My Forty Years Scribblin's
Wilderness Storm

This was written in 1994 and published in the January-February 1995 issue of The Montana Journal. Mildred and Allen finish another season in "The Bob" with a final pack out.

The last of the season's hunters were well on their way to California, Arkansas, or some other warm place, and I was whiling away the hours sorting, packing what I could, and preparing to head home after two-and-a-half months in The Bob Marshall Wilderness. One long day and night had dragged by, and my husband, "The Boss," would be back with the empty pack string by late evening. Breaking camp in mid-November can be a messy business. Wet tents freeze on one side while you try to thaw them on the other side with a roaring bonfire, and you finally roll them into a bundle big enough to scare a packhorse to death. What happened to the romantic Indian summer in the back country?

Rain turned to snow that second night, and a rising wind made for a disagreeable job the next day. By nightfall, the snow had sifted in through a crack, and our bed harbored a miniature snow drift.

"I'm afraid we're in for a rough trip out," The Boss told me. He split and carried in a horrendous pile of wood and deposited it near the little barrel stove. At bedtime we had everything under control—except the weather. The wind quieted, and the mercury took a tumble. Our little stove was working hard but I knew when the fire died down we would shiver. We had a cardboard carton that once held sixteen loaves of bread. I opened it flat and stood it against the bench by the table as a barrier against the cold. We curled up on a canvas on the dirt floor in our clothes, including coats and shoes, and I poked that pile of wood in the stove a chunk at a time all through the night.

End of the season at the Chaffin South Fork camp,Daylight at last. Nothing stirred. No coyote wails… just the hard, white silence and biting cold.

"We'd better not try to make it out over Pyramid Pass," the Boss said. "I'll have to make another trip when the weather breaks." With numbed hands and feet we sorted again, piling the least essential items to leave behind. We moved into the one remaining small tent so we could take down the big one with our bed on one end that served as a cook tent. We would have to lay over one more day and hope the weather improved.

It didn't. Anticipating a late meal the next night, I cooked up a stew and filled a quart jar to take along. After a struggle with frozen ropes and canvas and feeling as though I'd already done a day's work, we climbed into our saddles and took off about noon on a twenty-four-mile ride over Haun Creek Pass to Monture Ranger Station on the coldest ride I hope I'll ever know. Earlier in the season some hunter had left a very large pair of overshoes. The Boss made me put them on over my lighter footwear. For that I can be thankful that I still have my feet.

Finally we were over the pass and facing us was a bare wind-swept mountainside. The trail was obliterated. The Boss had to plow along searching out a way to go. My little saddle mare became high centered on a hidden log, and we had to tramp down the snow and jump her over it—somehow. As we made a slow descent, the snow decreased, and there was only the sound of forty hooves swishing through the white stuff and always… the stupefying cold. We wore away the hours and the miles and darkness settled down.

At last we could see the outline of Burnt Cabin against the white background. We were both on leave from our Forest Service Jobs, and The Boss, as if by premonition, had picked up a Forest Service key. He went in to see if he could call someone to meet us with feed for the horses and give us a ride back to Seeley. The phone was dead, but there was a lift to his voice when he came out. "There's hay in the cabin," he said, "and I can bring some back on the next trip. Do you want to stay here tonight?"

Did I! It was 8:30 and pitch dark, nine snowy miles to Monture Station and my feet felt as though I could knock either one of them off with a kindling stick. We took the packs off and tied up the tired animals, giving each a portion of the baled hay. We loosened the cinches but didn't dare to unsaddle because the blankets would have frozen like sheets of iron.

We found enough wood under the edge of the cabin to thaw us out and heat up our stew. I warmed some of our blankets on the oven door, and we fell into instant slumber on the floor. A weak sun filtered through the frost of the next morning when we rolled up our bedding and tied on the packs once more.

Things were going smoothly until a packhorse fell on frozen Yellow Jacket Creek. Frightened of the ice, my mare whirled and caught my leg between her and my lead horse. I looped the lead rope over the saddle horn and calmed her enough to let me get off. Then she jerked away from me, yanked the struggling packhorse to its feet and took off the way she had come, trailing my half of the pack string with her. When the Boss perceived that I was not among his following, he hurried back, left his outfit with me, and went after them.

He caught them back at the cabin where we had spent the night. We had lost over an hour's travel time. We exchanged horses, since my mare was excited and hard to manage, and I took Old Rattler for the remainder of the trip. Periodically we walked to keep from congealing, and toward mid-afternoon I was plodding along, manipulating those big overshoes, and I looked back at the sound of trouble. Old Rattler lunged ahead as he always did when something hauled back on his saddle horn. I felt myself falling. There was a flash of a big sorrel leg behind my back as the horses went plunging past me. I had time to hope that none of them hit me when a fir tree connected with my head.

Everything was white and still, and I was comfortable for the first time since the storm hit. It occurred to me that I ought to get up, not that I wanted to. Then the thought occurred to me—my horses! They would run into The Boss' string and scatter things from here to yonder, possibly causing him to be hurt. The feeling was coming back to the side of my head, and I wondered if I had lost an ear in the scramble. I tried to hurry, then a movement below the trail turned my head. There was my runaway pack string, the packs still intact. But they had legs over halter ropes, halter ropes under packs, and Old Whiskey, the one I suspect caused the trouble, had a leg over the lead rope of the animal behind him. Somehow I got them untangled and lined out again.

But now a reaction set in, and I could make only two or three steps at a time up the steep bank. I was staggering down the trail with my horses in tow when the Boss came 'round the bend with my black mare steaming. Poor Boss. He would have saved himself a lot of trouble if he'd dug me under on the spot.

When at last we reached home we found the mercury had gone to twenty-six degrees below zero that night. That's about cold enough for riding around the hills on horseback!