Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Gray duck

Decoy carver Frank Werner of St. Maries/Ralph Bartholdt

Interviews with Frank Werner will air at 7 p.m. Oct. 28 on KSPS Spokane Public Television's Northwest Profiles

Werner is a 2004 recipient of the Governor's Arts Awards: http://www.arts.idaho.gov/focus/frank/frank.aspx

ST. MARIES — Frank grew up in the hard-knock hoodlum neighborhoods of New York where as a teen he was given a choice.
Jail or the Corps.
He chose the latter.
The retired Marine learned about ducks, flat-bottomed boats pushed with a pole and decoys that attracted waterfowl to gunners while working at Camp Lejeune.
He had come back from Vietnam to find his new military occupation waiting: Game warden.
It meant confronting the calloused-hand generations of waterfowl hunters in the Carolina estuaries — who didn’t have permission to be there — at foggy dawn or black-eye dusk.
The confrontations turned tutorial. Soon Werner was learning the pragmatic art of luring birds to decoys.
Werner has a lot of names for the pretty carvings that land on gallery shelves. Art ducko is one.
His carvings, however, are not made to attract sighs, but real ducks, which he shoots.
Despite their ability to bob lifelike in a backwater, Werner’s pragmatic works of folk art are also displayed in galleries accompanied by the kind of dry humor learned in the muck marshes of the inner banks of Carolina and his 20 years in the Corps.
In the St. Maries shop he built himself, Werner carves the birds with hand tools that curl thin peelings to the floor until a block of white pine takes the shape of the migratory birds that dance in his mind like music.

Published Oct. 21, 2005

Ralph Bartholdt

Gun for Christmas, and other paper targets (Writings 2000-2007)

From Tea with former officers of the Saddam's Iraqi army by Ralph Bartholdt/Skookum Photography

Gun for Christmas

All I want for Christmas is a .45
Nope, not a lawn mower.
No thanks on the three-foot long chrome spatula, the chef's hat and white apron that comes with a gas-fired barbecue.
I'll pass on the fleece seat covers and the How-To Home Gardening library.
Thanks, Santa, but no thanks.
I want a gun for Christmas.
A 1911 type .45 caliber pistol.
The kind that fits easily into my hand because the grip is not too wide and not too thin.
I want a blue version, not those shiny, coated types that repel rust. They look too new. I want mine to at least resemble the side arms used by U.S. officers from the bombed streets of Sicily to the shores of Subic Bay.
Give it pearl handles, and you have something akin to the pistol General George Patton used when he stood misty eyed at Carthage where, two thousand years earlier, Hannibal had begun his campaign against the Legions of Rome.
It would be the same type that Ray LeFebvre of Bonners Ferry wore when he was riddled with enemy bullets in the Ia Drang Valley and similar to the sidearm strapped to a young major named Schwartzkopf as he led troops in the central highlands of Vietnam more than 40 years ago.
These men were, each in their quests, said to be upholding democracy: The right to make policy by casting a vote. The right to be heard at the ballot box.
Each risked their lives for a shining experiment in government; the least diluted form.
It consists of direct representation of the people's will in the echoing halls of Congress.
I don't think, Santa, that lawyers are supposed to be part of that equation.
But, there they are, and it, coming on Christmas.
Last week, our hallowed government sent a message to the people.
Your vote doesn't really matter, the message said.
And so, at voter's expense, the White House hired a limousine-fleet of attorneys to help sue firearms makers because Congress, at the request of the people, refused to hold gun manufacturers responsible for the actions of less than one percent of the population who annually do dumb things with firearms.
But, like I say, Santa, I just want a gun.
No thanks on the case of Scotch, or the box of Northwest wine nestled in wood wool. A new set of wheels? A Maserati? Nah.
I just want a gun.
A historical piece, Santa. Bring me a double action .45 that I can keep near my wrinkled and framed version of the Constitution.
Real relics, those. As are you, St. Nick.
As are you.

Jewelry in the hen house
(run boy run)

Ruby and topaz lace, emerald frizzle, gold bars.
She collects chickens like other women take to jewelry.
It's not a bad thing, I think.
I bought an Auricana rooster for her birthday and will probably splurge during the Holidays. The hatchery catalog has been open to page 21 in a conspicuous manner for several weeks, so I'm saving for a clutch of Ancona eggs.
The breed is rare in the U.S. according to the catalog people and can fare well on scanty rations. They attack owls and feed on coyotes, so they should fit right in at our seven-acre poultry patch in predator holler.
Just for the heck of it - some say I'm just romantic - I dropped several dollars for a few Wyandottes. They are good, medium-weight fowl for small family flocks kept under rugged conditions, according to the official description in the poultry handlers guide - a small magazine the little woman keeps under her pillow.
Their combs do not freeze as easily as single combs and the hens make good mothers.
Sound nice? Read on.
Their good disposition, attractive curves and many color patterns make them a good choice for fanciers and farmers alike, the guide says.
"What was that breed again? Wyandottes, yeah that's it," I told the person in Georgia who raises the variety and ships chickens of all ages and in various stages of health to 4-H members and farmers throughout the U.S.
"How come you want these?" The chicken man asked. "Don't you already have enough chickens?"
The telephone line crackled like a boot on a pile of layer pellets.
I couldn't understand his interrogation until I learned he was an engineer who took to raising chickens at the behest of his wife who left her job as an account executive because of a blue Andalusian.
"Watch out," he said. "The passion for fowl can turn ugly."
His paranoia made me smile.
That was last year, well before our Auricanas laid hundreds of blue, pink and green eggs the color of pond water.
Before we got the barred rocks and the silver leghorns that guard the woodshed like yellow-eyed banshees.
And, come to think of it, before my daughters started waking up in the middle of the night and rising from their feather beds to pull on my fingers with the words, "Daddy can you go out and check the chickens, I think I heard Rudy (their favorite rooster) fuss."
I usually rise then and lumber into the starless night with the back flap of my union suit open for air, and a 16-gauge single shot poking the misty night like a cow prod.
I check the pens and inhale the odoriferous stew of chicken dung, food and feathers before I come back in and flop into bed to dreams of drumsticks and gravy.
Twice there have been raccoons, but they were denied.
The guy from Georgia might have a point.
This passion for Minorcas and Orpingtons seems a bit colorful. But ugly?
I ponder that as I scrape the chicken dip from my Sunday shoes.
There's a good reason for preferring poultry to say, gowns and diamond earrings.
My neighbor said it:
"I don't like chickens," he mused. "Every time I walk into the coop, they tell me what I am.
"Cheap, cheap, cheap."

