|These Octember days|
|Wednesday, July 11, 2012|
The sky was so blue it hurt to look at it. Puffs of clouds stayed high above. Almost as high, as the eagle whirling, screeing and riding the thermals. I reckon he was searching for a meal far below in the sage. Not quite October but tasting like it, it was an Octember day, a day in late September that just feels as though it is October.
We were at a trailhead high at the base of the Tetons, Ronnie Many Horses and I. It was a day for fishing a lake seldom fished, maybe never by a white man. Ronnie, my friend and sometimes rodeo-traveling partner, is a full blood Shoshone and my guide for a day on the Wind River reservation. Back then, a reservation permit cost four dollars. It was a long time ago.
Ronnie’s dad, Wayne trucked us up to this trailhead. From there, it was about a two-hour ride to the lake. The lake was too small to be on most maps and for that reason, it was doubtful many white men knew about it.
The lake actually had no name. The Shoshone and Arapaho called it Apsaroke. That roughly means Crow. Ronnie told me the lake was a favorite camping place for Crow raiding parties going and coming from horse stealing expeditions. He said there were Crow pictographs on some of the rock walls, drawings of mounted warriors with elk and strings of horses. It was their way of letting the Dukurika, the Sheep Eating Shoshone who lived in the high country; know the Crow had been there. The lake was full of both rainbow and cutthroat trout.
As we saddled up, Wayne pointed out a forest fire burning about 60 miles away. Slurry bombers were attacking it. He warned us to watch the wind and keep an eye out. He said if the wind changed, it could blow the fire through a pass and right toward the lake. It would come quickly. The pass was a gateway to the bowl that held the lake. Everything came and went through that pass except us. Ronnie knew a trail in through a notch.
Finally, with the horses saddled, lunches and rods tied on and a last check on the fire, we headed up and into the notch. The air was rich with sage and the smell of pine and autumn. The aspens would be turning any day but today, everything was still green and clean. Octember at its’ best.
The lake nestled in a bowl some 1,500 feet higher than the trailhead. The horse I was riding, was, as Ronnie put it, “Not too fast but she makes up for it with clumsiness.” I called her Ole Stumbler. We talked a bit about the Shoshone as we rode on.
“Unlike other bands in the area,” Ronnie said, “the Dukurika were peaceful and did not move in summer and winter. They lived year-round in the edge of the mountains. They did not get in battles much unless they went berdache, a word that means anything from insane to just badly pissed off.” I could understand that.
In a park, through the aspens bordering the trail, we saw a small band of elk. Two young bulls and a couple cows merely watched us ride by. “That would make some good freezer meat.” said Ronnie. I saw him briefly touch the rifle in his saddle boot. We both carried rifles and handguns for bear protection. Being a full blood Shoshone and on the res, Ronnie could shoot anything he wanted anytime. However, we were fishing. A bear would not be concerned with what we were doing.
We stopped at a small stream and let the horses blow. The air was so clear and sharp you could taste it. It was the sort of day you only find in the Mountains. Octember. “Ole Tam Apo is happy today.” Ronnie said. “So is Tam Segobia. Tam Apo is the God above. He is so big he needs the whole sky. Tam Segobia is Mother Earth and controls all things related to the ground,” Ronnie explained. “They got together, mated and created everything including a coyote and a wolf. The coyote is a trickster and tries to fool humans into taking the wrong path. The wolf is smart and honest and tries to lead humans down the right path.” Ronnie looked back and grinned. “You white guys are always making things complicated. You try to think your way to God. We just follow the Wolf. Things are either good or bad. Makes it simple,” he laughed.
Suddenly, Ronnie hollered and jerked his horse to a sliding stop. I had no choice but to follow suit. Just to our right, a tiny bear cub, obviously just a couple months old, was up a tree about 20-feet high. We both jerked our rifles out and chambered a round. Momma could not be far away. It was a good time to be somewhere else. My feet drummed a tattoo on Ole Stumbler’s ribs and she proved to be as slow as Ronnie predicted. I followed what I could see of his horse at a dead, stumble. We never saw momma and almost rode into the lake.
Picture an oval soup bowl surrounded by rock walls with a pass making an opening at one end to let the storms in. On the lower reaches of the other end, the rock filtered down and became pine studded, a green frame for the lake. In years gone by, the Dukurika hunted sheep on the rocky slopes, hence the name Sheep Eating Shosone. A mound of stone called Turtles Hump; I don’t know the Shoshone word, guards one side of Apsaroke. The other is a sheer wall. The lake was at the head of a long valley.
