Thursday, January 1, 2015

Westco's, woods and White's

They had 18-inch tops and screw in caulks and they almost got me killed.
It was side hill and granite and when the rigging came back and the lines dropped I lept forward with the heel of a Redwing boot nicking a rock. I fell into the jangle of rigging that crashed to the ground. A hard toe, and the soaking wet heft behind it, slammed neatly into the rise of my calf as I pasted the wet dirt.
A cracked shin, the doctor said, hairline.
The 18-inch cowhide tops of the Redwing caulk boots were laced more tightly around my thigh like a cast. So, the boots sort of redeemed themselves.
I bought them in Kellogg, Idaho, had them shipped back home where I ran through knee-deep snow to soften them and maintain my line-ape shape until the logging started.
Then, first week, the wreck.
I switched to spring heels after that and stayed the course.
Until I got the Currins.
My sights were set on High Liners that came in a box with Mt. Rainier on the top and nails melded into their leather soles like hair on a needle pig. The old timers I worked with in the woods of Southeast Alaska wore them every day from bed to the hills where they fell towering spruce to the cafes afterwards sipping coffee mixed with Copenhagen snoose.
But with logging going south, even then, decades ago, the fabled boot companies bunched it, and so I went with what was left.
The number stamped on the Currin Greene brand let me know the make, one of the few remaining since the steam donkey era or longer, had grit and the price seemed right.
Their heels were block, which bothered me, and after one season in the torrents of the Tongass the boots tilted sideways over the block heel, and that set to bothering my feet as well. They became spares to the spring heels I got at a saw shop in Naches, Washington, where I went each March for another pair. For the annual $125 sale price the leather was fine, they lasted good especially in the heat and their caulks screwed in, like golf shoes.
Hathorns, Buffalos, Nicks, Whites, West Coasts.
I almost settled on some Nicks, but didn’t buy them. Once a year I passed through Spokane and found the manufacturer tucked between a used car lot, not far from the boxing at the Eagles hall, or the hallowed warehouse of White’s Boots, the exemplar of all things woods.
I listened to the clack of sewing machines, smelled the aroma of tough hide, rummaged my paws over leather shanks and then drove west and north.
Nicks cost less than the White’s, but not by much.
My friends jumped out of planes, cracked silk and glided to ground in puffy suits and crash helmets. Sometimes their landing chugged and bumped. They threw dirt on fires and they lived by the name of one particular boot: White’s Smokejumper.
I, at the time, lived by other names that sang a chorus in my head most days:
Bitch strap, donkey punch, butt riggin’, Molley, tommy block, hay wire, squaw hump, waste line, jagger, babit, Swede, school marm, jill poke and pimp. There were lift trees and widow makers, timber hitches and barber chairs, brush apes, rock maggots, twisters and bull bucks who often drove herd with the side rod, slinger and the hook tender who ran the show.
The chasers and second riggers didn’t need agility. They stayed on the log landing by the machinery where they bucked and limbed and mended wire rope we called line with the three-tuck cunt and the whipping long splice. The men in the brush, where the logs were, needed an extra punch of swift. They needed nails on their shoes and the ability to jump like rabbits and run like marten over the limbs of fallen trees. I stuck with the Westco spring heels, their grace and suede and stayed away from the lace-to-toe because they had the look of a Kenworth truck, and I ran on air.
The Nicks were heavy. I weighed them with my hands each year when I stopped in Spokane, adding an exponent. Water weighed 8 pounds a gallon and all that leather eventually sopped it up.
At the White’s Boot Company, just up the street from Nick’s in Spokane, the workers too sewed high tops with extra grains for durability. Firefighters had the dry of the Continental Divide, the arid West. Lots of duff and crust, ash and sunlight sifting through smoke and peckerpole pine they sought to save from licking flame. They wanted water to drink, and douse flames.
The White’s cost a hundred bucks more than the Nicks and three times what I paid for Westcos. They drank water too.
I had 135-inches of rain each year, Sitka spruce and hemlock, yellow cedar and loam knee deep when the logs turned the soil like a mouldboard plow.
And the rain didn’t seem to stop most days.
Back in Southeast, the side rod, Joe Herrera and I often drove past mountainsides green with the lush of re-prod. We looked for sales and walked them, idly scaling timber in our heads and writing what we would forget on the rim of our tin hats.
On the way back to town, Joe looked at the hills and named the men who died there, and how.
Sometimes we stopped the old Ford crew cab pickup, painted Forest Service surplus green, got out and stood on the crushed rock road that logging money had built and Joe said a silent requiem to dead men, his past and then we saddled up.
He sipped honey tea from a dented thermos.
His introduction to the woods was in the Cascades, the Olympic Peninsula and then Alaska in the 1960s.
Up there, he said, pointing to old clear cuts green now with new trees. He named the names of men.
We logged the big timber and left the lift trees because they was behind the line you see. It rained hard and the ground turned soft. The waste line took those trees down and killed two men. I was over there, he pointed toward the sky and the mountainside lush green now with growing trees, I saw the lines go slack, the yarder whistle blew, one long hollering siren through the fog and we ran up to dig them out. We packed them down in raincoats, 1,000 feet waiting for the helicopter from Ketchikan.
They went back and logged the next day, and more men died.
All of them in leather boots.
Rubber boots replaced leather eventually. Xtra-tuffs or the orange ones the Swedish sent us with their Husqvarnas.
We said we would never switch.
Southeast wasn’t really made for leather.
I found a pair of Buffalos in a deck of sawed log ends one spring, wet with melted snow, and took them home. A logger, someone who probably turned for good his back on the woods, chucked them the autumn before.
They are the only caulk boots I have left. I hung them in my barn.
Their heels are block, the nails on them smooth as studded tires.
North Idaho and Montana loggers prefer block heels without nails. They dig the heels into the dirt of hillsides, and can, just as easily work on roads and flat ground pulling line, chokers, jumping on a skidder or caterpillar tractor to pull logs to the trucks.
After 30 years of idling without pockets deep enough for a pair of White’s they rained on me.
I have three pair.
Given by an Idaho logger who no longer wanted or needed them.
A man well known in these parts.
They are caulkless.
I wear them now.