Ted Turner and Werner: only their names sound alike

Werner Krautham was a socialist.
I met him one winter night in the university district in Munich where I was supposed to be going to college, but had discovered something better than college.
It came in frothy mugs in smoky rooms with low ceilings and was served by large mustachioed women who, despite doubling as bouncers, were dainty in the same way that truck transmissions are sweet.
Werner sat alone at one of the few tables in an establishment that had mostly wooden booths made when Napoleon was a boy.
I sat with him because there was no place else to sit since a lot of other university students in Munich at the time had discovered the same thing I fancied, and because he looked like a good fellow, and he had a small dog on a leash.
He and his dog were old.
Werner wore a beret.
His dog had a beard.
Werner, I later learned, drank one pint of beer each weekday afternoon while seated at the same table at about the same time, which depended mostly on the regularity of the dog.
He drank a glass of cognac on Saturday. Sunday, he abstained.
His one-day abstinence he attributed to his wife, who traded her socialism for church on Sundays and frowned upon his drinking on the Sabbath.
Werner respected his wife's wishes although she had died years ago.
They had been teachers during Hilter's putsch - and had been blacklisted because neither would serve in the Fuehrer's military, Werner told me.
I believed him. Still do.
After the overthrow of the German government, his picture had hung on a wall near the Odeon's Platz where Hitler had rallied the masses. His mug shot was one of hundreds on a placard: men and women labeled as enemies of the state. They weren't given work. They were outcasts.
More than 40 years later, he spoke of those days with no bitterness. He had dug potatoes, scraped bricks, swept floors, and gotten by, he said. It wasn't easy. Nothing ever is, he said. He and his wife had feared for their lives at times. Sometimes, while seated at home listening to the contraband radio, supping a bowl of cabbage soup, they thought they heard Hitler's black coats coming for them.
For safety reasons he and his wife separated during the war, but were later reunited. They had no children.
When I met Werner, he took me in, so to speak.
I would sometimes meet him at the same tavern and sit at his table because it was the only spot available and I would drink beer and he drank a beer very slowly.
Once, I walked with him through the cold streets and he pointed out landmarks, our breath trailed like the smoke from bismuth burners.
He lived in the same small apartment that he and his wife rented after the Allies freed Europe.
Just he and his terrier.
No yachts, which is unusual, perhaps, for a socialist. No million-acre ranches. No frivolities such as inbred buffalo.
Just himself, a bearded dog and those black and white photographs of him as a school teacher and his beautiful wife who had aged gracefully.
I wonder what Werner would have added to Ted Turner's recent attempt to ennoble himself to the socialist crowd.
I wonder if Werner heard it when Mr. Turner, one of the world's richest men, and a leading private land owner in the U.S., told a gathering at Shanghai that he is "a socialist at heart."
Mr. Turner said he was concerned that internet entrepreneurs were getting rich too fast.
Werner may have seen the report on a vast flickering screen beaming from above a bar, foyer or bathroom stall. The blue screens are becoming the scourge of this society as they send skittish light across the universe and make millions of dollars every day for people like Mr. Turner.
Werner probably wouldn't have shown ire or disbelief: the two most common reactions when faced with facades.
His routine of moderation wouldn't have been upset, I don't think.
True convictions are lifelong endeavors, after all, and not subject to frivolous whims of empire.

Kevlar, K-bar and combat loss

The face of the Marine in the Kuwait airport was the color of nutmeg; a red tinge from the desert sun streaked his neck.
He asked me if I wanted to throw my luggage on the cart that carried his seabags, a faded flak vest and his Kevlar helmet, its dust cover torn and the edges frayed.
He had been in Fallujah for seven months including the time in April when his unit suffered casualties at the hands of insurgents who made what at the time seemed a last ditch attack there, and he was headed home to Camp Pendleton, one of many Marines and soldiers looking forward to time in the rear.
I was leaving too and gingerly made my way toward the metal detectors where the Kuwaiti officials scanned my bags. They discovered a Victorinox pocketknife in my carry-on luggage.
My bad.
They asked me what I planned to do with this vile multi-bladed tool with a white cross on the handle, and considered among themselves if I was the kind of person who might take on, in the name of Allah, a planeload of service members with the shiny 3-inch blade, can opener and screwdriver set.
They dropped my utility knife in a box behind the counter and waved me on.
When I turned to the Marine he grimaced as Kuwaiti officials removed one at a time a half dozen M16 magazines from one of his bags and held them up accusingly.
"I'm in the Marine Corps," he told them through his teeth as if it wasn't already painfully obvious.
After the officials confiscated the same magazines the young man had carried with him for many months in the Al Anbar province - a few hunks of metal and springs that had become as dear to him, and as important, as the Camelbacks he had stuffed into his luggage - the young man, all of 22, turned to me and said, "chalk it off as a combat loss."
Then, with a grin, "at least they didn't find my Ka-bars," referring to the combat knives he hid somewhere in his luggage.
I wondered what kind of reception he would get in the refined world of the Amsterdam airport where so many nice Europeans in suits and non-wrinkle casual wear would espy this kid packing his carry-on luggage - a combat tested flak vest and Kevlar helmet dangling like so many chickens in an Iraqi market. And I realized he didn't give a sideways hoot what any of them thought.
The gear was a badge of his time served in a desert country hot as a fry pan, with a duty to restore a semblance of order to a people who, at least a few, seemed to thrive on a disorder of their own making.
In Amsterdam, he shook my hand and said goodbye and I was left with a notion of gratitude to have been allowed to follow a tribe of men and women like this kid who held their service in arms above anything they might achieve in the material world.
People have asked me about the morale of the troops in Iraq.
"Is it low, as they say in the news?" they ask.
What comes to me is this.
"When Marines complain, it's normal. It's when they quit complaining that you have to worry."
A first sergeant with the eagle, globe and anchor on his digital cammy desert hat told me that. There was a slick of sweat on his face as we stood for a spell in the shade of a tree with leaves like leather while waiting for a helo to thump thump us across miles of sand to places where other armed men and women wearing globes and anchors waited for us with their heads high, but tucked low under the sand bags.
If what he said is true, then there is no need to worry about the mindset of the young Marines humping their gear, Kabars, Camelbacks, flak, helmet and rifle and the multitude of extra magazines, through the heat of the high sun.
There's plenty of grousing going on, usually followed by the standard line of grins. And there's dreaming too of homes and families and bass fishing on a lake somewhere far from the heat of Iraqi desert.
All of which means, according to the first sergeant at least, that the morale of the troops in Iraq is pretty much the same as anywhere else.
It's not much of a headline, but it's a good thing to take home.

