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After Wapiti in Wyoming by F. C. Crocker


I went into camp, one night in September, on one of the many branches of the upper Snake River, in northwestern Wyoming. It was after a most severe and perplexing day's pack,—one of those days in which "things" go wrong. The packs turned, the cinches refused to hold, and the fresh little Indian pony—for which we had traded a sore-backed packhorse, one cup of sugar, and a half-dozen cartridges, three days previous, with some Bannack Indians who came to my camp-fire on the Snake River—fancied she could put everybody in good temper by having a bucking fit. She had managed to settle one side of her pack on a sharp stub when she came down from a flight, and to punch a fair-sized hole in the canvas cover, which immediately began to flow granulated sugar; but by good luck we managed to catch her lariat and rearrange her pack, minus about one half our supply of sweets. The day was finished with eight horses thoroughly tired, and three men in a condition which admitted of only the fewest words with the longest possible intervals between. Gloom overhung the outfit.

These feelings disappeared as soon as we had finished our supper, and we had just lighted our pipes when, close by our camp-fire, we heard clearly the call of a bull elk. Up to that time I had not had a shot at this, the grandest of all the deer family, and I was quickly on my feet, rifle in hand. Wading the brook, I stalked as hurriedly as I dared toward an opening some forty rods beyond. It was just the last glimmer of daylight, and I made time until I came to the bank, over which I could look into the open park where I felt the royal beast was. What a picture greeted my gaze! The park was perhaps four hundred yards across, and nearly oval in shape, and from the opposite side ran out, nearly to the middle, a plateau some thirty feet in height. On the point of this, standing as immovable as one of Barye's bronzes, was a bull elk with antlers that would please the most fastidious sportsman in the world. In a moment he elevated his head and gave a call ending with those liquid flute-notes that make the blood run quickly in the most phlegmatic hunter's veins. A quick glance showed me that I could not approach him any nearer, and putting up my sight, as I thought, high enough, I pressed the trigger, and saw the bullet strike just under his belly. He whirled and made for cover, and out of pure desperation I gave him another shot, without result. In a shorter time than I have spent in telling this, the twilight had entirely disappeared, and I wended my way back to camp with only the memory of what I had seen to repay me for the wetting which my hurried crossing of the brook had given me.

For three days we had climbed mountains, wallowed through mud-holes, and tobogganed down clay banks, hunting for elk which the Indians had frightened away from the Snake River by their noisy mode of hunting. There were four lodges of Bannacks, and they had some eighty horses of various kinds and colors. They said they had spent six weeks there jerking elk-meat for their winter's food. The country which we crossed during these three days was completely checkered with elk trails, mud-wallows, slivered trees, and many other evidences that large bands of elk had occupied the country for months; and my packer insisted that we would surely find them if we continued hunting in the rough mountains which lay to the east.

Early the next day, while at the brook making my morning toilet, I heard Stewart say to the cook that the horses had gone out of the country; and after two minutes of very vehement remarks, he informed me that five horses had taken the back trail, and that Worth must go with him to head them off. So, each taking a horse, they rode away, leaving me to keep camp with only old Scoop Shovel, a split-eared packhorse, for company.

Always having loved nature, I concluded that a little prospecting on my own hook would be preferable to lounging about camp waiting for the return of the men and horses; so, saddling old Scoop Shovel, I forded the brook and, crossing the scene of my bad shooting the previous evening, climbed a small range of hills. On the opposite side I found a good-sized stream, which I thought was the main Coulter Creek. Following it up some two miles, I suddenly heard a bull elk call, and fastening my horse, I crept toward the sound. Coming out of some thick woods, I saw across the stream a band of seven elk and three or four calves. They were feeding away from me, and I decided that if I crossed the stream and reached the top of a little hill before they could walk out of the woods and get into the middle of an open park, some half-mile across, I might be able to get a shot. The stream was quite rapid and fairly deep, and while I did not care for wet feet, I hoped to escape a wet jacket. However, as I stepped boldly in, the current whirled me off my feet, and the water opened its gates and let me find a resting-place on the slippery, smooth stones of its bottom.