Ralph Bartholdt lives and writes in North Idaho.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Bighorns, tundra and the T100

I once followed a T100 all the way across the state of Montana. The pickup was white with straw stuck to the manure that smeared a fender. When it gained speed east out of Bozeman like a colt that knows its fence line, swirls of hay and grain husks lifted from its bed.
A woman was behind the wheel. She wore a fleece collared denim jacket.
We passed each other back and forth for hours. The coupes, SUVs, cruisers and new pickup trucks boasted license plates fresh from the DMV, artful steel plates tightly screwed into frames that advertised car dealerships sometimes from another state. They depicted natural and written history as if on a metal canvas.
My plates said Idaho.
Hers were the light blue rainbow plates from a decade earlier that had Big Sky written in cursive in a corner covered as it were with horse hockey.
The new cars passed us with speed and the neurotic indifference of life in some other lane, as they used one freeway exit to gain another.
We just kept going from Red Lodge to Big Timber on the wide road that peeled away like the skin of an avocado, laying the glistening inner rind behind us, tamped, I suppose, with thoughts of years gone, maybe, birthday lists, hellos and goodbyes, and that time in college when I could have applied myself, or what ifs. What if the drill sergeant had said sign here, or the man at the labor department had said, you got it, pack your bags and bring a tie, or what if we had made a change, all of us who ever closed the door and didn’t look back, at least not until the highway hummed and the country opened large and broad shouldered and there was nowhere to be just then, and only today and tomorrow blocked out on a calendar somewhere that said, road trip.
We rode together that way in shotgun fashion, giving way and gaining ground, hearing our tires lull, learning a distant sort of familiarity as we took turns staring down the dinged chrome of our bumpers. We acknowledged each other somewhere east of Billings past the punchy draft from the refineries. Our gas tanks tottered as we rolled into Forsyth, and then found each other again in the bluffs by Miles City.
After that she turned south toward Ismay or Ekalaka, the bigness of land absorbing the T100 under a thin line of dust I tracked until it became the color of sky.
A T100 is a long box Toyota with 4-wheel drive and a bench seat. The long shift lever is the dividing line between the person behind the wheel and the one by the ditch-side window.
Wyoming has them too, and the parts of eastern Washington where the people know what happens at the stockyards out by the airport and don’t care. Not much. Not often.
Thirty years ago it was all Ford and Chevy.
Dodge kicked its way into the major market with its bighorn sheep advertising. It caught the fancy of people with gun racks who tired of the junk coming out of the motor city and thought, maybe.
It was mostly pickups out here, anyways. Payload was a word that meant the same as how much room you got? From the front of the Rockies to the Columbia sage flats, the number of bales you could fit, how strong were the springs that kept the load in back and didn’t break, and if you could haul the ewes with the tools and coolers and whatnot was more important than gas mileage.
Size mattered, luxury and fuel economy didn’t.
Back then, you wouldn’t see a Japanese mockup of a pickup truck anywhere near a roping horse.
Who knows what changed. Toyotas were being made in Indiana, a state that fancied itself more sanguine than the puffed up union-owned conglomerates that passed on self-reliance.
Out west where oil rigs pumped on the horizon like metal, preying mantii, the T100 caught the eyes of some in the buckaroo crowd feeling the pinch of paying through the nose at the pump, and willing to sacrifice some payload for less maintenance. When the T100 added a bigger engine, it all made sense, but not for long.
The trucks hauled grain and diesel, they were banged against by Hereford bulls and busted by beetle-killed pine when the wind blew wrong on firewood day.
You saw them now and then in town, usually on Sunday, and by their looks they had an AM radio tuned to gospel or Mel Tillis, a good heater and room enough on the inside for the wife and dog.
They usually wore dents like the dimple on the chin of Spartacus, and maybe that’s what drew me.
I liked their look, but the make didn’t last. T100s are an antique of sorts that I slow down to regard when I drive by one.
The other day in Lewiston I saw one downtown and made a couple passes, considering if I should pull over for a look.
It was red with a bent tailgate, but otherwise looked plumb.
I think the T100 may have done all right in Dakota, but hauling a real load up a grade was not what it did best.
The engines never did match the frame.
That’s my guess.
The 8-cylinder Tundra eventually replaced the T100, and the people in Indiana if that’s where the Tundra is made, do good work, I understand. The bigger and more powerful truck has an engine with the V formation like geese heading north, although the name implies some sort of pomp. It takes a jet and a lot of cash and hard traveling to get anywhere near the Brooks Range and once you’re there its all backpackers in synthetic fabric eating energy bars.
No one in Harden or Hysham is enticed by the vague nod to the far and empty north with its wind blown expanses, and snow seen coming days away.
We have that here. Dodge embraced it with its ram. It worked for them.
I see a lot of those these days.

