My Forty Years Scribblin's
The Longest Way Around

The Bugle March/April 2002 by Mildred Chaffin

The individual who disgorged that euphemism never prowled the Bob Marshall Wilderness when Mother Nature was throwing a tantrum. By mid-November, one can expect to begin paying for those golden days of autumn, which lie smothered under a deluge of cold white stuff that renders the territory fit for nothing but furry critters and snow mosquitoes. Even the elk take cover in the timber until they find out if the old lady is bluffing or if she really means it. This is a time of dread for the outfitter; he will have to cope, and he will have to endure. If he is smart, he will have tied a shovel on the lead packhorse where it is handy. And if he is dragging along a lady outfitter, she will cope, too.

This was one of those "long way around" treks. And when my saddle horse got high-centered on a hidden log, it was plain to see we were off the beaten track. Off came the shovel, and my husband Allen (also known as "the Boss") began digging where the trail ought to be.

A forest fire from some forgotten year had left this a wind-swept wasteland strewn with stumps and fallen logs, where the unfamiliar might wallow in snow up to his belt line. I could only hunker down behind my collar for the next 300 yards and two hours of shoveling and hope the Boss's back would hold out! A glance to the rear showed our tracks being blown in behind us. The poor horses kept pushing, wanting to get off that exposed mountainside, and the wind chill felt like 40 below zero.

At last, in the shelter of the timber, the trail became visible. The wind dropped, but so did the temperature. Winter's early darkness caught us miles from nowhere, it seemed. I had never gone this route, but I'd heard of a Forest Service cabin called Burnt Cabin so kept watching for it. Finally I could see the shape of a building against the snow.

During those years, I'd spend the summer months cooking for the crews at the Seeley Lake Ranger Station, while my husband packed Forest Service mules and ran a trail crew. As if from premonition, the Boss had picked up my Forest Service key on his last trip home. He stopped the pack string and yelled back at me, "Wait here!" (as if I could do anything else). "If the phone is still working I'll call somebody to meet us at Monture."

When he called to me again, there was music in his voice. "The phone's okay. There's hay in there. I can bring some back when we make the next trip. It's nine more miles to Monture, you know. Do you want to stay here tonight?"

Did I! Nine more miles in the black of night, and I was already one big icicle! I didn't need any convincing. The tired and hungry animals were plodding along with drooping heads. They could only accept what we dished out to them. The next trip? I'd been so absorbed in this endurance contest, I'd given no thought to the pile of equipment we had to leave behind. Packing out our elk meat hadn't left us enough horses to handle everything in one trip.

The poor beasts were probably as tired as I was, and now they were going to have to make an extra trip—24 miles one way—to retrieve the rest of it. The Boss had once told me that if I'd learn how to think like a horse, I'd know what to expect of him. Now I understood. Those things dangling from my ankles felt as dead as a pair of hoofs, and, after all those miles since breakfast, I'd have bet anybody I could eat half a bale of hay!

We had learned from experience always to carry a flashlight, and I managed to focus the thing so the Boss could tie the horses and break out some hay to get them through the night. Stumping around and trying to help limbered me up a little. We took off the packs but had to leave the saddles on, or the sweaty pads would have frozen into sheets of iron. We found enough wood under the edge of the cabin to heat the jar of stew I had stuffed in the food box, while I warmed our blankets on the oven door.

Shelter! Be it a mansion, a tent or a wickiup of boughs, it means protection from the elements. All day long, I'd felt like a misplaced "drop in the bucket" in this half-a-million acres of frigid whiteness. But when I entered the door of the little cabin, what a lift to my spirits. I felt as though I could stay here all winter.

Morning was inevitable, but things were looking up. The wind had calmed, and the sun was beginning to filter through the treetops. The snow at this level was little more than a foot deep. Nine miles would be a short ride.

Walking and riding intermittently, we reached frozen Yellow Jacket Creek, where our troubles began. A packhorse in my outfit fell on the ice, and Tuffy, my saddle horse, became frightened and unmanageable. Afraid she would fall on me and we'd both get trampled, I calmed her enough to let me get off. She jerked away from me. The fallen animal scrambled to its feet, and Tuffy headed them back to the Forest Service cabin! The Boss, seeing my predicament, hurried to hand me his lead rope and took after my errant horses. But Tuffy had her mind set on familiar territory, and he couldn't get past her in the timber. I waited, getting colder by the minute, while we lost an hour-and-a-half. I had slipped the loop of my lead rope over my saddle horn before I got off my horse, so once Tuffy and her string got back to the cabin, it made it easy for the Boss to catch them all.

I thanked my lucky stars the wind stayed calm and the sun had begun to spread a little warmth from overhead. At Yellow Jacket Creek, Tuffy balked at crossing the ice again, so the Boss put me on faithful old Rattler and took charge of my excited pony.

We had covered some distance, and I was walking to keep my feet from freezing, when there was a big commotion behind me. I turned to look. What happened then, I can never be sure. The horses went lunging past me, and I knew they were getting away. Then suddenly I was down on my knees. I don't know how I got there. Instinctively, I turned my head and saw a sorrel leg flash behind my back. I had a split second for the thought, "I hope none of them hit me." Somewhere in this muddle of events, I saw a small fir tree near the trail and realized I was headed straight for it. Legs were still flashing behind me when the tree connected with the side of my head.

I came to by degrees, flat on my back in the soft, fluffy snow. Events began to unravel. Then came the realization that old Rattler was running away with my pack string. They would run into the Boss's string, and then we'd have a real rodeo.

Still groggy and badly scared, I tried to hurry in the trail left behind by the horses. A few yards farther, a slight movement caught my eye. There were my horses, with legs over halter ropes, halter ropes under packs, and one troublemaker—aptly named Whiskey—had one leg over the lead rope of the animal behind him. I scooted down the bank and somehow, with numbed hands, got those ropes untied, untangled and back where they belonged. I had looped old Whiskey's lead rope over my saddle horn, and he had a bad habit of pulling back, upon which Rattler would give a lunge or two to jump-start him. I suspect that was the cause of the uproar. One lucky thing for me, the packs were still hanging on. I took Rattler's reins and started up the 25 feet to get back on the trail. Then the reaction set in. The feeling began coming back to the side of my head, and I was shaking badly. I wanted to throw up. Every three or four steps of the climb, I had to sit down in the snow to rest. I had trouble holding old Rattler back, because he knew the other horses were down the trail, and he could never stand to have anything get ahead of him. He always set the pace. The others were used to following him.

I was staggering down the trail with my animals in tow, when the Boss came steaming around a curve on my black mare. He knew that something was seriously wrong when I failed to catch up to him. Poor Boss. I wonder that he didn't dig me under on the spot. He needed more capable help. He put me back on my horse, where I would stay for the remainder of the trip, cold or not. Thankfully we were now only a few miles from our destination.

One good look at me slumped on the back of old Rattler, and the Boss groaned, "If I ever get you out of here, I'll never bring you back!"

It wasn't the first time I heard it, and it wouldn't be the last.