I have had plenty of wonderful, scary, spectacular adventures in the “great-out-of-doors”. Each has driven me further. Whether in my boots or in a saddle the exhilaration of it all lets me know why OUR GOOD LORD has provided us with our senses and places to use them. Here is another shared with great friends. ENJOY!
Through a bit of investigation we secured one of the very finest bush pilots to have ever flown the lower 48 & still working the rugged & unforgiving skies of the Alaska back country. David Hoerner not only has ice water in his veins but also many thousands of air hours in remote, dangerous conditions. We sure did appreciate all he brought to the table before this trip was over. Brad , Jon and I had been talking about, researching, anticipating this OMG adventure for months. Finally we were at the airport, gear laid out to be weighed, then packed meticulously into the 1969 vintage Cessna 185. Able to generate over 300 H.P. this plane proved itself a real “work-horse” for us more than once or twice. With all 4 of us on voice activated head sets the conversation heading to our destination was full of wonder, high hopes & eagerness. We flew WAAAAAY closer to sheer granite and towering spruce then I ever thought a wing should be. None of us had much if anything for breakfast thinking Dave might not care for stomach contents spewed all over the updated state-of-the-art instrument panel. He gave us the royal tour. Pointing out particular peaks, high mountain lakes and many a drainage working their way into our river destination. At one point Jon (stuffed in the back) seemed too quiet. Dave, with his pilot humor thought a big drop & pull upward with his beautiful aircraft would get a response. YES HE DID! From all of us. We made a couple of passes over the grass / dirt strip to look for moose, deer, elk, bear, Forest Service mules & horses that needed frightened away before we put the wheels down. The approach was spectacular. The landing perfect. Dave wished us well, told us if the weather holds he would see us in 5 days and “IF I’m not here, just wait” Like we had any other option? “Welcome gentlemen” came from Linda and Gerry, the Forest Service “hosts” who had packed in on their horses & mules for a 2 week volunteer stay. Their duties were to watch the station, raise and lower the RED,WHITE & BLUE each day, respond to scratchy radio traffic, do a little staining of the 1920’s log buildings, cook for the trail crews when they came in and help the Forest Service packer with his string of mules get supplies unloaded and take out what was waste. No power anything. Everything done by what some would say “old school” tactics and mountain man ingenuity. Remarkably simple and refreshing. How soft we have become! Gerry is retired from FWP law enforcement with 38 years of wild stories he enjoyed sharing. He and his wife Linda have made it their mission to pack into any and all remote wilderness locations “just to fill the bucket list” They shared cookies and Kool-Aid by the stone-ware gallon but our minds could not stand to wait a moment longer. We NEEDED to take in the river. See it, smell it, wade into it. GO FIND CAMP. Brad had a little too much for his pack so Linda suggested a handy “travois” (French, for piece of shit sled) to get things down to the river. About that time a private, ornery packer leading 7 loaded mules followed by his guests came riding through. I have done quite a bit of packing. Jon and Brad have not. Because I am ALWAYS up for some shenanigans I did not say a word about what could possibly occur with horses and mules that view ANYTHING odd being pulled, moved, scattered or flapping in the wind. To an equine all that stuff represents “THE BOOGIE MAN” Yup, you guessed it. Animals with packs and riders making moves any pro running back would be jealous of. After a severe tongue lashing with plenty of cowboy expletives thrown at Brad he waited for them to pass. Some call it Karma. I simply use “you get what you give”. Remember that 300+ H.P. transportation we just walked away from. Dave cranked it up to a high-power, super loud take off. That lead packer on a pretty green horse got another wild ride. We just smiled and waved.
