Here are two stories from my latest book Arctic to Alpine, Helicopter Skullduggery, Lost Hunter and Midnight Trail Ride that I hope you will enjoy.
This is a story about some of the skills I have seen helicopter pilots use while performing their duties. One of the first ones was at Barrhead when we were thinning the wolf population in the Swan Hills by poisoning. (That’s the subject of another story.) At that time (early 60s) helicopter time was at a premium, but somehow my boss got time for us to fly over the Swan Hills to check for the best places to set wolf baits. I should tell you that was the one and only time we saw the helicopter. After that it was by Skidoo (now called sleds).
We hired a professional trapper to assist us. Our flight commenced from Barrhead, then on to the trapper’s farm near Neerlandia to pick up the trapper. Having had little experience with helicopters at that time, I could not wait to see how it all worked. Taking off is like going up in an elevator mounted on the outside of a building, with the side of the elevator facing out all glass. You ascend smoothly with objects on the ground magically becoming smaller by the moment.
Arriving at the trapper’s farm we landed on the road in front of his house. Before we go any farther, you need to know this was before burying all the wires in and around your farmyard was done. We were hovering just over the road when the pilot turned the helicopter to line up with the driveway, like you would a truck. He then proceeded to fly up the driveway inches off the ground under a number of high voltage electrical wires to the house. The trapper came out, ducked down, approached the open helicopter door and got in. As he was getting his seatbelt buckled, the helicopter began to back up. For a first-timer in a helicopter, this was astounding to say the least. To add to my astonishment, he continued to back down the driveway to the road. I cannot be sure of the distance he backed up, but it was between 30 and 50 yards. Later I was able to ask the pilot about the backing up exercise.
“I would not normally back up that far, but I misjudged the room in the farmyard to turn the machine around when we flew over, and there were too many wires to take off but there was room to back up,” he responded. “Thanks. This is my first time in a helicopter. I don’t think a lot of people know they will back up.”
“You’re probably right, but it is handy. Glad you enjoyed the ride; I have to get back to Edmonton.”
With that we shook hands and he left.
Seeing pictures and news coverage of helicopters lifting drums of fuel, tranquilized bears and other cargo is commonplace. With these items it is easy to know the weight you are expecting to lift. Herein lies the problem: neither the pilot, my partner nor I were able to estimate the weight of the two dead horses that had been reported to us. Fish and Wildlife does not usually have anything to do with horses except to ride them, unless their demise affects wildlife. Their welfare is the responsibility of another department.
A slight aside from the helicopters. It was early spring west of Rocky Mountain House when there used to be a grizzly bear season. These two horses died in prime bear habitat on a trapline whose owner reported their demise to us. Was it an accident or had they been taken to the site and killed for bear bait? Not uncommon. The upcoming bear season was why we were concerned about dead horses. Dead horses are not uncommon, as there are numbers of wild ones, but this location and time were suspicious.
The horses had been dead for some time, so they were frozen through and through. The trapper, upon discovery, looked for signs of cause of death but found none. Other than being dead, they appeared to be in good shape!
These were big horses — not as big as a Clydesdale or Percheron, about halfway between that and a saddle horse. The trapper had guessed 1,200 lbs each. That’s what we had to go on. Another problem was they were frozen to the ground, showing at least they had arrived at the location alive.
“So what do you think? Can you lift one of these the way they are?”
“I don’t know. If the weight guess is close, once we get it loose from the ground I should be able to,” the pilot said.
“Can you try to lift the horse now, so we can see where we have to cut it loose from the ground?” my partner said.
“Sure. Hook the cable around the neck behind the head and we will give it a try.”
That was done, a strain put on the cable and the head and part of the front quarters came out of the snow. One of us went under the hovering helicopter with an axe as the pilot continued to apply tension to the cable. Lucky for us, there was lots of snow that year, so we only had to deal with cutting frozen snow to get the horse loose. With the help of the helicopter we had the horse free from the ground in minutes.
Prior to this exercise getting underway, the pilot had been advised we wanted the horses put in our trucks that were about a mile away. The reason for this was to have them necropsied in Edmonton as to cause of death.
When the pilot saw us both clear of the horse, he pointed towards the trucks. We gave him the thumbs up. The power went to max, and the horse we thought was the smallest began to leave the ground. Power increased. The horse gained altitude, but not much. The pilot tried for more forward momentum. Apparently things were not going right because the next thing we saw was the horse dropping from 20 to 30 feet in the air, ending up almost where it started. I had always wanted to see something dropped from a cable on a helicopter and now it had happened.
The helicopter landed and the pilot shut it down. While walking over to us he said, “It’s not much too heavy, but I have to get over those trees to get to the trucks and it was going to be to close. (Horse people do not read the next part.) I can fly back and get a chainsaw so we can cut them in half; that will be an easy lift.”
“That will take a while,” I said. “If we take turns with the axe we can chop them in half in about the same time it will take you to get a chainsaw, and we won’t be standing around here shivering or building a fire.”
If you are interested in receiving a look of sheer astonishment, try suggesting this to someone. Anyway, the helicopter stayed; we took turns with the axe and got the job done. The horse parts ended up in Edmonton. The results of examination were they had been shot at close range with a small caliber firearm. We did not find those responsible.
The working relationship between helicopter pilots and field staff is very high. There is a prime fishing lake out west of Rocky on the North Fork road called Gap Lake. Ice fishing is very popular because you do not have to fight the muskeg to get to the lake. I understand now some portions of the trail are on high ground, but on this occasion you traveled the muskeg to get to winter fishing. A vehicle approached us coming from the lake; we pulled over and stopped. Our truck immediately got that sinking feeling, letting us know we had pulled over too far. It was early in the season and the only place it was frozen was on the well-traveled portion of the trail. The other truck tried to winch us out but had nothing to anchor to and broke his tow cable. The passenger side of the truck continued to sink until a quarter to half of the under carriage was high-centered. The only answer was for a small caterpillar to rescue us. Our radio was not working well; we needed Forestry to come out with a small cat.