Tea with former officers
of the Saddam's Iraqi army

Officers of the former Iraqi army sit on their cots in a small adobe-like hut with heavy drapes on the windows and a television blinking in the corner of the single-room building.
Outside the other men, former soldiers in the Iraqi army, smile from under the shermaghs - colorful scarves wrapped around their heads - as they squat in the shade on the cement of what is their new barracks
It is a spartan place of bunks, dressers, darkness and little else.
Cigarette butts freckle the tile floor.
But, next door, these former officers sit on their beds in their separate quarters and look glum as if someone has thrown on them a bucket of dirty water.
Outside the hot wind gusts and stops, swirls dust and sets it back down.
The former officers are dejected sitting there. One wears an olive green camouflage uniform with two stars on the epaulets; the others are attired in civilian clothing, sandals, and pant legs rolled up to parry the heat.
Under Saddam, these men had been unit commanders. They may have lived in flourishing suburbs with porcelain and gold plates, were respected as men to be reckoned with.
Their present job, as security forces on a small outlying coalition base in the desert, doesn't bestow them with the kind of prestige they once knew.
Working for the coalition has put their families in jeopardy, they say. It has made them targets of insurgents.
They hail from a city north of Baghdad and regularly travel the many hours between this outpost and home to care for their families.
Their words come second-hand through an interpreter, a young man with a beard whose father was a prominent minister during the Hussein regime, but he isn't a reliable go-to guy.
A Marine - call him Dan - dressed in a T-shirt and khaki cargo pants with a Beretta strapped to his leg, explains this about the interpreter.
Dan speaks Arabic like people in the Midwest speak Louisiana swamp dialect. He understands some and can reply, but his forte is Russian, so conversational Arabic is a little beyond his grasp.
The interpreter, Arthur, was born in Britain and has come to Iraq for a piece of the pie, Dan says.
Arthur would like to raise a militia and grab some power in the Al Anbar Province.
The man is full of spin, says Dan, whose job requires him to interview, with his rudimentary language skills, Iraqis by the thousands.
He uses interpreters as he gathers information on insurgents and tests the waters of popular opinion. It's how he finds reliable workers among the myriads of former Iraqi soldiers and civilians who are jobless since the fall of the Hussein regime.
Arthur's way of interpreting is a source of contention, Dan says.
So some of what a Marine major seated quietly among the former Iraqi officers asks, or tells them, is sifted through Arthur's own world view and who knows how it comes out at the other end.
When we arrived here with a small convoy loaded with boxes of accoutrements (everything from soccer balls and sunscreen, to towels, shoes and plastic toys) sent by American families for the wives and children of these former soldiers and officers as tidings of friendship, the former regular Iraqi army men greeted us with cigarettes.
"Miami," an older gentleman in a baggy battle dress uniform and a face as tanned as a rifle scabbard, said.
It is a brand of smokes.
From a baby-blue packet he slowly handed the cigarettes one at a time, gesturing lazily, almost graciously to the grunts. He lit each end meticulously with a plastic, butane lighter, and the Marines, many of them whose lips were packed with snoose, took puffs as the man watched the gift he gave disappear slowly at the end of the Marines' fingers.
"It's kind of traditional," said a corporal, who prefers a pipe and a special blend of tobacco sent from his wife in Missouri. He puffed and blew the cigarette smoke that billowed off in a gust of dusty wind.
The former regular Iraqi army soldiers crowded around making conversation and the Marines answered and asked, not expecting a glimmer of recognition either way.
Inside the cool room of the officer quarters, sweet tea in small, cylindrical cups is passed around on saucers.
The former-Iraqi officers want weapons. They want more money. They want to have power returned to them.
The Marine Corps major, a burly man with a face like a sweet pea, has heard this story before.
Dan is seated on one of the beds and listens.
The former Iraqi officers concede that things are better now than in the months after the regime fell. They are being paid as much working for a security company called Ramadan as they had been under Saddam, but prices have gone up, they say. They aren't given the extra allowances of food they were accustomed to and there is the matter of keeping their families safe.
"With Saddam we used to have security," they say, through Arthur, who sits between the major and the officers. "Our families were safe.
"Now there is no security."
They are solemn. Their brows furrowed.
Put the army back to work, the former officers say, and we will restore security.
One of the Marines tells them that thousands of former Iraqi army officers have been given jobs as policemen, and as soldiers in the new army, but it will take more than the military to restore order here.
"It will take everybody," the Marine major says.
As if the statement is the annoying buzz of a fly in the sullen air of the dark room where a silenced television blinks, the former officers swat the air and shake their heads.
In the old system, at least 1,500 officers were stationed in each province to provide security and quell unrest, says a former officer with the two stars on his epaulets. That system has been dismantled; that's why there is chaos.
The Marine major explains that there must be a balance between the military and the civilian population, between officers, soldiers and small business people. There must be more opportunity for Iraqis than a career as a warrior.
For two hours, as tea and cigarettes are passed around again, the conversation repeats itself.
The major explains that if the former officers want a better paying job they should seek it out, or use what they know to help rebuild Iraq.
The major, a Marine Corps reservist, says he uses his military training in the civilian world to raise a family that includes four children.
"We know about democracy," one of the former officers says with a stiff jaw. "We are different."
Outside, the NCOs have unpacked some of the gifts, handing out soccer balls to a dozen former regular Iraqi soldiers who eye the checked balls and grin.
A Marine Corps staff sergeant kicks one of the balls across a road to a former regular soldier, but it is a high kick and the wind grabs the ball careening it into the dusty desert and making it tumble out past the adobe houses toward the concertina wire.
The sun is blistering and high in a watery sky.
The ball rolls and zigs back and forth.
The former soldier in the Iraqi army scrambles after it.

Dogs like fine wine

I'm near the beginning of a story. It's Charley Waterman and he's hunting wood ducks in a Florida swamp.
He walks quietly through the half-light of Spanish moss and cypress. His boots make rings in the inches-deep water. Squinting ahead, he tries to locate the birds responsible for the singsong conversation and soft gabbling. He hopes to espy the silver ripples that tell the wood ducks' location.
I imagine Waterman with a dog at his heels, its ears perked, the two almost invisible in the shadowy murk.
Then there is a scream.
Turning I see my daughter's claw-hold on the face of her younger sibling. The other's cheeks puff angrily like an adder.
She clenches a fist under the cushioned bar of the car seat that keeps her in place.
She's waiting for a chance with a hook.
We're on the straight stretch west of Dusty, Washington and I drop my book, lean back from the front passenger seat to lay a paw in the air between the fist and its target as middle sister lets go, leaving only blue dents where her fingernails had been.
My wife is at the wheel.
It's all for a good reason.
We're headed to the Yakima Valley's annual barrel tasting, a family affair that heralds spring in the warming valleys of central Washington.
That means wine in a variety of flavors, in bottles or boxes.
Mostly bottles.
And food, from Tabasco splat oysters floating in gritty half shells to long strands of asparagus like boiled chords of nylon rope.
Music too.
Traditionally, the weather holds, although today, the four-door-family vehicle churns through rainwater ruts that riddle the pavement of highway 272.
"Things are shaping up," I tell the woman behind the wheel as fog swirls across the road. "It could sunshine."
It's 6 a.m. and we have three hours left to drive.
Charley Waterman, the veteran writer for a gad-awful-lot of outdoor publications, did a book on hunting guns and dogs once and it was a pretty good account.
From chasing sage grouse to the story about swamp woodies, the book is no tearjerker. He pretty much got it right.
Down to the smell.
And the odor of dog vomit is best left to the imagination. The family and I though, whiff it through bites of our cold-cut sandwiches and oranges as our dog, a small pointer that prefers motoring on her own four-legs instead of the round rubber ones of the SUV that speeds us west, lies in the back cubby sick as a sailor on shore leave.
Long drives are always nice. Long drives with dogs and children are extra special.
With the windows open, rain funneling monsoon-like into the backseat, the children buttoned up in outerwear as our fingers dexterously plug our nose holes, we are flying to Zanzibar.
The Yakima Valley is agreeable this time of year, the weather always seems to break along the Columbia, the sun pops out, and the festival, with its limousines, newly waxed cars and lines of people waiting for a sip of the latest grape is especially sheik.
Thanks to the Waterman reader, I can't get my mind off the quail. They are the little guys of the California variety that flit across roads and between the hanging grape stocks practicing evasion techniques.
I want to take my dog out for some air, but she drools in her kennel dreaming of a baking soda concoction.
After a morning spent - somewhat - with Charley Waterman, I have birds and recovering bird dogs on my mind.
I settle for a wine with a dog on the label.
It isn't a Washington wine though.
At one stop, as a group of quail scamper between the glistening wheels of roadsters and coups, I eloquently explain the virtues of Idaho to a man from the coast. He drove to the tasting in a little convertible with what looked like a silver peace sign on the curve of the hood, but he wasn't convinced.
Then the Hells Canyon Retriever Red mad a fan of him and he tottered after me asking for a story from the Gem state.
Where the heck's Hell's Canyon.
Chukar country, I said.
He took a sip of the Retriever Red and I could see it increase his appreciation of fine hunting dogs.

