The Old North Trail, by Walter McClintock, , at sacred-texts.com
The St. Mary's Lakes.—Magnificent mountain scenery.—My mountain camp—Home of the mountain sheep and goat.—Stalking a herd of five goats.—An exciting climb.—One goat killed.—Pursuit of a wounded goat.—Laborious task of skinning a goat on a dangerous ledge.—A mountain storm.—The back trail.—Ideal camp on the prairie.—Return to Mad Wolf's winter home on Cutbank River.
EARLY on a clear October morning, when the air was peculiarly exhilarating, I threw the "diamond hitch" upon my pack, taking care that the ropes were taut throughout, and headed north-west for the St. Mary's Lakes. The ride across the plains seemed short, for my saddle horse was in fine condition, after his long rest, and Baldy, my pack horse, followed readily.
From the crest of St. Mary's Ridge (the divide running east and west), I saw a beautiful lake country spread out before me, and, towards the west, the magnificent snowy peaks "Almost-a-Dog," "Citadel," "Four Bears," "Little Chief," "Red Eagle," and "Going-to-the-Sun"; while a host of other peaks continued the imposing procession, until they lost themselves in the blue sky of both northern and southern horizons.
Amid such magnificent surroundings, mounted upon my own saddle horse, and followed by Baldy carrying all my possessions, I experienced a delightful feeling
of independence and exhilaration, which only those who have had a similar experience can fully appreciate. Having crossed the ridge, I rode through rich
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MY ROCKY MOUNTAIN OUTFIT.
meadows of long bunch grass along the shore of upper St. Mary's Lake. After climbing well up on the side of "Goat Mountain," where the trail became rough and dangerous, I approached the towering and inaccessible
peak of Going-to-the-Sun. It is so called because of the large glacier that lies just under its summit. In winter, it is an unbroken expanse of ice and snow, but, under the melting of the midsummer sun, it takes the outline of a turbaned head, facing the south-west. It is more correctly named by the Indians, "Looking-towards-the-setting-Sun." After sunset I came to Baring's Creek in the dense forest, a large swift stream roaring and plunging down towards the lake. Following the stream, I climbed rapidly upwards, passing many beautiful falls. Near nightfall, I passed from the forest into a large basin. It was surrounded by lofty and jagged peaks, which looked dark and gloomy in the fading twilight. My lodge was pitched at the edge of the forest, on the grassy shore of a beautiful lake, whose waters, fed by the surrounding glaciers, were clear as crystal and cold as ice. The falls of Baring's Creek, not far distant, sent forth a constant roar. Soon the moon rose over the summit of Red Eagle, transforming the scene into one of enchanting and fairy-like beauty. In the clear atmosphere of the high altitude the moonlight was intensely bright, flooding the basin with its silvery light, illuminating the glaciers and snowfields, the peaks and pinnacles, towering above the camp, and making visible the contrasting darkness of the gorge beneath.
Upon waking the next morning, and while still under my blankets, I looked across the gorge and up at the high ledges of Going-to-the-Sun, fully expecting to see a goat, or a mountain sheep gazing down at my camp. The clouds were lifting along the mountains, and the morning mists were fast dissolving before the warm rays of the sun. After breakfast, I saddled Baldy, my sure-footed pack horse, and, with my rifle,
started up the basin, watching carefully through my glasses for goats and sheep on the rock shelves, high on the side of Going-to-the-Sun.
At the head of the basin the climbing became so rough and difficult, that I picketed my horse in a convenient place and continued afoot. Many beautiful flowers were blooming by the side of snow-drifts, and I passed through patches of huckleberries of very large size and delicious flavour. At noon I stopped for lunch beside a noisy little stream flowing from beneath a large snow-drift. The day was warm and bright, and the view from my lofty position magnificent. To the north rose the twin peaks of Mt. Siyeh (Mad Wolf), also Mt. Allen and Mt. Grinnell. After the long and fatiguing climb it was a luxury to lie in the warm sun. Several times I was startled by large masses of ice, crashing over precipices with a thundering roar, having been detached by the sun's rays from the glacier high above me.
From behind a clump of gnarled and twisted pines, I looked carefully through my glasses for fresh tracks of sheep and goats in the snow, and examined their well-worn trails on the mountain opposite. The width and depth of many of these trails indicate the large numbers of game formerly inhabiting these mountains. The constant tread of their hoofs through many ages has worn deep paths in the solid granite. As long as the buffalo and antelope were in vast numbers upon the plains and easy of capture, supplying almost all the wants of the Indians, mountain sheep and goats were hunted but little, and their numbers were limited only by the food supply.
In the Northern Rockies, the mountain goat is to be found only among the most inaccessible peaks.
