My Forty Years Scribblin's
Personal Memories
Camping's Little Catastrophes

This story was written in 1995 and published in the July/August 1995 issue of The Montana Journal. Mildred made her first pack trip in 1937 or '38.


My first trip into the "back country" almost cured me of camping.

The area was then the South Fork Flathead Primitive Area, later to be named The Bob Marshall Wilderness. Hunting season didn't open until October 15, and my father-in-law, Sam, wanted camp set up and ready for the first day. We trailed the horses over the old Jocko road to Seeley Lake, acquiring the first round of saddle sores early on! Call me dude, greenhorn, or tenderfoot, the name was bound to fit. I learned the hard way, and fast. I must have had my hand in the Lord's pocket, starting out in a jacket and jeans. Luckily we got nothing worse than a cold rain. I borrowed gloves from the other two girls, my sister-in-law, Clara, and Laura Ripley, a neighbor, who had sense enough to take along extras.

Sam, the trail boss, was a packer from the old school. What he couldn't get inside the packs, he tied on the outside. We packed up next morning and headed down main street Seeley Lake, as did most of the pack strings in those days. Then a horse in Sam's string developed a problem and started bucking in the middle of the road, a loose pail and frying pan flopping and creating a clatter that panicked some of the other horses and caused doors to open and grinning spectators to enjoy the show. Sam kept his "string" circling to avert a real mixup, while I sat my horse suffering embarrassment and soaking up a lot of choice expressions. I knew how to saddle and handle a horse, but those crooked and narrow trails required some extra fortitude.

We reached the designated spot at Otter Creek after dark, got something to eat and rolled out our bedrolls for a night under the stars. Sam had hired an Indian woman to make him a tepee, so we three girls set up housekeeping, sitting cross-legged on the ground and cooking over the tepee fire. There was bannock and biscuits in the dutch oven, and the kettles and frying pans turned black—and so did we, up to our elbows. But oh, did that food smell good!

I had some "gut savvy," but I'd never seen an elk, so now my hunting lessons began. I learned that sometimes it was necessary to climb half a mile of mountain to keep down wind of an animal and if that animal raised his head and looked toward you, you'd better not cough, sneeze, or move a muscle even if you had one foot in the air and your nose to the ground, else the critter was apt to depart—and fast.

That fall had been hot and the woods dry, so hunting was hard and not too productive. Then it rained. We women elected to stay in camp, but the men went hunting since we needed meat. When Sam departed, 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 in some doubt 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. They'd had lots of luck—all of it bad. I listened to their tales of woe and felt snug and smug that we hadn't been underfoot to cause any of their troubles. They couldn't blame us for their distresses. All was quiet. Everybody was busy eating. Then my little bubble was punctured when Sam, the patriarch, said, "Who the hell messed up these spuds?"

Time was running out, so when Allen and I spotted several head of elk across the canyon at Little Slide, we felt compelled to work toward shooting distance of them, even though it was late in the day, and we were miles from camp. It was frustrating, poking along, staying down-wind and out of sight, waiting for them to work their way to the head of the canyon. But we needed an elk! Finally, we got within gunshot, and the herd bull went down. We had to work our way around the head of the canyon and over to our elk. He was down but not out. Still full of fight, he shook his horns in defiance, but he couldn't get up and Allen finished him with a head shot.

In the excitement, I hadn't noticed that night was filtering through the pines. I had to hold matches for Allen to dress out the animal. Now the real fun began. We had to get down off that mountain in the dark, and I never could see through the darkness like some people do. Soon I would have to ask, "Which way did you go?" Then he said, "Wait, have to go back, There's a cliff here." I had left my rifle standing against a tree near the elk and was traveling partially on all four, getting scratched and bruised. By now I had decided that this kind of camping was not my "thing." We reached our saddle horses and got back to camp just as the men were starting out to look for us.

The next day it was discovered that some of our horses were missing. We had overstayed our time, so we took stock of our supplies and found that we had only a few days' rations. With enough pack animals to carry the camp, Sam decided that we should make short treks, looking for them on the way out. By now we were down to a little rice, a little honey, a very few potatoes, a little flour, and some elk meat. I made a revolting discovery and almost blurted it out, but thought better of it. Our flour, what little there was, had weevils in it! What should I do? We weren't out of the woods yet, and we were going to have to eat it. I decided to keep my secret, so I wouldn't spoil it for everyone. I took over the biscuit and pancake making and was greasing the griddle with the same old bacon rind every day, and now it was going dry! I watched the others eating those things and forced myself to partake. After the first bite it wasn't so bad. "You're down." I said to myself. "You'll have to stay down."

Our next stop was Leota Park where an Indian friend, Eneas Granjo, had a camp. Most of the party had gone out, but the Granjos were staying a couple more days, so Mrs. Granjo could rest and benefit from the balsam trees that seemed to relieve her asthmatic condition. Sam gave an Indian man five dollars to see if he could find traces of the truant horses. Several hours later the man came back looking fagged out. "No horses," he said. "All gone home."

Since we would be back to civilization that night, Sam took the rest of our flour over to Granjo's tepee. They had been out of flour for a couple of days. I knew a moment of panic. Should I give up my secret? Well, I reasoned it hadn't killed us, and if Mrs. Granjo found it out, she could throw it out. If she didn't it wouldn't kill them either. We had another meal or two, then I could tell everybody.

Fourteen miles to go, and we had two saddle horses for seven of us. The other two girls rode part of the way, but I was born stubborn so I walked. There was one stumbling block. The Ripleys had a pack mare that had a white colt, and he had a grudge against me. When I got too near, he laid his ears back and got ready to let fly with both hind feet. I used him for a trail guide when darkness caught us and when that white spot stopped a few feet ahead of me I stopped and waited until he moved on, knowing those hooves were ready to land in my middle.

Civilization at last. There was a great spring on top of the Morrell Creek Hill, boxed in for just such people as we. We were now scraping the bottom of the honey bucket and had a few handfuls of rice and some elk meat. We had our simple supper and I, for one, crawled into bed, dead tired. Was that the end of our little catastrophes? Well, not yet. In the morning, sister-in-law Clara went to the spring for a pail of water and came back wearing a sickly grin. She had found a dead pack rat floating in the water!

The deserting horses were found grazing contentedly down-river from Seeley Lake. The pain of my first camping trip to the mountains was soon forgotten, and the lessons learned were put to good use through the next 30 seasons of camping in The Bob Marshall back country.