BRIDGE CREEK TO BOWMAN LAKE
The first night we camped at Bridge Creek on a river-flat. Beside us, the creek rolled and foamed. The horses, in their rope corral, lay down and rolled in sheer ecstasy when their heavy packs were removed. The cook set up his sheet-iron stove beside the creek, built a wood fire, lifted the stove over it, fried meat, boiled potatoes, heated beans, and made coffee while the tents were going up. From a thicket near by came the thud of an axe as branches were cut for bough beds.
I have slept on all kinds of bough beds. They may be divided into three classes. There is the one which is high in the middle and slopes down at the side--there is nothing so slippery as pine-needles--so that by morning you are quite likely to be not only off the bed but out of the tent. And there is the bough bed made by the guide when he is in a great hurry, which consists of large branches and not very many needles. So that in the morning, on rising, one is as furrowed as a waffle off the iron. And there is the third kind, which is the real bough bed, but which cannot be tossed off in a moment, like a poem, but must be the result of calculation, time, and much labor. It is to this bough bed that I shall some day indite an ode.
This is the way you go about it: First, you take a large and healthy woodsman with an axe, who cuts down a tree--a substantial tree. Because this is the frame of your bed. But on no account do this yourself. One of the joys of a bough bed is seeing somebody else build it.
The tree is an essential. It is cut into six-foot lengths--unless one is more than six feet long. If the bed is intended for one, two side pieces with one at the head and one at the foot are enough, laid flat on a level place, making a sort of boxed-in rectangle. If the bed is intended for two, another log down the center divides it into two bunks and prevents quarreling.
Now begins the real work of constructing the bough bed. If one is a good manager, while the frame is being made, the younger members of the family have been performing the loving task of getting the branches together. When a sufficient number of small branches has been accumulated, this number varying from one ton to three, judging by size and labor, the bough bed is built by the simple expedient of sticking the branches into the enclosed space like flowers into a vase. They must be packed very closely, stem down. This is a slow and not particularly agreeable task for one's loving family and friends, owing to the tendency of pine-and balsam-needles to jag. Indeed, I have known it to happen that, after a try or two, some one in the outfit is delegated to the task of official bed-maker, and a slight coldness is noticeable when one refers to dusk and bedtime.
Over these soft and feathery plumes of balsam--soft and feathery only through six blankets--is laid the bedding, and on this couch the wearied and saddle-sore tourist may sleep as comfortably as in his grandaunt's feather bed.
But, dear traveler, it is much simpler to take an air-mattress and a foot-pump. True, even this has its disadvantages. It is not safe to stick pins into it while disrobing at night. Occasionally, a faulty valve lets go, and the sleeper dreams he is falling from the Woolworth Tower. But lacking a sturdy woodsman and a loving family to collect branches, I advise the air-bed.
Fishing at Bridge Creek, that first evening, was poor. We caught dozens of small trout. But it would have taken hundreds to satisfy us after our lunchless day, and there were other reasons.
One casts for trout. There is no sitting on a mossy stone and watching a worm guilefully struggling to attract a fish to the hooks. No; one casts.
Now, I have learned to cast fairly well. On the lawn at home, or in the middle of a ten-acre lot, cleared, or the center of a lake, I can put out quite a lot of line. In one cast out of three, I can drop a fly so that it appears to be committing suicide--which is the correct way. But in a thicket I am lost. I hold the woman's record for getting the hook in my hair or the lobe of the Little Boy's ear. I have hung fish high in trees more times than phonographs have hanged Danny Deever. I can, under such circumstances (i.e., the thicket), leave camp with a rod, four six-foot leaders, an expensive English line, and a smile, and return an hour later with a six-inch trout, a bandaged hand, a hundred and eighty mosquito bites, no leaders, and no smile.
So we fished little that first evening, and, on the discovery that candles had been left out of the cook's outfit, we retired early to our bough beds, which were, as it happened that night, of class A.
There was a deer-lick on our camp-ground there at Bridge Creek, and during the night deer came down and strayed through the camp. One of the guides saw a black bear also. We saw nothing. Some day I shall write an article called: "Wild Animals I Have Missed."