Ralph Skookum is a writer in North Idaho

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Boats, autumn, rivermen

All that remains of The Golden Star, a former steamer that was beached in 1955 at Springston.

SPRINGSTON--If you motor up the Coeur d’Alene River from the lake it is best, if you’re a novice, to do it early in the summer before the water warms and weeds climb up, curl and wave like maiden hair from the depths, constricting the channel and choking the prop.

The late season channel isn’t a bother to jet boaters who can be heard miles away burning fuel and gliding over the lake like a water skimmers.
The workers at Harrison Dock Builders too are well versed in the river’s ins and outs because their headquarters, moorage and paycheck is a mile upstream, so follow them.

Being on a river in a boat is a lot of what North Idahoans take for granted. The rivers here have always been working rivers. The Coeur d’Alenes used the rivers for navigation, their wildlife for sustenance, placed fish traps in the waterways, and carved bones onto hooks to catch the river’s trout and salmon.

Settlers floated logs on them and as their population grew the rivers became waterine highways for steamers, tugboats and brails of logs heading for the sawmills from St. Joe City to Post Falls.

A couple decades ago, even as late as the late 90s the men who skippered the steamers, working the rivers, hauling logs and material up and down to St. Maries, Springston and Winton could tell of the olden days on the water, but the bulk of them are dead and what remains are what we remember them telling us.

It’s always like this, only now, there are no visible remains of what these men knew, or rode or piloted. Not like the steel wheel tractors rusting in fields, or hay bines with the faded names of ag companies from the Midwest sunk half deep in erosion dirt in the draw of a wheat field. We have photographs of sleek boats with names like Pine Cat and Flyer, but they have for the most part been burned to the hull and sunk off some rocky point in deep water where only scuba divers glimpse them through bubbles of expelled air.

We don’t have the equivalent of rails or engines or cabooses next to fish ponds for travelers to ponder, or bucket chains and head stalls with information signs and rest areas.

So what did they say, the old skippers?

"I started out in 1925 as a lineman on the St. Joe Boom Company steam tugs," Gil Roe, who I talked to 12 years ago when he was 90-something said. His clear voice trailing his direct gaze like a wake from a vessel's prow. "I operated most of them."

There was the Pinecat, a tugboat owned by Lafferty Transportation Company, one of northern Idaho's premier tugboat companies. Lafferty Transportation towed logs on the Shadowy St. Joe River that runs from the Bitterroot Mountains west into Coeur d'Alene Lake, from 1918 until the 1970s when the outfit was sold.

The Cougar, another boat Mr. Roe piloted, was known 75 years ago as the cream of the crop among northern Idaho steam powered tugboats. He operated the St. Joe too, and the St. Maries, towing logs to mills mostly from lumber operations in the St. Joe River drainage.

The logs bore the brands of lumber companies and many were sawed and hauled from the mountains on trucks with water cooled brakes to landings along the river. They were dumped into the current and when the bobbing wood reached slower-moving water downstream, the logs were corralled and sorted by tugboat men and their crews.

The brails were towed from places such as Ramsdell on the St. Joe River, St. Maries and St. Joe City to Beedle Point at the southern end of Lake Coeur d’Alene, a trip of more than 24 hours.

From there, they were towed 48 hours to the north end and the sawmills around the city of Coeur d'Alene and Post Falls.

"You take in them early days," Mr. Roe said. "They would drive 200 million board feet of timber out of Marble Creek and float them free, and the company would take them down river from slack water."

On the St. Joe River, slack water began 13 miles upstream from St. Maries at Ferrell where the St. Joe Boom Company stored some of its logs. The town is gone now, alive only in the memories of people like Gil Roe, if the men and the memories still exist.

There were a variety of jobs available to men who wanted the work.
Those with savvy, and good balance often started out walking on floating logs with a large pronged pole - called a pike pole - used to push or hook logs.

It was Gil Roe's first job.

"It was caulk shoe work," he said.

Men wore nail-soled boots to keep from losing their footing. They stayed on the logs as they were towed down river using the pike poles to ensure the logs didn’t snag or slip from the brails.

Lunchtime was spent on the tow, or the tugboat, which could only be reached by a tightrope walk on the towline.

"When noon came and lunch was ready, why, you either walked that, or you stayed back there," Mr. Roe said. "But you had a pike pole that you balanced yourself with. The pike poles were about 10 or 12 feet long. We shimmied up them ropes and think nothing of it."

Hap Murphy was a former skipper too, who towed logs on the St. Joe River for almost two decades before the Second World War.

"It was the most beautiful place on earth," he said, thinking back at 90.

Although it still reflects some of its beauty, sometimes, the river now is just a shadow of its former paradise, he said.
Motorboat traffic and water backed up by the Avista Power dam has eroded its banks causing the once magnanimous cottonwoods to topple into the current, discoloring it with the mud and dirt they dislodge when they fall, he said.