On gaining the opposite bank, I broke into a run for my game. I have always been a fair sprinter, but before I had reached the hill, fifty or sixty rods away, I was completely pumped, and had to stop. Fortunately I was running toward game, rather than being chased by a grizzly, for I had shot my bolt. The high altitude had put me out of the race. However, a rest for a few minutes got me in order, and slowly climbing the hill, I looked over and saw that the band, a hundred yards away, had stopped feeding, and with elevated heads were trying to catch the scent of possible danger. I decided to chance a shot, and with lungs well filled covered the bull. At the report, I heard the shot strike, and with three leaps he came to his knees, but only quickly to regain his feet and trot away. I started on the run toward him, and he having then reached the brook, leaped for the opposite bank. Firing while he was in the air, I saw him fall on his head on landing, and hurried up just as he was having his last struggle. My first shot had been too far back; the second went in at the flank, ranging forward and breaking his shoulder.

His harem were somewhat dazed, and did not evince much fear, but stood crowded together looking at me. I shouted at them, and as that did not frighten them away, waved my hat and walked toward the band; they only trotted a few yards and halted, facing me. I then fired a shot over their heads, and running at full speed toward them, they broke into a trot, crossed a small piece of thin timber, slowed down to a walk, crossed the open park, and, occasionally stopping to look back, finally disappeared up the mountain-side. The bull was a magnificent specimen, with a head royal, twelve good points, and remarkably even and symmetrical. I killed other bulls with more points, but none which was in all respects so perfect as this.

The next night I camped within two hundred yards of this elk, and was awakened by hearing some large animal feeding on his carcass; but the night was dark, and as I was without any light but firebrands, I did not make the attempt to see if it was a grizzly—which the next day proved it to have been. I asked my packer if he wanted to go and interview the visitor; he said he had not lost any grizzlies, and we concluded that our blankets were more comfortable than the unknown quantity of a grizzly in the dark.

The next day, on Piñon Mountain, hearing several bulls call from the same place, I stalked the band and counted thirty-odd head, with five bulls in sight, all within eighty yards. With my glass I counted the points on each head, and selecting the finest, fired but one shot, and the bull did not go more than twenty feet before falling. I think, with my repeating-rifle, I could have killed three or four more, but I refrained from doing so; in fact, I did not kill a cow during the trip. The band did not go far; for, while skinning out this head, I could hear the bulls call within a few hundred yards down the mountain-side. I spent two days in the little park at the foot of Piñon Mountain, and saw and heard a great many elk, in bands of three to thirty, but refrained from shooting. Bear signs were fairly abundant; but I did not see a single live bear then. Later, I saw a fine one inside the Yellowstone Park line; and as I had promised Captain Harris I would not shoot inside the park, I told the bear to move on, which he did at a particularly slow pace. This was a black bear; possibly a grizzly would have been more neighborly.

I enjoyed one triumph over my men, who, with the usual freedom of Westerners, had dubbed me "Pilgrim"—Stewart, in particular, fancied a man from the East could not teach him anything regarding sport. One Sunday morning he said he would go out and catch a string of trout, that we might have a change of diet. He spent an hour and a half at the brook, and returned with one small Rocky Mountain trout, about four inches in length, saying there were plenty of trout, but they were so wild he could not catch them. I had noticed, on crossing the brook, that the fish would run for a hiding-place, being easily frightened; so, after he had exhausted all his art, I said I would try them. With a fish-pole, a brown hackle, and a bit of elk-meat on the point of the hook, I crawled through the grass, and without showing myself, snapped my fly on to the water, felt a pull, and whisked out a trout. I continued my practice until I had all I wanted, and returned to camp, remarking to the cook as I threw them down:

"Stewart don't know anything about fishing; he ought to take some lessons. There are plenty of trout in the brook only waiting to be caught"; which piqued Stewart so much that he sulked for the balance of the day, highly displeased at being beaten by a tenderfoot at the simple game of fishing.

Northwestern Wyoming is a magnificent country, and the weather equals the country. On our trip we had but two hours' rain; at night the thermometer went below freezing, but during the middle of the day it ran as high as seventy. One of the curious facts is that the elk trails could not be better located by human mind or hand to overcome the difficulties of the broken country, and they are used almost entirely by hunters and pack-trains in passing from one point to another. The elk has an eye to the beautiful as well, for I often found well-beaten lookouts on the extreme edge of precipices, showing that they enjoy resting at these points to view the beautiful scenery. It was a veritable paradise for big game, and there must have been hundreds of elk within a few miles of my camp. There was some sign of moose, and the Bannack Indians told me that they had killed one with "heap big horns."

