My Forty Years Scribblin's
Epilogue
A Leaky Teepee and an Old Black Fryin’ Pan

The Bugle May/June 2000 by Mildred Chaffin


It was early in the 1940s, and I was about to embark on my first hunting trip into the South Fork of the Flathead River. It was a primitive area back then that later became known as the Bob Marshall Wilderness. In those years, the season didn't open until October 15. Sam, father-in-law, wanted the hunting camp set up and ready for opening day. My husband Allen had camped and hunted in the mountains since he was 10 years old, and had been setting up camp for years.

But I was new to all of it and had to learn the hard way.

We trailed the horses the 35 miles to Seeley Lake, acquiring the first round of saddle sores early on. I must have had my hand in the Lord's pocket, leaving home in a jacket and jeans in mid-October! Luckily we got nothing worse than a cold rain. I borrowed gloves from Clara, my sister-in-law, and from my friend Laura Ripley, both of whom had the good sense to take along extras.

We rubbed our sore spots, packed up, and headed down main street Seeley Lake, as did most of the packstrings of that day. But a horse in Sam's string developed a problem and began bucking in the middle of the road. Sam was a packer from the old school, and what he couldn't get in the packs he tied on the outside. A loose pail and a frying pan began to flop, creating a clatter that panicked the other animals and brought a flock of grinning spectators to their front doors to enjoy the show. I sat my horse in nervous embarrassment, soaking up a lot of choice expressions, fearful of what might come next. But Sam kept his string circling to avoid a real catastrophe, and our procession was soon on its way.

Being ranch-raised, I could handle a horse in flat country, but these mountain trails were scarcely wide enough for my horse's feet. I almost squeezed blood out of the saddlehorn. It was a long look down to the bottom of those canyons! We reached the campsite on Otter Creek long after dark, fixed something to eat on a campfire and spread our blankets under the stars—another new experience.

In those bygone days,there were no such luxuries as propane campstoves, foam rubber or air mattresses. But we had the main requirements: a leaky tent, a dutch oven and a longhandled frying pan. Sam had hired an Indian woman named Mary Kaiser to make him a tepee. So we three girls set up housekeeping in that. There was room for some of our sleeping bags along the walls and a small sleeping tent took care of the overflow. We cooked bannock and biscuits in the dutch oven over the tepee fire, sitting cross-legged on the ground—adding a new coat of soot to the frying pan, not to mention ourselves. We were black up to our elbows. But, oh, did that stuff taste good!

I had almost no savvy when it came to elk hunting, but I soon learned that it was sometimes necessary to climb half a mountain to keep "downwind" from an animal. And if that animal raised its head and looked toward you, you'd better not cough, sneeze or move a muscle, or said animal was apt to depart in a hurry.

That fall had been hot and dry, so hunting was hard. Then finally it rained. We women elected to stay in camp, and the men went hunting since we needed meat. As Sam ducked out the tepee flap he said "You women cook up some spuds and onions, will you?"

The day dragged on. Clara decided it was time to cook up the spuds and onions, and I watched while she chopped, browned and stirred. "I don't think that's quite what he had in mind, I ventured."

"I like 'em nice and brown", she said.

The men came in late. They'd had lots of luck—all of it bad. All was quiet. Everybody was busy taking care of the inner man. I was feeling a little smug, thinking they couldn't blame us for anything today when my little bubble burst.

"Who the hell messed up these spuds?" bellowed Sam.

Time was running out. We'd stayed longer than intended and still no meat. Sam paired us up and sent us in different directions "Somebody'd better bring home the bacon!" he said.

Allen and I went off together and late in the day our luck changed. We spotted several head of elk on Little Slide, but they were clear across the canyon. We were miles from camp, but we needed an elk. It was frustrating poking along, staying downwind and keeping out of sight, waiting forever for the elk to work their way to the head of the canyon and within gunshot distance.

At last a blast from Allen's old .30-40 curdled the atmosphere, and the herd took off for the next county. But the herd bull was down.

We worked our way around the head of the canyon as fast as possible, and over to our elk. He was still full of fight but couldn't get up. With a shot to the head, Allen put him out of his misery.

In the excitement I hadn't noticed the early October dusk filtering down among the trees. I watched Allen dress the bull out, then the real fun began. We had to find our way off that mountain in the dark, and I never could see at night like some people do. Black night took over in the timber, and I traveled partially on all fours. I was getting scratched and bruised and the novelty was gone. I glanced up to see stars winking at me through the treetops, and I winked back. Excuse me, Lord, if I'm getting a little wacky here on my knees. But what does all this have to do with "bringing home the bacon?"

At last I felt the trail beneath my feet. Then a horse nickered. An armchair never felt so good as that saddle under me. I found myself thinking it had been a long time since breakfast and hoping there'd be something in the dutch oven.

By the time we reached the tepee, Sam was organizing a search party. They were so happy to have us back they would have spoon fed us.

"T'aint so bad for a man to be out at night, but a woman. ..." It was Sam's way of saying he was worried.

We packed the elk into camp the next day and discovered that several horses were missing. The men spent a day looking for them without success. We also found we only had a few days' rations, so Sam decided we would make short treks toward home, looking for the horses along the way.

Meanwhile, I had made a revolting discovery. Our flour, what little there was, had little wiggling weevils in it. We weren't out of the woods yet, so we were going to have to eat it.

I took over the biscuit and pancake making so as not to spoil it for the others. I watched them eating those things and forced myself to partake. After the first bite, I said to myself, You're cooked, you're down, and you'll just have to stay down!

We made camp at Leota Park where some Indian friends, the Granjos, had encamped. Sam gave one of their guests $5 to look for the missing horses. The man came back at midday looking fagged out. "No horses," he said. "All gone home."

Since we would be back in civilization by night time, Sam took the rest of our flour to the Granjos' tepee. They had been out of flour for several days. I felt a panic coming on. Should I give up my secret? Well, it hadn't killed us, and if Mrs. Granjo found it out, she could throw it out. And if she didn't, it wouldn't kill them either. We had another meal or two to go, then I could tell everybody there were bugs in their biscuits.

Fourteen miles yet to go and we had two saddle horses for six of us. The other two girls rode part of the time, but having been born stubborn, I walked. There was one stumbling block—the Ripleys' white colt. He had a grudge against me. When I got too close, he would lay his ears back and get ready to let fly with both hind feet. I used him for a beacon when darkness caught us. When that white spot stopped, I stopped and waited until it moved on, knowing that those hooves were ready to land in my middle.

We had trucked several bales of hay for the horses, but left it at the beginning of the trip. So the livestock were as ready to go to sleep on their feet as we were. When we finally reached the top of Morrell Creek hill, we found a dandy spring, boxed in for folks such as we.

We were scraping the bottom of the honey bucket by now, with only a few handfuls of rice left to go with our elk meat. Sam had seen to it we had a good supply of coffee, which gave comfort to a bunch of weary hunters. We ate and drank and fell into our bedrolls. But this wasn't quite the end of our tribulations. In the morning, sister-in-law Clara went to the spring to fetch water for coffee and came back wearing a sickly grin. Daylight showed a very dead packrat floating on the water!

We never found those truant horses until we made our way out of the mountains. There they were, grazing contentedly, just downriver from Seeley Lake.

The pain of my first elk hunting foray was soon forgotten. So when my husband decided to start his own outfitting business, I jumped in with both feet. Over the next 20-some years, I put the lessons I learned on my first hunt to good use, outfitting in "The Bob." And I've learned a few more along the way.