By Ken Fischman, Ph.D.
It was a dream job. Lanie and I had been chosen by Idaho Fish & Game (IDF&G)to be the sole summer caretakers and guides at their Stonebraker Wilderness Ranch, The ranch was situated at Chamberlain Basin, in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, a 3.5 million acre tract straddling the Salmon River in the middle of the state. We had many wonderful adventures there. It just shows how great a job you can get, if you do not care how little you are paid.
Our time at Chamberlain Basin was almost up now. September had arrived, almost unexpectedly, and we knew that we would be leaving soon. The mornings already had the snap of autumn air in them, and we had to fly out around mid month.before the snows arrived, It was this realization that spurred my decision to camp out at least once.
We had comfortable quarters in one of the log cabins behind the main dining room/kitchen building and just down the hill from the showers and bathrooms. It was not exactly luxurious. The furnishings were rudimentary and sparse, and the only heat in the surprisingly cold mornings came from the cabin’s wood stove that I had to start in the darkness.
Nevertheless, we did have gas lights, a gas range and refrigerator in the kitchen/dining building, and hot water, along with flush toilets in the shower building, courtesy of a solar panel which ran the water pump from the creek in back of the hill. We even had a generator that was used to run the washing machine.
We had taken many hikes, but we had always returned to Stonebraker Ranch in the evening. This was not roughing it. I felt I had to do something about this before it was too late, so I announced to Lanie that I was going to camp out the following night.
I already knew exactly where I wanted to camp. I must have identified it subliminally on one of our hikes. It was a wooded area about a mile away to the southeast of the pasture and down two slopes from the ranch, where mounted visitors were supposed to leave their horses to browse. There was a small but flat grassy area, between two cottonwood trees. One side of it was directly above a ten foot bank leading down to a little creek that meandered out of the woods and through a wet meadow. It was an isolated and lovely place.
I carefully gathered the minimum equipment and food I that I needed, just a sleeping bag, some commercial freeze-dried food, a few pots, and some matches. No tent or stove for me. After all, I had been taught how to survive with even less by the legendary wilderness survival teacher Tom Brown, Jr. I was tough!
I said goodbye to Lanie at the ranch house door in the late afternoon and started on my way. I left about three hours to hike out, set up my camp, and cook dinner before twilight set in. It was a lovely evening as I walked, first through the emerald green and sweet smelling tall grass meadows, then down the two slopes to the group of trees I had in mind.
I arrived in what seemed a surprisingly short time, and proceeded to set up my rather rudimentary camp. I gathered an ample supply of dry wood from fallen lodge pole pine branches and dead branches jutting out from other nearby trees, and proceeded to lay my fire carefully. I intended it to be a one match fire, and I succeeded. I felt like a mountain man.
I scrambled down to the creek to get some water with which to cook dinner. The stream, which was a tiny tributary of Chamberlain Creek at that point, flowed softly, with a gentle whooshing sound, just below the steep bank. Soon the food was cooking. It is funny, but in situations like this, I had noticed on previous canoeing and camping trips that even ordinary camp food smelled and tasted as delicious as cuisine from an upscale French restaurant. It is supposed to have something to do with what they call the “presentation” in such snooty places.
Well, Nature’s presentation that night could not be beaten. As twilight fell and the shadows from the trees lengthened , a soft breeze rustled the leaves high up in the cottonwood trees. I looked around at the enchanting scene, first down to the sweet, gurgling creek ,then across the meadow, and to the edge of the dark forest.
As I ate, and savored the food, stars began to be visible and the moon rose. What more could I want from a wilderness camp-out?
After dinner, I went back down the bank and washed my pots and other utensils with sand that I scooped up from the creek. I walked along the top of the bank about hundred feet south of my camp and hung these things up along with the next morning’s food. Now they were dangling high above me, on a tree branch where bears could not get to the food. I had even thought of that, and was quite self-satisfied about it.
I walked back to camp, confidant that my precautions lessened the possibility of visits from critters during the night. I snuggled into my down sleeping bag, making a pillow from my red jacket, stuffed inside my dark blue wool sweater. Yellow and orange flames from the fire flickered and popped a few feet away, giving off a wonderful resinous pine aroma. I was very content.
As the last few embers gave off an ever decreasing red glow, I began to drift off into sleep. Then, the wolves began to howl.
I was instantly wide awake. I realized from the direction and volume of their howls that the wolves were on the other side of the stream and meadow, probably just inside the fringe of trees where the woods began. That meant that they were less than a hundred yards from me. A shiver slid down my vertebral column, from the axis and atlas vertebrae just under my skull, right down to my coccyx, where my tail should have been. If, like most mammals I had had hair on my spine, it would have been standing straight up.
I was scared. Everything I really knew about wolves went right out of my mind. Images of Little Red Riding Hood played hide and seek with that of a ravenous wolf pack chasing a Russian sleigh on a snowy night while its occupants threw the baby to them in order to save themselves from being torn to bits.
I lay there shivering, realizing that only my thin sleeping bag lay between my body and those crushing, razor-sharp teeth. I was trapped. Where was my 30-30 rifle with the telescopic sight and silver bullets? Oh, oh. I did not own one! Well then, where could I go? Run for home? Too far I thought. Climb a tree? Damn, these were cottonwoods and pine, with long straight trunks, impossible for me to scramble up. Why was there not a fir friendly tree nearby, with low, wide spread branches? I lay still, with my mind racing, trying to think of a life saving strategy.
Well, Lanie will tell you that I can sleep through anything, and I proved it that night. The next thing I knew, the sun was warming my face and a gentle breeze stirred the cottonwood leaves above me. I was still alive! I woke with a start, and looked around me. No wolves ominously circling. I breathed the fresh, cold air deeply a few times, unzipped the sleeping bag, got up, and padded around the periphery of my camp, searching the ground. No wolf tracks. I collected my senses, as well as the camping equipment.
I headed home, to Stonebraker. Ho hum, just another beautiful day in Idaho, but I had a good story to tell.