We had made fourteen miles the first day, with a late start. It was not bad, but the next day we determined to do better. At five o'clock we were up, and at five-thirty tents were down and breakfast under way. We had had a visitor the night before--that curious anomaly, a young hermit. He had been a very well-known pugilist in the light-weight class and, his health failing, he had sought the wilderness. There he had lived for seven years alone.
We asked him if he never cared to see people. But he replied that trees were all the company he wanted. Deer came and browsed around his tiny shack there in the woods. All the trout he could use played in his front garden. He had a dog and a horse, and he wanted nothing else. He came to see us off the next morning, and I think we amused him. We seemed to need so much. He stared at our thirty-one horses, sixteen of them packed with things he had learned to live without. But I think he rather hated to see us go. We had brought a little excitement into his quiet life.
The first bough bed had been a failure. For--note you--I had not then learned of the bough bed de luxe. This information, which I have given you so freely, dear reader, what has it not cost me in sleepless nights and family coldness and aching muscles!
So I find this note in my daily journal, written that day on horseback, and therefore not very legible:--
Mem: After this, must lie over the camp-ground until I find a place that fits me to sleep on. Then have the tent erected over it.
There was a little dissension in the party that morning, Joe having wakened in the night while being violently shoved out under the edge of his tent by his companion, who was a restless sleeper. But ill-temper cannot live long in the open. We settled to the swinging walk of the trail. In the mountain meadows there were carpets of flowers. They furnished highly esthetic if not very substantial food for our horses during our brief rests. They were very brief, those rests. All too soon, Pete would bring Angel to me, and I would vault into the saddle--extremely figurative, this--and we would fall into line, Pete swaying with the cowboy's roll in the saddle, the Optimist bouncing freely, Joe with an eye on that pack-horse which carried the delicacies of the trip, the Big Boy with long legs that almost touched the ground, the Middle Boy with eyes roving for adventure, the Little Boy deadly serious and hoping for a bear. And somewhere in the rear, where he could watch all responsibilities and supply the smokers with matches, the Head.
That second day, we crossed Dutch Ridge and approached the Flathead. What I have called here the Flathead is known locally as the North Fork. The pack-outfit had started first. Long before we caught up with them, we heard the bells on the lead horses ringing faintly.
Passing a pack-outfit on the trail is a difficult matter. The wise little horses, traveling free and looked after only by a wrangler or two, do not like to be passed. One of two things happens when the saddle-outfit tries to pass the pack. Either the pack starts on a smart canter ahead, or it turns wildly off into the forest to the accompaniment of much complaint by the drivers. A pack-horse loose on a narrow trail is a dangerous matter. With its bulging pack, it worms its way past anything on the trail, and bad accidents have followed. Here, however, there was room for us to pass.
Tiny gophers sat up beside the trail and squeaked at us. A coyote yelped. Bumping over fallen trees, creaking and groaning and swaying, came the boat-wagon. Mike had found a fishing-line somewhere, and pretended to cast from the bow.
"Ship ahoy!" he cried, when he saw us, and his instructions to the driver were purely nautical. "Hard astern!" he yelled, going down a hill, and instead of "Gee" or "Haw" he shouted "Port" or "Starboard."
An acquaintance of George and Mike has built a boat which is intended to go up-stream by the force of the water rushing against it and turning a propeller. We had a spirited discussion about it.
"Because," as one of the men objected, "it's all right until you get to the head of the stream. Then what are you going to do?" he asked. "She'll only go up--she won't go down."
Pete, the chief guide, was a German. He was rather uneasy for fear we intended to cross the Canadian line. But we reassured him. A big blond in a wide-flapping Stetson, black Angora chaps, and flannel shirt with a bandana, he led our little procession into the wilderness and sang as he rode. The Head frequently sang with him. And because the only song the Head knew very well in German was the "Lorelei," we had it hour after hour. Being translated to one of the boatmen, he observed: "I have known girls like that. I guess I'd leave most any boat for them. But I'd leave this boat for most any girl."