[paragraph continues] Ordinarily he must be approached from beneath. He is generally found either standing on the edge of a high precipice, or lying upon one of the narrow shelves, or ledges, so numerous among the higher summits. From his lofty perch, he commands a view of the mountain side beneath him, and, if he detects the hunter's pursuit, quickly disappears from sight, or reach. While the "big horn," or mountain sheep, is more keen of scent and sight, the almost inaccessible haunts of the goat make his hunting more difficult and dangerous, and account for the value of his head as a hunter's trophy.
It was now growing so late in the afternoon, that I was fast losing hope of seeing any game that day. After a final examination through my glasses of the side of Goat Mountain, I turned them upon the mountain at the end of the basin. Far up on its slope there was a herd of five goats with fur as white as snow. Had it not been for their jet black horns it would have been impossible to distinguish them from the snow-bank across which they were rapidly moving. Having crossed the summit at the head of the basin, they were headed for a grassy knoll high up on the side of Going-to-the-Sun, and there was a chance that they might delay to feed. My only hope of getting within rifle-shot was to reach the knoll first and to lie in ambush. I waited until they were hidden from view by an intervening shoulder of the mountain. Crawling from my ambush, I climbed with all my strength. The goats were travelling rapidly, and, if I had correctly estimated their course, it would take them but a short time to reach the knoll. Although speed was necessary, I had to take into account that, if I lost my wind, and had to shoot in an exhausted condition, there would be small chance
of hitting them. When I reached the knoll, I hid behind a thick patch of grass. Before I had time to get my rifle in position, the head of a goat appeared above the edge of the slope. He took a bite of grass and then stepped into full view. I carefully raised my rifle and cocked it, but the click attracted his attention. He stopped and gazed suspiciously towards me. I lay perfectly still, which apparently satisfied him, for he lowered his head and continued feeding. Then I fired, hitting him directly behind the shoulder, and gave another shot to a large billy which was following, seriously wounding him.
By this time, the first goat had struggled to a snowdrift, where I killed him. In the meantime the wounded billy and a nanny, with her two kids, had disappeared. It did not seem possible that the billy could go far. I started in pursuit, climbing with difficulty through the deep snow. I came upon the nanny with her two kids standing within short range at the edge of a precipice. The kids were beautiful little animals, and though large enough to care for themselves, I had not the heart to shoot them or their mother. I left them to hunt for the tracks of the large billy. While I was following his trail, he started for a precipitous part of the mountain, where I feared I might lose him, for wounded goats frequently go off to die in such inaccessible places, that it is impossible to reach them. He ran along a series of shelves made by the out-croppings of the horizontal rock strata. As he jumped from one to another of these I got another shot. This last bullet slackened his pace, but, with vitality equal to that of a grizzly bear, he still crawled on. The climbing became difficult and dangerous. The goat jumped to a lower shelf, and seeing that if he went farther, he would escape, I
leaned over and fired. Fortunately he sank in his tracks, although I fully expected to see him roll from the narrow ledge. Returning to the snow-drift where the first goat had fallen, I quickly skinned him and un-jointed his head. Turning next to the task of passing along the ledges to reach the second goat, I found that, what had been done before with comparative ease, and without any feeling of danger, because of the excitement of the chase, now tested to the utmost my strength and self-control. Carefully refraining from looking at the heights above, or the rocks far below, I dropped safely to the lower shelf, which was scarcely wide enough to hold the body of the goat. The natural smell of a goat is offensive, but with the hide partly off it was extremely so. However, there was no escape. Behind was a wall of rock sloping outward, so that I could not stand erect; in front yawned the precipice, over which I dared not look. While skinning in such narrow quarters, it was a difficult problem to turn the carcass of the goat over, for it was very heavy, weighing as much as a large sheep. When I had unjointed the head and finished my work, I crawled to the end of the shelf farthest from the carcass, and sat down to recuperate. While absorbed in the excitement of the hunt, I had not noticed the signs of an approaching snowstorm, which would make my descent difficult and even hazardous. The clouds were lowering upon the mountains, and on some of the peaks the storm had already begun.
There still remained the dangerous and laborious task of removing the head and hide away from the ledge. Fortunately I carried my lariat. Wrapping the head inside the hide, I lashed them with the rope, and throwing the end of it to the shelf above, climbed up, pulling the bundle after me. A projecting rock blockaded the
way at a point, where the ledge was narrow and the slope steep. While endeavouring to shove the pack across, it began to slide. Fearing that, in such a dangerous place, I might be drawn over the precipice, I let the rope go. The pack rolled from the ledge and fell upon the rocks far below. It seemed as if all my labour had been in vain for, even if I were able to reach the pack, I feared that the head had been ruined by the fall. But, after discovering a way of approach from below, I was delighted to find the head had been saved from serious injury by the thick fur of the pelt. Returning to my first goat I made a new pack of both heads and pelts which, with my rifle, was a heavy load for the return trip. When I reached Baldy, picketed far down the mountain-side, I was very tired. Gathering together sufficient material for making a small fire, I toasted some dry bread and bacon. With an appetite sharpened by hard climbing at a high altitude, they seemed the most delicious morsels I had ever eaten. When I reached camp at dusk the timbered mountain slopes were white with snow and the surrounding peaks hidden from view.