And what to our wondering eyes did appear but a government helicopter. Observant as ever, the pilot saw our stressed-out vehicle and us standing around hoping the person who had originally tried to help us would talk to forestry. The helicopter circled once landed. The pilot got out carrying a bag. We thought that was rather strange. As he approached we recognized him as a pilot who had flown us on patrols.
“This does not look too good. Who is on the way to get you out?”
My partner told the story of how we had gotten into this mess and sent for help.
“OK,” said the pilot. “When I take off, I will radio Forestry and tell them the only thing that will get this truck out is a cat. They have a small one in Rocky that should do the job. Looks like you will be here for a while; you might as well have my lunch/supper and coffee. He gave us the bag he was carrying.
Just leave the thermos at the office.”
It was a kindness truly appreciated. We knew the request for help would get to the right place and we had food. Now we waited. The cat came three hours later and rescued us after making the whole muskeg shake like a bowl full of jelly.
I had occasion to be on a forest fire as a bear control person. To ensure all the fire fighting crews and camps were free of bear interference, we spent a lot of time in helicopters. I expect to an experienced helicopter pilot the following is stressful, but not too.???
When flying in the helicopter we did bear work and Forestry work, as there was always staff from both disciplines on board. For reasons that I do not remember, on a number of occasions the forest officer requested the pilot to essentially park beside the top of the tallest spruce tree in the area so he could tie a colored ribbon on its very top.
This might not sound like much but consider the wind, the officer hanging out the door, and the time it takes to do the job, plus any movement in any direction will stop the tying operation immediately. Of course you realize the tree was on the opposite side of the helicopter from the pilot, partially blocked by the person tying the ribbon. Anyway each time was successful with only one try.
Psychology of the helicopter is not to be underestimated. Given time, as we sometimes were, an opportunity to surprise hunters with the ultimate patrol vehicle should never be overlooked. On one occasion south of High Prairie, in a clearcut down towards the west end of the Swan Hills, just such an occasion arose.
For some time our office had been receiving complaints about illegal activity in that area day and night. Our vehicle patrols had not been able to locate any illegal activity. Lots of activity but all legal. What’s that about? Our first chance this particular fall for a helicopter patrol was at hand. We knew exactly where to go.
On a frosty morning in late September, my partner and I met the helicopter at the High Prairie airport. “Where do you want to go?” For some reason pilots always want to know that. It’s probably better if they do. Pulling out my map with a tentative flight plan, I showed him the northwest corner of the Swan Hills.
“I haven’t flown there before; it should be interesting. Anything in the area I should know about that might give us trouble?”
“Not as far as I know. It has been two years since I flew there in a fixed-wing. Something could have been built since then.”
“OK, let’s go,” were the pilot’s last comments as he headed for his side of the helicopter.
He started up, checked the instruments, and we were off.
I asked him to fly at about 1000 feet so we could have a look at hunting camps and hunter activity on the way. There were lots of hunters out. The problem when you are in the air is, for the most part, you cannot tell if infractions are being committed, unless you are flying an area completely closed to hunting.
Reaching our target area, I asked the pilot to go to 2000 ft and fly in a straight line for 3 miles; then we would move over and fly another line. The height would hopefully keep the hunters thinking we were flying over on our way to somewhere else and pay little attention to us. At that height we could still see activity on the ground well enough to give us an idea what the hunters were doing. On the first pass all we saw were hunters driving cut lines, a few walking. That’s when they still had to wear red while hunting. On second pass we noticed a truck stopping, going a little way, stopping again, with someone periodically getting in and out of the truck. We hung back and watched for a few minutes. The behavior continued. I thought they might have been getting out to look at tracks but I couldn’t tell from where we were.
I activated the radio mike.
“Is there any way we can get down there and surprise those hunters so they don’t see us first?” I asked the pilot.
“From here it looks pretty rolling through that clear-cut they are coming up to. If we stay behind them and have a look at the terrain from a little lower, we can swing around either side of them out of their sight when they are going up a hill and be on the other side when they get there. With luck we’ll be looking in the windshield from 50 to 100 yards when they come over the hill.”
I just looked at him. That’s a Game Warden’s dream. No one gets to move without you seeing them. No trying to unload guns, no hiding booze, no taking rifles in from being out the window ready to shoot, nothing, no nothing.
“Did you hear that?” I said into the speaker, addressing my partner in the back of the helicopter.
“Sure did. I’m ready to go when we hit the ground.”
I looked at the pilot and said, “Whenever you’re ready.”
He went lower, keeping back from our quarry, getting an idea of the terrain. A bank, sharp turn and our plan was in progress. Just skimming the treetops at the side of the clear-cut, we were behind another hill completely out of view from the truck going forward. Another turn took us back in the direction of the road. We swooped over the trees bordering the clear-cut, and there was the road the truck was on starting up the hill. Now we were at ground level heading for the road. Another bank and we were hovering, lined up looking up the hill for the truck. It did not come. We sat for what seemed like five minutes. The pilot looked at me I said, “Go!”
We started forward, gaining altitude slowly, 8 or 10 feet off the ground, rising as the hill rose. Barely underway, the truck appeared at the top of the hill. By now our windshield was even with the hilltop and the truck’s windshield; we were about 30 yards away from the truck. Oh yes, the driver was still gripping the wheel. All you could see through the helicopter and truck windshields were open mouths and saucer-sized eyes.
To land safely the pilot backed off a little, but we could still observe any movement in the truck. There was none. My partner and I got out and went to the truck. The hunters were still sitting there, not saying anything.