Where I live

My best friend Honer's dad once said that he preferred corpulent women over those who weren't, because they provided shade in the summer and warmth in the winter.
He didn't use the word corpulent, though, because it wasn't part of his vocabulary.
Shorter words, with fewer syllables suited him better.
Such was the palaver of Podunkville where I was raised, mostly, with little adult supervision until I left.
It was a place where 14 year olds ventured into the woods in the fall with .30 caliber rifles and the tinking of shells in the pockets of their orange coats.
When they came back out they dragged a deer, or their feet depending on their aim, or instinct.
The ritual wasn't gender specific.
As they grew, my peers underwent a rite that included cars or pickup trucks made loud by the lack of a good exhaust. It included a basic knowledge of hand tools too.
They busted knuckles in the bad light while lying under a car on the cement twisting a rusted starter bolt, but the calluses they got weren't unique to their skin.
They could look unblinking while a cow bore a stillborn calf, and still drink milk after a day spent de-horning steers or castrating sheep.
In a word, they grew tough and at odds with urban sensitivities.
As an 18-year-old Honer's dad had battled icy storms and the enemy in the Korea, he drank government-issue booze and smoked government issue cigarettes, until he was shipped home in one piece more or less.
He drank and smoked much later, too, and he taught me the little I know about fishing.
One time a preacher instead of showing empathy, chastised him before the congregation for the drunkenness he was prone to, and I never went to that church again.
Neither did he.
Everybody knows there's good and bad out here, but the pitiless can't tell the difference.
When I left that place, I didn't go far.
Like a linebacker, I moved west and east pretty much along the same latitude.
Honer and his dad stayed put.
I haven't seen them in a while but I know they are still there, along Podunk crossroads somewhere with a few others who snuck out of the hollers to wet a line.
They're wearing snowmobile suits, sitting on lawn chairs maybe, on the bank of the river where we often watched our bobbers while fishing for spring crappies. We made wisecracks about jobs, our intimate habits, the stereotypes surrounding our own ancestry.
"Waddya call a Lutheran with a cough?"
"Choral director."
Like tattoos made with Bobbie pins in the dim light of a logging camp trailer, what I learned young stuck.
It included reserving the harshest criticism for oneself because, like one of Andre Gide's character said, "But I fear there are few among us today who would be bold enough to recognize their own features in (this) tale."

Boots and old baggage

In winter, I preferred Bunny Boots.
They were made with great helpings of white felt, had canvas straps, brass buckles and no tread so they were slippery, but dashing.
The signature boot of some taiga-bound and historic military troops, they were warm too.
I had my first and only pair as a 9-year-old and walked to Russ Pascuzzi's 76 Station one winter day with a metal gasoline can for the Ski-Doo.
Gasoline, I think, cost 80 cents a gallon but I can't remember. I was concentrating on the walk.
The buckles on Bunny Boots, at least the ones I had, made a jingling sound that attracted dogs. Sleeping dogs perked their heads up like deer when they heard you jingle past; like deer whiffing gun oil as they grazed in the tall grass by the river.
Lacking the fleeing instinct of cud-chewing ungulates though, the schnauzers and mistreated spaniels, and occasional white-fanged Chesapeake sensed my vulnerability as I teetered gingerly down the icy street toward my neighborhood with a gallon can full of gasoline in my arms like a basket of eggs, wearing boots that afforded no traction on snow and ice.
The gas sloshed a little, and dripped, and I leaned this way and that, careful not to reveal misgivings.
Dogs can sense that. And then where are you?
If you're wearing Bunnies, you're scrambling haphazardly down the street ahead of a pack of gritty mutts, bumping into mailboxes, spilling mixed gas on the front of your snowmobile suit.
My pal, Honer told me time and again to bag the Bunny Boots.
"Forget 'em," he said. "I'll take my pac boots over 'dem Bunnies any day.
"Besides, they look like loaves of bread."
And Honer was right.
After running through a neighbor's corral to cover my scent after a particularly noxious, blind, dachshund chased me and my jingling boots, the Bunnies took on a tawny cast like baked bread.
Honer's pacs - Sorels really - were made of rubber. They were quiet. They had leather up top and the felt was inside where it belonged.
They didn't slip too much on ice.
Despite conceding that Sorels might be slightly more practical than my white felt boots, for several winters I walked with a certain smugness passed snoozing dogs to Russ Pascuzzi's gas station with duct tape wrapped around the buckles of my Bunnies to keep them from jangling.
Then I outgrew the boots. And I never found a pair to replace the ones my mother hauled to the church rummage sale one July.
It doesn't matter anymore.
Bunnies were a rare item even then. They were popularized during the Korean War, so now a'days you might find a mismatched pair at Sal's Surplus behind the case of chunky bean and chicken MREs down aisle 12.
Honer, too, outgrew his Sorels.
They were the boots he slipped off one clear winter morning as the moon hung like a frozen melon in a river oak.
He walked to his deer stand in his socks, carrying his pacs because they made too much noise in the sub-zero snow.
He shot a 9x7 swamp buck that morning and the mounted deer head hung in his bedroom long after the Sorels, that he outgrew, were tossed out.
Those boots too are obsolete. The Canadian company quit the business.
These days winter boots come in a variety of colors and soles. Some jingle, some squeak, some emit atomized scents that attract rutting bucks and others are self cleaning like Whirlpool ovens.
If you asked Honer, though, he'd probably just as soon have his old Sorels back.
But, I can't say I miss those Bunnies.
Your team didn't make it to the Super Bowl? Nuts.

While Tennessee romped Jacksonville and St. Louis tip-toed past Tampa Bay, I was in the woods collecting pine nuts.
We all have our little secrets.
Al Gore has his Occidental Petroleum proceeds and a blister on his green thumb, Georger Bush has his elite, and highly secret, Skull and Bone society from his days as a Yale bench-warmer.
I have a small Snoopy pail and a plastic hand trowel.
I had planned a sort of Hardy Boys' day, and had packed for it. My favored Vikings, the team of next century, had lost last week, and I was in no mood for football.
Inside my canvas back pack was a venison sausage sandwich on pumpernickel, a pair of binoculars and an extra brick of .22 shells in case I got ambushed by a regiment of snowshoe hare.
I packed my rim-fire Ruger with which I can actually hit the inside of a barn, and waxed the runners on a pair of bear claw snowshoes until my wife said it's skis you're supposed to wax, not Tubbs. Then I yarded my woolen bibs up with a small block that I hung from a rafter and stepped into them. These things are rustic, I moaned, as I tried to walk, but my legs wouldn't move.
Those Canadians don't skimp on fabric, eh?
I decided against the pants. My gray wool long johns are plenty warm and they have that wind flap in case things get too steamy.
I was set.
When I got where I wanted to be, the Titans were already making the Jaguars look bad, according to a guy on the radio.
I parked under a tree and looked in the back seat for something that wasn't there.
I admit, I felt a little ashamed just then, and laughed quietly to myself as if there was nothing the matter - just in case someone was about who knew I had forgotten my back pack.
On the seat under a glob of spent kids' clothes, though, was a Snoopy bucket. A red plastic trowel was wedged into the seat crack. In a slot on the passenger's door, I found a booklet on pine nuts meant for elementary students.
Close enough.
The booklet had a name on it. The author was E. Gibbons.
To many people of my generation, Ewell Gibbons was not only an old guy with bad teeth and a young wife, he was a TV staple - like Happy Days. Something he once said made me take notice. I'll never forget it.
He said, "Mmm, these pine nuts taste just like humphfm uff. Crunch. Crunch."
At least that is how I remember it.
In all those years since seeing Ewell on the TV screen, I had never once ventured to test his words.
Today, I would, I decided.
By the time St. Louis fans were nervously nipping at their cuticles, I had already picked several bucket loads of pine nuts and was still at it.
Kneeling in shrubbery near a well-used Forest Service road in my long johns and calf-high boots, lustily stabbing at the frozen ground, I was feeling earthy.
When I got home it wasn't quite dark. The family was in the kitchen contemplating supper.
I barged into the door with the Snoopy pail and a garbage sack I had filled with forest's bounty and announced that supper was on me.
Yup, I said, I've been out foraging. Then I dumped the bag's contents onto the dinner table. A small shrew jumped to the floor and ran behind the bookcase, and some dirt and duff trickled onto the carpet.
The pine nuts glistened.
What is it? My oldest daughter asked with a grimace that I understood to be vibrant curiosity.
What does it look like? I replied.
About an hour later the championship scores were in, but I didn't care. Gore and Bush were named as the winners in the Iowa Caucus, but I was too stuffed from the hotdogs and that Vinni's pizza I had found in the freezer, to take notice.
The day had been a blessing. A piece of life's puzzle had been soundly snapped into place. I had learned that humility is a virtue when it comes to football and buttons missing from the back flaps of long johns. And, I had learned that Ewell - the man we had loved to mock as kids - had been right after all. Pine nuts do taste like humpfhm uff. Crunch. Crunch.

