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 tired 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, if someone else’s name must appear on the back on my jersey, given that it coexisted with the coastal tribe’s rendition of an osprey, 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.
A 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, picking up dust in the surface film, swirling softly the detritus and guts of living and dead, the warm duff of time and friction , the nay of deer and the soft huff of elk as they cross the low ground, mixing the echoing chirps of hoppers and crickets with the spawn of gophers curled nose to tail under the ground. Stirring hair and feathers and cut hay stubble with new grass that pokes and breathes and leans toward the starry autumn morning where stars now fade and the school bus sweeps its lights across the swales.
A coyote is there most mornings supping the eddy of warmth and I wake this day and squint out the window and see the hump there stretching now. The first light of sun scratches 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 swale where the coyote stands as the light of morning sun arches golden, its padded feet quietly walking over the hay stubble toward the small brush wolf, we would say, as a boy, 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 100 yards, 125, 150, 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, the animal whose song has 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 daughter watched.
She talks of it still.
That was years ago.

Ralph Bartholdt lives in North Idaho

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Border country and 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.
It’s a big lake too.
At night, if you listen, you can hear the wolves, and the halo-like glow of northern lights writhes like scarves in a silent wind over the mountains and the border.

Ralph Bartholdt

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Woods at all

-Ruffed grouse society

Watch and listen here


The first grouse I remember busted between us and whirled like a sideways bottle rocket between some spruce in a Minnesota river bottom and the boy who had taken me along lifted his .410 and sent a flame and a charge in the general direction of the bird, then chased it as if by chance a BB had struck home.
There was none. No chance. No feathers. No quarry. Just some emptiness where the bird had been and a sky that slowly colored red like an autumn sunset.
That fall, or maybe one subsequent, my friends and I followed bird hunters on the trails they used through the poplar woods picking up offal, the striped tail feathers of ruffed grouse and sometimes the hairy feet where hunters who downed birds cleaned them leaving everything in the woods but the meat.
We caressed the feathers and brushed them against our skin, admired the black billowy ruffs that shone purple in autumn’s light and invariable stuck banded tail feathers into the air holes of our baseball caps. If we found a head, we pushed cap quills against the grain so they stood like Robin Hood’s hat on the dead bird’s pate and looked into small shining pebbles of eyes that turned opaque.
Our love for ruffed grouse was sealed. From those early days we became engrossed in a culture of birds – the only upland bird in our neighborhood woods –that included, eventually, scatter-guns, leather Irish Setter boots and a game bag with a canvas hunting hat bought at the hardware store for a buck.
Once, when I was old enough to hire on as a farm hand, I was met on a forest road by a grouse whose spring mating territory I and the Farm-All had encroached. I throttled down the tractor and the grouse strutted, its ruffs blazing, a look in its small black eyes like a comic book David meeting Goliath and confident of the outcome. In this case, I sat on the steel seat and watched in fascination as the ruff fluttered up and slammed the tractor with its feet, once, twice, then having accomplished whatever it thought necessary to keep this giant steel beast I rode from mating with its hens, the ruffed grouse strutted back into the forest, and I throttled up – the tractor’s engine sounding a lot like a drumming grouse – and went on my way.
I returned often that spring in the early morning before school to listen to that and other grouse drum, and I found their logs, crawled near them in an effort to shoot film of a drumming ruffed grouse in a Minnesota woodland as the trillium bloomed, but failed each time as school and the threat of tardiness waited.