"It's all one big puddle," he said. "It breaks my heart to go up the St. Joe River now."

There was a time, though, when a younger Hap Murphy spent his days, and many nights, piloting 50-foot steam tugs and diesel powered boats around the bends of the Shadowy Joe.

"The steam boats were wooden boats," he said. "They had 12 gauge iron on them so they could go through ice."

When the ice got too thick - about 18 inches - work ceased for a season.

But it is the summer and fall on the slack water of the St. Joe that Mr. Murphy recalled with a fondness of one who once knew the bends and sandbars in his sleep.

"In the fall, the fog would rise off the water and the sun would break through like opening a door or something," he said.

You can still motor your boat up and down the St. Joe and in the early mornings, especially in fall, you will see what Mr. Murphy was thinking about.

The river is lonely for the most part and once, a while back, I idled up on a cow and bull moose feeding along a bank displaying the slow ethereal grace of eons ago, as if I was in a pirogue with the sun at my back.

Last summer, I motored up the Coeur d’Alene River as well, to the Springston bridge and floated there just long enough to watch the sun tip through the cottonwoods and flicker on the shell of a boat on the bank.

The former mayor of Harrison, a lifer of the lake and river had a particular grace when speaking of the olden times. Glenn Addington was a skipper of the steamers too, and it was the boat he ran aground on the banks of the Coeur d’Alene River at Springston that got me going on this.

When I first came into the country I thought the Golden Star was a mishap, or a feat of malfeasance. Its wooden skeleton – there was more left then – was carved more or less into the sandy bank under the steel bridge where the community of Springston once sprawled to the mill, which is gone too.

I knew little of the area's history, and especially this, until I dug around and talked with old timers and knocked on the door of the Harrison museum.

I didn’t hear what Glenn Addington said about the boat he beached on the bank in 1955 after piloting her for 18 years, pulling log rafts down the St. Joe and Coeur d’Alene Rivers.

Instead, I read it in a newspaper from 1981, so here it is:

“There was always an oily, steamy, hot smell,” Mr. Addington told the Spokesman Review. “I can still smell it…You never get cold on a steam boat.”

The Golden Star was 63 feet long, 14 feet wide and drew seven and a half feet of water. It was built in 1937 for the Russell and Pugh Lumber Co. and its operation at Springston by a man named Andrew Knudson, who had a reputation for “building his boats with a hatchet.” The marks from the blade could be seen on the hull of the boat before they were weathered away.

The Golden Star was converted to diesel in 1945 and its steam engine was used in the Springston mill to run a conveyor belt, a fate that Mr. Addington compared to “putting a racehorse out to pasture.”

“Steam is different than diesel,” he said. “You take the energy from the water, from the lake. You pump it into a boiler, build a little fire under it and you have energy. Can you beat that?”

And the only sound a steamer made was the huffing in the stack, like a horse doing work.

“The water was free. All you had to do was convert it to steam,” he said.

He recalled the olden days along the river, when he tied up along the bank under the stars and the quiet huff of the engine, the humm of swarming bugs and fish rising to them were the only sounds.

At 74, he lamented that he hadn’t jerked the boat off the shore, tied it to a couple cedar logs and floated it to Harrison where it could have been made a showpiece, like those tractors and trains at roadside attractions, instead of letting her rot on the riverbank.

After so many years under foot, rocking him to sleep, and churning him awake, he still felt an attachment to the craft and its machinery.

“It’s like an extension of your body,” he said. "You get so you have a sense about how far you can go with it. You develop a sixth sense.”

Ralph Bartholdt/ Skookum Photography

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

That road will take you anywhere

A native Coeur d'Alene mountain cutt from "No-Name Creek" (scoff)/Ralph Skookum

FERNAN-We found a secret fishing spot.

It was over the mountains and down some narrow roads where meeting another vehicle heading the other way could only spell disaster.

It was a 50-minute trip from town through a slate colored morning. First we stopped at the Tesoro station for coffee in paper cups. The attendant waited for her replacement, her hair displayed the sheen of someone up all night and her eyes said who cares. We drove around the golf course at the edge of the lake where the lawn guys fired up the mowers before the first tee-off. Then we headed into the hills. This is where men had driven log trucks for decades before the federal government decided tax revenues were bad and letting forests die on the hill by beetles and mismanagement was better than providing jobs and income to pay for libraries and schools and box lunches.

The new policy says it's better to go bust than bump knots. this morning we took advantage of this policy and more:

We sped along empty forest roads built by timber dollars, meant now for recreation instead of log hauling. At an even 37 mph, we sent dirt and muck flying from chuck holes, skirted caved banks and thumped over erosion rills – once maintained by logging operations charged with road care – in our efforts to get to the stream we called the honey hole.

Secret fishing spots are nothing more than places others haven’t visited in a while. They are places often fished, but not this week, or last, for that matter, or maybe even for a year or more.
They are places where ethics have played their part, where anglers have done what their conscience has asked of them: pack it in, pack it out, catch and release, and leave no trace.

Those are the three commandments of backwoods, westslope cutthroat trout fishing, and we have all, at one time or another, maybe in our back pages, or just out of a spree of youthful ignorance, sought repentance for angling against them.