“Good morning. Fish and Wildlife. Like to see your licenses please, and we’ll check the guns,” I said.
“Oh yeah, sure,” was the driver’s response, as he recovered from seeing something he hadn’t expected.
“When did you guys start doing this? I never heard of helicopter checks on roads, only in camps. You scared the Hell
out of us.”
By now we had all the hunters out of the truck producing their licenses. My partner was checking the guns in the cab. He found three out of four loaded. Appropriate tickets were written.
The driver of the hunter’s vehicle could not help himself.
“It was almost worth getting the tickets to see that helicopter appear out of nowhere. It was just like in the movies.”
I always wanted to say this, and now was the time.
“Just doing our job spending your tax dollars.”
He quit grinning. I thought maybe it was not such a good idea to say what I said, but it was true.
Try as I might, I never ever got in a position to have a helicopter perform the way that one did. That is the kind of thing that makes your day.
........(more stories to read in my latest book Arctic to Alpine)
top | Back to Stories
A career working in the great outdoors will at some time involve looking for a lost person. I had two experiences, the first one about a year after I started. We were patrolling southeast of Swan Hills early in the morning. Deer and moose season had just started. A vehicle came towards us quite a bit faster than usual down the bush road. We had a line of vehicles stopped checking licenses and what game had been taken. The road was very narrow you had to pull way over to let anyone pass. The developing scenario was causing us concern for everyone’s safety. About three truck-lengths away the vehicle came to a skidding stop, turning sideways on the road.
“One of our hunters did not come back to camp last night. We knew you would not look till daylight for him. I was on my way to the nearest phone. He had breakfast yesterday and took a small lunch. We have not seen or heard of him since. I checked the other hunting camps on the way here, he is not at any of them and no one has seen him. Help us find him.”
By now there were a number of hunters surrounding us listening to the talk.
“OK,” said the boss. “We will help but some organization has to take place first.” As he talked he got a map of the area out of our truck.
“This is the road we are on and now we should be about here. Where is your camp, and which way did he go?”
“I think our camp is about here,” he indicated, pointing at a spot on the map.
“I can not be sure; this is my first time out here. But it’s just a little ways back up the road. Let’s go there.” He indicated his friend had gone north from the camp.
“Just hang on a minute. Are the rest of you available to do a search when I get it organized? It should not take to long. I will go to their camp and be right back.”
To a man they agreed to help.
We got in our truck and followed our somewhat harried hunter to the camp to see where it was and make sure the hunter had not come in the mean time. Upon seeing our uniforms, the camps hunters converged on us, all talking at the same time.
“Wait a minute,” said the boss. “I need one person to tell me which way he said he was going. I already know when he left and how long he has been gone and he had no camping gear and did not plan to stay out overnight.”
One man stepped forward and indicated on the map where the hunter said he was going.
“All we can hope for is he went where he said he would. By the look of access on the map, your camp is on the side of an upside-down triangle formed by cut lines and roads, with him walking into the center of the triangle to hunt. What we need to do is have people walk the sides and bottom — or in this case top — of the triangle, one starting at each of the three corners.
“I will organize you all to walk in a parallel line from one side of the triangle to the other as soon as I get back. I want to start him (pointing at me) walking the base of the triangle now, in case your friend starts to move and gets out of the triangle.”
We walked to our truck. As we walked he said, “Did you bring your pistol?”
“Surely we’re not going to shoot him if we find him?”
“No. Don’t you ever quit? I am going to take you to the base of the triangle. You will walk the base till you get to where it hits the other side. Every three to five minutes while you are walking fire your pistol in the air. If he’s with in hearing distance, he will shoot his rifle if he has any shells left. In this fresh snow, you should easily be able to see if his tracks crossed the line you’re walking. If they do, make a big arrow in the snow pointing which way you went. Got that?”
“Yes.” We had arrived at my starting place.
“Wait, there is more. If you hear him shoot, walk towards the sound yelling his name.
When you hear a response from him make sure you tell him you’re from Fish and Wildlife and you have come to help him. He is going to have his rifle in his hands; we don’t want that. Sometimes people, even though they have only been lost for a day or so, get mixed up. Take your lunch, and when you get close enough to recognize him and he sees your uniform, offer him a sandwich; he is going to be hungry. When he takes the sandwich, offer to hold his rifle so he won’t have to put it in the snow. Let him have a few bites, then tell him we need to get going back to his camp; his friends are worried about him.
“This is important. He’ll probably want to tell you how to get back to his camp. You tell him the only sure way to the camp is to follow your tracks in the snow, point them out to him, because you have just come from the camp. You got that so far?”
“When you’re done I will repeat it back to you to make sure.”
“There’s an idea, so there’s no mistakes. Here’s the rest. Walk him back to where we are now and start walking down the road to the camp. You probably won’t have to walk far because I am going to organize a road patrol to watch for him crossing the road, and with these big oilfield trucks going up and down the road I will ask them to blow their horns. The rest of them will be put in a line, and walk from one side of the triangle to the other yelling his name. One will have a rifle to shoot three shots in a row to signal he has been found so we can stop searching. Now tell me what you heard.”
I repeated a Reader’s Digest version back to him. He was pleased.
“That’s good. If you don’t find him come back here, by the look of the map and hills we know are here, that should take two to three hours. Most important, get his rifle as soon as you can. That close you will be able to have a good look at his eyes; if they have a vacant stare about them he is not as normal as he should be. Be careful; you can never turn your back on him; you can never tell what might happen. When you are walking out, make him go in front of you. Tell him you know he can follow tracks. Do not let him get behind you, ever!”
I opened the truck door and stepped out hearing him say,
“Good luck and be careful. See you later.”