The lake was a blinding blue oval with little fingers of snowmelt tricking in at various places and a stream trickling out. The notch we came in through was where the stream went out.
Overhead, two eagles wheeled and played, looking for fish in the shallows. The pines gave way to flat, rocky beaches of less than 30-feet with aspens just turning a yellow-gold. The lake was maybe 30-acres in size. Who knows how deep? Glaciers make deep gouges. The surface dimpled with trout feeding on some sort of hatch. A raven croaked ahead of us.
I asked Ronnie if ravens were harbingers of trouble. “I don’t know what harbinger means,” he said. “To us, the raven is like a cousin to the coyote; he tries to fool humans and usually is around when things happen, sometimes good, sometimes bad. Ravens tell when something is dead or when something is coming or moving. We never know what it is. That one is croaking at us. Or maybe a bear,” he smiled.
We tied our horses in a clearing and began to unsaddle. My saddle was an old Ernst I had had for quite a while. I had last used it gathering cattle in South Texas and it still had tapaderos on the stirrups. Ronnie looked at them asked what they were. I explained they covered the front of the foot and protected the rider from mesquite and cactus thorns when riding full out brush popping. “Hm. White man think of that?” No, I told him, Mexicans. He smiled, “Figures”.
I assembled my rod, keeping an eye and ear out for bear and tied a gold Colorado Fighting Fish on the four-pound line. It is a small, 1/8-ounce spoon-looking thing in the shape of a fish, cost about 35-cents back then. Trout love it. Once we had our stuff together, we pulled on hip boots, shed our jackets and made sure our pistols were loaded.
I headed one way around the lake, Ronnie the other. The water was as cold as you would expect in a lake fed by melting snow. As I stepped in, I saw a rainbow about a foot long finning in the rocks just at my feet.
I mused that he was making a good target for one of the circling eagles. Then it was gone in a flash. An omen? I waded out within a few inches of the top of my boots and made a cast along the rocky drop off. One twitch of the rod tip and BAM! Fish on!
It went that way for three hours. Fish after fish, none larger than a pound. We had agreed to keep two fish each for our lunch. I selected two, 13-14-inches long. I placed them on the cold, long green grass that grew among rocks, in the shallow water ready for cleaning. I could smell the smoke of the cook fire. At least, I hoped that was the smoke I smelled.
Ronnie had the skillet ready and the rest of our lunch lay out ready for my ministrations. Somewhere he had come up with a chunk of butter and three lemons. There were two large potatoes, an onion and a lone tomato. Four cans of beer, still dripping from the frigid lake sat on a rock. I added my two fish to the batch and we fell to.
I asked if Ronnie would be elk hunting this fall. I had punched my ticket two weeks before on a special draw hunt for Pole Mountain. “My family hunts here every fall,” he said. “My dad, two brothers and my uncle in Greybull will all come up here and camp just a ways up the lake by the picture rocks. We always do well, the elk move down when the snow comes to the peaks. They gather here in the valley where there is grass. I take a few days off from school and we camp for a week.
“Some years the Walks Fast family joins us. We all pack in, maybe 15 horses. Good to wake up and see all the horses in the meadow at the end of the lake.”
I had the potatoes sliced and sizzling in the skillet. Ronnie was wrapping each trout in aluminum foil with butter and slices of lemon and a healthy dose of salt and pepper. He placed each singly wrapped trout on a small latticework of green branches over some hot coals. Lunch was making.
“After lunch we need to start back. Tam Apo has shifted the wind. The fire could come this way,” Ronnie said. I could tell no difference in the wind. As far as I could see, the leaves still blew in the same direction. I had no more than thought that when the wind shifted 180-degrees. The raven croaked and gargled somewhere behind us.
Lunch was a work of art. Just the right amount and the trout, the best I have ever had, firm, sweet and with just right amount of lemon.
As we saddled for the ride out, Ronnie looked at my tapaderos again. “Damn good idea them things.” He said, “No wonder a white man didn’t think of them.”
One of the better days. I have never had a chance to fish the reservation again.
I graduated and left Wyoming and on my few trips back, did not see Ronnie or get near the reservation. But I have never forgotten that Octember day.
Contact JOHN L. SLOAN /