Sunday, January 25, 2015

Right out of the box

I think we remember knives.
We grew up with them as an idea, aware of their danger and value as tools.
Small folders with bone handles or wood, vinyl, the color of blood or mahogany, shining bolsters with polished pins.
Valuable to cut and ply and maybe whittle or sharpen a stick, peel the coat off a golf ball, flick them open-bladed into the dirt with a wrist movement also learned. We cut line, if there was spare line to cut, carved initials into the thin bark of birch or poplar and opened and closed the blades of these folding knives wary of sharpness, the pain we feared of a deep cut and then piling them into a pocket where they made their own warmth.
The earliest knife, of all the ones I've owned, that I remember is one my dad bought at a store that had the false front of Western movies, big glass windows where a saddle was displayed, lariats, western and farm jackets and the name Zetterberg in golden block letters as if for a bank. The doors were double and the handles suspect. The thumb latch on them irascible, so my dad worked it and the bell as it swung inward made a sound sleigh-like even in summer.
Inside the smell of leather and wheel grease for farm tractors, wood from the walls and floor, dry, and the tung oil that made the deck shine. We were there for a knife and my dad said it to the man, old I knew then, and I know now, the son of the original owner and the place a going concern since 1912, long after the county was formed and named for the Ojibway word "snake." Better known for its pine and logging railroads and later its corn.
He led us to a display case with a glass top and small hinges and hasps. I chose an electrician's knife, no longer sure why, and my dad asked was I certain. I nodded yes. It had two blades, one speartip and one screwdriver flat, and a ring on the end I later lost. The bigger, flat blade closed on my finger once and cut painlessly deep and made it bleed and I sucked on it, wrapped it in paper and pressed the wound hard until the bleeding stopped. I told no one. At 10, it wasn't something you advertised to them with the authority to take the knife away until you were older, or more ready.
A kid two years my senior ran with a knife and fell. The blind eye was gray and didn't move much. I learned not to do that.
I used my knife to skin the squirrels I shot. Sold the tails to the Mepps lure company to garnish their spinners and ate the scant meat the way my mom cooked it.
A couple years later I was sure I needed another knife to better pelt the muskrats I trapped at a pond a half mile behind the house where I walked before school. The knife I knew I needed was named Muskrat Skinner and I saved my allowance and had it for almost a decade until I misplaced it, which is something that happens to pocket knives.
I got a Buck belt knife later, and inherited a Puma skinner, then used an Uncle Henry for a pocket knife, that I lost once. The company sent me another for free, I have it still. I went to Gerber later because they had stocky blades for skinning deer without puncturing the gut, fair steel and, I was reminded, they were sharp, right out of the box.
A man in a bar said this once, late, as I was surrounded by heathens who wanted payback, I'm not sure for what. They had blades open and threatening when the door opened and a man with a limp walked in and up to the three of us. He reached into his pocket, produced a Gerber snapping the blade. "Sally," he addressed the two drunk and long-haired wombats on each side simultaneously, "This is a Gerber Vulcan. It has a four-and-a-half-inch blade, and a non-slip grip." He paused and looked wearily at the two men on either side. "And it's sharp, right out of the box."
The two men let me alone and left the bar and the man with the limp sat at the end by the bell and the bartender came out from using the can, or wherever he had disappeared to, brought us two beers and I remembered the words of the man with the limp, and the knife too.
My culture was rife with blades. Rapalas were long and thin for filleting pike, and short for panfish. They came in a leather sheath with a belt loop, but were kept in the tackle box instead, and sometimes hung on a hook in the shed. Victorinox had the Swiss seal and were useful for more than blood letting.
Over the years I bought Bokers, Green River, Case and Solingen steel knives like the Hartkopf I got in a shop on Munich's south side. Damascus steel was something I considered, but let go, and I have the names of shop-knife makers, small-time crafters who stamp, forge and grind skinning knives from Maine to the west coast and intend to follow up. I haven't owned a SOG or Kershaw, but once, in Iraq, a Marine who had spent the tour in Fallujah kept his Ka-Bar despite the jaundiced comportment of customs officials in Kuwait who took his M16 magazines and my Swiss Army Spartan with its spear tip broken from misuse.
"Write it off as a combat loss," he said of the metal magazines he'd had until then. "At least they didn't find my Ka-Bar."

