Observations Made

You won’t get a lot of shaves like that

Bendigo Strange

Big Horn Mountains (near Cloud Peak Wilderness)

July 4th, 2022

Originally you were supposed to get up just past sunrise and take the girl to climb those big rock faces just north of camp, then head to town to see what Buffalo, Wyoming does for Independence Day. Yet neither of those things had occurred.

Instead it’s the last day in one of your favorite camps, on one of your best trips, where nothing bad had occurred except for both the kid and the dog scraping their chins open. The later coming through an open mountain meadow on a dead run not seeing the rock, and going over it chin then feet. When she stumbled to her feet she tested her jaw in such a human way that you expected her to say something about the pain. That was early in the trip and it had all been fine after that.

So with nothing else to do you start to pack up what parts of camp you can, drink coffee and fish one of the last donuts out of the box. You wander over to the creek that is pure snow melt running off the peaks above camp to watch the last vestiges of youth in your little girl, play in the cold water as you sit in the camp chair almost feeling the chill of the water on her bare feet against the smooth stones of the creek bed.

The full shade of the pines feels perfect, unlike the tent just up the slight rise that sits in full sun not twenty feet away. And now on the last day at 3 0’clock you run a hand over your head feeling the six days of stubble that you had planned to have shaved when you all made the trek to Sheridan for lunch. Then the old school hipster barber closed early that day, having missed out on the opportunity of a stranger take a straight razor to your skull.

Finally you succumb to it. Pulling yourself up, and throwing the latches on the camp box you dig around to find a stainless camp mug. The one you bought in Colorado twenty years ago when you spent a week in the Rockies investigating a scheme for a Client who is probably long since dead, and pair it with the camp mirror you bought at the Sports Lure in Buffalo. Finding your shaving kit, along with towel you set it all to rest on the pine needle floor.

A few minutes later, you feel the tingle of the shaving cream on your head. The first few razor strokes leave clean, smooth lines of bare skin, the razor clanking around the steel mug of water that came out of the creek. The cup rests again on the upended bundle of firewood used as a makeshift table and you look into the mirror, making another pass with the razor.

In the old days they wore what was termed moccasins around camp, not a true buckskin moccasin but something more akin to a soft leather slip on shoe, like the Sperry Topsiders you loved as a kid because you didn’t have to wear socks with them. You replaced that idea with the ever popular river sandals that mark the passage of summer with their strange tan line on your feet that are now outstretched against the forest floor. Remembering the summer, as teenagers, when you and Bill went hard after black tipped sharks and the day you sun burned the top of your feet so bad you couldn’t wear shoes for a week. Back then you loved the ocean and the beach more than anything, but it was the only place you were cut loose as a kid to roam. The mountains of course would sing their siren song and you hadn’t seen the beach in a long while, and the mountains never as much as you wanted. You had made the choice years back to keep an urban life so you could make a living that involved people and not mountains. “Fool”.

The razor scrapes the last of the hair from your head, while the towel removes the wayward bits of shaving cream. The scalp now feeling soft, clean and slightly rubbery as a slight breeze makes itself known. The wide brimmed hat hangs on a bent pine nearby with your gun belt and shirt. Stepping back out into the sun, especially now having been freshly scalped requires the hat, but you’re not ready. Not ready to see the big tent drop tomorrow, to hear the tail gate on the Ford close, not ready to lose the stars that don’t appear in the summer night mountain sky until damn near eleven. Your toes feel the conflict of pine needles against bare feet, their sharp and soft contrast mingled together. Pleasure and pain always seemingly equidistant apart.

The old teak wood chair squeaks as you look down the creek to see the girl, still in the cold mountain runoff that makes the creek, and reach for your coffee. Looking past the clarity of the creek and as deep into the stand of pines as possible, knowing you won’t get a lot of shaves like that.

Of Wolves, Dogs and Children

Imagine for a moment that wolves were a pervasive problem across the country.

We were left with contending at any given moment a solitary wolf slipping into the school yard, play ground, or birthday party and attacking children. The public out cry began to build and the government in all of it’s infinite wisdom decided it should step in.

After much conferring with people who knew nothing about wolves and had never seen a wolf decided that the only real answer was to not risk another child’s life. From the Senate to the White House a solution was provided.

Every domestic dog that weighed over 25lbs was to be rounded up and slaughtered.

Dog owners and lovers became enraged “our dogs are not wolves”, yet the Government responded “we have talked with experts and have concluded that since dogs are all descendents from the wolf we can not afford, for the sake of the children, to risk what we see as ticking time bombs in our homes. We feel that every dog lover can be reasonable and accept that dogs 25lb and under can keep the average dog lover happy”.

The public pointed back “but what are you going to do about the wolves coming out from the woods and attacking our children?”

Of course such a question could not be effectively answered because wolves are wild and one does not know where they all live.

Dogs on the other hand live in homes and have rabies tags and there are records where they live.

Such is the philosophy of gun control.

In the Big Country

We had camped West of Glacier National Park by about fifty miles, halfway between Kalispell and Whitefish in a National Forest campground and nine miles back, off a Forest Service road. Far enough back that cell phone reception was non existent. A rare thing in the twenty-first year of the twenty-first century.

Our camp sat in a valley surrounded by pines and very little ground cover, giving one sufficient shade during the unexpected heat wave the NorthWest was under going in June. I liked this camp because you could see fifty yards in any direction, and in some cases further. We had scouted another camp site some forty miles away, earlier in the day and another lake ago that I did not like. There the pines had been almost claustrophobically close to one another, and brush that ranged from three to six feet high. Despite being located along a beautiful mountain lake, in the far northern reaches of the lower forty-eight, I did not like it. I did not like it in a strategic sense. A career spent making threat assessments you learn to weigh various potential outcomes, while also understanding that living risk adverse is no way to live.