At this hole, a sweet spot with a long narrow run against a bank under a river birch and past a series of rock outcroppings, the pool curled almost etherized and deep as a dream. We had for days here caught cutthroat trout forearm long and thick and that is why we once again choked down the coffee that tasted like cigarette butts, scratched the grist on our faces and called in sick.

It was why we came back again.

We had cast at the upstream riffle, where the water caves into a pool and runs out of it just as fast. The trout there flashed out full body chasing the fly and the ones we hooked were heavy as truncheons and we dragged them through the water to shore after they were spent.

The fish were golden with few of the characteristic mottled, black spots - most of them on the tail like an hourglass set upright, or as if the fish had been fighting hard currents that pushed the spots down stream on their sleek bodies like pebbles in a bottlenecked. Red gill flares gave the fish their name.

One, a cutthroat trout of 18 inches or more was scarred on the dorsi but seemed to grin nonetheless when we let it fin water and slip back into the dark pool under craggly basalt.

We came back for days and then the woods filled up for the summer holidays.

An old timer we knew who had packed a .45 around Europe when the world was just young enough to have a war, and who spent most of his summer days in those mountains chasing trout from waters few had tested with a fly, said he left the woods during holidays.

“I don’t know why people have to go to the mountains to drink,” he said.
We came back afterward again.

We followed the routine, draining our coffee somewhere around the second or third intersection where one gravel strip met another on those empty forested highways as the day dawned gray then white, foretelling heat and morning sun dappling the stream bank.

This time our secret spot had tire tracks.

A campfire ring was broad and cold under a cedar. In its ash were buried empty cans of gas station beers, crunched, some whole.

The streamside too had an air of something akin to lost innocence, like a kid whose bail you posted.

Four wheeler tracks had spat rocks here and busted brush, tore syringa from the ground, tramped mint and fireweed. Bobbers and barbed hooks hung from the river birch under which the current ran dark and the fat fish last week had launched for flies.

We cast for an hour without a take or rise.

A while later we hooked a mid-range cutt, and let it go.

Then we changed flies, used droppers, streamers and small surface bugs.

The fish were gone.

It’s unfair to blame in this case.

We don’t know with any certainty what happened here, although, being fly anglers, the kind that pinch their barb as the law requires, we had a guess or two at what caused the sudden change in the river’s attitude.

According to a report by Idaho Fish and Game published before cutthroat trout were a catch and release species in the Panhandle, more, bigger fish were the inevitable result of limited harvest. In addition, most anglers wanted restrictive regulations for cutthroat trout if it resulted in a better fishery, although few anglers (35%) in the 1978 study wanted streams “closed.”

In a 2005 study after catch and release regulations had been implemented for many years on the St. Joe River, IDF&G biologists concluded, “Appreciable numbers of cutthroat trout in the 12-inch-plus range were not observed in the St. Joe River until the regulations were set to catch-and-release.”

The Idaho Panhandle’s catch and release rules for cutthroat trout have resulted in a fatter and better cutthroat fishery in the St. Joe and in streams in the Coeur d’Alene range where catch and release is the modus operandi.

Westslope cutthroat trout are a native species. Unlike trout in many put-and-take fisheries, these cutthroats have genetics that are fostered in the same streams they fin today; spiraling alpha-helixes that imprint tributaries, springs and the acidity of undercut banks their ancestors knew for hundreds of years. To catch a cutthroat in one of North Idaho’s streams and check markings that include spots near the tail with little spotting below the lateral line in front of the anal fin is something I didn’t appreciate until I caught what I considered a real Westslope cutt years ago. Many of the cutts I had previously caught had enough rainbow characteristics for one to argue that they were the progeny of mixed genetics – something akin to cuttbows.
The fish we caught and released at this, once, for a week or more, our secret spot, were all pure strain westslope cutthroat trout. They were beauties with ancient bloodlines. In my opinion, and according to law, they were of a significance that should exclude them as a main ingredient in campfire hash.

There are many streams where an angler can hook and keep a pot full of brookies. Brook trout here can be caught and kept by any method with a limit of 25 fish. Not long ago we found such a stream and brought home a half dozen brookies for the broiler. Rainbows can be kept too, as part of a combined trout limit of 6 trout where applicable.

The state fishery department hasn’t dumped rainbows into North Idaho streams for more than a decade because of fears they were polluting the gene pool of its westslope population, but a few native fish are found in some Panhandle streams.

To illegally use worms and barbed hooks to catch native trout with the intention of letting them smoke in a fire pit shows a lack of appreciation and character. It is thuggish and stupid.

Dumb as a 10-cylinder truck in a land of $4 gasoline, as a three-inch magnums for grouse, as falling down drunk and political hacks. It’s dumb as a dry dipstick.

We scratched our heads over this. It was after all a dilemma.

Then we pressed the windshield wiper blades against our fly rods and drove home, wishing for more coffee, and we didn’t return.

Maybe next spring, before the summer holidays. Before the barbed hook bandits rob the undercut banks.

We will return to our secret spot, establish a new routine, one of quiet awareness and realization that purity ends, that someone’s hallowed ground is another’s hash and that Carpe Diem applies too, to fly fishing.