Ralph Bartholdt writes from North Idaho

Thursday, January 1, 2015

In the same current

The run started at a shelf that dropped water into a thin, boiling line that smoothed out along a cut bank, unspooling itself for a quarter mile or more.
It was noisy with all the water being funneled from the main stem of the Clearwater River east of Lewiston, Idaho. The smooth, round rocks lolled underfoot as I stood on the lip of the shelf in water ankle-deep and whirled the 15-foot rod, a 10-weight, that was loaned to me as a learning tool. I made the sweeping loops that a fishing guide, once in a bar over river beer, explained as painting the ceiling.
Think of your rod tip as a brush and you’re painting the ceiling, he said to a client who was painfully urbane and definitely foreign – at least to the region - and had likely paid the man nicely to fish, not drag him to a bar to drink and talk about fishing.
The client sipped and patiently listened as the guide waved his arms and grew animated and the rain painted lines on the windows.
Everyone in the place had suspected it then, and I was learning it now: You don’t pretend to paint a ceiling, or anything else with the tip of a 15-foot spey rod. Any exaggeration is reserved for the swift, but snappy strokes that load the rod. You must shoot – in my case – a ton of long-belly line, and make the fly land at the end of the leader, instead of in a curl of mono, or whatever you’re using.
And then you let it swing.
You cover water.
You take a step or two downriver, and do it all over again.
Standing on this particular shelf across from the railroad tracks, turning my body to let the line go straight and the fly swing to a place downriver from where I stood, I watched a small figure walking my way.
He walked slowly over the rocks.
I flummoxed another cast and let whatever I had out there, curled leader and fly, the whole amalgam of nylon and feathers and steel swing in whatever fashion physics allowed and the man kept coming.
I did this for a while, floundered a cast, swung, stepped, then reeled in and met him halfway.
There was no one else around. It was early. The morning sun had just peaked over a treeless ridge, grass-brown and shorn as a cantaloupe. The golden light was a sudden explosion, but silent. And the man, an elderly gentleman, fit, with a worn baseball cap who carried a rod at least as long as mine, kept coming.
He was from San Francisco. A retired engineer, I think. He was lean and had the look of someone accustomed to leaning against the current of rivers. He cast at the Golden Gate Club, he said. He had walked all the way up the edge of the island, a man of fly-casting erudition, to ask if I, a novice to put it mildly, would allow him to fish down below.
“Are you fishing all the way through?” He asked.
“I’m not sure,” I said.
I wasn’t. I hadn’t thought much about it. I knew I had to get to work, so I said it.
“OK.” The man said. Then he explained that the run below us was not really connected to the run I had been fishing.
“I think they are two separate runs,” he said.
This was my introduction to the stream ethics of spey fishing on the Clearwater, and probably anywhere.
The man then took my rod and showed me how to cast the long line. The lesson lasted 15 minutes. The river flushed around us, there was no one else in sight. Logging trucks flashed by on the highway north across the island through the cottonwoods, what seemed far away.
He showed me a snake roll, explaining that wind, more so than in single-handed fly casting, is an enemy worth considering.
I once had a hook thunk me in the head, he said.
He had not considered the wind when he swung his two-handed rod, decades ago, nor the big fly on the end of it.
It stuck in my hat, he said, of the fly. It stuck right there and knocked my hat off and I saw stars for a while.
I realized the significance of his teaching.
Myself, I had once, in a errant act of bravado, self-assuredness and apathy toward natural forces, had a gust spit a green drake into my lip where it hung for a while as fellow anglers feared pulling out the barbless bit of steel.
On that early morning calf deep in Idaho’s Clearwater, in the new, golden light of early day, the man showed me how to cast easily, with a shorter stroke. He loaded the top of the rod and shot my line halfway across the river, which was wide.
I didn’t learn that cast. I toiled still days and weeks after the man went home, to other rivers in other places with names at least as infamous as my own. I fished early, because of a job that asked I attend, but mostly to cast under cover of darkness.
I hadn’t caught a fish when I tucked the rod away, and I’m not sure I cared, at that point. My outings had long ago become less routine and more or less sporadic.
Learning is like an arrowhead. Flake off the shards with patience and you will eventually have something to keep.
When Zack Williams came to the Clearwater from Michigan he saw something he liked.
“It was the most incredible place I had ever seen,” said Williams, who moved on to guide on the Olympic Peninsula, before returning to teach anglers the subtlety of Idaho's steelhead water.
“It’s not an easy river to catch steelhead in,” Williams said. “It’s a big river that doesn’t give up its secrets easily.”
Craig Lannigan, who has fished the river since the early 1970s, taught himself to cast a spey rod and learned how to hook steelhead from the best teacher: the river.
Learning to catch fish from shore with a long rod goes hand-in-hand with the other thing.
The etiquette, Lannigan said.
He was talking of the courtesy he learned to afford other anglers who he found waist deep in his favorite holes. It was likely their favorite hole too. And maybe they had hung their flag at the spot before he traipsed into it. Maybe he was the intruder. Either way, he bowed to the anglers who rose earlier than he, or swung a sparsely hackled fly into the bend by the hanging pine where the churning water curls over a rill in a 4-foot deep wash for a quarter mile, while he stood on the road twisting his rod pieces together.
He waited his turn. He let others fish through and expected the same.
"I've been low holed so many times this season already," Lannigan once gruffed. "It's not good for my heart."
The code and the catch is part of the same lesson, Lannigan said.
It is learned in the same flow.
Simple propriety goes a long ways to getting the hang of the sport on a river where the cool, clear current of simplicity runs deep.