These columns first appeared in the St. Maries Gazette Record

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Right out of the box

I think we remember knives.
We grew up with them as an idea, aware of their danger and value as tools.
Small folders with bone handles or wood, vinyl, the color of blood or mahogany, shining bolsters with polished pins.
Valuable to cut and ply and maybe whittle or sharpen a stick, peel the coat off a golf ball, flick them open-bladed into the dirt with a wrist movement also learned. We cut line, if there was spare line to cut, carved initials into the thin bark of birch or poplar and opened and closed the blades of these folding knives wary of sharpness, the pain we feared of a deep cut and then piling them into a pocket where they made their own warmth.
The earliest knife, of all the ones I've owned, that I remember is one my dad bought at a store that had the false front of Western movies, big glass windows where a saddle was displayed, lariats, western and farm jackets and the name Zetterberg in golden block letters as if for a bank. The doors were double and the handles suspect. The thumb latch on them irascible, so my dad worked it and the bell as it swung inward made a sound sleigh-like even in summer.
Inside the smell of leather and wheel grease for farm tractors, wood from the walls and floor, dry, and the tung oil that made the deck shine. We were there for a knife and my dad said it to the man, old I knew then, and I know now, the son of the original owner and the place a going concern since 1912, long after the county was formed and named for the Ojibway word "snake." Better known for its pine and logging railroads and later its corn.
He led us to a display case with a glass top and small hinges and hasps. I chose an electrician's knife, no longer sure why, and my dad asked was I certain. I nodded yes. It had two blades, one speartip and one screwdriver flat, and a ring on the end I later lost. The bigger, flat blade closed on my finger once and cut painlessly deep and made it bleed and I sucked on it, wrapped it in paper and pressed the wound hard until the bleeding stopped. I told no one. At 10, it wasn't something you advertised to them with the authority to take the knife away until you were older, or more ready.
A kid two years my senior ran with a knife and fell. The blind eye was gray and didn't move much. I learned not to do that.
I used my knife to skin the squirrels I shot. Sold the tails to the Mepps lure company to garnish their spinners and ate the scant meat the way my mom cooked it.
A couple years later I was sure I needed another knife to better pelt the muskrats I trapped at a pond a half mile behind the house where I walked before school. The knife I knew I needed was named Muskrat Skinner and I saved my allowance and had it for almost a decade until I misplaced it, which is something that happens to pocket knives.
I got a Buck belt knife later, and inherited a Puma skinner, then used an Uncle Henry for a pocket knife, that I lost once. The company sent me another for free, I have it still. I went to Gerber later because they had stocky blades for skinning deer without puncturing the gut, fair steel and, I was reminded, they were sharp, right out of the box.
A man in a bar said this once, late, as I was surrounded by heathens who wanted payback, I'm not sure for what. They had blades open and threatening when the door opened and a man with a limp walked in and up to the three of us. He reached into his pocket, produced a Gerber snapping the blade. "Sally," he addressed the two drunk and long-haired wombats on each side simultaneously, "This is a Gerber Vulcan. It has a four-and-a-half-inch blade, and a non-slip grip." He paused and looked wearily at the two men on either side. "And it's sharp, right out of the box."
The two men let me alone and left the bar and the man with the limp sat at the end by the bell and the bartender came out from using the can, or wherever he had disappeared to, brought us two beers and I remembered the words of the man with the limp, and the knife too.
My culture was rife with blades. Rapalas were long and thin for filleting pike, and short for panfish. They came in a leather sheath with a belt loop, but were kept in the tackle box instead, and sometimes hung on a hook in the shed. Victorinox had the Swiss seal and were useful for more than blood letting.
Over the years I bought Bokers, Green River, Case and Solingen steel knives like the Hartkopf I got in a shop on Munich's south side. Damascus steel was something I considered, but let go, and I have the names of shop-knife makers, small-time crafters who stamp, forge and grind skinning knives from Maine to the west coast and intend to follow up. I haven't owned a SOG or Kershaw, but once, in Iraq, a Marine who had spent the tour in Fallujah kept his Ka-Bar despite the jaundiced comportment of customs officials in Kuwait who took his M16 magazines and my Swiss Army Spartan with its spear tip broken from misuse.
"Write it off as a combat loss," he said of the metal magazines he'd had until then. "At least they didn't find my Ka-Bar."

