Guides & Packers Party in the Wilderness
“Good start on the season, Ron. Four elk for five hunters.”
“Hard to beat, and if you add Larry the bear hunter, we went five for six!”
“Right on. Did you get those hunters on the planes alright?”
“Oh yeah. Could hardly get their grins through the door. They’re happy, but they won’t be back.”
Too Rough for Them
“What? Are you kiddin’ me?”
I couldn’t believe it; the words clattered around in my ears. Four of the five hunters in camp killed trophy bull elk, and all five could have tagged out if the fat guy wanted to work. They couldn’t ask for better results. Why wouldn’t they come back?
“The country is too rough for them, Woody. It scares ‘em, ridin’ on thin, steep trails in the dark. The old guy said as much… said it was one of the best hunts they’d ever been on, but they had no interest in doing it again. This wilderness ain’t for everybody. For a lot of hunters, backcountry Idaho is literally a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Once is enough; they don’t want any more than that.”
I remembered the way Gerry stayed at the ranch all week after the first day on the trail. I had believed him when he said he had a twisted ankle, but Ron’s words made me wonder.
“Who was that landing after the hunters left out?”
“It was Justin coming to pick up Duane. I’m done with him.”
We needed Duane. He was loud and obnoxious, but he could guide.
“I think I know how you feel about this, and I think you know how I feel, too. The whole scene was just unacceptable, man. He knew it was wrong to leave them those hunters alone in the dark.”
I offered no defense.
Team Comes First
“But I didn’t fire him for that. I fired him because he just doesn’t fit in with the rest of our crew. No matter that he’s got skills and that we need another hand, he was totally incompatible. He had to go; the team comes first.”
I looked at Ron and knew it was true. He didn’t like making the decision to send Duane home; it was written on his face. But he hadn’t hesitated and, as I was soon to find out, he did not linger on it long.
“Anyway, it was a fine start to the season; you’re right about that. And I think we need to celebrate.” He turned to me with a gleam in his eye. “How long since we’ve seen Handy?”
“I don’t know, Ron… maybe a couple weeks.”
“A couple weeks? Woody, that’s too long.” he said as he marched across the yard to the hitching rails.
Blake was throwing a basket hitch on Smoky.
“Get riding stock for all five of us and three or four pack animals. Woody, bake some bread and some sort of dessert. Let’s gather our gear, people; we’re going to Tappan for a company picnic!”
The idea lit everyone up. A string of pack animals loaded with party supplies foretold of a great rendezvous. We were all happy anyway; a successful week of hunting and big tips from our customers. But the idea of a company picnic to surprise our good buddy Dave was packed with fun possibilities. We all hurried off to do our part.
I went into the cook shack with a grin as big as Texas. Sourdough had become my specialty, so I used it for bread and a dessert. First, a loaf of sourdough bread. To a fat cup of flour, I added two tablespoons of baking powder and sugar, and a good-sized pinch of salt. I stirred it up with a fork before adding a couple eggs and three cups of my bubbly sourdough starter. I stirred it again and added flour slowly until the batter-like dough balled up. Then I dumped the dough ball into a greased bread pan and smiled as I put it in the oven.
“Got to have hot bread for the company picnic!”
While the bread cooked, I mixed cherries off the trees in a large bowl with brown sugar and spices, added some corn starch, and cooked it down until thick. I spread the cherry goo into a large rectangular pan and dropped large spoonfuls of prepared dough throughout the fruit. I sprinkled cinnamon sugar on it and baked the cherry cobbler until the filling bubbled and the dough went golden brown. When the baked goods were finished, I took them to the corral for Blake to pack away.
Blake had eight head saddled by the time I finished baking and he was busy with loads.
“Where do you want the cobbler, Blake?”
“You made cobbler for the picnic?”
River Hippies & Mountain Men
Blake gave me a big smile and I returned in kind. He was a key player in our crew that year.
He bought into the spirit of brotherly love that we made a priority throughout that season. It was hilariously awkward for the old mountain men, but not an uncomfortable topic of conversation for river hippies. In time, even old cobs like Dave and Ron enjoyed the genuinely good vibe. But Blake and I evangelized it. We tried not to miss an opportunity to express our appreciation for one another.
“Yes, sir. I made sourdough cherry cobbler and bread. Where do you want ‘em?”
“In the green panniers. With the whiskey.” His smile seemed bigger than usual.
It was a clear warm day for the end of September, perfect for the short three-hour ride to Tappan on one of the most scenic trails on the Middle Fork. Blake led the way with the pack stock and Josh followed Blake. I rode behind Josh, with Pattie behind me and Ron at the end. We stretched out further than usual and gave each other plenty of space.
The trail was draped in the colors of fall and everyone fell into silence. It seemed like a pleasure ride, the scenery somehow different, the vibe mellower than during a normal run. We floated along the trail, soundless but for hoof beats.
I smiled as I thought of getting to spend some time with Dave and played clips in my head of the lessons I’d learned from him. He taught me how to count stock in the corral by counting legs. I remembered the look of amusement on his face when I gave him my read on a particular animal, or the time I invented the grazing saddle. Mastering a box full of tricks-of-the-trade that made me look like an experienced packer, much of that tradecraft from Dave. It was my good luck to learn one-on-one from him and I didn’t want that time to end.
Sitting tall in the saddle, I thought about the changes that came out of the last two years of adventure. I had become a stockman and backcountry packer, and had acquired many skills that increased my self-sufficiency in the wild. I had learned new ways to pay attention, and how to tune in to Nature on a frequency different than the one I used as an alpinist. As a climber, I already had a mindset for moving through the mountains; with Ron, I developed a mindset for living in them.
You had me at the camp food! I use cast iron a lot in my cooking. An old cowboy cook, Kent Rollins, has some great cookbooks on chuckwagon cooking/baking.
Ron taught us how to stack Dutch Ovens. A lot of craft in backcountry cooking.
It’s very interesting how a man from the “urban jungle” can adapt to life in the “wild jungle” and gain skills useful in different conditions. Great story about life and work.
Nice work. Loved the comment about “team first.” Applicable to thre back country, the farm and corporate world.
How about a post or two dedicated to some of your recipes?
Why not? 😊 Thanks for the suggestion. It’ll be my pleasure.