In the morning when I opened my lodge door, I looked out upon a dazzling scene. Over the peak of Red Eagle the sun was shining in a clear sky. Meadow, forest and mountains were covered with a white mantle of snow. It hung heavily upon the balsams and pines and many icicles flashed like diamonds in the sunlight. The deep blue sky and clear images of the high peaks were mirrored in the quiet lake beneath. As if this lovely lake-picture had not enough of beauty, the snowstorm of the night had added a framing of white the brown trunks and dark foliage of the firs and pines serving to soften its dazzling whiteness.
I was delayed in breaking camp by the pranks of my mischievous pack horse Baldy. In roping him, he put his front feet through the noose of the lariat, which then became fastened around his belly instead of his neck. He ran around the camp bucking and kicking until, becoming thoroughly frightened, he galloped away and I had great difficulty in catching him.
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MY MOUNTAIN CAMP AFTER THE SNOWSTORM.
The sun was high when the horses were at last saddled and all my belongings were finally packed upon their backs. As I descended, the snow rapidly disappeared and in the lower canyons it had vanished entirely. I travelled rapidly, for the horses were headed towards home and were eager for a better grazing range. While leading Baldy, my pack horse, across a dangerous piece of trail, where the way was
narrow, and its side sloped downward towards the edge of a precipice, overhanging the stream, his pack overbalanced and he staggered. For an instant, it seemed as if he must tumble into the river far below. Throwing my whole weight upon the neck rope, I held him fast, until he recovered himself, and in a few moments we were again upon safe ground. My camp for the night was made on the prairie beyond the eastern shore of Lower St. Mary's Lake.
In the evening I stood on the summit of a high ridge to take a last view of the wonderful mountain scenery, unsurpassed by any along the entire Rocky Mountain chain. As the sinking sun slowly disappeared behind the summit of Red Eagle, the forests of pine on the mountain slopes changed from dark green to black, and the heavy cloud masses projected their long shadows upon the prairies and foothills still bathed in sunlight. Far to the east over the plains were the hazy and rounded outlines of the Sweet Pine Hills. The broad prairie surrounding me, with its flowers and long waving grass, bright in the evening sunlight, had never seemed more beautiful, for its openness and brightness were in strong contrast with the deep canyons and gloomy forests from which I had just returned. The all-pervading stillness was occasionally broken by the distant roar of the rapids of St. Mary's River, borne upwards on the light south wind, and by the howling of a pack of prairie wolves. The heavy clouds behind the mountains were lighted up with a glorious colouring that slowly deepened into red until even the clouds overhead glowed like a sea of fire. In the darkening twilight Venus appeared high in the golden after-glow of the western sky. She seemed like a radiant spirit of the heavenly world, gazing down upon the snowy
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SUNSET ON THE PRAIRIES (ROCKIES IN THE DISTANCE).
“The broad prairie, with its flowers and long waving grass, had never seemed more beautiful.”
mountains, an unfailing source of inspiration for the many legends which the Indian imagination has woven about the personality of the "Evening Star."
The following day I crossed the brown plains and rode down into the Cutbank Valley, in search of Mad Wolf's camp. Fording the swift river, I followed a beaten trail, leading up the valley towards his winter home. Ice was beginning to form along the edges of the running stream, and the air was fragrant with the odour of fallen leaves. Towards the west the perennial green of the forests of pine and fir on the foothills stood out clearly in the strong sunlight, while towards the north the table-like summit of the Milk River Ridge formed an unbroken and level line against the horizon. The way led through meadows of long bunch grass and groves of stately cottonwoods. Their foliage, now fast turning to yellow, was in striking contrast with the brilliant scarlet of the sarvis berry and wild rose. Many leaves had already fallen, exposing the silver-grey of the cottonwood trunks, and revealing the delicate purple of the alder bushes and the bright red branches of the thickets of willows. Beneath the large cottonwood tree, marking from afar the home of Mad Wolf, I recognised his large lodge covered with picture paintings. It was after sunset and Mad Wolf was about to close a ceremonial, which he had been conducting on behalf of a mother, who had made a vow to the Beaver Medicine for the recovery of her sick child.