Ralph Bartholdt writes from North Idaho

Thursday, January 1, 2015

In the same current

The run started at a shelf that dropped water into a thin, boiling line that smoothed out along a cut bank, unspooling itself for a quarter mile or more.
It was noisy with all the water being funneled from the main stem of the Clearwater River east of Lewiston, Idaho. The smooth, round rocks lolled underfoot as I stood on the lip of the shelf in water ankle-deep and whirled the 15-foot rod, a 10-weight, that was loaned to me as a learning tool. I made the sweeping loops that a fishing guide, once in a bar over river beer, explained as painting the ceiling.
Think of your rod tip as a brush and you’re painting the ceiling, he said to a client who was painfully urbane and definitely foreign – at least to the region - and had likely paid the man nicely to fish, not drag him to a bar to drink and talk about fishing.
The client sipped and patiently listened as the guide waved his arms and grew animated and the rain painted lines on the windows.
Everyone in the place had suspected it then, and I was learning it now: You don’t pretend to paint a ceiling, or anything else with the tip of a 15-foot spey rod. Any exaggeration is reserved for the swift, but snappy strokes that load the rod. You must shoot – in my case – a ton of long-belly line, and make the fly land at the end of the leader, instead of in a curl of mono, or whatever you’re using.
And then you let it swing.
You cover water.
You take a step or two downriver, and do it all over again.
Standing on this particular shelf across from the railroad tracks, turning my body to let the line go straight and the fly swing to a place downriver from where I stood, I watched a small figure walking my way.
He walked slowly over the rocks.
I flummoxed another cast and let whatever I had out there, curled leader and fly, the whole amalgam of nylon and feathers and steel swing in whatever fashion physics allowed and the man kept coming.
I did this for a while, floundered a cast, swung, stepped, then reeled in and met him halfway.
There was no one else around. It was early. The morning sun had just peaked over a treeless ridge, grass-brown and shorn as a cantaloupe. The golden light was a sudden explosion, but silent. And the man, an elderly gentleman, fit, with a worn baseball cap who carried a rod at least as long as mine, kept coming.
He was from San Francisco. A retired engineer, I think. He was lean and had the look of someone accustomed to leaning against the current of rivers. He cast at the Golden Gate Club, he said. He had walked all the way up the edge of the island, a man of fly-casting erudition, to ask if I, a novice to put it mildly, would allow him to fish down below.
“Are you fishing all the way through?” He asked.
“I’m not sure,” I said.
I wasn’t. I hadn’t thought much about it. I knew I had to get to work, so I said it.
“OK.” The man said. Then he explained that the run below us was not really connected to the run I had been fishing.
“I think they are two separate runs,” he said.
This was my introduction to the stream ethics of spey fishing on the Clearwater, and probably anywhere.
The man then took my rod and showed me how to cast the long line. The lesson lasted 15 minutes. The river flushed around us, there was no one else in sight. Logging trucks flashed by on the highway north across the island through the cottonwoods, what seemed far away.
He showed me a snake roll, explaining that wind, more so than in single-handed fly casting, is an enemy worth considering.
I once had a hook thunk me in the head, he said.
He had not considered the wind when he swung his two-handed rod, decades ago, nor the big fly on the end of it.
It stuck in my hat, he said, of the fly. It stuck right there and knocked my hat off and I saw stars for a while.
I realized the significance of his teaching.
Myself, I had once, in a errant act of bravado, self-assuredness and apathy toward natural forces, had a gust spit a green drake into my lip where it hung for a while as fellow anglers feared pulling out the barbless bit of steel.
On that early morning calf deep in Idaho’s Clearwater, in the new, golden light of early day, the man showed me how to cast easily, with a shorter stroke. He loaded the top of the rod and shot my line halfway across the river, which was wide.
I didn’t learn that cast. I toiled still days and weeks after the man went home, to other rivers in other places with names at least as infamous as my own. I fished early, because of a job that asked I attend, but mostly to cast under cover of darkness.
I hadn’t caught a fish when I tucked the rod away, and I’m not sure I cared, at that point. My outings had long ago become less routine and more or less sporadic.
Learning is like an arrowhead. Flake off the shards with patience and you will eventually have something to keep.
When Zack Williams came to the Clearwater from Michigan he saw something he liked.
“It was the most incredible place I had ever seen,” said Williams, who moved on to guide on the Olympic Peninsula, before returning to teach anglers the subtlety of Idaho's steelhead water.
“It’s not an easy river to catch steelhead in,” Williams said. “It’s a big river that doesn’t give up its secrets easily.”
Craig Lannigan, who has fished the river since the early 1970s, taught himself to cast a spey rod and learned how to hook steelhead from the best teacher: the river.
Learning to catch fish from shore with a long rod goes hand-in-hand with the other thing.
The etiquette, Lannigan said.
He was talking of the courtesy he learned to afford other anglers who he found waist deep in his favorite holes. It was likely their favorite hole too. And maybe they had hung their flag at the spot before he traipsed into it. Maybe he was the intruder. Either way, he bowed to the anglers who rose earlier than he, or swung a sparsely hackled fly into the bend by the hanging pine where the churning water curls over a rill in a 4-foot deep wash for a quarter mile, while he stood on the road twisting his rod pieces together.
He waited his turn. He let others fish through and expected the same.
"I've been low holed so many times this season already," Lannigan once gruffed. "It's not good for my heart."
The code and the catch is part of the same lesson, Lannigan said.
It is learned in the same flow.
Simple propriety goes a long ways to getting the hang of the sport on a river where the cool, clear current of simplicity runs deep.

Ralph Bartholdt lives in Idaho

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Bighorns, tundra and the T100

I once followed a T100 all the way across the state of Montana. The pickup was white with straw stuck to the manure that smeared a fender. When it gained speed east out of Bozeman like a colt that knows its fence line, swirls of hay and grain husks lifted from its bed.
A woman was behind the wheel. She wore a fleece collared denim jacket.
We passed each other back and forth for hours. The coupes, SUVs, cruisers and new pickup trucks boasted license plates fresh from the DMV, artful steel plates tightly screwed into frames that advertised car dealerships sometimes from another state. They depicted natural and written history as if on a metal canvas.
My plates said Idaho.
Hers were the light blue rainbow plates from a decade earlier that had Big Sky written in cursive in a corner covered as it were with horse hockey.
The new cars passed us with speed and the neurotic indifference of life in some other lane, as they used one freeway exit to gain another.
We just kept going from Red Lodge to Big Timber on the wide road that peeled away like the skin of an avocado, laying the glistening inner rind behind us, tamped, I suppose, with thoughts of years gone, maybe, birthday lists, hellos and goodbyes, and that time in college when I could have applied myself, or what ifs. What if the drill sergeant had said sign here, or the man at the labor department had said, you got it, pack your bags and bring a tie, or what if we had made a change, all of us who ever closed the door and didn’t look back, at least not until the highway hummed and the country opened large and broad shouldered and there was nowhere to be just then, and only today and tomorrow blocked out on a calendar somewhere that said, road trip.
We rode together that way in shotgun fashion, giving way and gaining ground, hearing our tires lull, learning a distant sort of familiarity as we took turns staring down the dinged chrome of our bumpers. We acknowledged each other somewhere east of Billings past the punchy draft from the refineries. Our gas tanks tottered as we rolled into Forsyth, and then found each other again in the bluffs by Miles City.
After that she turned south toward Ismay or Ekalaka, the bigness of land absorbing the T100 under a thin line of dust I tracked until it became the color of sky.
A T100 is a long box Toyota with 4-wheel drive and a bench seat. The long shift lever is the dividing line between the person behind the wheel and the one by the ditch-side window.
Wyoming has them too, and the parts of eastern Washington where the people know what happens at the stockyards out by the airport and don’t care. Not much. Not often.
Thirty years ago it was all Ford and Chevy.
Dodge kicked its way into the major market with its bighorn sheep advertising. It caught the fancy of people with gun racks who tired of the junk coming out of the motor city and thought, maybe.
It was mostly pickups out here, anyways. Payload was a word that meant the same as how much room you got? From the front of the Rockies to the Columbia sage flats, the number of bales you could fit, how strong were the springs that kept the load in back and didn’t break, and if you could haul the ewes with the tools and coolers and whatnot was more important than gas mileage.
Size mattered, luxury and fuel economy didn’t.
Back then, you wouldn’t see a Japanese mockup of a pickup truck anywhere near a roping horse.
Who knows what changed. Toyotas were being made in Indiana, a state that fancied itself more sanguine than the puffed up union-owned conglomerates that passed on self-reliance.
Out west where oil rigs pumped on the horizon like metal, preying mantii, the T100 caught the eyes of some in the buckaroo crowd feeling the pinch of paying through the nose at the pump, and willing to sacrifice some payload for less maintenance. When the T100 added a bigger engine, it all made sense, but not for long.
The trucks hauled grain and diesel, they were banged against by Hereford bulls and busted by beetle-killed pine when the wind blew wrong on firewood day.
You saw them now and then in town, usually on Sunday, and by their looks they had an AM radio tuned to gospel or Mel Tillis, a good heater and room enough on the inside for the wife and dog.
They usually wore dents like the dimple on the chin of Spartacus, and maybe that’s what drew me.
I liked their look, but the make didn’t last. T100s are an antique of sorts that I slow down to regard when I drive by one.
The other day in Lewiston I saw one downtown and made a couple passes, considering if I should pull over for a look.
It was red with a bent tailgate, but otherwise looked plumb.
I think the T100 may have done all right in Dakota, but hauling a real load up a grade was not what it did best.
The engines never did match the frame.
That’s my guess.
The 8-cylinder Tundra eventually replaced the T100, and the people in Indiana if that’s where the Tundra is made, do good work, I understand. The bigger and more powerful truck has an engine with the V formation like geese heading north, although the name implies some sort of pomp. It takes a jet and a lot of cash and hard traveling to get anywhere near the Brooks Range and once you’re there its all backpackers in synthetic fabric eating energy bars.
No one in Harden or Hysham is enticed by the vague nod to the far and empty north with its wind blown expanses, and snow seen coming days away.
We have that here. Dodge embraced it with its ram. It worked for them.
I see a lot of those these days.

