I grew up in a wilderness camp at the forks of White River and the South Fork of White River. The easiest route into White River was from the trailhead at Benchmark, 30 miles west of Augusta. From there it is 27 miles (at least seven hours) on horseback over the Continental Divide at White River Pass.
During hunting season we ran the main camp with 10-12 guided hunters and two drop camps of six hunters each. One drop camp was in the Flathead Alps. The other was near the forks of White River and Cliff Creek. Although each camp was in different directions, they were each about six miles from the main camp.
Drop camp hunters were without horses. When they got game, one of their party needed to hike to the main camp for mules and a packer. Depending on what was going on it may take from two-to-four days to make the trip and get game out.
We provided everything in the camp except food and hunters personal gear. Any food that was left over at the end of the hunt became ours. This eliminated those people who didn’t make a menu, packed three mule loads of food in and two mule loads of food out.
In 1978, I took leave and came home from the Panama Canal Zone to pack and guide for two 10-day hunts. During one of the hunts, Cliff Creek campers stopped in camp and said they had at least two 5x5 bull elk down and probably another and possibly a mule deer. We told the hunter we’d be up in the morning.
It normally takes two mules per elk and one mule per deer. Because of the distance I took eight mules and one riding horse. The horse was for the hunter to ride while he showed me the game.
Starting out in dark, 10 head of stock only clip-clopped on frozen mud trail. It was light when I got to Cliff Creek campsite—and cold. They invited me in for coffee. On the first cup, I reached thick grounds less than half way into the cup. I casually went to the tent flap and flipped the grounds out the door and refilled my cup. Again, I was straining grounds through my teeth—lots of grounds.
I asked and one of the hunters replied, “Yeah, we brought a three pound can of coffee for the trip. For the first five days we just emptied half the coffee into the pot and kept adding water. Now, we’re into the second five days. We emptied the rest of the coffee in the pot and will just keep adding water ‘til we leave.”
While I finished a third half-cup of coffee, I was given some news. They hadn’t got the other elk and deer. I only had to get two elk that were at the head of Cliff Creek near the Chinese Wall (not the Great Wall of China). The Chinese Wall is a overthrust cliff 1000 feet high and about 15 miles long. The cliff faces east. The west side is a steep, rocky hillside (mountainside?). The Chinese Wall also marks the Continental Divide for much of its length.
The lower half of Cliff Creek is a tangle of lodgepole thicket. As the altitude increases, the upper end of Cliff Creek is relatively open. Whenever I went halfway up Cliff Creek, I made a loop up to the Chinese Wall and came down by Needle Falls, instead of weasling my way back down.
I tied the heads up on three mules and turned them loose at the Cliff Creek camp. Common practice. They would drift back to the main camp where someone would catch and feed them.
My “guide” took me on a tour of lower Cliff Creek. We found a trail of orange engineer ribbon, and followed it until it ended in a gut pile with ravens. There was no game.
I asked, “Where are the elk?”
My “guide” said, “Well, the birds found them, so the guys moved them.”
I asked, “Where did they take them?”
He replied, “I don’t know. I didn’t come up here.”
Then, I asked, “Did they mark it with tape?”
“No. They didn’t want the birds to find them.”
(This conversation actually happened, verbatim.)
I tied the mules up, and started a search. The elk had been moved several hundred yards up the canyon. The problem was—THEY WERE NOT ELK!!!
I told my “guide” that they had put their elk tags on a couple of small mule deer bucks. He was embarrassed. I was something else.
The hunters had been nice, they had quartered the deer. Since they had been quartered, it was easy to manty (pack in tarps and ropes for a good mule load) and make one mule load. If the deer had been whole, I would have had to pack each on a separate mule.
The hunter went back to Cliff Creek camp, and I went up to the top of the world. The map shows my route for the day. The spot marked “P” is where I took the photo of my overly large pack string. The view is looking north at the very head of Cliff Creek.
Several days later I returned to Cliff Creek camp to pack them out. Because of the distances involved, I always went to the camp the night before they were scheduled to pack out. While I was enjoying their final evening meal of noodles and meat, I noticed strange bones in the noodles. I remarked that I had never seen bones like that before. They all laughed and said, “Then you’ve never had snowshoe rabbit. We ran out of meat a couple days ago, so we been killin’ rabbits.”
There is an old saying that the only difference between a fairy tale and a war story is the fairy tale starts out, “Once upon a time . . ,” and the war story begins, “No shit, this really happened.” This really happened.
Photo taken the day of this story. Taken from spot marked "P" on map, looking north at the head of Cliff Creek. Cliff Mountain on the Chinese Wall is in the background. Note that there is only one load from my two "elk."