I closed the truck door, put on my pack and started walking. While I was walking I took my pistol out of its holster and put it in my parka pocket for easy access. Down the line I went, thinking about all the stuff he had just told me.
At that time there was no prior training in search and rescue before you went into the field. This whole thing was brand new to me. What he said made sense. Remembering it all would be the trick.
I had 16 shells for my pistol. I would have to be careful how many times I shot. I walked for 5 minutes and shot one shot, stood and waited. No response kept walking. It was slow walking in the foot of snow with an inch or so of fresh snow on top. The up side, it sure was easy to see any fresh tracks. I was just getting ready to shoot again when I heard truck air horns. I waited there was another one. So he had gone back and asked the truckers to blow their horns along that part of the road, so the lost guy would know where the road was if he heard the horns. Sounds like a good idea. I shot, waited listened. No response.
I started walking again. As soon as I stepped into the snow I could not hear the horns anymore for the snow crunching. I carried on. Time to shoot. Shot. Waited. What was that? It sounded like a rifle shot, but I could hardly hear it. If it was a rifle shot, it came from where we thought he might be. I shot one more time. Waited, there it was again, barely audible.
I was sure he wouldn’t be able to hear me but I yelled, “Stay where you are! I am coming to help you!”
With that I was off as fast as I could go towards the sound of the shot for 2 or 3 minutes. Hollered again that I was coming. No response. Fired the pistol in the air again. This time the sound of a shot was nearer and straight-ahead. I went in that direction for a couple of minutes, hollered again, listened. Still no response. I shot again. A response was almost immediate. Heading towards the sound for another 2 or 3 minutes, I hollered again. There was an audible response, barely. I yelled back, “Stay where you are! I am coming to help you!”
I followed the direction of the voice, then stopped again. “Where are you?”
“Over here,” came from a grove of large spruce to my left. Sounded real close.
“Just stay there; I am coming.”
Off towards the voice. I came around the base of some mature spruce and there he was 20 or 30 feet away, looking at me holding his rifle at the ready. “Hi, I am Chuck from Fish and Wildlife. Your friends were worried about you and asked us to come and help them look for you.”
While talking I was taking off my pack and asked him if he was hungry and would like a sandwich. His rifle was lowered and he was within sandwich-grabbing distance in a heartbeat. Extending the sandwich I said, “Let me hold your rifle while you eat, so you don’t have to put it in the snow.”
In the other hand I had my water bottle and extended it to him. Now he would need both hands to hold food and water, making it easier for him to give up his rifle. There was no hesitation. He gave me the rifle; I gave him the water. We stood under the spruce trees while he ate the sandwich and drank some water. It struck me I could not hear the truck horns any more. Must be the thick spruce.
“You feel like starting for camp? You can have another sandwich while we walk.” I was hoping this would get his mind off wanting to carry his rifle, and get us going.
“Sure we can go out the way I came here. I know how to get to camp.” With that he turned and headed in the wrong direction.
“Hold on. Let’s talk about this for a minute.” He stopped I walked up to him.
“I just came here from the road and your camp. If we follow my tracks we will be sure to get to camp and the road. There will probably be a ride waiting for us at the road.”
He was taking way too long to decide what he wanted to do encouragement was required.
“You have lots of bush experience; you can go first following
my tracks that will get us to the road and your friends.”
Thank goodness that persuaded him to start down the tracks I had made, still chewing the second sandwich and carrying the water.
“Are you sure this is the right way to go to camp?” he said, half turning towards me.
“You bet. You’re doing a great job following those tracks; just keep going.”
He kept on. It was not long till we hit the line I came in on. There was only one set of tracks for him to follow. They made a right angle turn towards the road. He followed without a word. A truck horn blared. He stopped.
“That was a truck horn; we must be close to the road.”
“That’s right. We will be there in a few minutes and get a ride to your camp.”
It was not long and we could see the snow plowed up in a bank indicating the edge of the road.
“See the snow bank the road is right there,” I said.
“I see it!” His pace quickened.
Just as we topped the snow bank a half-ton truck came along that was part of the search party. He pulled over and I explained we had located the person we were looking for and needed to take him back to camp. We piled in the truck; it was turned around and we were off to the camp.
There was a wide spot in the road where the search effort and camp were. It was jammed with vehicles. I spotted the boss, so we got out and headed for him. Turning, he saw us coming.
When we got to him he looked at the hunter then at me and said, “How’s he doing?”
“He’s much better now than before. He wants to see his friends; he did not want to worry them.”
As I finished speaking some of his friends arrived, yelling his name and hitting him on the back. He went towards them. Happiness reigned supreme. Search successful, no injuries. A cold night alone in the bush was the main hardship.
Wrapping up the remaining questions, the boss officially turned the lost hunter over to his friends.
In the truck on the way home the boss asked, ”What did you think of that?”
I was pleased to tell him every thing he told me before I got out of the truck turned out to be true. No all the other searchers are not still looking for the lost hunter. I did shoot my pistol three times to indicate the lost was found
The other search was also in the winter during hunting season, resulting in the successful location of the lost hunter.
top | Back to Stories
There will always be a certain air of mystery attached to those who are fortunate enough to ride the high country. A sightseeing tourist, an outfitter and his clients, a government-paid patrol rider or you and your neighbors. Those who weren’t there want to hear the whole story. You will be asked for descriptions of the legendary trails, uncompromised scenery, wildlife seen and what ever else went on.
When you have the opportunity to ride mountain trails on an experienced, trail-wise mountain horse, your experience will be unprecedented. The horse will know if there is anything in the bush within eyesight or smelling distance of the trail. It will alert you by looking, ears alert toward where it perceives some different movement, smell or sound. It is a good idea to watch the horse’s behavior, as they do not miss much near or far.