I had once read of an account of a couple of Russian lumberjacks somewhere deep in the Taiga. They had been walking through a particular thick forest when a Brown bear emerged, took hold of one of the men and simply disappeared with him. Later when they recovered the various pieces of him, the most predominant part they found were his pants that had been torn from him as he was dragged through the forest.

Montana, is of course what we commonly refer to as “bear country”though much of the U.S Missouri is technically bear country. Strong conservation efforts having made great strides to help return Ursus Americanus , or the American Black Bear to thriving numbers in much of their original range, but when one says “bear country” in America, we mean only one thing. Grizzly Country. Ursus Arctos Horribillis, named in the Latin for literally being horrible, by naturalist George Ord.

Being something of a common sense individual, and having been in “big bear” country more than a few times, I am fully aware that most people who live there and never see or interact with one, ranchers aside of course. So while the topic of Grizzlies between Myself, the Wife, and a certain ten year old Daughter whom I shall refer to as Utilivu*, came up often on our annual pilgrimage westward, as well as in camp, we didn’t hide out in our little Rockwood Roo, anticipating death by fur at any given moment. Like all responsible outdoorspeople we made sure the campfire was drowned out before bedding down. We locked the cooler up in the truck per campsite mandate (this being my least favorite activity) . More than a couple of nights I was tempted to slide it under the camper, and invite McDuff to lay on, but one knows how well Macbeth faired after such an invite.

That all said, while we did not live in constant concern of an encounter with a massive bruin, a .45 revolver of one of two makes rode tucked in a Barranti Leather holster inside my waistband, loaded with Buffalo Bore’s finest loads.

The first story I remember reading about a Grizzly attack was the one that attacked Game Warden Lou Kris in Montana back in the mid to late 1980s. He ended the fracas with his 357, but not before the bear chomped on his knee hard enough that it broke his leg.

Grizzly Bears are a lot like Great Whites. Their mere name elicits any variety of response, let alone a certain healthy fear of them. You know the likely hood of being killed or even attacked by one is incredibly low, even when you place yourself in their environ, but it’s never zero.

Back in 2017, we were camped out in our big 12×12 Cabelas “Green tent”, North of Ketchum, Idaho well into the Sawtooths. I was told this was “technically bear country” but So & So had lived there thirty years and had never seen a Grizzly. With the sunsets being practically at ten p.m. in the early summer the stars didn’t truly show themselves until almost 1am. The women in bed, and dozing off at the fire I was awakened by something crashing through the brush on the hillside behind our camp. Surely, it was an elk, because So & So had never seen a Grizzly in his thirty years of living in the area. I pulled the .30-30 lever gun that hung by the sling off the back of the camp chair, listened for a few moments, searching with the big flashlight, then the infrared monocular made by Leupold to no avail. I conveniently also decided to go to bed. Rifle along side my leg and my Ruger .45 Flat-top loaded quite literally for bear, on my chest.

A few weeks later we were back home, the mountains now out of our visual range, though not out of our spiritual, I sat reading the happenings around Ketchum, and longing for mountain life. I caught a small headline.

“Bear prompts campground closures at North Fork”

Apparently Idaho Fish & Game had to remove a troublesome Grizzly from the area after it raided the campground, and “grabbed the foot of a camper sleeping on the ground”. The article felt obliged to mention that the woman was not injured nor was the sleeping bag damaged, though it did have saliva on it.

It also turned out to be where we had been camped. So much for So & So’s thirty years of inexperience.

This year after leaving Montana in early July, I heard the ill fated story of the California woman who was dragged from her tent and mauled to death by a four hundred pound Grizzly. Camped out in town none the less. She and her companions had broken the cardinal rule of camping in bear country.

They had food in their tent.

I suppose one could take complete umbrage to this. Citing that it’s not proper to call out the deceased for their transgressions. None the less, her death came from a result of poor decision making, and a simple one easily avoided. Perhaps we don’t think it “fair” I suppose. The bear doesn’t know what fair is.

The three of us, talked about this at dinner one night. Utilivu noting that she had this fear in the back of her head the whole time we were camped in Montana, what if there was a bear stalking her. My wife rolled her eyes and remarked “you think the bear is a ninja with night vision goggles on constantly hunting and stalking?” I pointed out, that, yes in fact, that is exactly what the bear is.

Years back, fishing a slough for catfish around sunset, my buddy and I heard the howls of coyotes incredibly close to us in a nearby field. Deciding he would go and investigate he inadvertently walked right into the middle of the pack as he came out of some tall cane stalks. Hearing his yelling I walked out to see what was going on, only to find four or five coyotes running in a circle around him, yapping and barking. I fired a shot from the black powder revolver I was carrying and it proved to be enough. The coyotes scattered and ran, leaving he and I looking at each other as if to say “did that really just happen?”.

We take for granted the idea that a predator is always a predator, as they have to be. The coyote, the bear, the wolf, the hawk, the owl. They are always hunting in order to eat. In order to provide sustenance for themselves or the pack. We visit. We hike, we climb, we hunt, we camp, but we visit.

The Bear is always the Bear.

* ( Utilivu : those of you who are fans of novelist Jack Carr, this is more akin to calling a big man “Tiny”)