Much against my wishes we decided to break camp and move north, when from the Piñon Mountain we could see the higher peaks north of us covered with snow; for we feared that we might be caught by a heavy snowfall, and have trouble in getting out. My intention was to have gone south to Buffalo Fork, looking for bear, but this I was obliged to postpone to some future date; so we bade good-by to the charming little park where we were camped, and journeyed north, lowering our altitude many hundred feet as we dropped down on the head waters of the next creek. Its valley and the surrounding mountains were as well supplied with elk as the country from which we had just come. I saw bear signs quite frequently, and many of them fresh, but did not spend much time looking for the animal, as I found the usual and most successful way was to bait with an elk carcass and watch through the day, hoping that a bear would scent the bait and come to feed on the flesh. This is slow business, and I preferred more activity. One night I distinctly heard the cry of a mountain-lion, or panther, several times.

Going up Snake River, I passed within the boundaries of the park, and camped one night close by a little pond just under Mount Sheridan, some two miles south of Heart Lake. As I was eating my supper, half an hour before sunset, a fine band of elk came out on the mossy shores of the pond and frisked and played for some time. The old bull would hook and prod the cows, and occasionally call, getting answers from nearly every point of the compass. The next day we skirted Heart Lake on the westerly side as far as the inlet, then through and over the curious hot-spring formation for a couple of miles.

Heart Lake is a charming sheet of water, nestling as it does among these heavily timbered mountains, and it is said to have an abundance of fine trout. While riding along the shore I often saw a good-sized fish shoot from the shallow out into deep water. There were a great many ducks and geese in and about the inlet, and one flock of geese offered a most tempting shot. My pack from Heart Lake to the Hot Springs on the shores of Yellowstone Lake was very tedious, as we found no drinking-water on the trail. The day was warm, and I looked forward to my arrival at Yellowstone Lake with anticipated pleasure in the drink of spring water which I was to have that night; but on arriving I found the spring dried up and nothing but lake water to drink. That was warm, with a sulphurous flavor, owing to the hot springs close by the shore and under the water as well, besides holding many wigglers. I strained a bottleful of water through some linen and hung it on the limb of a tree, waiting for it to cool, and looking at it with the hungry eye of a wolf watching meat hung out of reach.

My Indian pony had a new experience the following morning. After starting our pack-train, we skirted the shores of Yellowstone Lake, and coming to a quick-running stream, which in its clearness looked very inviting, the Indian pony succeeded in loosing her trail-rope, and pushed her head nearly up to her eyes into this clear water. Withdrawing it quickly with a scream, she cut such capers that for a while our pack-train was more or less disarranged. The water had run only a short distance from a boiling spring, and the heat had taken off a good deal of the hair from her face. For twenty-four hours I could not induce her to drink.

On the trail to the outlet of Yellowstone Lake, I saw several bands of elk, and rode within thirty yards of them. They did not show signs of fear, but quietly walked off into the bushes, with the exception of one bull accompanied by three cows. They were lying down, and when I came to them, the cows moved off; but the bull stood there, and for a few minutes I thought he was going to charge. He pawed the ground, shook his head, and kept alternately taking a few steps toward me, and then backing a little, ripping up the soil with his antlers, and breaking the small bushes, in token of challenge. I concluded to retreat rather than fight, so quietly withdrew, leaving him in possession of the field.

While in camp one day, on Lizard Creek, I climbed Wild Cat Mountain, hunting up a trail that would lead to the eastward; and coming out on the southern point of the mountain, a magnificent view opened to my gaze. On the south, immediately at the foot of this mountain, was a park; it was dotted with clumps and groves of fine trees, through which ran a good-sized stream. The meadow ran a half-mile to the foot-hills, well covered with long grass, which in the sunlight, moving with a gentle breeze, rose and fell like the billows of the ocean. For miles beyond were mountains piled on mountains; and I could see clearly the grand Teton range springing up from Jackson's Lake: Mount Hayden, some fourteen thousand feet high, with Mount Moran just north of it,—Hayden rising majestically from the surface of the lake thousands of feet, with sharp slopes and walls of bare rock above, and its base buried in a darkness of pine and spruce. Their snow-covered summits and immense glaciers must impress any beholder with a strong sense of sublimity. It is said that on the summit of one of the Tetons there is an inclosure made of rocks several feet in height, built by what long-vanished and forgotten race of builders no man will ever know.

F. C. Crocker.