Ralph Bartholdt lives in Idaho

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

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Benchwarmer Bob and the Hawks

Bob Lurtsema with the expansion team Seahawks in 1976

There are a lot of men, all of them grown and some grown more than others, wearing football jerseys with other men’s names across their backs.
I have had another man’s name plastered across the top of my shirt. When I was 10 the Minnesota Vikings were in the Superbowl and the name I chose was Foreman. My mom shook her head and my dad smiled and changed the subject.
This week, given the circumstances - the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl - if someone else’s name must appear on the back on my jersey, it would be Benchwarmer Bob.
We knew him by different names.
When I was a kid I heard his name enough to think he was someone my dad had a couple belts with on the weekend, someone who plowed the neighbor’s driveway, played on a local sports team and ice fished on the lake like the rest of the gang.
I learned later that Benchwarmer Bob was an icon, and if he wasn’t from my hometown, he might as well have been. That’s how much we liked Benchwarmer Bob. All of us in Minnesota.
As a budding sports fan I learned Benchwarmer was a Vikings defensive end who couldn’t break the starting line-up of the Purple People Eaters, but played the game enough to elicit cheers from all of us in the ice belt.
We were heartbroken when he hitched his wagon to a new franchise halfway across the continent called the Seahawks.
The wha?!
Despite the team’s ignominious start in 1976, it may as well have been called the Rising Stars. In his first two seasons for the expansion Hawks - a team whose quarterback Jim Zorn had a hard time early on with player names because it was so hastily formed – Benchwarmer Bob started 25 games.
We cheered him from afar. We saw him sit on the bench between sets, the rain pummeling off his head, his fat fingers wrapped in tape just like when he sat on a bench in Bloomington with ice dripping from his nose. We watched him sack and terrorize quarterbacks and thought, man, old Benchwarmer gots it, and that Seattle team is lucky for having him.
We wanted him back. On our bench as a backup.
Instead he made his mark on the Coast and then he left the league for good.
He came back to Minnesota, rode in a snowmobile race and opened a chain of restaurants while the Seahawks clawed away at league standings and rose and fell with the tides of the NFC West. Unlike the dirty birds from across town, or the wings of death from some other hood, the Seattle team squeaked a little, sputtered and was derided as the “sea chickens,” usually in the latter quarters by the disheartened, and in the late season by the same loyal cadre of soaken wet fans.
This went on for a while.
I had moved out west by then, and often found myself surrounded by the royal blue and forest green in taverns on Sundays or Monday nights where revelry turned morose as October downpours and the game clock ticked away.
I remember particularly a fisherman from Brooklyn who owned a power troller in Southeast Alaska and lauded the Hawks and their man Krieg like he was raised by them. He loudly and faithfully talked of Krieg’s poise under pressure, his arm that could for four quarters launch a hundred cannonballs and still be fresh enough to rise in victory, but by game’s end – and season’s end, year after year – the fisherman, and Krieg too, were ready for the lockers.
These days, just as then, I’m sure the fisherman dons his green, silver and blue, he is older and leans against the dock railings more than he did then, and the Harbor Bar likely has more fans now who don’t dare utter “sea chickens,” at least not yet.
As for me. If there is a name I’d put on my back it’s still Benchwarmer Bob’s.
As a diehard Vikings fan I know I share this sentiment.
The Seahawks have a small place in our conscience where fans sit quietly away from the crowds.
The expansion team gave Benchwarmer a chance back in the day.
If I had a Hawks jersey I’d put his name there:

Ralph Bartholdt

Friday, January 10, 2014

Little Victories

Little victories, they all ride with me. These days that's all I need. - Chris Knight

The coyote is an example.
Lying like a shadow in the low spot of the hay field. Lying there where the warmth of the night has eddied like swirling debris in a pocket of river. The air down there, barely moving, and cool, like water with dust in its surface film, swirling softly the detritus and guts of living and dead, the warm duff of time and friction. The air is mixed with the nay of deer and the soft huff of elk as they crossed the low ground. It is blended with echoing chirps of hoppers and crickets from yesterday, the spawn of gophers curled nose to tail under the ground. The air, in its slow colloidal movement stirs hair and feathers and cut hay stubble with new grass that pokes and breathes and leans toward the autumn morning under fading stars.
The school bus sweeps its lights across the field and they bounce between swales where the coyote lies.
The small dog is there most mornings supping the eddy of warmth. He took the pullets last spring, three of them one at a time. I found them dismembered, feathers mostly and feet, in the hump of trees near the field. He stirred the dog's dish and the pointer too timid to flush away its kin. He scratched at the lawn's edge and pissed on the fenceposts. I don't begrudge him any of it. But, I wake this day and squint out the window and see the hump there stretching now. The first light of sun sliding past a crease of mountain to the east as I tiptoe across the cold floor to the rifle on the table, loaded, and my daughter wakes.
What? She asks. Dad? She says.
Coyote, I whisper.
"I want to see." And she wakes another sister, and another.
I have the rifle now in my hands as I lead their eyes with my words to the low ground by a strip of uncut hay where the coyote stands as the light of morning sun arches golden, quietly casting over the hay stubble toward the small brush wolf - we would say, as boys, and the words then scared me.
I say it now and the girls, my daughters, sisters in pajamas their hair like straw, feel the same wildness in the words. The untamed yip and howl, the image that seems much larger in the dark, but daylight approaches.
"I see it," one of them says. "It's right there."
The youngest of them drops a shoe on the floor and the sun’s rays are now visible. They are apparent and yellow as a whisk pushing night into a dust pan, and the coyote hears the thump on the floor.
So far out, a hundred yards or more, the wild dog hears it.
He is a young dog, thick with autumn fur, the growl and bark of last night like a burr in his throat but the sound of the shoe on the wooden floor makes him jump and he is all legs and tail straight back leaping into air as if swallowing large gulps with each lunge.
I hear my neighbor, Doc, the man on the old steel seat of the McCormick FarmAll tell how he saw one of the canids in my field when the hay was waist high and how he, a man who raises Targhees for income that pays for his land, the taxes on it, and the repairs for his pickup, lifted a .22 Long from the scabbard behind his seat, leaned it against the dashboard and squeezed the trigger but the shot was low and the dog already in full sprint kicked his own dust over the dry dust the bullet made and was gone into the trees, the sliver tamaracks that this fall are golden.
And the coyote runs now toward them too.
I am at the back door, it bumps, the rusted screen shivers, as I kneel and lay the .257 Roberts on the frosty porch rail waiting for the coyote, out there at 75 yards, 80, 100, to break into view and when he does I squeeze too.
This is where I shot the cat. The cat with the foaming mouth when the girls were smaller and I feared for them. Hydrophobee, one of them said. Just like Old Yeller. And the boom from a double barrel scatter gun made a smoking hole where the small, sick cat had been. This is where my daughter said it. And now the coyote across the field bounds into view and I point the barrel of the Roberts ahead of its lunge and the trigger is back, snaps, and the dog disappears.
You missed it dad, a daughter says.
We walk out. Walk across the field. It is morning. The gray edge has turned a warm yellow, but we see our breath. The girls have boots on and jackets. The smallest one, just 4 wants to see the coyote, one of the animals whose songs have lulled her to sleep and also kept her awake some nights. Dark, those nights. Light, now.
We walk out.
And that is what I mean. That is an example. That is how it was and will no longer be because time jumps and skips and skitters across our conscience like a flat stone. It leaves the water, touches sky's reflection and returns to the water farther out until it sinks and we stand, ankle deep, seeing the rings spread and disappear.
It is time, we say. Just time.
I skinned the coyote.
My daughters watched.
They stood in a circle around me. They touched its fur and said, soft.
The others went inside and one stayed, she asked about muscles and bones. About teeth and jaw and olfactory.
She talks of it still.
I gave her the hide.
That was years ago.