Ralph Skookum is a writer in North Idaho

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Woods at all

-Ruffed grouse society

Watch and listen here


The first grouse I remember busted between us and whirled like a sideways bottle rocket between some spruce and aspens in a Minnesota river bottom and the boy who had taken me along lifted his .410 and sent a flame and a charge in the general direction of the bird. We chased the quarry as if by chance a BB had struck home.
There was none. No chance. No feathers. Just some emptiness where the bird had been and a sky that slowly colored red its autumn sunset.
That fall, or maybe one subsequent, my friends and I followed ruffed grouse hunters on the trails they used through the poplar woods that abutted our northern Minnesota neighborhood picking up offal, the striped tail feathers of ruffed grouse and sometimes the hairy feet that hunters who downed birds left in the woods.
We caressed the feathers and brushed them against our skin, admired the black billowy ruffs that shone purple in autumn’s light and invariable stuck banded tail feathers into the air holes of our baseball caps. If we found a head, we pushed cap quills against the grain so they stood like Robin Hood’s hat on the dead bird’s pate as we looked into small shining pebbles of eyes turning opaque.
Our love of ruffed grouse was sealed. From those early days we camped in the culture of game birds – the only upland quarry in our woods - and locked our sites on scatter-guns, leather Irish Setter boots and a game bag with a canvas hunting hat bought at the hardware store for a buck.
Once, when I was old enough to hire on as a farm hand, I was met on a forest road by a grouse whose spring mating territory I and the Farm-All tractor I drove had encroached. I throttled down the tractor and the grouse strutted, its ruffs blazing, a look in its small black eyes like a comic book David meeting Goliath and confident of the outcome. In this case, I sat on the steel seat and watched in fascination as the ruff fluttered up and slammed the tractor with its feet, once, twice, then having accomplished whatever it thought necessary to keep this giant steel beast I rode from mating with its hens, the ruffed grouse strutted back into the forest, and I throttled up – the tractor’s engine sounding a lot like a drumming grouse – and went on my way.
I returned often that spring in the early morning before school to listen to that and other grouse drum, and I found their logs, crawled near them in an effort to shoot film of a drumming ruffed grouse in a Minnesota woodlot where trillium bloomed, but failed each time as school and the threat of tardiness waited.
From a high school teacher who worked closely with grouse biologists, I learned about drummers and satellite drummers, of color phases and cover, habitat and how those grouse where I lived depended mostly on the male buds of mature aspen trees for food especially in winter. A cold, wet spring can stymie a grouse population. Only 40 chicks of every 100 make it to fall. Of those just 18 survive the winter and 8 may live to mate the following year.
Numbers ticked like verb conjugation.
Hawks, owls, fox, skunks, coons and boys with shotguns all kill grouse, some more fluently than others. Hunters take the fewest compared to predators, and habitat, or the lack thereof influences survival rates.
These were hard grouse facts recounted as I filled trembling aspen leaves with BB holes and skidded shot against the silver bark of poplars in often vain effort at bagging birds each autumn, until I left.
It was many years later on an Idaho back road in spring that I was reacquainted with ole ruff. The road went past a farm gate and climbed a mountain as it narrowed and eventually ran through another gate, this one locked. I explored and stopped the pickup and smelled the perfume of cottonwoods that rose on warm air from the river. Robins and a varied thrush piped. I looked for turkey tracks. Then the sound like a lawnmower engine slowly starting until it whirred, and pumped through the trees. I climbed after it.
I still am.
Each spring on my acres I await the drumming of grouse. I know their logs, at least on my property, and some on the neighbors’ too. I built a blind one year to take pictures, but just as when I was a boy, the male ruffed grouse resorted to drumming on a secondary log and I got no photos.
You have to rise early to shoot pictures of drumming grouse.
My high school teacher did it often, and well.
“The grouse moved out when the turkeys moved in,” a neighbor said.
I think some of that is true. Idaho Fish and Game doesn’t bother much with ruffed grouse, preferring instead to call the bird “forest grouse,” in a move that mixes apathy with the economics of the game tag and the game bag. Merriam turkeys provide more opportunity the department likes to say and charges 18 bucks for a gobbler tag while, for grouse, the same limits apply no matter the species. This gives the impression to grouse hunters – the few that exist in the Gem State – that spruce, blue and ruffed grouse are just a mix and match bag, just fool's hens, so they ground sluice them, or blast them from a tree with a .22 for the pot.
As kids we were taught to wing shoot. It was a new phrase and we grew into it. Anyone shooting a bird on the ground or from a limb was thoroughly castigated, even though in some ways we secretly envied them their lack of scruples since our dads, uncles or mentors wouldn’t let us do it. The birds had to be shot on the fly because that we learned later, made us wing shooters, it honed our senses and intuition, it kept us on our toes and made us react with a drawn gun, a click of the safety and a pumped shell all in a fraction of a second, whether we hit bird or not. Ground blasters were something akin to dopes, the lesson went. They were the saliva spitting knuckle-draggers of the one-brow school where single syllable words met Hubba Bubba.
Because of this, we often hunted for days without killing a bird not without having the begeezus scared out of us as we blasted 7-shot wads through the trees at knee slapping, we assumed, ruffed grouse.
It’s late evening in spring. Tomorrow, down by the creek, the drumming of a ruffed grouse will whir over the steady sound of rushing water. The grouse will start early, in the tick of night, and he will drum until 9 or 10, long after the school bus has gone and the clanking of the log trucks going for a second load passes on the road nearby.
I may go out at first light, walk across the dew-wet field. I will move only when I hear the drumming and then stop when it stops. I will walk to the woods edge and then cross the creek. My shoes will be wet by then, my hands cold. The last stars will flicker in a sky getting blue.
The grouse will drum and I will push away brush, dogwood and the iron like whips of ocean spray. Syringa buds and catkins of cottonwoods will stick to my wool shirt.
When the grouse drums I will move toward the sound until I am very near the bird. I may hear it quietly cluck, or it may flush with the whirring thunder like muffled pyrotechnics. If I kneel, I may see it through the maze of brush on its log. May see it cup its wings and then pump, pump, pump like a lawnmower firing up.
I have done this a long time, and I plan to keep on.
A spring woods without grouse I have come to re-learn, is no spring woods at all, and a fall wood too needs grouse to test our reflexes and break us of epicurean habit.

-Ralph Skookum

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Boats, autumn, rivermen

All that remains of The Golden Star, a former steamer that was beached in 1955 at Springston.

SPRINGSTON--If you motor up the Coeur d’Alene River from the lake it is best, if you’re a novice, to do it early in the summer before the water warms and weeds climb up, curl and wave like maiden hair from the depths, constricting the channel and choking the prop.

The late season channel isn’t a bother to jet boaters who can be heard miles away burning fuel and gliding over the lake like a water skimmers.
The workers at Harrison Dock Builders too are well versed in the river’s ins and outs because their headquarters, moorage and paycheck is a mile upstream, so follow them.

Being on a river in a boat is a lot of what North Idahoans take for granted. The rivers here have always been working rivers. The Coeur d’Alenes used the rivers for navigation, their wildlife for sustenance, placed fish traps in the waterways, and carved bones onto hooks to catch the river’s trout and salmon.

