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Copyright 2009 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor; editor@rockymountainrider.com.

 

Molene

By “Selway Mary” Erickson, Missoula, MT

 

August 2009 Issue

 

Part 1

     A puddle of chocolate-brown hound lay melted in the afternoon sun on the doorstep of the main cabin at North Star Ranch. Not one muscle moved as I approached nor did a hair on her old gray muzzle.

     “Look out for Molene, our ferocious watch dog there,” Carolyn commented wryly, as I stepped over the still prone dog and into the house.

     The tip of Mo’s tail twitched almost imperceptibly at the mention of her name. One eye cracked open a thin slit, barely registering my presence before sliding shut.

     “Don’t mind her. She’s not usually this aggressive,” Carolyn chuckled as she handed me a cup of boiled coffee and one of her famous, impossibly thin and crispy oatmeal cookies.

     That was my introduction to Molene and the beginning of my life at North Star Ranch where I had hired on as hunting camp cook for the fall of the ‘75 season.

     I’d been by to visit often in the previous few years that I’d been working at Selway Lodge several miles down river. We had chatted often on the old crank-phone system that connected the three ranches on the Selway River with several Forest Service lookouts and guard stations in that part of the Wilderness.

     When you basically have two neighbors in over a million acres of Wilderness, it doesn’t matter if they live miles away, you make the effort it takes to get to know them.

     Punk and Carolyn were the “old timers” on the Selway, the ones with the longest connection to the area. Punk’s uncles, Snort and Ole, had homesteaded North Star Ranch many years before, and Punk had spent much of his growing up years in the Selway. He and Carolyn had bought the place from the uncles in the 1950s and lived there ever since.

     The homestead meadows stretched along the Selway River at the confluence of North Star Creek, ten miles from the trailhead and many more miles by dirt road to the bright lights of “civilization.” I was looking forward to working with Punk and Carolyn, and getting to know them and the surrounding country better.

     That evening at dinner, in the small but cozy kitchen of the cabin, Mo padded in, plunked her butt down on my feet and, leaning back against my legs, offered her head up for some serious ear scratching which I was happy to provide.

     “Apparently you’ve passed muster,” Carolyn said her blue eyes twinkling. For the rest of the evening she and Punk told wonderful tales of Mo’s prowess hunting mountain lions in her younger years. Mo languished in the warmth of the limelight.

     “Perpetual motion” would be the term to best describe the following days for us. During the next several weeks, we had much to do to prepare for hunting season which was just around the corner. Mo recognized the familiar patterns of our preparation and dogged our tracks with devotion.

     We brought the horses down from their summer pasture in the basin up North Star Creek, trimmed their tails and manes, and brought in the farrier to shoe them all. We oiled and conditioned tack, took down tents from where they hung in the hay shed, and folded and packed them for mules to carry.

     Wherever we worked, Mo was there waiting and attentive. Every night, Mo sat on my feet and offered her gray head for ear scruffling.

     On the days we spent in the saddle riding the trail and setting up the two camps to receive hunters, Mo was kept tied at home. The “low camp” was up Goat Creek, approximately six miles and one mountain away from the home ranch. The “high camp” was about nine miles away, up Goat Ridge on the way to the old Wylies Peak Lookout.

     Mo had always accompanied Punk and Carolyn to the camps, but this year Carolyn was still recovering from reconstructive surgery on both her hips and couldn’t comfortably ride a horse yet. They had hired me to go in her place. Besides wanting Mo to stay home to keep Carolyn company, Punk felt Mo was just plain too old for the rigors of the trail not to mention the fording of the river required to reach either camp.

     Jerry Lewis from Darby had rounded out our crew as a guide, and he was welcome as he was adept not only at finding game and handling hunters, but also not afraid of all the hard work that went with the rest of the job.

     The prep trips were basically out and back, making for really long days. We’d often leave the home place at daybreak and not return until nearly dark. It was a good way to break into the season since, once hunting officially began, all days would begin long before daybreak and end long after nightfall.

     We cleaned leaves and grass out of the springs that would provide our fresh water and fenced them from the stock. We built corrals with nylon rope and fabricated saddle racks from logs and stumps. We built temporary drift fences out of downed limbs, brush and a portable electric fencing system to hopefully keep the stock from going home when they were out on range for night pasture. Just for the record this didn’t always deter them.

     We pitched camp tents — a 14’ x 20’ cook tent which was also my “home,” plus storage, plus two smaller cabin tents, one for the hunters and one for Punk & Jerry to share — and covered them with tarps. We set up cook stoves, constructed tables from limb wood and a roll of canvas and lath, and rounded up stumps for stools. We rustled enough firewood to get at least the first camp started in each location.

     Back at the home ranch, the wood stove was kept humming as quantities of food were prepared — cookies, breads for sandwiches, applesauce cakes both to pack in the kitchen boxes for camp and to feed the hunters their first night at the ranch. Time-honored lists of needed supplies were checked and rechecked.

     Finally the big day arrived. The hunters — who had flown in the day before and had regaled us at the dinner table with tall tales of previous hunting exploits — were now eager-eyed, breakfasted, and anxious to be on their way.