We were approaching the mountains, climbing slowly but steadily. We passed through Lone Tree Prairie, where one great pine dominated the country for miles around, and stopped by a small river for luncheon.
Of all the meals that we took in the open, perhaps luncheon was the most delightful. Condensed milk makes marvelous cocoa. We opened tins of things, consulted maps, eased the horses' cinches, rested our own tired bodies for an hour or so. For the going, while much better than we had expected, was still slow. It was rare, indeed, to be able to get the horses out of a walk. And there is no more muscle-racking occupation than riding a walking horse hour after hour through a long day.
By the end of the second day we were well away from even that remote part of civilization from which we had started, and a terrible fact was dawning on us. The cook did not like us!
Now, we all have our small vanities, and mine has always been my success with cooks. I like cooks. As time goes on, I am increasingly dependent on cooks. I never fuss a cook, or ask how many eggs a cake requires, or remark that we must be using the lard on the hardwood floors. I never make any of the small jests on that order, with which most housewives try to reduce the cost of living.
No; I really go out of my way to ignore the left-overs, and not once on this trip had I so much as mentioned dish-towels or anything unpleasant. I had seen my digestion slowly going with a course of delicious but indigestible saddle-bags, which were all we had for bread.
But--I was failing. Bill unpacked and cooked and packed up again and rode on the chuck-wagon. But there was something wrong. Perhaps it was the fall out of the wagon. Perhaps we were too hungry. We were that, I know. Perhaps he looked ahead through the vista of days and saw that formidable equipment of fishing-tackle, and mentally he was counting the fish to clean and cook and clean and cook and clean and--
The center of a camping-trip is the cook. If, in the spring, men's hearts turn to love, in the woods they turn to food. And cooking is a temperamental art. No unhappy cook can make a soufflé. Not, of course, that we had soufflé.
A camp cook should be of a calm and placid disposition. He has the hardest job that I know of. He cooks with inadequate equipment on a tiny stove in the open, where the air blows smoke into his face and cinders into his food. He must cook either on his knees or bending over to within a foot or so of the ground. And he must cook moving, as it were. Worse than that, he must cook not only for the party but for a hungry crowd of guides and packers that sits around in a circle and watches him, and urges him, and gets under his feet, and, if he is unpleasant, takes his food fairly out of the frying-pan under his eyes if he is not on guard. He is the first up in the morning and the last in bed. He has to dry his dishes on anything that comes handy, and then pack all of his grub on an unreliable horse and start off for the next eating-ground.
So, knowing all this, and also that we were about a thousand miles from the nearest employment-office and several days' hard riding from a settlement, we went to Bill with tribute. We praised his specialties. We gave him a college lad, turned guide for the summer, to assist him. We gathered up our own dishes. We inquired for his bruise. But gloom hung over him like a cloud.
And he could cook. Well--
We had made a forced trip that day, and the last five miles were agonizing. In vain we sat sideways on our horses, threw a leg over the pommel, got off, and walked and led them. Bowman Lake, our objective point, seemed to recede.
Very few people have ever seen Bowman Lake. Yet I believe it is one of the most beautiful lakes in this country. It is not large, perhaps only twelve miles long and from a mile to two miles in width. Save for the lower end, it lies entirely surrounded by precipitous and inaccessible peaks--old Rainbow, on whose mist-cap the setting sun paints a true rainbow day after day, Square Peak, Reuter Peak, and Peabody, named with the usual poetic instinct of the Geological Survey. They form a natural wall, round the upper end of the lake, of solid-granite slopes which rise over a mile in height above it. Perpetual snow covers the tops of these mountains, and, melting in innumerable waterfalls, feeds the lake below.
So far as I can discover, we were taking the first boat, with the possible exception of an Indian canoe long ago, to Bowman Lake. Not the first boat, either, for the Geological Survey had nailed a few boards together, and the ruin of this venture was still decaying on the shore.
There was a report that Bowman Lake was full of trout. That was one of the things we had come to find out. It was for Bowman Lake primarily that all the reels and flies and other lure had been arranged. If it was true, then twenty-four square miles of virgin lake were ours to fish from.