Once, when I lived over the mountains in Missoula, Montana, I had the good fortune to know Johnny Walker. As brief as our acquaintance was, he was my best friend and I was his. And I’m the only one who knows the true story of his tragic death……because I was there. So here, dear reader, is the true story of the life and death of Johnny Walker.
It all started one soft June day when I packed my old lunchbox and drove up the Big Blackfoot River to catch the main ingredients of a ﬁsh-fry. I parked my rig and hiked in to a beautiful pool on a relatively inaccessible stretch of river. Now, I know this is going to shock you ﬂy ﬁshing purists and I’m ashamed to admit it, but, well…..I was ﬁshing with worms. Yes, it sounds crass and unsporting (and it was) but I was ﬁshing for dinner. And I didn’t know any better.
Anyhow, there I was, standing on a grassy bank next to a deep clear pool, with a spinning rod and a can of worms. Now these Blackfoot River ﬁsh were used to ﬁsherman ﬂailing the water with ﬂy lines and bits of feather. My offering of worms was something new and they fell for it hook, line, and sinker, so to speak. I was catching ﬁsh on each cast, as soon as worm hit water. So fast were they biting that I got carried away with the ﬁsh fever madness. (Again, I’m ashamed to admit it, but it’s true.)
As soon as I took a ﬁsh off the hook I simply tossed it into the grass behind me, baited up, and cast again. There’s no telling how long my madness might have lasted had something not happened to break the spell. One of the ﬁsh in the grass behind me, a ﬁne twelve inch cutthroat, was actually walking on his ﬁns back toward the Big Blackfoot. Helped along with vigorous wags of his tail, he was walking surprisingly quickly (for a ﬁsh) back to the water. Of course, I snatched him up and tossed him back up the bank. Twisting in the air like a cat, he landed on his feet, I mean his ﬁns, and started back for the water. Now, he was my best ﬁsh and I didn’t want to lose him so again I tossed him up the bank. And again, he headed for the water. Only by now he was beginning to stagger a little, his gills laboring painfully in the dry air. By now my madness was passing and I began to see things from the ﬁsh’s point of view. Quickly ﬁlling my lunchbox with river water I gently placed him inside and hovered over him as he slowly recovered. I know what you’re thinking: I should have released him back into the river. But I just couldn’t do it. He was my best ﬁsh, a walking ﬁsh, a brave ﬁsh and I just couldn’t part with him. Gathering up the rest of my catch (now deceased), I freshened the water in the lunchbox and headed for town.
As soon as I got home I ran a bathtub of cold water, put my amazing cutthroat in it, dropping in a couple worms just in case he was hungry. Over the next few days I fed him and changed his water regularly. Sometimes I’d take him out of the water and put him on the ﬂoor just to watch him walk. I named him Johnny Walker. As time went by I realized he was becoming more tolerant of being out in the air, spending more and more time walking about the house. Eventually he progressed to the point he was following me around the house all day, only returning to his bathtub at night to sleep.
———To Be Continued——-
Such was the life of Cutthroat Johnny Walker. Next time, I’ll tell you more about his amazing life and relate the circumstances of his tragic death. I can’t write more now as I have to get ready to attend the Little Shell Chippewa Powwow at the First People’s Buffalo Jump near Ulm, Montana August 29-30th, 2015. Look for my booth at the powwow.
Back in the days of my youth the world seemed fresh and new or maybe it was just me that was fresh and new. It was during that time that I took my first solo backpack trip high into the Montana Mountains. Today we know it’s unwise to travel alone in the wilderness but this was in those by-gone days when I was indestructible and just a bit immortal, to boot. Grizzlies? No problem!
That first day out I hiked all day and even into the early evening, finally topping out on a high, bare ridge under the big sky. At the far, far edge of the world was the grandmother of all sunsets! At the time, it seemed an ideal place to camp. Besides, I was exhausted and it was getting dark, not to mention I wasn’t sure where I was.
I was too tired to set up my tent and it was a fine clear night with the stars beginning to appear in that big, big sky. So I just rolled out my sleeping bag and lay on my back looking up at all those stars. This was back in the days when the ground was still smooth and soft. I was at peace with the world, my tired body resting lightly on the earth. Absolute silence.
