Saturday evening, as long as I let her sleep in, Erin committed to going hunting the next day. I try to make it a point to spend as much time as possible recreating with my three kids. This remains the highest priority for me as it has been since the first entered this world sixteen years ago. So, Erin slept in this morning and I listened to Morning Edition and read a few sections of Muggeridge’s Winter in Moscow. Muggeridge is an old favorite. In this work in the chapter “Proletarian Mysticism,” Muggeridge illustrates well the plight of the Ukrainian Kulaks under Stalin. Driving up the Blackfoot a little later I found myself thinking of Muggeridge and Solzhenitsyn. Writing should curtail circles.
It was snowing. A wet heavy snow that was not sticking to the highway. We drove by the wolf farm (kennel) below Johnsrud and I pointed it out to Erin. “Have a look. See if any of the wolves are visible pacing behind their chain link fence?” I almost yelled. Headphones going with what I knew not, but she gestured and looked to her right. We saw nothing as we rapidly drove by. I thought a bit about the irony of the animals penned in this area knowing how the wild wolves have proliferated throughout western Montana. The Johnsrud, a section along the Blackfoot, is a local play area. Many tubers put in along its beach in the summer and float down to Wisherd bridge or, if the refreshments hold out, some journey further along to Milltown. It’s a fun section to fish as well during certain periods of the day.
I’ve never seen a wolf in the wild. Numerous times I’ve come across their tracks and once saw the remains of a moose mess in the Papoose Saddle area above the Lochsa that had occurred not too long prior to my arrival. I’ve had wolves howl near my presence while mountain biking in the Primm area of Gold Creek. This is always somewhat eerie. Hunting early, well prior to dawn, I had hiked into the high elevation above Kootenai in the Bitterroots. It was cold and the snow was deep, the sky clear with stars. The woods were illuminated by the moon. I heard howling first not too distant to the north of the upper drainage above me and then to the south in a reply report. I slowly crouched down, sitting on a log looking down into the distant lights of the valley, heart thumping, wondering how things were going to pan out. The howls eventually ceased. Numerous times we’ve listened to their howls while standing over the evening campfire in the Big Hole valley. “Hear the woofs?” Gary, an occasional hunting partner, would ask as we warmed ourselves above the flames.
Erin and I next drove through Clearwater Junction where 83 heads north into the Swan valley. “One time I sat in the campground at this junction and broke down. I was driving back from a pheasant hunting trip near Glendive. My college friend had accidentally shot and killed Lexie (my first black lab). Birds flushed and he did not see the dog through the high grass beyond the flight pattern,” I noted, turning left to head towards Salmon Lake. Pheasant hunting can be dangerous.Molly and I had a garden wedding at a bed and breakfast north of Seeley Lake in the Swan valley – the Emily-A. The Clearwater river, which flows south through Salmon and to the Blackfoot, ran through the back yard. Seeley Lake sits above Salmon Lake, which both reside south of Swan Lake. East of the valley is the Swan Range which borders the Bob Marshall Wilderness. West of the valley is the Mission Range and the Flathead Reservation. The Swan is grizzly habitat. Condon was home to Bud Moore, author of The Lochsa Story. One of my favorite works on the history of the Lochsa drainage. The Swan is home to many lakes. I’ve enjoyed canoeing sections of the Swan and fishing lakes on both sides of the valley. The waters are clear and many of the higher lakes are turquoise. Wen, our labrador, and I one summer canoed from the campground at the north end of Lindbbergh to one of the Swan tributaries on the southern end. We then canoed up the shallow clear stream, ditched the canoe and hiked into Crystal, which sits below Grey Wolf in the Missions. It’s interesting to observe how one can canoe along the motorized playground of Lindbergh and soon find one’s self escaping the world, having entered its southwest region and the reservation. Erin and I took some pictures of one of the lakes during a break. An opportunity had been botched for her first whitetail just shortly after having gotten out of the vehicle. We laughed about it a bit and then climbed through some deadfall along a one time logging road that was now basically a narrow field along a creek bottom. I had on my pack which contained both of our water bottles and general supplies for the afternoon. There were a few other vehicles along the road below which we watched from a small summit. I always marvel at what kids are capable of when outdoors. Once at the top, we had covered a pretty significant amount of terrain, much of which had not been roads. I helped at times carrying her rifle, happy to do so. I had not noticed one elk track in the area that we had covered.
We drank some water and she had a sandwich and I a can of sardines which were in water. I had thought of hunting the evening by working our way across the upper ridge which circles above where we had parked; however, dusk is early so we decided to make our way down along a section not too far from where we had ascended. We walked through laurel and I listened to the pants behind me make a rubbing crunching sound. Her pants around her boots had frozen with snow and ice, making the sound. I let it go. We stopped in an area where I could glass. In doing so, on a distant ridgeline I noted a small whitetail buck in its bed under a tree. The burn in the area had made things quite visible. Being tired and it getting towards dark, we decided to continue our route down. “Why does it feel to me as though we are pursuing a policy of mercantilism?” I thought to myself, being careful not to trip on any of the deadfall from the prior fire. “This, of course, is folly,” I continued. It’s funny what one thinks of when walking in the woods.The creek to our left had many deer tracks coming out from its willows. Soon I saw a doe on the other side of the small drainage and handed my daughter the .270. The doe was wary and scampered up the far side of the bottom and into some open trees, slowing near a distant ridge. “She’s too far away,” Erin exclaimed. “Ok, that’s fine.” The deer was maybe a hundred and fifty or so yards across by the time she made the statement. Maybe less, but I let it go, just happy to be in the outdoors and not really caring one way or the other if she killed an animal. We continued down the section, eventually reconnecting with our tracks from the route in. Climbing over the deadfall in sections was with caution, handing the rifles to each other. My boots were wet as the snow was melting in areas and the temps had warmed. “Pay attention, this is when animals are moving,” I said, it now being dusk, but still legal shooting light. I had noted deer tracks in our tracks from when we had walked in earlier in the day. We rounded a bend after crawling over some more downed trees and watched three white tails float off down to our left and again safely into the brush. I saw no horns. “Remind me to buy you some wool pants,” I noted after the excitement. “It’s ok,” she said.The drive home was uneventful, other than my sliding in one turn, having gone a touch too fast. Studded tires help somewhat, but one needs to be cautious driving on snow compacted old logging roads in the winter. I usually chain up, but Toyota changed their specs for snow tires recommending fatter tires. They grab pretty well, but I prefer the ability to have chains in some conditions, which requires a standard width. Erin slept through it. We stopped at the Potomac Sinclair, which also serves as a local watering hole. It was here I noted that my front right headlamp, when on dim, was out. One lamp. Not a good idea on Highway 83 and 200 in rain and snow in the dark. I had noticed things seemed a little off kilter. “One February I pulled into here in complete misery, with cold fingers and both water bottles frozen,” I said as she came out. I used to ride Jake, my cross bike, through the Blackfoot when cycling competitively. The Sinclair was closed that day. Molly had ordered the wedding cake from a lady who worked at the store in ’94. Some of the other things I remember about the place.
“You didn’t hear it from me, but Erin said ‘the reason I didn’t shoot the deer was because I didn’t want to be out there all night getting it out,'” Todd, our oldest told me over dinner later that evening. I laughed.