-Ralph Bartholdt is a former journalist who sells real estate in North Idaho, fishes and freelances

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

North Idaho newspaper retires

Tom Burnett, editor and publisher of The Rathdrum Star, retired the weekly North Idaho newspaper recently/ Ralph Bartholdt

RATHDRUM—If he were a car, Tom Burnett would choose a whitewall Galaxie with power steering and leaded gasoline in a century of hybrids the size of telephone booths.
And he doesn’t care how passers by on his two-lane highway respond to the slow blink of his turn signal or that his radio is AM only.
Not so much.
For Burnett, who until last month ran the weekly Rathdrum Star newspaper out of the corner office of a leased building on the town’s main drag, newspapering was a passion.
For almost a decade The Star, with its quirks and jerry-rigging, was a piece of hard copy on the modern highway of web searches and Online news.
It came in the mail every Thursday and each edition was parceled together with passion.
Each copy was conceived with lights on until midnight, especially on deadline day, and if there was an event, Tom went.
He carried his camera and a pocket note pad and he talked to people through a cropped mop of white beard, eying them through spectacles that were narrow and sometimes crooked on his round face making his eyes seem large.
If he didn’t quote sources pin-point accurately it was because he didn’t refer to his notes in the heat of the moment back at the office when the keys under his two fingers steamed and the words flowed as he pounded the keyboard as if it was an Underwood 60 years ago on election night.
He relied on his memory and seventh sense to get the news right, anyhow.
In some ways, he was the man on the masthead of the newspaper – rolled up sleeves, knocking the keys, churning out the local headlines.
“When I started in this business reporters still wore visors,” he said.
And most of them, he recalls, typed with two fingers.
He does, still.
There was irreverence and no time for correctness back then, whether political or social; tweaking a phrase being the sole exception.
It’s how he ran his newspaper too, and anyone who knows him understands his proclivity for well placed, if sparing, profanity.
At weekly editorial meetings events, talking points and press releases were viewed sardonically at first, until the news was meted from them.
He wasn’t adverse to stand offs with advertisers - sometimes against better judgment - and if grousing were personified Burnett would be its poster child.
When he quit The Star at the first of the year, it wasn’t for a lack of desire.
Costs, the economy, and to some extent the changing times, those subtleties that gave the 1967 Ford Galaxie its beauty, and provides the same to the Chevy Volt, small innuendos backed by big bucks, slowly buried the 10,000 circulation Star.
For kicks Burnett looked for a newspaper job after folding his own paper and he found one at a Colorado weekly that looked interesting, but threw away the ad.
It would be like starting over, although if he did, he would prefer working at a small-time rag, he said.
Weekly papers come without the anonymity that cushions reporters in larger cities, he said.
“There’s accountability,” and he prefers that in a paper.
For now, Burnett is at his desk in the same building on the corner of Main Street, working on freelance, marketing, advertising copy. Hum-drumming mostly. Playing solitaire and critiquing retirement.
He spent most of his life newspapering, starting at his hometown Stamford, Conn. paper 50 years ago. He worked at the Spokesman Review, and was a one-time owner of the Post Falls Tribune.
He started The Star on a bet.
Although he has fielded a few inquiries, he doesn’t expect somebody to walk though the door with cash, a plan to buy the weekly and shoot it back into the sky like on the Fourth of July.
Every day, he says, former readers tell him the town needs the newspaper.
He isn’t sure how long the banner of The Star and its logo will stay on the window outside.
“Until someone comes and scratches it off, I guess,” he said.

