My Forty Years Scribblin's
Outfitting
Nature's Way

A brief account written in 1996 and published in the January-February 1997 issue of The Montana Journal. A lone elk calf passes through camp.


The rains had stopped, and we were ready for a trip into "The Bob." Old Man Winter had really "poured it on" that year in the 1950s, and our usual route over Pyramid Pass would not be open due to snow banks on the north slopes of the mountain. There would also be swimming water at the Young's Creek fords. So Allen, "The Boss," decided to truck the horses to Monture ranger station and travel by way of Haun Pass, a lower elevation with no bad fords, although it would mean eight miles further to ride and to pack. There would be seven in our party of family, friends, and neighbors.

Six to eight months out of the saddle is a sure way to soften up both man and beast—or woman and horse flesh, if you'd prefer. Last fall's bumps and contusions were barely forgotten but I, for one, was ready to go again. We did run into one snow bank on top of the pass, but it gave us no trouble. Then, descending into Haun Flats near the end of our trek, we rode into a herd of elk cows and their long legged calves. They milled around and took a good look at this new curiosity before deciding that we didn't belong there, then suddenly they took off. And how those little devils could run! It was an unexpected thrill that made us forget that we were tired and gave a lift to our spirits for the final two mile ride to our camp site near the confluence of Otter and Young's Creek. The livestock were "old hands" at this business of camp life, and they knew where they were going. They always perked up on the last lap of the journey in a hurry to get rid of their burdens and to be belled and turned loose to roll and to graze.

The men got a couple of tents up while we two women cooked supper over a camp fire.

A sixteen-hour day will send most anyone looking for their blankets, and if there were any humps, sticks, or stones under mine, I wasn't aware of them. Too, I'd always enjoyed the coyote's evening serenade, but if there was one that night, I didn't hear that either.

The morning dawned clear and dry. The mosquitoes were out in force, but that was of secondary importance. Breakfast over, we trudged down to the main stream to inspect last year's favorite fishing holes. Prospects looked pretty poor, since Young's Creek was out of it's banks, and we couldn't get to the channel. Logs lying a foot off the ground told the story… sticks and needles had settled on top of them as the water went down.

I left the others puddling along in search of a likely looking place to fish. At home, I spent my days cooking for the Forest Service as well as keeping the home fires burning, so a little leisure time to myself seemed inviting. I turned and moseyed back to camp.

Shortly, I perceived a movement through the trees down the trail where I had just walked. An animal was coming and then, into plain sight a calf elk came running.

The Indians say, "When the wild strawberries bloom, the elk calves are born." The little thing was dripping wet and its tongue was hanging out. It couldn't have been more than a month old. It ran right through the yard, oblivious to the two white tents, past the hitching rack, and on up the short-cut trail that leads up Otter Creek. The tent flaps were tied back and I stood in the door, but the little fellow ran on unmindful of me. He knew where he was going and how to get there! I waited expectantly for the cow to follow but none came. When "The Boss" came in a while later, I started to tell him about the unusual occurrence.

"I saw it,"he said. "It came bouncing down the main trail and without even hesitating jumped into the river and swam across." He had been fishing below the ford and he, too, had waited for the mother that never came.

It was baffling. What had caused the cow to leave her baby? A big grizzly? A wolf pack? Yes, there were wolves in The Bob thirty-five years ago. Two of the woolly brutes had run my dogs into camp right before my eyes! I shuddered at the picture that formed in my mind. I had once seen three coyotes drag a deer down and watched helplessly from a distance while they tore the poor struggling thing apart alive. Did this mother die defending her young? And what would happen to the baby without its mother's milk to sustain it?

It bothered me all the way home, and it bothered me when I came back in September to spend the hunting season, two months, in our outfitters' camp.

Nature isn't always beauty and light. Sometimes she is rough, ragged, and destructive. And I will always have to wonder what she did to these creatures of the wild—a mother elk and her suckling calf.