The experienced ones will know how much room it takes for them to get between trees or rocks with pack boxes or a rider. Height perception is also an attribute not lost on the horse. If you come to an overhanging tree that will let the horse under without contact that is fine. What is finer? If the horse knows everything will not fit under the overhang with you in the saddle, and stops so you do not get knocked out of the saddle while you are admiring the flora and fauna. Now that’s a good horse.
There are fine examples of non-bush-smart horses and their owners along most mountain pack trails. They take the form of smashed pack boxes, and usually some of their contents left by the trail. Trees with bark scraped off at pack box height may be another clue. A good horse in the mountains is like another set of eyes and ears as long as you pay attention to it.
Our horse patrols started at various locations. We always had a saddle horse and one packhorse each when traveling between patrol cabins. The patrol cabins were always stocked with food. Horse feed was supplied as needed. Day rides the packhorses got a rest.
One memorable ride started from Humming Bird Staging area followed the South Ram Trail up stream on the Ram towards Banff Park.
Two saddle horses and two packhorses were saddled, packed and ready to go. It took the rest of the day get to the cabin. On our way we passed where Ranger Creek runs into the Ram and an old trapper’s cabin on the south side of the Ram. There were a number of guide camps where American hunters had gone for the day looking for elk with their guides. No action there. We passed the Head Waters Trail where it takes off for Ranger Creek and the Clearwater River. Continuing on, our hunter checking was nil but we did find lots of camps on the flats on the south side of the Ram just before the new South Ram Forestry Patrol Cabin. This cabin was built to take the place of the historical Headwaters Cabin farther up stream.
Arriving at the cabin late in the day, we unpacked, looked after the horses, ate and settled in for the night. Next morning we were up bright and early, ready for a ride down the Whiterabbit Trail. We could ride straight west of the patrol cabin and hit the Whiterabbit Trail instead of going by the historical cabin, a longer route. Our trail went up a gap between two small mountains, past two small-unnamed lakes, down to the Whiterabbit Trail. The drop down to Whiterabbit Trail was very steep — steep enough we walked the horses. The Whiterabbit Trail was well used mostly by riders who went the regular way instead of the shortcut we had used.
Our main purpose for this patrol was to check on some new guides to this particular area and let them know that we were around and did do horse patrols. We arrived at the Guide camp, situated some distance down the trail towards the North Saskatchewan River, just prior to lunch. The hunters and guides were returning from a sheep-scouting trip on some impressive sheep slopes we had seen south of their camp.
Introductions all around, then we started with the questions. We checked the hunters for licenses even though they weren’t technically hunting at that moment. They were glad to oblige.
“So what did you see?” asked my partner.
“There’s sheep up there but we did not see any big rams. On the ridge to the east of the trail we saw a grizzly bear rooting around.”
“That’s all?” I asked, sure they had seen more.
The other guide chimed in with, “There were some to the west as well but no big rams there either.”
I looked at my partner and we agreed no more was to be accomplished here.
“Nice to have met you all; we will be on our way. Probably be back this way in a couple of days.”
We mounted up and headed back up the trail. After a couple of creek crossings we stopped for lunch with a view of potential sheep slopes.
“So what did you think of that?” my partner said.
“Well it was about the same as most responses. You don’t expect to hear all about what they saw; they don’t know we won’t tell our friends where guides told us there were large rams. I bet you noticed the hunters never said a word except when asked for their licenses.”
“I noticed. Lots of times they are pretty quiet but some are talkative to their own demise,” my partner replied.
“It makes my day when that happens,” I said taking another bite of sandwich. We both laughed.
“Did you see the guide’s face when I asked him which way he got to his camp, across the Saskatchewan or up the Ram?” I said.
“It was a good question, even though he looked surprised. The quickest way is across the Saskatchewan like the other guides used to do, but it looks like these guys do not like the danger of high water and a big river.” My partner was right.
We took the long way back to our cabin via the Historical Ram Patrol Cabin to see if there were any occupants. There was a quad parked in front of the cabin but we could not find any one. Whoever it was must have been out scouting for sheep. We left a card saying we would be back and left for our cabin. We’d be passing there tomorrow anyway and do another check
Next day was going to be a big one. We got as much ready for the next day as we could and called it a day.
Sunrise saw us on the trail that would eventually take us to Indianhead House, a Banff Park patrol cabin. Going through the park was the shortest way to our next destination and the most hunters. We rode to the old Headwaters Patrol Cabin. Someone had been there since we left the card, but was gone again. We continued up the pack trail past some guide camps to the park boundary. One of the guides had a camp about half a mile from where the pack trail goes over a pass into the park. The camp was deserted. Everyone must have been gone hunting.
Over the pass we followed the trail on its ever-downward grade to the Parks Camp on the trail opposite a high pass to Ranger Creek. Sheep pass back and forth from the park to the province regularly through there. From this camp the Park Rangers can see any sheep or hunter activity from their tent. They have caught a few hunters trying to get sheep on their side of the line, making it worthwhile.
An electric fence around the tent and corral to keep the bears out shows parks at least practice what they preach. It would appear the camp itself is a deterrent to poachers. It can easily be seen from where hunter and sheep activity would take place. Probably it is just to let people know there is a presence there.
After our look around we carried on down the trail towards Indian Head House. Much to our surprise, a couple of hundred yards down the trail we discovered a barrel trapped in the bush on the downhill side of the trail. We determined it was a barrel full of oats. A bear had attempted theft and illegal entry. Amazingly it had not been successful. There were claw and tooth marks on the barrel attesting to the ferocity of the attack.
On to Indian Head House. It was a regular house with all the amenities: central heating, running water, an inside bathroom. When it was built, thought was given to stationing a Ranger their full time. As far as I know that did not happen.
