter for saddles and feed. A nearby stash of flat stones provide ample material to build a cooking hearth. A quick search of surrounding woods brought in a supply of wood that would at least burn, if a bit smoky as night fell. And as night fell, so began the serious rain as well. Dougs comment that we did not need to tend the fire all night would be remembered later in the night. As the rain steadily continued, moisture began coming through a few pieces of canvas which were unfortunately touched by man or gear. In one spot, water leaked through to form a pool on top of Dougs blankets. An unfortunate turn in the night poured a significant puddle down his neck and soaked his bedroll. We were all surprised to find him up and tending the fire come morning.
Sunday found us trying to dry clothing and mocs and bedding. All available ropes were used to string a clothes line down the side of the small valley to dry blankets. Inside the shelter, poles were strung above the fire to dry clothing. We received just enough dry weather to get the bedrolls fairly dry, for which we were all thankful. Firewood was a constant need we all worked on. Barbs horse Bask fought the picket a time or two but finally settled down for a shorter rope. First Jim, then Doug headed out hunting that evening. Two shots in the distance preceeded Dougs arrival with 2 grouse. Time for supper. Various soups and stews, were soon bubbling on the fire. The rain continued, beginning to come down the side of the tent and inside. Quick trenches kept the worst at bay.
Monday morning heard the gradual lessening in the raindrops. And finally the sky lightened and a few patches of blue arrived. With the lightening of the sky came a lightening in our spirits. The breakfast fire saw some fine experimenting with bread and cornpone. Later in the day, the hunt began in earnest with a horseback ride up the trail into the small valley behind camp. A nice clearing for pasture became our base for the elk hunt that day. A very large mule deer doe captured our attention further. Marv and Barb started up the right side of the valley, soon jumping up 3 more deer, but nothing with horns. A bit further and a bull bugled in the distance to draw them onward, but never quite close enough to see him. Without modern elk bugles, he was not interested in their locality and soon was heard leaving the area. Doug and Jim had started down by the creek to see what tracks were to be seen. They worked up through the valley to the top where they jumped what appeared to be a cow and calf elk out of the brush in front if them. Though Marv had started the trip with a cold, this hunt soon showed that Barb and Jim were becoming more and more sick with chest colds. Near dark, everyone met up at the horses and prepared for the long dark ride back to camp. Dougs horse Danny lead the way with the other horses following behind, though their riders could barely see the horse or person in front of them. The ride had a few exciting highlights including Marv losing his hat then having to deal with his horse, Ibn, deciding to jump a small creek. Danny lost the trail once, then Goldie went around the wrong side of a tree beaking her tether to the mule, Josie, in front of her. We were all glad to reach camp. Picketting horses in the dark had its own problems when the mule decided she wanted a different picket spot than Doug had chosen. Midway through the night, the sound of chewing and stomping gave away the fact that Goldie had pulled her picket pin loose and come to the tent to visit.
Tuesday, a cold restless night of coughing for Jim and Barb seriously cast doubts by morning. Three nights of no sleep, migraines, and a chest cold that started into pneumonia convinced Jim it was time to go home. Barbs chest cold was starting to look like bronchitis as well. A mental search of medical supplies found nothing strong enough to help. Barb decided that even if she made it another day or two, she would probably have to go home early as well. She would head back with Jim, allowing Marv and Doug to continue this hunt they had dreamed of for so long.
By midmorning, Barb and Jim were packed and on their way. They followed grizzly tracks for nearly 5 miles, but far enough behind it that the horses were never worried. Many trees had fallen across the trail during the last 3 days, making them very glad that a pack train equipped with a hand saw had preceeded them that morning. Their trip back to the trailhead was fairly uneventful, and would have been an enjoyable ride had it not been for illness and the thought of leaving early. Midafternoon found them back at the edge of civilization.
After Barb and Jim left, Marv and Doug went back into the shelter and had breakfast. They soon started thinking that those elk would be up on the ridge. They walked on down towards the creek and crossed a trail with lots of fresh elk sign. Instead of crossing the creek and heading up onto the ridge, they eased on down the trail a mile or so. No elk, but lots of elk, bear, and deer sign, but no live animals. As they hunted across the creek and onto the ridges, it started to snow. The colder and wetter they became, the better the beans Doug had left to soak started to sound. After moving the horses to better feed, the beans were cooked, Marvs mocs were repaired, and Dougs saw was sharpened. The beans,along with pilot bread and a loaf of bread made a good meal. The decision was made to move camp the next day for better horse feed and to cross the divide into The Bob Marshall Wilderness to see the Danaher Meadows area.