     The season started from the “high camp” because the temperatures were still warm and the game had not moved down out of the high mountains. We got the hunters mounted up early and headed off to hunt on their way to camp with Jerry guiding them.

     Punk and I planned to finish loading the pack string and follow behind, allowing the loaded stock a more leisurely pace up the steep trail to the high camp.

     The day was just hinting at some serious heat when we were ready to head out. Mo had spent every second on the pack dock keeping a judicious eye on our progress.

     She’d pace the length of the dock, then pace alongside the stock that had been packed and were waiting, and then pace back to the dock to check our progress. I’m sure she’d been through this enough times that she knew exactly how the process went and what to expect next.

     For Mo it was the highest level of animation I’d seen from her yet. Her tail beat a steady happy rhythm as she danced stiffly about in eager anticipation. But, the next to last thing Punk did before climbing into the saddle was to slip a rope on Mo’s collar and hand it to Carolyn.

     “Mo,” he said, patting her velvet brown head tenderly, “you stay. Stay with Carolyn.” Mo wiggled, ever-hopeful that Carolyn was going to camp, too, as she’d always done.

     “Mo, you stay home,” Punk reasserted in a firmer tone. “Keep her tied until tomorrow,” Punk advised Carolyn as he gave her a quick good-bye kiss. Mo looked crestfallen as Carolyn turned away from us and started for the house.

     “Don’t let her loose until tomorrow,” Punk cautioned again. “She should be fine by then.” Mo whined and tugged at the leash, but with Carolyn’s gentle coaxing reluctantly followed her to the dog house beneath the big willow trees where Carolyn clipped a long chain to her collar.

     “Uh-Oooh, Uh-Oooh!” Mo bayed in protest leaning hard in our direction at the very end of the chain.

     Carolyn stood patting her head and reassuring her all would be fine as we mounted up. I’m sure she was a little sad herself, since this would be the first camp she’d missed in more than 20 years.

 

     Punk, mounted on his big gray named Smoke, led out with nine head of pack stock in tow — KC, Alabama , Robin, Katie, Molly, Frankie, Jesse, Sal, and Baby Doll on the end.

     I fell in behind on a palomino Appaloosa who had a registered name no one could recall and who for good reason was called Contrary. I led the “kitchen horse,” Taffy, who was entrusted with getting the eggs, the lanterns and other breakables to camp intact.

     “Well, Mary,” Punk said, pronouncing my name as though the “Mar” rhymed with “car,” as had become his habit, “we’ve got nine miles to make ‘em ride.” He grinned over his shoulder as he eyed the line of stock and the balance of their packs.

     “Jesse,” he called to a little red mule, “get back in the trail.” Jesse stepped back in the trail.

     “Katie! Knock if off!” as Katie aimed a back hoof at Molly.

     We picked up the pace a bit once we’d cleared the back fence line, waved good-bye once more to the house and headed for the lower ford. The “kids” settled into the work of the day and all was well as we crossed the river at the lower ford and headed down the main Selway Trail.

     It was warm for mid-September. The river sparkled in the sun its green surface fractured with shards of reflected colors. Along the trail were intensely brilliant golds of aspen leaves, white bark from occasional aspen groves, reds and oranges from huckleberry bushes and other low brush, varied shades of greens from the primarily conifer forest, and darker greens where the water was too deep to see the rocky bottom below.

     We crossed Goat Creek and in several miles reached Shearer Meadow, which was an old homestead now functioning as a Wilderness Guard Station for the Forest Service. Phil Shearer had been reputed to be a moon-shiner in the early days and as we rode we discussed where his still might have been all those years ago. We all had looked for evidence of it at some time in the past. In a country so vast and forest so deep, it could have been anywhere, including in Phil’s old homestead which was long gone.

     Just above the cabin at Shearer Meadow, we hung a left and began the first of many switchbacks that would take us higher and higher up the mountain. First in deep, mossy forest, then out on open, sun-splashed, Ponderosa ridges we rode, pausing as needed to allow the horses to take a breather.

     Punk was always very considerate of his stock. The evidence of that was that Taffy, at age 20, was in excellent condition.

     Although this was the first real work of a long fall season, the goal was to have them in equally excellent condition after the season was over and headed into winter. When you live ten miles from the nearest dirt road in the summer months and 50 miles from open road in the winter, it’s wise to take good care of everything.

     We had climbed high enough to earn a broad view south of the river valley, far beyond to the mountains down behind the ranch. Goat Creek was directly below us.

     The afternoon was young, the packs were riding well, and we were hours from home. However, we had much to do and about an hour yet to ride up the mountain and around a sheer cliff face to the draw where our camp was located.

     Punk pulled the string to a sudden halt, his head cocked to one side. “Do you hear anything?” he asked. I stopped, listening intently.

...to be continued in September, 2009

            In the 1970s, “Selway Mary” Erickson worked as a packer, wrangler and cook at remote guest ranches in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. Today she lives in Missoula with her husband and enjoys riding her mare, Cassie.

 

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Copyright 2009 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor; editor@rockymountainrider.com.

 

 

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