From a high school teacher who worked closely with grouse biologists, I learned about drummers and satellite drummers, of color phases and cover, habitat and how those grouse where I lived depended mostly on the male buds of mature aspen trees for food especially in winter. A cold, wet spring can stymie a grouse population. Only 40 chicks of every 100 make it to fall. Of those just 18 survive the winter and 8 may live to mate the following year.
Numbers ticked like verb conjugation.
Hawks, owls, fox, skunks, coons and boys with shotguns all kill grouse, some more fluently than others. Hunters take the fewest compared to predators, and habitat, or the lack thereof influences survivability.
Hard grouse facts that I recounted as I filled trembling aspen leaves with BB holes and skidded the silver bark of poplars in often vain effort at bagging birds each autumn, until I left.
It was many years later on an Idaho back road in spring that I was reacquainted with ole ruff. The road went past a farm gate and climbed a mountain as it narrowed and eventually ran through another gate, this one locked. I explored and stopped the pickup and smelled the perfume of cottonwoods that rose on warm air from the river. Robins and a varied thrush piped. I looked for turkey tracks. Then the sound like a lawnmower engine slowly starting until it whirred, and pumped through the trees. I climbed after it.
I still am.
Each spring on my acres I await the drumming of grouse. I know their logs, at least on my property, and some on the neighbors’ too. I built a blind one year to take pictures, but just as when I was a boy, the male ruffed grouse resorted to drumming on a secondary log and I got no photos.
You have to rise early to shoot pictures of drumming grouse.
My high school teacher did it often, and well.
“The grouse moved out when the turkeys moved in,” a neighbor said.
I think some of that is true. Idaho Fish and Game doesn’t bother much with ruffed grouse, prefers to call the bird “forest grouse,” in a move that mixes apathy with the economics of the game tag and the game bag. Merriam turkeys provide more opportunity the department likes to say and charges 18 bucks for a gobbler tag while, for grouse, same limits apply no matter the species. This gives the impression to grouse hunters – the few that exist in the Gem State – that spruce, blue and ruffed grouse are just a mix and match bag, just fool's hens, so they ground sluice them, or blast them from a tree for the pot.
As kids we were taught to wing shoot. It was a new phrase and we grew into it. Anyone shooting a bird on the ground or from a limb was thoroughly castigated, even though in some ways we secretly envied them their lack of scruples since our dads, uncles or mentors wouldn’t let us do it. The birds had to be shot on the fly because that we learned later, made us wing shooters, it honed our senses and intuition, it kept us on our toes and made us react with a drawn gun, a click of the safety and a pumped shell all in a fraction of a second, whether we hit bird or not. Ground blasters were something akin to dopes, the lesson went. They were the saliva spitting knuckle draggers of the one brow school where single syllable words met Hubba Bubba.
Because of this, we often hunted for days without killing a bird not without having the begeezus scared out of us as we blasted 7-shot wads through the trees at knee slapping, we assumed, ruffed grouse.
It’s late evening in spring. Tomorrow, down by the creek, the drumming of a ruffed grouse will whirr over the steady sound of rushing water. The grouse will start early, in the tick of night, and he will drum until 9 or 10, long after the school bus has gone and the clanking of the log trucks going for a second load passes on the road nearby.
I may go out at first light, walk across the dew wet field. I will move only when I hear the drumming and then stop when it stops. I will walk to the woods edge and then cross the creek. My shoes will be wet by then, my hands cold. The last stars will flicker in a sky getting blue.
The grouse will drum and I will push away brush, dogwood and the iron like whips of ocean spray. Syringa buds and catkins of cottonwoods will stick to my wool shirt.
When the grouse drums I will move toward the sound until I am very near the bird. I may hear it quietly cluck, or it may flush with the whirring thunder like muffled pyrotechnics. If I kneel, I may see it through the maze of brush on its log. May see it cup its wings and then pump, pump, pump like a lawnmower firing up.
I have done this a long time, and I plan to keep on.
A spring woods without grouse I have come to re-learn, is no spring woods at all, and a fall wood too needs grouse to test our reflexes and break us of epicurean habit.

