My Forty Years Scribblin's
Facts of Life for a Packer's Wife

This outfitting essay was written in 1995-96, published in the May-June 1995 issue of The Montana Journal. Mildred discovers her duties and develops her routines as camp cook.

The horses fidgeted under their heavy packs, and I sympathized with them. I'd gone the route before in a more leisurely way, but now it was business. I climbed aboard my saddle horse and rode headlong "into the sunset," a newly-minted packer's wife. Some twenty-four horseback miles later, the horses plodded resignedly, and I was the fidgety one scooting around in my saddle, trying to find a comfortable place in it.

On the heels of World War II there was no early elk season in the Primitive area, the South Fork of the Flathead, so the chill of an October evening lay over the mountains. We unloaded the packs and turned the animals loose to graze. I looked over the rope-bound bundles dumped on the ground and groaned inwardly. Now where in this uproar was the one that had our supper in it?

The moon came peeking over the bald knob of Gordon Mountain as the cooking fire burned down. Nearby Otter Creek gurgled its happy little song, a coyote howled in the distance, but "Old Bob," our little yellow dog, paid no heed. He had treed every squirrel between Otter and Morrell creeks and lay stretched out near the fire too tired and sore-footed even to eat. But he thumped his little stump of a tail on the ground when I walked past and looked up with love in his brown eyes, just happy to be wherever we were. The Big Dipper sat level in the sky—no sign of rain- so we rolled our beds out under the stars. If the ground was hard, we didn't feel it. It had been a long, long day.

Mildred, "the mother hen," in front of her cook tent, Fall 1951Morning burst upon us right on schedule. "Gotta get this camp set up and ready for our first hunting party!" We re-attached all the removable parts of the stove—oven door, grates, lids, and legs. It had come in on the biggest horse in the outfit because I had held out for an oven. Now I had to know if it baked, burned, or sulked. While "The Boss" went to see that the horses hadn't all gone home, I laid out a couple of pack boxes, found something to use for a pastry cloth, peeled a few apples, and got a pie in the oven before he got back. The horses all accounted for, we set about putting up camp. The pie came out looking acceptable, and I set it to cool on the chopping block that had served the Chaffin families on pleasure excursions through several years past. Now the cook tent was up. I heard a little thumping noise and looked out to see that Old Bob had roused himself, regained his appetite, and was eating the middle out of the pie!

Two trips, and eighteen pack loads were required to get the initial camp and supplies packed in. Leaving everything nicely placed, we saddled up and went back to the base camp to pick up the second load and cut some more trail. On the return trip, I was surprised to see an apple here and there along the trail. Some outfit was losing the supplies. A little further on there were more apples. Gee, didn't the guy know his pack was leaking? When we pulled up at the hitching rack my surprise was complete. Those were our apples! We had been raided by a bear. It had rained, and everything that wasn't smashed, eaten, or torn apart was covered with mud. We worked until midnight getting the damage repaired to a usable state. Well, we had put everything we had into the outfit. There was only one thing to do… pick ourselves up and start over.

We had hired a young "hand" who was anxious to work, and he and I would now take turns staying with the camp when The Boss made the necessary trips out and back. Did he mind staying part of the time? I asked. "Hell, no!" He knew all about packing and hunting camps. But on the eve of our return, we found him back at the base camp with our little yellow dog and all his gear. He didn't own up to the fact, but he'd had enough of the solitude and the things that go bump in the night. The camp had been alone for two nights, and I dreaded what we might find, but miraculously everything was O.K. All of which only meant that I got a promotion. I would get to stay through all the trips out! It was an unenviable job, the pay was rock bottom, and it lasted—with few exceptions—for eighteen years.

By now I had acquired another little stove. Six, eight, or ten men require a lot of nutrition, but when I wasn't cooking, I could go fishing. Young's Creek nearby was so clear that I could see every rock and every fish that was in it. The men brought in fish, too, and I did considerable smoking, gathering dry alderwood for heat and green for smoke. For my money, alder beats any hardwood sawdust that can be bought.

Bathing was a big problem. My quarters were in the cook tent, and it belonged to everybody. So I would carry my wash basin, soap, and towel across the foot log and into the jack-pine thicket behind the tent any time there came a half-warm day. I became something of a mother hen, and the men brought me their troubles. I sent one to bed with a quart jar of ice chunks for his appendix. One jumped off a log and injured his leg, so I made him a pair of crutches. One had blistered heels and could hardly wear shoes. I patched him up with band-aids and salve. Another came to my tent in all seriousness, and I broke out the all-bran and cooked him a kettle of prunes! One came bearing his upper denture in hand, "What am I goin' to do? I broke my 'teef'!" Well, he did have a problem. I don't remember what I came up with but I got him on the road home with his denture in place. It must have made an impression for when I next saw him some twenty-five years later, the first thing he said was "Remember when you fixed my teeth?"

As each season drew to a close, the days dragged by. There were no new preparations to make, and I was ready to call it quits. I had fought bear, porcupines, yellow jackets, pack rats, mice, and the weather. Near my private biffy grew a sapling quaking aspen. I wove an early ritual around it. Like the telling of the beads, I watched the yellow leaves fall one by one. When the last two clung forlornly, it was time to go home. I began to sort and pack, trying to use up as much as possible and praying for the November storms to hold off—that we might get out before the creeks froze over, and the snow make the passes impossible. Sometimes it happened, and sometimes it didn't. And all the time, I knew that I'd be ready to go back when the time came and give it another try.