We followed one of several trails away from the air strip down to the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. Finally! Here we were. Grabbed our packs and started down stream. We had looked at this area ALOT on maps and in less than an hour of walking found a beautiful clearing very near a junction of rivers we knew would work as “CAMP”. First things first. (gotta have priorities) Get out all the Montana made whiskey, wine, scotch, and micro brews, put them into the drag-bags and into the cold water. Select a personal spot and set up individual tents. In go the pads and sleeping bags. No fires allowed so out come each camp stove and cooking gear. Hang our hammocks in the shade. Put up a clothes-line. Select a stout, high off the ground, far from camp, tree branch. Put all food products in sealed bags and pull them up along with a loud bell to avoid unwelcome “grizz”
OK! Enough of the camp ritual. Bring on the fly rods, fishing packs, bear spray, heavy hand guns, bear bells and “get on” with what we came here for. Wild, beautiful, fat, thick & eager, dry-fly crazy West Slope Cutthroats. Not once were we disappointed. They were all of that and so much more. Any one who has taken one of my fishing schools know I am hard core “catch & release” Not in the back-country however. More of these fish die from predators and old age than due to humans. We did feast on fish of legal slot size (12 inches and under) fresh out of crystal clear, super cold, minutes from water to fly pan. Combine those superb delicacies with a wide variety of Mountain House side dishes and we were truly “LIVING LIKE KINGS” The first night-fall brought on a rare (and special to me) occurrence. You have heard the expression “once in a blue moon”? There it was! The second full moon of the month. Hanging low and colorful. Brightly illuminating timber and granite, high peaks and burbling water as well as our camp. All 3 of us relaxed in our common area sipping on adult beverage having a difficult time believing where we were and how amazing just the first day had been. This scenario repeated itself day after day with plenty of additions. The second night (after a bit of over indulgence) some time before day-light I woke to the unmistakable huffing, grunting & jaw snapping sounds of an unhappy grizz. I had the bear spray just out side of my tent with the 44 Mag as a pillow. Going to bed a bit “foggy” I left my whistle and bell attached to my fishing pack which was quite a distance away hanging in a tree. OOPS!!! Brad’s tent was only 30 feet away and with several loud WAKE UPs he finally opened his tent blurting “whats going on?” Do you hear that I asked? What the heck is that? All I had to say was a grizz coming down river over the rocks just in front of our camp. Brad had his whistle blaring with me shouting all manner of cowboy crap I could muster. We heard him head out, cross the water, and gone in a jiffy. I believe Brad kept watch for some time. I slept like a baby. Oh yea, Jon was only some what disturbed by the all this racket for two reasons. His tent was set up some 75 yds. back in the trees (the last night for that location) and he had joined me in serious liquid celebration earlier.
SIDE-NOTE: We had many hilarious, ridiculous suggestions & comments among the 3 of us. (some may have had to do with consumption) Here is just one I still wonder and laugh about.
Jon, Brad and I were in the process of hanging anything that could possibly attract THE apex predator (grizz) I brought butter for fish-fry. It was well sealed in a plastic container. I was about to pull all three bags up the tree when Jon said: “That butter could leak all over the inside of your bag” To which Brad said: “YEA, JUST LEAVE IT OUT, BEARS DON’T EAT DAIRY” REALLY? I nearly cried from laughter. I cannot confirm or deny but that quote for the remainder of the trip along with many others of equal “crazy” provided a memorable time.
First to rise and greet the early sunrise with a huge mug of java became my ritual. Quiet, peaceful, relaxing, recovering & reflective. Once Jon & Brad welcomed the day. All stoves on high. Mountain Man Breakfast Skillet, a giant portion of oat meal with raisins or apple sauce satisfied each of us enough to gather gear and hit the river. We quickly realized 6:30 till 2:30 was “prime time”. After that, because of lower than average water volume all fish, no matter the size or location became quite fussy. Working our way back up river to camp became a game of “call your shot” ONE presentation. If you hooked-up, great. If you missed. Step aside for the next shooter. Great fellowship and fun among fine anglers with well above average casting skills.