Wednesday morning, by the time everything was packed and ready to go, it started snowing. True to form, every time they decided to go somewhere the weather went bad. After about four miles or so, in a small draw, they saw another hunting camp. The whole morning, Goldie had been trying to grab mouthfuls of grass and Josie kept pulling her along. About the time they came to the camp, Goldie broke the string from Josie. Then 2 mules from the camp came out and tried to start a fight with the horses. Ibn was acting up due to the mules actions. All told, it got a little exciting for a minute. After sorting everyone out and the other mules left, they proceeded on. A bit further along on a side hill, Goldie broke away from the string again. Marv grabbed her lead and that worked for about 25-30 yards til Ibn came to a creek and decided he was scared of creeks that day. As Ibn went straight up the side of the hill to avoid the creek, Marv had to drop Goldies lead. That suited her just fine since she wanted to just stop and eat anyway. A number of choice words by both Marv and Doug colored the air before everything was straighted out. A thicker rope solved the Goldie problem but could have caused damage to the saddle or horse if she had decided to fight it. About this time, Rambo began to get bored and started biting Danny's backside, which of course caused discomfort to Danny making Dougs ride uncomfortable as well. This continued off and on til the string came into sight of some of old man Danahers haying equipment. He had packed these into the area piece by piece back when the area was still farmed. Another half mile beyond that found good tall grass for the animals and a patch of lodgepole trees for cover and firewood, just what they were looking for to camp.
After 10 miles or so in the snow, a big fire was welcome after setting up camp and picketing critters. Some dried apples and jerky filled bellies just in time for Marvin, still suffering from a cold, to go to bed. Doug sorted gear til he retired as well.
Thursday morning the weather cleared, dropping the temperature to around ten degrees. With a nice fire and now plenty of firewood they stayed pretty fair. With water and good tall grass, the horses thought they were in heaven compared to the last camp. After a breakfast of salt pork and johnny cakes Marv and Doug thought they were in heaven as well. Thursday afternoon after organizing camp and firewood, they went hunting in the Danaher Meadows. Moose, bear, and wolf tracks galore, but no elk or deer. More beans and bread for supper brings into doubt the air quality in the tent that night, but satisfied their bellys.
Friday after breakfast, Doug made the comment, " You know, I really stink!", and Marv said "Yeah, I'm gettin really stinkin too." So it was time for a bath. Water heated on the fire and a nice horse pasture made for quite the bathing area. Feeling better, a little shooting and sightseeing was in order. Everyone retired early to get a good nights rest and lots of grass for the horses. Suddenly, Ibn started acting spooky on the picket. "Oh shit, there is something in the horses." Grabbing rifles and bags, Marv and Doug ran out to investigate expecting a grizzly bear. Nothing, so they split up to either side. THEN..... Doug heard "ding-ding, ding-ding" after calming the horses, Doug explained that sometimes hunters here put a bell on a lead mare and let their horses loose til they are needed again. The horses started blowing again only now there were many more than just those picketed there. To keep the horses from pulling their pickets and leaving with the other herd, they were brought in close to camp and tied securely. ALL NIGHT LONG the horses fussed, and ALL NIGHT LONG "ding-ding-ding", around and around camp til by morning Marv was nearly ready to shoot that bell and the mare it was on.
Saturday, after a restless, sleepless night, just before daybreak, Marv and Doug got up and began to break camp (just in time for the other hunters to come and get their animals and bell.) With mixed feelings Marv and Doug finished packing and left that lovely valley. Partway out of the hills, the uneventful ride changed for a few minutes when a large bull moose stopped and watched them from about 60 yards. In another century, he would have provided meat for a good long time, but this century he was allowed to continue on. A few miles further and the horses were ready for a rest. Remounting, Marv noticed a loose cinch but didn't take time to tighten it. Three miles further Ibn stepped over a log. Marv expected him to go one direction, but he went the other leaving Marv sitting on the log with bruised pride. Now, nearly to the end of the trail, on a very steep narrow section, Ibn stepped one foot off of the trail coming close to going over the 200 foot drop. Needless to say, Ibn scrambled very hard to regain the trail, leaving everyone shaken but safe.
Following another group of riders into civilization, the two met Barb at the trailhead. A years worth of planning, a weeks worth of living in the high country, and then it was over, til the next time that we could break free from civilization.
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