— Ralph Bartholdt/Skookum foto

Friday, November 18, 2011


Tracking, 500 yards in 5 hours
/Ralph Bartholdt

NORTH IDAHO—So there it was.
Plain as night’s fast approach.
As the dearth of snow.
Plain as distance – as in too far, or time’s outpacing what was once considered sort of a gift, a solid streak of good luck, or the ability to pencil wind, yardage and bullet drop into a Sudoku block.
The buck was broad and two swales out.
It was a criss-cross moon we call it. The time when the moon’s magnetic pull loosens the muscles and slows the reflexes of big deer as if it were martini hour.
It gets them in the open shedding their boardroom ties and donning cackles like drunken pirates.
It’s up to you to pull the trigger then.
Criss-cross moons are when most Pope and Young animals are harvested. It’s the time to be in the woods.
I had slithered past two does who saw me hunched in a thicket of goldenrod, the flowers gone to seed and the blooms turned from honey to chocolate.
They stared my way as I inched downwind and around a peninsula of buckthorn and elderberry bushes that bent heavily over the trail I had chosen for its noiselessness.
When I made pasture’s edge, I rose to my feet out of their sight and moved quickly toward my starting point, the place I had spent an hour rattling and calling earlier, before the sun cracked the clouds like lava breaching basalt, slipping into the wide open sky like a volleyball on fire.
Here was the memory of a warm autumn slowly disappearing behind a mountain, casting the late afternoon in umber.
I hurried along the trail and saw the buck.
I stopped.
His head was down. He nudged a side hill,browsing the last green shoots that clung to the warm soil under the yellow field grass.
When he lifted his head looking uphill to the bedding area where a doe now emerged, I stepped lightly. Step. Step. Step, then lowered myself.
His antlers were wide. They rose from his skull and followed the same plane in a different direction.
I lifted my binoculars. Wide, I said.
I couldn’t count tines. They were lost in the grass and light that disappeared leaving a digital crunch of poor resolution.
I looked through my scope. He was way out there, I thought, screwing the aperture from 4 to 5 to 6 to 7.
I could have waited.
But what is it that decides?
Once a half mile from this spot where the buck browsed and the doe emerged, I sat at canyon’s edge at first light having walked the distance from my house, up the road, through a forest, across a glade and the upper end of the same canyon. I climbed in and out of it in black night as wait-a-minute vines, hawthorn and young firs slapped me, tripped me, and pushed me onward.
I rounded the forest edge and the canyon as it fell south and steeply toward the river. I walked under what there was of stars and night sky to that place and stopped quietly to wait.
The wind came.
It blew in cold.
The skiff of snow that I kneeled on melted.
A fog boiled up and then the day broke like the fine edge of a skinning knife just sharpened.
Three deer moved across the canyon from the alder thickets and one held back, then pushed forward to stir the others.
Buck, I said shouldering the .257 Roberts, my elbows tucking soft thighs inside my knees.
I couldn’t tell.
So far out and no real light.
The wind huffed and receded, exhaled and quietly regained itself before blowing again.
I saw no antlers, but knew instinctively like we all know. Knew enough to decide before collectively making the decision.
I waited for wind, without thinking.
I raised the muzzle like a mortar tube. Click, click.
And without saying yes, or no, calculated the puzzle and touched off the round like Sudoku.
400 yards away, the deer jumped. It’s legs scrambled as its body catapulted downhill, into a stand of aspen, clashing and crashing until the noise, as I heard it from across the canyon, stopped.
It was a 5-point buck I discovered later, hiking down and then up between the columnar basalt, its brush, yellow pine and, on the other side, the aspens that clawed steps where soil held.
Something, not me, not decidedly, had known it.
This time was like that except for one factor: The two deer. There had been two deer in many years at this spot, or generally speaking this quadrant of field had I previously shot and lost.
All these years of cross canyon gunning, of field edge plunging, of mountain hiking and pot-shotting, and killing, running bucks, bucks that stopped to look back, or broadside bad boys. Of stalking and trailing and plunking bedded deer, or deer ready for the bed. But at this spot for some reason I was 0 for 2.
I lay now on my belly and the buck turned my way. There was nothing for him to see.
I had a clump of gone-to-seed goldenrod, yarrow and buckthorn to shield me.
He lowered his head and I watched.
I could make a stalk to the next swale, I thought. Trim off 100 yards and get a better shot, maybe, if the wind doesn’t change, or the doe doesn’t bleat.
I could slip northeast and cut 50 yards from this shot, I thought, but something like Sudoku said, just take it.
It said you’ve lost two deer here already, both of them leaving a blood trail. Both of them at this hour, just before dark; one lost in the falling snow, the other, in no snow at all.
Just take the shot.
It said two swales between you and the buck. It said 300 yards, easy.
It said .257 Roberts. Your favorite. Ned Roberts. Bear gun, elk gun, antelope gun.
It said whitetail gun and I jumped a little as the recoil snapped and my vision, through the scope saw sky for a moment, and the buck bounded north to the woods.
Chi-chink, the action said.
The smoking brass flipped back toward my shoulder.
Ruger, Model 77.
I revisualized.
A hit, I said.
At the shot, the buck had jumped back then turned toward the woods, and the trails there, the down barbed wire fence. It disappeared in the swale of yellow grass and then reappeared, it’s tail up, bounding before the forest absorbed it.
I waited.
Night coming.
I waited then rose and walked into the field counting paces to where I thought the buck had been before I slammed it with a 117 grain.
One, two, three, I said. Twenty-four, twenty-five … One-hundred and fifty two, one hundred and fifty-three … two hundred sixty eight, two hundred sixty-nine.
It was 278 steps and I saw no blood in the thigh-deep grass. I looked more closely.
Is this the spot? I asked.
He is in there. In the woods. Forty yards inside the forest of tamarack and fir. That's where he folded. That's where the shot, its impact, the fatal and throbbing wound sent him face down and his legs still kicking before he died.
I told myself.
I waited under a sky of unfurled curtain. Before it closed went to look.
The forest was dark. I zigzagged. I crouched futilely for dirt, hoofed, for the hulk of a buck body deadened in the dark.
There was none.

Nights are long this time of year. What was left unresolved at 5 p.m. that last afternoon will find closure today.
It was early next morning.
I made coffee at four and took inventory.
I was out the door long before first light. It was an hour walk to the rattling spot and my buck, I said.
I brought my rifle, gutting knife and patience.
I would use the most intrinsic of senses, rely on them, let centuries pass if need be like minutes as I sniffed the trail, spotting blood, crawling, keeping at it.
It was tracking time in the big woods and 0-3 wasn’t an option.