It had a set of corrals, tack shed and some other buildings, all set up for horse patrol work. Two Rangers were supposed to meet us there that night. They showed up just as we finished supper. We talked about what we saw on the trail, which for all of us had not been much that day. Without fear of prejudice we continued the evening solving provincial and federal problems. I always wondered how ordinary folks could do that in an evening and the high-priced help never gets it done.
I should mention the parks horses did not like our horses in their corral. Upon arrival we hobbled our horses. When the parks horses showed up there was a bit of a turf war between the two groups. Each group’s dominant horse did most of the kicking and neighing. The hobbles restricted ours severely.
Next morning we set out, one parks person one Fish and Wildlife person. My partner and I rode the Clearwater Trail back to its junction with the Headwaters Trail then north on the Headwaters Trail almost over to Ranger Creek and saw no one. The others on Peters Creek Trail, Condor Creek over to Forbidden Creek Trail found some hunters but no violations. Expensive day for the taxpayers.
All the horses were corralled the same as the day before, this time no hobbles. We were sitting down for supper with a fine view of the corral. Much neighing, snorting and hoof-stamping got our attention. The turf war was on again. Our side was not handicapped by hobbles this time. It appeared to me and the others in attendance that injury to one or both horses was imminent.
Surprisingly there was no rush for the door to go and stop the fight, just lots of watching out the window. The flat land horse, our horse, won no contest. Somehow after the first few kicks the parks horse knew it was out-classed and walked away.
Next day we were off to Forty Mile Cabin with some stops on the way. My partner had seen something he wanted to look at on our way to Forty Mile. We got just out of the park to where the Peters Creek trail goes south towards Forbidden Creek Trail and crosses the Clearwater River. Just past there is a little hill on the trail. Near the top of the hill Mike said.
“We took a little ride down here yesterday and saw some fresh horse tracks on an old trail. I thought we should go look.”
“Good idea. I haven’t been this way before.”
He found the trail. It left our trail and went into the bush. Not a lot of sign of use — who knows where it might lead? Going into some heavy bush and down a slight grade, it came to a creek crossing. To our surprise, where the trail crossed the creek was a barbwire fence with a farm gate. The fence extended on each side of the gate into the bush. There had to be some horses pastured here somewhere, but why fence the bush? The fence was not situated to keep the horses in when they drank. Opening the gate we went through and closed it. Our trail took a turn to the right and shortly we were in a natural pasture, the trail diminishing to almost nothing.
Continuing on, eyes open for anything, we were finally rewarded: there on our right, barely visible through the trees at the edge of the pasture, was the corner of a tent. As we approached the tent you could tell a hunting camp had been set up on the site. Whether it had been set up so it would be hard to find or see is speculative, but that could be the conclusion.
At our leisure we took a look around, admiring the setting: water handy for horses and people, what appeared to be more than ample pasture for a number of horses. Most important, there was a slight rise in the ground where the tent was pitched. The camp was not long deserted.
“I wonder who set this up?” I asked.
“Someone will know, probably the guys at the next camp. I haven’t been in here before,” answered Mike.
“I hope someone at the next camp knows who’s this is.
Where we started off the main trail to come in here, you were first. What did you see for tracks?”
“Not much. There was solid rock on the side of the trail. I noticed marks on the rock from horseshoes. It looked like you could ride around the rock. I wondered why anyone rode over it; thought it was worth a look.”
“I guess we know now why whoever it was rode over the rock: so there would not be an obvious trail off the main trail. That is how I see it,” I said.
“Sounds good to me. We can look on the way out.”
Compounding the use of the gate and fence were picket pins at various places where the horses had obviously been pastured. In our ride around we had not seen the fence come out of the bush along the creek anywhere.
With that we mounted up. Arriving at the gate Mike dismounted to open it. I was looking around to see where and what the fence was supposed to do from a whole new perspective. Following it upstream I saw something I could not identify.
“Mike, take a look up stream on the south side and tell me what that is.” He moved around a little so he could see up the creek.
“Looks like a piece of canvas.”
I urged the horse ahead half a step.
“It’s the corner of the tent. Looks like the front corner.”
Mike had backed up a bit to get a better view. Looking up the creek and moving around a little in the limited space allowed by the bush and trees along the creek, we were able to determine the gate had been strategically placed so dismounting to open it would, depending on weather conditions, create enough noise to alert anyone near or in the tent that someone was coming.
Very interesting. Why? We had had a good look around and not discovered anything that looked out of place, but you never know.
A person who went to all the trouble of riding off the trail at an inconspicuous place put up a fence and gate to make anyone on the trail dismount so he could see them when he was in camp would undoubtedly notice someone had been to the camp in his absence but not who!
On down the trail we went to the first guide camp. It was situated on a south-facing slope, backed into the edge of the trees with a view of the flats. A visit found the cook alone in camp. Hospitality afforded by the guides and outfitter and their staff was always supreme. We chatted about hunters, what success had been attained to this point by them, and how long they would be there.
There was always coffee, fresh buns or bread, sometimes cookies and pie — none of it store-bought. A number of camps had professional chefs. Well-fed clients are happy clients.
We continued on across the flat. There was a wagon trail here, so we could talk as we rode.
“Mike do you remember the time you and I and the Parks Officer went up Peter’s Creek by the park border over to Condor Creek and down Forbidden to Forty Mile Cabin? I think the parks guy went with us to the sheep camps, then back to Indian Head House.”
“Yes I do but I do not remember if it was a parks guy or not,”
“I thought it was. Anyway we were both there. I remember stopping for lunch on a nice sunny knoll, some distance off the trail but so we could still see it.”
“Yeah,” said Mike. “But remember the guy we could not see well enough to recognize came along, and saw us eating lunch and kept on going down the trail to the sheep hunters’ camps we were going to?”
