My Forty Years Scribblin's
South Fork Memories

Originally written in 1956 as part of a longer account of the Bar UC's first commercial pack trip and published in the Montana Outfitter Magazinein 1960, which Mildred later made into three separate stories. This one appeared in the Seeley Swan Pathfinderin 1987. Mildred and Allen discover their hunting camp destroyed by a bear.

I was sure a "greenie" way back, when that mountain-minded man of mine fell for all that malarkey about the rewards of being a packer and guide. Oh, I'd lagged along a time or two when he'd taken some friends on a hunting excursion, but I r'ared up like an old fly-back horse when he began to talk of "dude wrangling" for our bread and butter. (I darn well knew who was going to be his "man" Friday.) I plugged my ears while he extolled the glories of the South Fork of the Flathead country—the freedom of the wilds—fresh air and exercise.

There was no talkin' him out of it, though. We hitched our wagon to a runaway star, and climbed on the driver's seat together. And like the old fly-back mare, when I did capitulate, I gave it all I had. With us rode what savings we had been able to gather, along with our hopes for the future. All we could do was "sit tight" and hope the road wouldn't get too rough.

Now, a group of hunters on a pleasure jaunt may be content to sleep on the ground. They might not mind using their laps for tables, or swabbing out their skillets and beanpots by the light of campfire. But when advertising such a venture as a means of making a living, brother, you better provide the best!

During those Post-war years, stoves, canvas tents, oil cloths and other equipment was mighty hard to come by, but we managed. Due to the Chaffin clan's being so horse-minded, we already had a herd of cayuses to draw from. We sold our school bus and mortgaged our souls to get the remainder of that outfit together. We farmed the kids out (Grandmother's), But I can't remember what we did with our other commodities, except the dog—he went along!

Our first camp was to be on Otter Creek, near where it joins Young's Creek to form the headwaters of the South Fork of the Flathead River. We started freighting our camp stoves, canned food and supplies over Pyramid Mountain in early fall that first year. Friend husband knew all about the South Fork country, having followed his father since he was a lad—had bugled the majestic bull elk since he could whistle, and could throw a diamond hitch with the best of them. (He later discarded the diamond and top pack for the more simple forestry hitch.)

With me trying my darnedest to be helpful, he packed up enough horses for two good men to handle. We got out of camp about noon. Then, some brute that was greener than I, would act up and cause combustion all through the pack string. Allen, being the good partner that he was, later learned to cut down to about a string and a half. I learned a lot of brand new cuss words and, eventually, how to lead my part of the procession.

A beautiful Indian Summer day in the South Fork camp, late 1940s. Gordon mountain is in the background."Git that rope loose from that saddle horn!" It was one of my first lessons. I hadn't known that any untoward happening might cause the lead horse to pull back and upset my saddle on top of me, even possibly sending the whole string to the bottom of some canyon.

"Kick your feet loose from them stirrups!" was another, when we reached slippery rock, shale, or bad mud holes. I even had to learn to shove vanity under the bed and put on clothes befitting my new occupation. After a few soggy trips when the rain ran down my cheeks, down my neck and trickled icily down my back, I discarded my pretty scarf for a hat. (Love that disreputable old hat! It had a wide brim and, if I remembered to lean back, the water ran off outside my saddle.)

By dint of much exertion, we got that first camp set up. But there was one important thing we had overlooked. We didn't have any bookings!

Friends had told us they knew literally dozens of people who were dying to make a pack trip into this wilderness area. And they meant it, too. We had gone merrily along without a worry on the subject!

We left camp for the last load before the opening of the season. This trip out brought both good luck, and bad. On reaching home, we had word of two Californians who wanted to be packed in. Well, it was a start!

The bad news was what we found when we returned to camp after that second supply trip. I lagged behind with my string. When I pulled up to the tents, blue smoke and violent language assailed me. No wonder! My new cook tent stood rent and torn—positively, the worst mess I had ever laid eyes on!

I had left the cook tent in apple pie order. Dishes in the pole cupboard, a shiny new oil-cloth on the table, a four-lid cookstove with oven—as a special inducement to my culinary efforts. Pots and pans were handy behind it. Canned goods and other supplies were stacked neatly near the stove. But now it looked as if a battle had been fought, and the wilderness had won. The nice white canvas was smudged all over with bear tracks and inside the tent was bedlam—covered with mud. My new oilcloth lay outside the door in an unrecognizable state and a trail of dirty tracks paraded the length of the table. The cookstove lay upside down among the ruins of what had been canned goods, dishes, pots and pans. If civilization had been any closer, I probably would have gone home to mother.

But it wasn't, and there was no use in postponing the agony. We had to straighten out the mess and get out the next day to meet our guests from California. Luckily, we had food with us, for the old reprobate hadn't left us any!

I went to work patching up the tent, while from nearby Otter Creek came mutterings of a nearly depleted vocabulary of "such and such" and "so and so's." My better half was washing the outer layer of mud from the kitchen utensils. About half past midnight, we were ready to call it a day and turn in for a few hours before taking off over the mountain again.

We finished our first season with only those two paying guests, and went to work elsewhere that winter to pay our hunting expenses. We didn't make any money, but we did make commitments that first year. We promised to come back and try again, still harnessed to that far-flung star and the hope of a better tomorrow.