-Ralph Skookum

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Snow banks, fishing's good, thanks

We said the same thing for a long time. We mimicked others who said it. We were silver arowanas – water monkeys – that pretend to be tarpon but live in the Amazon.
In this northern region we have only read about arowanas, or tarpon for that matter, usually on long winter nights. We are better versed in calibers for ungulates, and don’t use that word because no one knows what it means. In this northern region we had – at one time - just two choices, neither of them very good as the eye doctor says: We could forego chasing elk in the high country in fall. We could miss watching from a distance as herd bulls bugled above tree line in the early day, steam rising from their backs with the mystery of Yellowstone while we fished the rivers that were empty but for the sound of one’s screaming bail when big fish, molested by few in September, pulled line to the backing.
Or, we could spend still-hot autumn days in the hills chasing bulls while secretly dreaming of cool and unmolested rivers and the kype-faced trout pulled from them.
It was a dilemma. Either this way, or that.
It was like Dante but spelled differently.
… Spelled like quandary. Out here in the hollers of North Idaho we look for similarities and find them.
Then something unusual happened. The game department used intuition. It went all pragmatic. Someone, somewhere in an office down a hallway behind a door partly closed under a fluorescent light, said screw it anyhow. This government official, perhaps plagued by indigestion or the hollow ring of a coffee headache used the eraser on the end of a pencil to peel little pink rubberized flakes onto paper expunging some letter or line. The official added a hash mark to a computer modeling program, which in turn showed the affect of the change exponentially as the official sighed loudly enough for another official in a cube nearby to mimic the sigh. Yes, like an arowana again, and there followed a domino effect of rebellion, of paper cuts and paper airplanes and a lot of small yelps – civil servants raising cain - pencil leads broke, someone cracked a Mountain Dew.
The glorious expulsion of human virtue passed and things got back to the nitty gritty of number crunching, frugally spent tax dollars and steel doors echoing down long, two-toned hallways where empty elevators went ding.
The next thing a few of us North Idaho anglers knew, we were knee deep in a March stream catching big cutthroat trout on streamers as motorists drove up alongside the road, rolled down the windows on their trucks and kindly informed us, "This river is closed to fishing in spring, you numb nuts!"
We thanked them and fished on, of course.
What had really transpired was an act of attrition. Idaho Fish & Game decided to simplify the Panhandle’s fishing regulations, opening the stream season on trout all year, but requiring anglers release cutthroat. Bull trout were on the endangered list and although seemingly common, could not be kept, and mountain whitefish could.
Brook trout and rainbows, where they were found, could fill a creel because they were non-natives and not wanted. Not by the game department, anyhow. Not really.
After what seemed a tradition of winter and spring stream closures many anglers failed to either take notice of the new regulations, or they approached them with suspicion and then disbelief, hence the many helpful motorists who pulled alongside the road near streams to edify the few who had bothered to acquaint themselves with the state’s fishing rules.
“Get out of that river, you Bumpkin, before I call the fish cops!”
After a while passers became accustomed to us in the river. We were government, they divined, and this a conspiracy of some sort. They nervously searched the sky for helicopters like checking the weather and generally left us alone.
This went on for years.
We, the few of us who kept our calendars open each spring checked the latest regulations as if we anticipated the fish and game folks would be apprised of this aberration - someone's deliberate miscalculation - that they called a winter fishing season. We giggled quietly to ourselves like giddy farm children when we saw no change in the regulations year after year and watched the thermometer to make sure the rivers in March, when the fish bit the best, ran clear and high enough to form sploosh pools, deep shelves and buckets.
And then we fished.
The guides of course knew the regs too. The winter season was a Godsend to these beasts of driftboats and driftless snow days spent in shops dusting inventory.
In their fly shops all winter old men sat in the mornings for coffee telling memoried stories of familiar rivers as the calendar days ticked away with little variation except for the color of the sweaters the old men's wives made them wear. The guides nudged them toward new memories, ones filled with snowbanks and gray trees. They encouraged they charge a handful of flies on winter discount accounts and hit the water. Mostly though, it was the guides, weary of snow and the snips of yarn and feathers piling around their tying benches, afraid of finishing the familiar stories aloud as they already had in their heads, weary of coffee and snow and unmoved inventory, who plied the water when they could. Often alone.
After all these years the winter river fishery is catching on, somewhat.
The fly guides are a little happier because of it. The more rubber pants, designer shades and big hairy bugs slapped against opposite snow-crusted banks, the less lonely the water even way upstream where the road is covered in ice and the two-tracks begin.
You don’t need to go that far. The guides know this, and the shorter the drive for their clients the happier the clients are too.
North Idaho’s winter fishery despite a bump in popularity is still relatively anonymous. That may be because it seems a peculiar time to catch trout for many who equate salmonid fishing with dappled daylight hatches of summer bugs that aren’t really bugs but ancient insects whose 4 silvery wings twinkle over water, who make minute flotillas in splash pools as July sun warms pavement and beers left too long on car hoods. It’s different in winter, let me explain.
The water is black, the banks are white, the gravel bars skinny and you must wade to them sometimes under trees whose heavy limbs seem belatedly wrapped against last night’s cold. The rivers for a time run clear and cold as tap beer and the trout lethargically grab streamers thrown by novices who know enough not to toss dries. Watch the night temperatures because as long as they dip to freezing, even if daytime highs hit 60, the rivers won’t run mud. This is a special time and the window isn’t all that wide. It’s frosted sometimes in the morning and the car’s exhaust belches as it would on New Years, but don’t be fooled. The fishing is good and the fish unmolested.
That’s because few fishers read the regs at all. Despite our aping over the ease and beauty of winter fishing, many anglers are staunch counselors of the past. we may attack March with determined rigor, jump and frolic like tarpons, or better, like arowanas, those snaky fish with faces like tarpons that fight like bulls with the bucking strap cinched.
We may do this, but old habits like barn cats don't die.
“You can’t fish there, the season’s closed,” a prosecuting attorney and his deeply local fishing friend said over beers.
“No, it ain’t,” an angler with shaky wrists and a SAGE ballcap said.
“Always has been and if you fish, the warden will snap cuffs and spit on your shoes,” the counselor said.
“No worries, they’re rubber.”
As passers on the road look up for signs of helicopters some of us will drag fat cutts to the net and release them.
We mime a wave to the choppers.
That’s like a mimic, but spelled differently.

Ralph Skookum

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