Ralph Bartholdt lives in North Idaho

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Border country macks

Author with a mack courtesy of The Idaho Fisherman, Rich Lindsey's Priest Lake Guide Service

As a boy, the only place I knew to catch them for sure was the border.
I could stand on the point of land in front of our house looking north and believe it was there. It had a halo glowering over it that I later learned were the northern lights and at night my mom said if you listened, you could hear the wolves from across the lake.
It was a big lake that abutted the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, or better, the Quetico Superior. We lived in a small block house with a view of the northern lights. Our dock was hand made from cedars felled on the place and its decking brought in by boat. That was before the road.
At night we caught smallmouth off the dock with big poppers.
A neighbor, Mike Potts, just 18 with dreams of being a mountain man, painted our cabin for cash that he used to move to Alaska where he ran traps, bounced in Fairbanks bars and fought fires in summer with the Native crews out of Eagle. As a kid, he took me to Bass Lake, a small hole in an escarpment of spruce-studded rocks where he showed me to catch bass and crappie and trout.
He motored the 16-foot skiff with wooden gunwhales and a 1959 Johnson 10 horse that puttered nicely between the islands to the cove at the lake’s north end.
Potts regularly, before he moved away, canoed across Big Bay to the portage at Trout Lake where he slipped his aluminum canoe with the Indian stripe into Quetico waters and sometimes lived for weeks by himself.
“Lake trout,” he said, when I asked what he ate. “Some walleye and bass.”
I had to believe him at 8, because of his grin, the solemness of what I considered a man and the brown nut skin that stretched over young muscles made hard by canoe paddles and portages.
He returned from Alaska eventually. 40 years later, and lives on an island in that northern Minnesota lake, setting nets for whitefish in fall and hauling in trout, the speckled kind we call lakers. He is one of few who fishes for them and know where they live. Northerners are spoiled like that. Walleye is the state fish for a reason.
Which brings me to here. A half circle of sorts in another northern lake just south of Canada and it's cold. The heaters are on, the lake is devoid of other anglers, big enough to carry a bunch of boats but it’s winter and the sky is a skirt rolled up showing the white leg of mountains.
My skipper this time is a man who knows the waters around here better than most. He has made some sort of living dragging lures through the wake and today, idly behind the wheel of a bigger aluminum boat he sits in coveralls, his lab at his feet, telling tales. This is something I’m acquainted with. Water and boats, dogs and the steady troll of talk some call idle, and that we call history.
Ours. His and mine, today.
“They are usually in here,” he says. “But they are pretty lethargic.”
Gargantuan eaters, these big lakers. We use cannonballs and downriggers, the steady tick tick of winter in Idaho, the low hum of the engine, the sky so great it is a maw, its breath deep with fir and pine, and then a rod bends.
“Get it,” he says and I jerk and reel.
The laker when it comes up is as long as my leg.
“That’s a nice fish,” the skipper says .
“How heavy is it?” He asks. “That’s got to be 50 pounds.”
He caught a 50-pounder himself and shot a photograph of it with his cell phone while fishing alone.
Priest Lake, Idaho has one of the best lake trout fisheries in the West, and the trout, called mackinaw here, or just Macks, have a supple red meat that is ocean borne salmon when cooked. Delicious, yes, that’s it.
We throw this one back. And the next a 35-pounder.
“Let’s get some keepers,” Rich Lindsey, the skipper and lake guide says.
We catch a couple cold glistening fish, 24-inchers, knock them on the head, he cleans them and throws the offal to circling eagles. We motor back to the dock.
At night, if you listen, you can hear the wolves from across the lake, and the halo-like glow of northern lights writhes like scarves in a silent wind over the mountains and the border.

Ralph Bartholdt