“Yes and we talked about him figuring out who we were and letting everyone know. Remember, he did just that? We got there to check, found the camps, some occupied, some where their hunters were scouting. Seems to me someone told us a young deer had been shot for camp meat but that person had left camp.”
“I remember something about that. We looked all over the place for any sign of the kill. We looked back of the camps in the bush to see if any meat was hanging. Never found a thing. Never located the supposed hunter either, best I can remember,” said Mike.
We passed a couple of empty camps. We always rode into the camps, even if we did not see anyone, just to look around and determine when the latest activity took place. We passed a trail over to the Clearwater where a guy who looked like Yosemite Sam had a camp. Seemed there was trouble with one of the government agencies and some of his buildings were flown out by helicopter.
Our next stop was a camp right on the Clearwater River. The fellow who ran the guiding and outfitting also had a trap line there. He had a really nice trapper’s cabin where his guide camp was but was not allowed to use it in conjunction with his guiding and outfitting operation. That was done out of tents
He was there; most importantly his cooks were there. Guides and hunters had gone for the day. Now it was late afternoon. Potatoes were being peeled; supper would be ready when guides and hunters returned. We were invited to stay for supper, as they often had supper twice: once for the camp crew and again when the hunters and guides returned.
We decided to wait and have supper there. We did not do too badly for ourselves but this was better. Steak, potatoes, vegetables, fresh apple pie accompanied by many tall tales of the legendary past and present.
A guide and some of the hunters showed up. A trophy elk had been shot. They had returned for a packhorse and some help. Our supper finished and offers of help turned down, we said thanks for supper, mounted up and were on our way. It was dark already. We came to the camp at the Rails. Strangely there was no one there. It was usually occupied. As we went down the bank on the Clearwater into the river crossing, Mike, who very seldom asks the horses to do more than walk, was galloping.
This was neat. I had been admiring the full moon and how it changes everything as we rode. Every thing was all black and white. Perspective was lost. He was riding his horse at a gallop on an angle into the river in front of me, and I could see him and both the horses. They were now a black and silver-gray blur riding on a silver river, spraying sheets of water in the air as they galloped for the far bank. It looked way too neat; I had to do it.
We trotted on to the cabin. The horses were watered, fed and corralled. Forty Mile Cabin one more time. We lit the stove and lantern and got ready for bed. The light was not out long and the rays of the full moon were streaming in the two windows. I listened to my cigarette box-sized radio for a while. American late night talk shows; not good.
Looking at the moon shining in reminded me of another night we were there. There were only two bunks and there were three of us. Bunk rights usually go to the person who arrives first for choice, and retention if anyone else shows up and wants to stay the night.
Our cabin partner for that night was a Forestry Patrol Officer whose summer duty was ensuring a lot of things, one being seen, flying the company flag. Make no mistake, he wrote tickets when the circumstances warranted it. He insisted we take the bunks. He had an air mattress and would sleep on the floor. We tried to convince him otherwise. He would have none of it.
It was not a bright moonlit night when we quit talking and went to bed you could see the stars very well. At 3 a.m. or so I was listening to my radio, enjoying watching the stars. Off to my left there was a thump followed by mumbled threats. The starlight from the window I had been looking out disappeared. It was our host causing the commotion. He appeared to be in a life-and-death struggle with his sleeping bag. It ended as quickly as it started. He lay back down never uttering a word.
“What the hell was that about?” I asked.
“Mouse ran over my face.”
That was it; no more comments from him then or later.
Next morning we were saddling up when a wagon showed up. Yes, a real covered wagon. They look a lot like the ones you see in the western movies, usually pulled by a two- or four-horse team, maybe mules. A lot of the guides and outfitters use them to haul in their clients and equipment. Folks who just want to spend their holidays doing some trail riding use them as headquarters and take day rides. Usually there will be a tent or two set up for private sleeping accommodation. This was a popular spot, within walking distance of the Forestry outhouse. You may think that is a joke. Not true — I have been at that cabin and watched people on more than one occasion get out of their wagon, paper in hand (not the morning news) and use the facilities. One thing about it, they always looked satisfied when they left. Newspapers don’t always do that.
We thanked our host for the use of the beds and left. Going over and talking to the people in the wagon we discovered they were trail riders, there for a week. Guess what? They asked about using the outhouse. Any time was the answer, just don’t slam the door.
On our ride to the truck and trailer that had been moved to the Cutoff Creek Staging area we had some more time to talk about other trips.
Near the headwaters of the South Ram River there are some interesting Mountain Sheep hunting places that were very popular. Regular patrols to the area ensured, as far as we could tell, violations were kept to a minimum. On one of those regular patrols flying the flag we found ourselves in an interesting position.
Having been on the trail for a while, we stopped for a snack just on the edge of the trees so we would be difficult to see but we could see a number of popular hunting places. As we glassed, my partner noticed a pack train coming out of a little valley above the tree line. With the horses tied back in the trees and us in shadow, we stayed where we were sure we would not be seen. No sheep heads could be seen tied on the pack horses.
At a couple of miles away we could not see everything, but we got an idea what they had. In order to back up our observations we needed to stop these hunters and check them
— make their licenses worth buying.
To make this happen, some planning had to take place. A decision was made to leave the horses, even though there was a chance they might whinny and give us away. The wind was right and they would not be able to see the other horses. Next time the hunters went behind a rise we moved to our chosen position.
We were on a down slope on the south side of the trail, with large pine trees and some brushy ground cover. One of these bushes was exactly where we needed it for both of us to get behind. Considering the terrain and how far away they were, we knew it would be a while before they got to us.
“We have to make sure the lead horse sees us before we get out of cover,” my partner said.
“You bet. I’m ready.”