—Ralph Bartholdt

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Kelly Creek, okay

Cool morning, end of summer at Kelly Creek, Idaho/Bartholdt

KELLY CREEK—The man in Idaho said the road is long and rutted. Be careful around the curves.
It’s a 2-hour drive from the bottom of the pass in Montana back into Idaho on the other side, he said. Bring beer.
The man at the gas station in Superior, Montana said motorists bomb down that road pulling trailers, campers and ATVs so keep your eyes peeled and know where the shoulder ends.
He recommended taking the road to the Kelly Creek Forest Service work camp once we reached the intersection on the other side of Hoodoo Pass in Idaho.
There are people there, at the Forest Service camp, he said. The rest of it is plenty remote. Most anglers fish the upper part of Kelly Creek. The water only gets better the farther up you go.
I use a renegade, he said. Small, this time of year.
He reached inside the cab of his pickup and took an aluminum fly box as big as a pack of smokes from the ashtray, opened it and showed neat rows of little flies in drab colors like museum pieces sans formalin.
I see, I said.
When he left, crossing the underpass into town and toward the Clark Fork, I noticed the stickers of bears and bass and whitetail deer on the small camper that rode in the bed of his truck.
They looked like the faded emblems of Schmidt beer cans.
We fueled up and headed east from the gas station on the trunk highway past the mill and its mounds of wood chips, large piles by the hundreds in the former mill yard where stacks of logs, sprayed by water pumped from the Clark Fork River that flows nearby once towered as high as the tallest building in this western Montana town. The piles of wood chips are what remains of a timber industry in these Bitterroot Mountains that doubled incomes, economies and coffers before it doubled up. Before politics and the need to recreate outlasted the need to grow revenues, tax bases, curbs and parks.
What’s left of it are wood chips excavated now into long bed dump trucks.
The Superior, Montana mill blew its last sad whistle years before with families gone, and the remnants of this industry, its chips, decades deep, rotted slowly. The wood acid seeped slowly into the big river, flowing elsewhere, taking dollars with it.
Until the price of hog fuel jumped. Now the chips are sent for miles and there is a sort of industry again, as ephemeral, and on a smaller scale.
The washboard road to Hoodoo Pass tests undercarriages and suspension. It tests the will to plod on and not turn and head back downhill the way you came to seek out other destinations, maybe. Those less prone to pop a nut and leave you stranded.
On the Idaho side of the pass, the 250 Road is paved for many miles until the intersection.
One way leads to the upper end of Kelly Creek and the Moose Creek bridge. The other follows the North Fork of the Clearwater River to the work camp where Kelly Creek joins the river and a tent spot costs $7. Here you can build a driftwood fire in the metal grills and lay out your gear on a picnic table, take note, or pause, or just reconsider what was left behind.
You’re here now, in renegade heaven.
You can try the other road on your way out.
One Labor Day weekend, Kelly Creek campground was moderately full, or empty depending how you tip the glass.
We started fishing right away, enjoying a lower river devoid of long rod interlopers. Most of them gunned their vehicles south on the dirt road that follows the creek from the point where it meets the North Fork, having received it seemed, the same review: Fishing is better up higher.
We found the creek about the same, no matter where we went.
There were double hook ups, single larger fish and the usual bright and lean cutthroat, their slightly spotted forward end sprinkled heavier the farther south toward the tail, their cut slit throat and fighting throbs into the current.
We found the renegade worked, as did the parachute Adams, the purple haze, Griffith’s gnat and several hopper imitations.
When the fishing slowed, big green streamers with their fannies wagging pulled in fish.
What we found, in large is that this blue ribbon water, despite shouldering a gravel road for 10-miles, was extremely fishable.
Not epic. No catastrophically astound.
It was a solid cutthroat fishery, and if you wanted more, you would park and hike, “as far as my little legs will take me,” a fishing guide told me.
He often walked several miles up the trail that follows Kelly Creek long after the road has found another compass course and bid the moving water sayonara with a wave of dust and gravel knocked from the bridge rails where the road rises toward Cayuse and Toboggan Hill.
Fantastic, he said of that hiking stretch and it may be so.
We tried it and almost got caught in the after dark.
Slowly pushing downstream, casting into that glimmer glass of last light, raising the rod tip to a sound or a slight tug but not by sight.
I like the trees at Kelly Creek. The long spires, their gnarled and veined miasma, as if a gale could topple them but in these mountains, when the wind blows it pushes snow and even if they fell then, not a soul would hear it.
I like the mountains too, the Moose Creek buttes, miles of wild where a bear grunt, as ursus americanus tangles with a colony of bugs in a fallen log, falls deaf on ears intent on bird song, or the insect buzz along the water.
The granite cupolas and spring strung meadows are gaudy jewelry on a landscape that has little time to be admired before the winter shutters roads and trails.
So it puts on a show, like the old woman in the Faulkner tale.
It spruces up for a day on the town, or guests, but it's made more for the snow and cold and inaccessible when wolves walk ridges of drifted snow and moose settle in the aspen groves, the dogwood hillsides where the wind blows free, and mow the blue stem like buffalo.
We stayed two days and fished most of that time, but when the driftwood flames died down and the morning coffee was rumbling in our guts we followed the 255 back to Montana, hit the Interstate at Superior and veered from it at St. Regis where Brooks at the Clark Fork Trout and Tackle said how do.
The St. Joe is fantastic.
He was talking about another river on the Idaho side that we sometimes refer as home.
So, we went there on our last vacation day and caught all the cutts we wanted. Bigger fish than those on Kelly.
With a lot more room to play.

-Ralph Bartholdt (Skookum Photography)