From my Memoir - The thrill of the ChaseJanuary 26, 2011
When I was sixteen, I read a book titled Journal of a Trapper by Osborne Russell, who traveled along the Madison River in 1835, just outside of West Yellowstone where Hebgen Lake is now. Russell, along with a few of Jim Bridger’s trappers, was attacked by eighty Blackfeet Indians near where Hebgen Dam would be built nearly a century later. After a brief fight, Russell escaped west toward Stinking Creek. About thirty years earlier, Lewis and Clark, on their wonderful Corps of Discovery, had passed through Montana not too many miles to the north. I was thrilled and wished I could have been part of those great adventures. Sixteen year old kids are like that I guess.
Anyway, after telling my parents that my elbow needed some room, I mentioned to my friend, Donnie Joe, that I was going out to look for Lewis and Clark. He was quick to take the hint and said he would just ride along and help me keep the mountains company. So we rented a couple of horses from a friend and started up Red Canyon. Why my horse was named Lightning was something I never figured out because he hardly had the power to get out of his own way. As it was important to be honest with the situation, we limited ourselves to three Babe Ruth candy bars each, bedrolls, a shotgun, fly rods, knives and matches. And we got a map of the Gallatin National Forest that would really come in handy later on.
The first afternoon we found ourselves way up on top of a beautiful mountain under a lapis lazuli sky. We were thrilled and knew the whole place was there just for us. Surely the rippling brooks would be grateful for our company and the grizzlies would understand that we were just exploring the area and meant no harm.
Well, the first night we couldn’t get the dumb fire started, and we had already used most of our matches, so we very wisely wadded the map and hoped that we would be forgiven that one small foible. It worked and as the fire crackled and our horses wandered off, we ate our three candy bars and talked long into the night. Osborne Russell had been in those mountains for nine years and suddenly we felt like we were with him.
We spent the next day looking for the horses and finally found them down by a rivulet where the grass was tall and abundant. There were no fish around anywhere and prudence whispered that we should not shoot the two magpies we saw. Later we realized the folly of that decision.
The next day we rode the mountains, the hills, the valleys, the hollows, the dales and the depressions, looking for something to catch or shoot. There was almost nothing, but we did shoot one animal that I promised not to talk about. So on the fourth, fifth, or sixth day, I forget which, we were pretty sure we’d used up most of the fun.
I could have tolerated Donnie’s displeasures more easily if my saddle sores had not become such an issue. The insides of my legs were raw most of the way down. I found that riding behind the saddle on Lightning’s warm, soft, furry, rump helped some but he didn’t like it much and kept doing some funny dance step that I didn’t trust completely, so I put my handkerchief over the hardest part of the saddle and tried to think soft thoughts.
But Donnie got in a serious swivet and wouldn’t speak to me for a while, except to say that our unfortunate adventure was ill conceived, dumb thought out, and I was overrated like my horse. I think he even compared my intelligence unfavorably with that of the two of us, the horse I mean. He said that he had important things to do in town and insisted that we go out. I quickly agreed, but the problem was neither of us knew where out was.
So I applied some mountain man wisdom to the situation. The sun comes up in the east and we thought out was south so that made it easy, except that south was over the highest mountain we’d ever seen. It didn’t help much that a bunch of arrogant ravens kept flying around yawking at us, and always out of range. They probably knew that our hunger had long ago stopped being just a theory.
We decided to follow a fast running stream that seemed to have an anxious purpose of some sort. At least we could have water and surely it would lead us to a road or a Forest Service man trail somewhere. Gradually, that little stream got narrower and narrower and deeper and deeper until it developed vertical sides that nothing could get through but water. I think Donnie was getting delirious because he kept saying, “If we don’t change course soon we’ll end up where we’re going.”
Then his right stirrup strap broke and he had to ride on one foot. Well, that was it. He got real serious about being mad and lost at the same time. He insinuated that I couldn’t find my #### with both hands and all the lights on. When Lightning seemed to take his side I knew the crisis had arrived. So we turned back for half a day until we found another stream to follow. Bad luck can always be trusted.
I won’t dwell further on that because I’m grateful that the space between fact and fiction is often blurred by the passage of time, except to say that we finally loosened our grip on the reins and the horses took us to a dirt road. We were 50 miles from where we started and Donnie was in good spirits again, and started talking coherently. He’s gone now, but I still think about him a lot. At the time, we were both important to ourselves in our own way, and for the same reasons, but no one will judge us anymore when I’m gone too.
A few days later with the luxury of hot chocolate, I made some notes that might be helpful to any future sixteen year old geniuses who think looking for Lewis and Clark might be fun:
- Hunger is both unrelenting and unreasonable.
- You can’t hide from thunderstorms.
- Porcupine meat tastes like kerosene.
- Coffee made by boiling pine needles can bring on cardiac arrest.
- There’s nothing worse than a wet bedroll on a cold night.
- Mountains can suffer instant personality reversals.
- The older you get the smarter your parents become.
- Movies lie to you.
Over the years I’ve read Journal of a Trapper a dozen times, and always with a deeper appreciation for who Osborne Russell was and what he did. The mountains continue to beckon to me. They always will.
Google Osborne Russell
Google Hebgen Lake
After retiring from the Air Force in 1970, I built an art gallery in Santa Fe that my wife and I ran for seventeen years. Since then, my energies have been directed toward excavation of a large Indian pueblo and writing books about art and exploration. I hope you enjoy my blog!