I sat up with a start. What the h--- was that?! I looked all about swiveling my neck like a startled owl. As best I could tell in the star shine, I was all alone on that high, bare ridge.
I lay back down still looking up at the stars, eyes wide open and ears alert to the slightest sound. Peace reigned once again.
This time I jumped up out of bed and stood looking around, trembling with let’s say nervous energy. I even walked a small circle around my camp. Nothing. All was calm and peaceful.
I was beginning to get chilled and there was no other living thing to be seen so I crawled back in my sleeping bag, curled up in, well, in the fetal position, actually, with my head covered and determined to stay awake all night, listening.
The next thing I knew, the stars were gone and the sun was rising on the other side of that big sky.
To this day I have no idea what creature was up there on that ridge with me that long ago night. From the sound it made it had to be at least as big as a man, a young man, anyway.
Many years ago, before I got to be so wise and mature, even venerable, as you see me now, I went fishing far up a creek that runs through a canyon and into the upper Blackfoot River. I drove my old car in as far as I could get it, then climbed on up the canyon to fish the pools between a series of waterfalls that roared down from snowfields far above.
It was great fishing for anyone willing to cling to a wet cliff face while casting into the calm pockets on the downstream side of boulders the size of Buicks. And I had it all to myself: there weren’t any other fools up there.
At the end of the day I made my way back down to the car with some mighty nice fish; enough for a hearty supper. I decided to build a fire and cook them mountain man style and eat them right there. By the time I finished, it was getting dark, at least down there in that canyon. I decided to roll out my bedroom there by the car and get up at dawn to catch some more fish to take back to town.
After a good night’s sleep I awoke at daybreak and stood up in my bedroll to pull on my jeans. From the corner of my eye I saw movement. After a quick double-take I was staring at a running bear. Now a bear at full gallop is placing his hind feet in front of his front feet and moving at an awful speed. It’s especially awful when he’s coming directly at you.
The next thing I knew, I was inside my car and trying to slam the door shut, only the bear’s head was in the way. I slammed it anyway and at the last fraction of a second ol’ mister bear threw his snout straight up in the air and the door grazed his chin as it slammed shut. He hung around for a while, walking around on his hind legs and glaring through the windows at me. After a few minutes he ambled off, no doubt looking for something else to terrorize.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re wondering if I went fishing again as planned, or wisely packed up and went back to town. All I’ll say is that it’s very difficult to cling to a wet cliff face while casting into calm pockets below boulders the size of Buicks while staring backward over your shoulder. But it was worth it: after all, I had the place all to myself.
This is my first "Buckskin Jim's Absolutely True Experiences" story, so I hope you enjoy!
I went out scouting mountain game trails the other day, looking for main routes between drainages and along ridges and streams. I was on an obviously well-run trail through the Douglas fir that angled down off the top of the ridge toward the meadow below. I sat on a log to sketch the trail on my map.
Now, I don’t use GPS and all that electronic stuff. I do just fine with my old Sylva compass and a topo map, thank you. If I’m going to get lost, I prefer the good old-fashioned method.
Anyhow, there I was on my log, bent over, orienting map and compass and pinpointing the location on my map. I suddenly got the uncomfortable feeling I was being watched: not a nice feeling in the Montana forest 5 miles south nowhere.
Looking up, I discovered a bull moose standing 30 feet away in the trail, his trail, and studying this strange trespasser. He didn’t seem to know what I was. He looked more curious than angry and I sincerely wanted to keep it that way, at least as far as the angry part.
I gave him a nervous grin and a friendly little wave. He lowered his head and ambled forward like maybe he wanted to shake hands. Now, I didn’t want him angry at me, but this excessive friendliness was nearly as bad:what if he doesn’t like me once he gets to know me?
I waved my map at him and said, “Shoo!” Maybe not a good idea, but I was running out of options. His expression of friendly curiosity changed to one of disappointment, even hurt, at my rejection of his friendly advances. After giving me a long dejected look, he turned and trudged sadly back down the trail.
As part of this blog, I am going to be sharing with you my Montana adventures. All my stories will be posted under the category, "Buckskin Jim's Absolutely True Experiences". I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoy sharing them with you!