We got into position so the horse coming around the tree would see us before the rider did. Love those long necks. Waiting, we watched and listened. Peering through the leaves we could see the lead horse. Now it was very close. It got to the chosen tree and immediately started looking at us, but never missed a beat, just looked. Time to move.
We both stood up less than 10 feet from the horse.
“Good afternoon. Fish and Wildlife. How was hunting?” asked Mike.
“Whoa,” the lead rider yanked back on the reins, causing the horse to rear up.
“What are you doing? I didn’t even see you!”
“We are waiting for the hunters to come off the mountain so we can check them. You are the first.”
Turned out these folks were all in order as far as we were concerned. They’d been out for a week and not seen any sheep that were satisfactory. Home was there destination.
Anyone who has been on a wilderness horseback ride will understand there is no greater opportunity to remember other previous similar experiences.
Continuing the ride back to the truck, part of another horse patrol came to mind. We were coming down the Forbidden Creek Trail towards Forty Mile, on the flats nearing the cabin in some real heavy willow. For some reason we stopped. Just when we were ready to get going we heard what sounded like a horseshoe on a rock. Looking at each other, somehow we knew the drill: sitting and waiting, no moving, no talking.
Whoever or whatever it was could not get by us in the tangle of willows. A corner in the trail about 2 horse-lengths ahead assured surprise. We sat for what seemed like a long time. Not another sound did we hear.
Then something brown and gray came towards us at a fast trot, sniffing. A dog materialized, took one look at our horses and us and kept right on going. We looked at each other, knowing dogs do not make the kind of noise we had heard, so we sat.
Wind direction changed. There it was: the unmistakable sound of horse’s hooves on rock and gravel mixed with the indistinguishable sound of human voices.
When the lead rider came around the corner, for some reason he was looking back. He turned to look up the trail when his horse stopped. His look of surprise could not be topped. His first early warning system, the dog, had failed him by not barking when strangers were on the trail. His saddle horse, which undoubtedly knew other people and horses were close at hand, had not whinnied.
The direction he was coming from indicated he was going to his camp but a check would take place anyway. In the tight confines of the willow everything was found to be in order. Turned out this trip was to take in the remainder of his sheep-hunting camp.
While we checked him and his partner and their horses, I was close enough to them to hear the lead rider say, in a highly irritated tone, “What the hell is wrong with that dog of yours?
You told me he would raise cane if there was anyone else on the trail. You know these guys are going to tell everyone how they surprised us. There is nothing worse to get around about you than having the Game Wardens surprise you.”
In his defense the other rider countered with,
“You were the one who rode your horse nose-to-nose with theirs before you saw them. Your horse stopped before you knew they were there. Not only that, you were looking back when the horse stopped. Leave my dog out of this.”
Our parting comments were the usual polite talk with a bit of added information that might work to encourage honesty or heighten stealth.
“We’ll be here for about a month, probably get by your sheep camp again pretty soon.”
Considering horse patrols at that time were most uncommon and their duration unknown, consternation and confusion were our aim. I thought we did well. My partner later informed me our latest subject was high on the illegal activity list but had as yet not been caught.
Finally we got to the truck. Gear loaded, horses loaded, we were on the way home.
“I was trying to remember some of the interesting things that happened on other horse patrols,” I said to Mike.
“What about the pack rat?”
“Help me with that.”
“I can’t believe you don’t remember that. This is what I remember. For a couple of nights a pack rat had been coming in waking us up. Traps were set but did not work. Somehow they got sprung or did not work properly. Three a.m. and there it was, fat and sassy, squatted on top of the stove eating crackers. I had no idea they were that noisy — the crackers not the pack rat.”
“OK, OK. I remembered when you got to the part about the traps not working. Don’t stop; let’s hear your version,” I said.
Looking a little miffed, Mike continued.
“Plug your ears; I am going to put a stop to this right now. You know the rest.”
“Yeah, even with my ears plugged the reverberation from the shot shook the bunk and vibrated my bones. Up-side: no more cracker-crunching noises.”
“That sounds about right. How long did it take for your ears to stop ringing?”
“What did you say? I can’t hear so good.”
Would you believe it? He even cupped his hand over his ear.
“Yeah! Yeah! I know you can hear just fine. There’s a rumor going around you can hear a fly fart at half a mile.”
He just looked at me and grinned and said, “Were you with me when we saw the wolves on the gravel bar?”
“No I don’t think so. I have seen wolves here but not when you and I were together. Let’s hear about it.”
“We were coming from South Ram Cabin down the Ram. It was a really bad day. We were wearing all the clothes we had. Starting off there was 6 or 8 inches of snow, and it just kept coming. You couldn’t see 2 horse-lengths ahead. You know where you come down from the old cabin and ride in the river?”
“Yeah I know where that is.”
“Well not long after you get into the river, there are some little gravel islands the trail goes across. I was squinting to see through the snow without much luck, letting the horse pick its way. I could see across a little open water where the trail goes on to another gravel island. On this island eight or ten mounds of snow were spread around about the size of a big washtub. I
didn’t think much about it; must be driftwood or something. The horses just kept following the trail that went between the snow mounds.
We’d passed about half of them some on each side when one in front and to the side rose up and shook. It was a full-grown wolf. All the snow mounds got up in turn and turned into wolves, duly shaking themselves, stretching and yawning. While they were shaking and stretching they looked at us with little concern. No people or horses were moving. Upon completing their inspection the wolves headed off across the island into the river, crossing it, climbing the bank and disappearing into the spruce.”
“That’s real neat. The horses must have known what they were before they got up.”
“We’ll never know. I was waiting for a rodeo to start after the first one stood up but it did not happen, so you’re probably right.”
“It’s nice people sit at home and read books, but someone has to go out and do stuff you can write about,” I said.
We were talked out.
top | Back to Stories