ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED OCTOBER 2011
I wanted to get one more search under my belt before Montana closed for the winter. Before the colorful autumn landscape turned blue and grey and white. A new spot had been haunting me with dreams of trout and aspen and gold for a couple of weeks now. I needed to walk alone along a mountain stream and take in the scent of autumn in the woods. Look for gold one more time before winter chased me out.
My creek of preference is about 600 miles from my home and after a long drive that started and ended in darkness I woke up the next day about 11 miles downstream from my target. It was a convenient place to pull over. Its where my fast moving creek leaves the dark forest, widens and enters a broader, sunnier stream.
A mile past the turnoff onto a dirt Forest Service road I stopped to watch a single fly fisher rhythmically working the riffles of my creek for lurking Cutthroat. His green line dancing in an old ballet above the water. I walked down to where I could see him clearly but not close enough to bother the fish. I watched him work the stream and waited to see if luck would be his or with my fish. I watched yellow and orange leaves drift off the trees. Listened to the constant splash and gurgle of river life. I feasted on a fat wedge of local sharp cheddar and a sweet Blue Pearmain apple and wondered if Forrest had fished this lovely spot. In the hour or so that I sat there, no fish were caught, but certainly not for lack of persistence by the angler.
As I walked back up to the truck something growled at me off to my left. I jumped. A black and grey furball with teeth stood his ground and stared at me. I slowly raised my camera and got several nice shots of a badger completely unafraid of me. In another moment he scurried off probably deciding that I was not a likely meal.
The place where I hoped to find Forrest’s gold was another ten miles up the road past a deep canyon and near a place where wagons full of settlers once rolled. Before pioneers, indians passed through on a trail barely visible today and not marked on any modern map. In most places the old blaze now rides under a multilane modern highway that moves a thousand lonely drivers between fuel stops each day. But at this spot the surveyors and engineers had placed the concrete thoroughfare twenty-two miles south in order to take advantage of a gentler route requiring fewer bridges and no switchbacks. Wild place saved.
It took about a half-hour to cover the ten miles to where I could park my truck and walk to the nearby spot where pioneers and indians forded this stream as they moved from the crowded East to the newly opened western side of the continental divide. The terrain here is wild and beautiful and the perfect picture of an autumn day in Montana. I grabbed my ice axe and camera and started walking the hundred or so feet to where I hoped to find Forrest’s hidden chest.
From the moment I left the van I could sense someone watching me. It was a strong and unwelcome sensation. Have you ever felt that? To the right of the old trail was a rock outcrop and a ten foot drop down onto more rock below. To my left was a four foot high basalt ledge. Under my feet were the visible carved ruts of hundreds…perhaps thousands of steel rimmed wagon wheels that went by here more than one hundred and fifty years ago. I imagined myself as one of those early trailblazers. Seeing the beauty of this lovely country for the first time.
“Did they camp near here?”, I wondered. I scoured for signs of a camp when off to my right I thought I saw movement. Just a light colored flash. I glanced up and saw nothing. “My imagination”, I figured. The sense of being examined persisted. I ignored my worried brain warning me to leave and returned to scouring the area for signs of an old camp.
Movement again. I jerked my head right and peered into the trees. Nothing. Wary now, I pointed my body in the direction of the movement and looked down at the ground. Not so much to see anything as to look unconcerned about whoever was observing me. The uncomfortable sense of being closely observed was growing. I slowly looked up and that’s when I saw them. Standing still as rocks and looking directly at me. Yellow eyes peering at me from no more than 30 meters away. Behind foliage. Mostly camouflaged.
This was the first time I had ever seen their kind in the wild. I was both intrigued and worried by their presence. I knew nothing about them. I slowly raised the camera, aimed and pressed the shutter button. It was so quiet in the forest that the camera sounded like I was clanging metal garbage can lids together. I was certain they would run. But they did not move. Their eyes were burning holes through my face.
Wolves! If there were two, would there be more? Why did they not care if I saw them? I wanted to see if there were more. I wanted to see if any were at my back or sides but I did not dare turn my back on the two I was facing. They made no noise. They moved no muscles. I gripped my ice axe tightly and turned back up the old trail toward my truck. I never let them out of my sight and they seemed to never let me out of theirs.
By the time I got back to the truck I could no longer see them. I climbed in feeling safer. I started the truck up and moved a bit forward on the road thinking that I might be able to see where they had been standing. About 15 meters up the road I thought I could see the area they had been watching me from. They were nowhere in sight. Did this mean they had moved on? Did this mean they were hiding and waiting? Do wolves attack people? I had seen lots of deer sign in the area. Surely a venison steak was more appealing than an old human ribcage. Maybe they were just as curious about me as I was about them.
I slowly backed up to the spot I had been in earlier, shut down the truck. I convinced myself that I couldn’t leave the area without finishing my search for Forrest’s chest. Wolves or no wolves, I had just driven 600 miles and I was not going to leave before I thoroughly checked out this spot. It was a good spot. Get yourself together Dal!
I decided the wolves should know that although I did not have sharp teeth or claws I did own an ice axe and I could make a lot of noise. So I honked the horn about ten times and then put my Creedence CD in the player, cranked down the windows and cranked up the volume. I made them listen to Fortunate Son, Bad Moon Rising and Have you Ever Seen The Rain. …very, very loud. The sounds of civilization…well the civilized 70’s anyway. Then I sat in the truck and waited…and listened…and put out my feelers. Nothing! I didn’t feel like anyone was watching me anymore. I felt alone again.
I grabbed my ice axe, got out of the truck, slammed the door shut and watched. Nothing. I yelled at them, “I’ve got an ice axe here. You better stay away.” I waved the ice axe over my head for good measure. I watched. I listened. Nothing. I headed back down the old wagon trail toward my creek and my spot. I was very alert. I neither saw nor felt any eyes upon me. They were gone. I was probably just another nutcase tourist they were glad to get away from.
I spent the next two days in that spot. Slept in the truck the first night and on the ground the next. I listened for wolves at night. I heard none…which was disappointing. I thought it would be beautiful to hear wolves howling. My own fault. I should not have tried so hard to scare them off. I decided that I knew nothing about wolves but if I intended to spend time in Montana or Wyoming I should start reading up on them.
I did hear coyotes though. They came up to my camp the second evening to howl at me or the moon or my truck. Coyotes thrive on Creedence!