Spruce moth was top pick. After that was “close yer eyes, grab a dry and sling it”. The mid day siesta of chillin in a hammock, reading carefully selected books or just a nap did each of us wonders. Jon & I brought solar showers. “COME ON” bath water warm, refreshing, “brand new person” feeling. Brad, not familiar with this luxury found out after only one total immersion in the icy glacial water just how wonderful that pleasure is. Did I mention it is possible to see a full moon almost any time of the day or night? I bet he will be packing one from now on! After a most delicious supper and lots of re-hydration, on go the head-lamps and away to night-time angling. Only one evening after copious amounts of “happy juice” was I convinced stumbling around the river with sandals in the pitch dark was a good idea. NO! I am still doctoring a laceration that one cannot get with wading boots on. We did see a fair number of wolf tracks but not once did we get to hear the unmistakable moan of that canine.
The last evening, so we would not miss our flight out the next morning we packed everything up and headed to a camp area at the far end of the air strip. Here we could have a wood fire. Always good for the soul. To kick-back and allow the flames to dance in the pit as well as your spirit. We had saved an entire bottle (now in a cold platypus) of Ennis distilled Honey Moonshine. REALLY? That we would find out on the rough, bouncy uncomfortable flight out WAS A HUGE MISTAKE! Not long after we got ourselves situated a sporty, powerful little plane from the West Coast dropped in with a couple who produced more gear than should be allowed on a C-130. After they set up their six room tent / condo sleeping quarters we convinced them we were mostly harmless in spite
of our current condition and they joined us for an evening of shenanigans, laughter, fishing, flying and plain old interesting conversation. Brad pitched his tent. Jon found a spot to view the stars from a reclining position. I slept on the log table.
The only thing the 3 of us found crystal clear the following mornin was the air and sky. It should have been a perfect early flight out but our pilot got involved in a helicopter training session. 8:30 came and went with no sign of our transportation. A very small 1949 skin-covered, completely re built and beautifully painted 100 H.P. toy landed. I use the word “landed” quite loosely. He actually bounced a half dozen times at least 8 ft in the air before having a un-controlled, un-planned 180 degree spin at far end of the dirt strip nearly tipping a wing into the earth. A young man from Fargo, N.D. sheepishly emerged and stated. “Near Fargo the conditions are easy and if you get into trouble you simply put it down on any of the wide open spaces” “Here, one tiny error and your dead” THANKS FOR THE UPDATE! Two hours later and still waiting I approached the new camp volunteer “host” about contacting our flight coordinator. If you know me “P.C.” is not my strong suit. For fear of all females I will refrain here. Lets just say one of several comments she fired back at me was “unless this is a life threatening issue THAT does not fall within my wilderness ethics code”. “ALL RITEEEE THEN!” Shortly-there-after the sound and sight of our ride out was there. Dave, well aware of the high winds, warm air, altitude and full load proceeded to toss, stuff, jam & sling gear and us into that 180. Taxied to the east end of the strip, paused, looked at me in the right seat and with a very serious expression said “we are going to use every inch of this runway”. He dialed, pushed, pulled, adjusted all sorts of levers, controls and instruments. Hit full power and away we rolled & rolled & rolled & ROLLED. Well past half way we were still on the ground. Beyond 3/4 we had just lifted off, gaining air speed but not more than 8-10 feet. YIEEEKS! Directly in front of us is a looming, thousands of feet tall, covered in spruce and lodge pole mountain. Seated behind me Jon & Brad (later to find out) were thinking the same as I was. We had a great week. Our guts are a bit “off” due to the previous nights activity and here in this spectacular place we are about to “buy the farm”. At what seemed like the last possible moment our fearless pilot reached down between his seat and mine and yanked hard on a long white handle. That rocket-ship shot sharply upward avoiding our concerns and a news report that we did not want to be any part of. The flight back was rough for many reasons. Huge rises and drops in altitude and just as many right /left wing dips. Touching down within 100 yards of our four wheeled ride back to Helena was a relief and a bit sad as well. Back to reality. Gone was the peace & solitude of a wilderness. Yup! I will do it again. Taking reasonable but heart-pounding risks have always made me feel alive. Been doing that all my life. My very good friend Jon regularly teases me. “You don’t have a wife or family, you don’t care if you die” He is correct.