Settlers floated logs on them and as their population grew the rivers became waterine highways for steamers, tugboats and brails of logs heading for the sawmills from St. Joe City to Post Falls.

A couple decades ago, even as late as the late 90s the men who skippered the steamers, working the rivers, hauling logs and material up and down to St. Maries, Springston and Winton could tell of the olden days on the water, but the bulk of them are dead and what remains are what we remember them telling us.

It’s always like this, only now, there are no visible remains of what these men knew, or rode or piloted. Not like the steel wheel tractors rusting in fields, or hay bines with the faded names of ag companies from the Midwest sunk half deep in erosion dirt in the draw of a wheat field. We have photographs of sleek boats with names like Pine Cat and Flyer, but they have for the most part been burned to the hull and sunk off some rocky point in deep water where only scuba divers glimpse them through bubbles of expelled air.

We don’t have the equivalent of rails or engines or cabooses next to fish ponds for travelers to ponder, or bucket chains and head stalls with information signs and rest areas.

So what did they say, the old skippers?

"I started out in 1925 as a lineman on the St. Joe Boom Company steam tugs," Gil Roe, who I talked to 12 years ago when he was 90-something said. His clear voice trailing his direct gaze like a wake from a vessel's prow. "I operated most of them."

There was the Pinecat, a tugboat owned by Lafferty Transportation Company, one of northern Idaho's premier tugboat companies. Lafferty Transportation towed logs on the Shadowy St. Joe River that runs from the Bitterroot Mountains west into Coeur d'Alene Lake, from 1918 until the 1970s when the outfit was sold.

The Cougar, another boat Mr. Roe piloted, was known 75 years ago as the cream of the crop among northern Idaho steam powered tugboats. He operated the St. Joe too, and the St. Maries, towing logs to mills mostly from lumber operations in the St. Joe River drainage.

The logs bore the brands of lumber companies and many were sawed and hauled from the mountains on trucks with water cooled brakes to landings along the river. They were dumped into the current and when the bobbing wood reached slower-moving water downstream, the logs were corralled and sorted by tugboat men and their crews.

The brails were towed from places such as Ramsdell on the St. Joe River, St. Maries and St. Joe City to Beedle Point at the southern end of Lake Coeur d’Alene, a trip of more than 24 hours.

From there, they were towed 48 hours to the north end and the sawmills around the city of Coeur d'Alene and Post Falls.

"You take in them early days," Mr. Roe said. "They would drive 200 million board feet of timber out of Marble Creek and float them free, and the company would take them down river from slack water."

On the St. Joe River, slack water began 13 miles upstream from St. Maries at Ferrell where the St. Joe Boom Company stored some of its logs. The town is gone now, alive only in the memories of people like Gil Roe, if the men and the memories still exist.

There were a variety of jobs available to men who wanted the work.
Those with savvy, and good balance often started out walking on floating logs with a large pronged pole - called a pike pole - used to push or hook logs.

It was Gil Roe's first job.

"It was caulk shoe work," he said.

Men wore nail-soled boots to keep from losing their footing. They stayed on the logs as they were towed down river using the pike poles to ensure the logs didn’t snag or slip from the brails.

Lunchtime was spent on the tow, or the tugboat, which could only be reached by a tightrope walk on the towline.

"When noon came and lunch was ready, why, you either walked that, or you stayed back there," Mr. Roe said. "But you had a pike pole that you balanced yourself with. The pike poles were about 10 or 12 feet long. We shimmied up them ropes and think nothing of it."

Hap Murphy was a former skipper too, who towed logs on the St. Joe River for almost two decades before the Second World War.

"It was the most beautiful place on earth," he said, thinking back at 90.

Although it still reflects some of its beauty, sometimes, the river now is just a shadow of its former paradise, he said.
Motorboat traffic and water backed up by the Avista Power dam has eroded its banks causing the once magnanimous cottonwoods to topple into the current, discoloring it with the mud and dirt they dislodge when they fall, he said.

"It's all one big puddle," he said. "It breaks my heart to go up the St. Joe River now."

There was a time, though, when a younger Hap Murphy spent his days, and many nights, piloting 50-foot steam tugs and diesel powered boats around the bends of the Shadowy Joe.

"The steam boats were wooden boats," he said. "They had 12 gauge iron on them so they could go through ice."

When the ice got too thick - about 18 inches - work ceased for a season.

But it is the summer and fall on the slack water of the St. Joe that Mr. Murphy recalled with a fondness of one who once knew the bends and sandbars in his sleep.

"In the fall, the fog would rise off the water and the sun would break through like opening a door or something," he said.

You can still motor your boat up and down the St. Joe and in the early mornings, especially in fall, you will see what Mr. Murphy was thinking about.

The river is lonely for the most part and once, a while back, I idled up on a cow and bull moose feeding along a bank displaying the slow ethereal grace of eons ago, as if I was in a pirogue with the sun at my back.

Last summer, I motored up the Coeur d’Alene River as well, to the Springston bridge and floated there just long enough to watch the sun tip through the cottonwoods and flicker on the shell of a boat on the bank.

The former mayor of Harrison, a lifer of the lake and river had a particular grace when speaking of the olden times. Glenn Addington was a skipper of the steamers too, and it was the boat he ran aground on the banks of the Coeur d’Alene River at Springston that got me going on this.

When I first came into the country I thought the Golden Star was a mishap, or a feat of malfeasance. Its wooden skeleton – there was more left then – was carved more or less into the sandy bank under the steel bridge where the community of Springston once sprawled to the mill, which is gone too.

I knew little of the area's history, and especially this, until I dug around and talked with old timers and knocked on the door of the Harrison museum.

I didn’t hear what Glenn Addington said about the boat he beached on the bank in 1955 after piloting her for 18 years, pulling log rafts down the St. Joe and Coeur d’Alene Rivers.

Instead, I read it in a newspaper from 1981, so here it is:

“There was always an oily, steamy, hot smell,” Mr. Addington told the Spokesman Review. “I can still smell it…You never get cold on a steam boat.”

The Golden Star was 63 feet long, 14 feet wide and drew seven and a half feet of water. It was built in 1937 for the Russell and Pugh Lumber Co. and its operation at Springston by a man named Andrew Knudson, who had a reputation for “building his boats with a hatchet.” The marks from the blade could be seen on the hull of the boat before they were weathered away.

The Golden Star was converted to diesel in 1945 and its steam engine was used in the Springston mill to run a conveyor belt, a fate that Mr. Addington compared to “putting a racehorse out to pasture.”

“Steam is different than diesel,” he said. “You take the energy from the water, from the lake. You pump it into a boiler, build a little fire under it and you have energy. Can you beat that?”

And the only sound a steamer made was the huffing in the stack, like a horse doing work.

“The water was free. All you had to do was convert it to steam,” he said.

He recalled the olden days along the river, when he tied up along the bank under the stars and the quiet huff of the engine, the humm of swarming bugs and fish rising to them were the only sounds.

At 74, he lamented that he hadn’t jerked the boat off the shore, tied it to a couple cedar logs and floated it to Harrison where it could have been made a showpiece, like those tractors and trains at roadside attractions, instead of letting her rot on the riverbank.

After so many years under foot, rocking him to sleep, and churning him awake, he still felt an attachment to the craft and its machinery.

“It’s like an extension of your body,” he said. "You get so you have a sense about how far you can go with it. You develop a sixth sense.”

Ralph Bartholdt/ Skookum Photography