Rocky Mountain Front's First Ranger (Part 3 of 3)

The Rocky Mountain Front’s Sawtooth Reef stands tall among the foothills west of Augusta, Montana.

Authors’ note: This piece is excerpted from a report Clyde Fickes wrote in May 1944. It appeared in Volume 1- Early Days In The Forest Service. His words excerpted but are unedited. Fickes retired from the Forest Service in 1947. He died on Dec. 29, 1987, at age 103, from an accident on the dance floor.

For a Ranger Station, no more isolated or lonesome spot could have been found. Visitors were practically unheard of for months at a time. The nearest neighbor was Johnny Mortimer who homesteaded in the gulch named for him. Johnny was a recluse and a bachelor. He never went to town. He had complete surveillance of all approaches. If he was not in the mood and a visitor approached, he would simply fade away into the rocky cliffs behind the cabin and would not come out until the visitor left. Whenever I was going to Augusta, I would let him know. He would give me a list of anything he needed, and I always picked up any mail for him. Several old-time friends paid him periodic visits. Sometimes one of them would stay all night at the cabin, but Johnny would not come in.

About the most convenient facility connected with the Sun River District was the built-in bathtub with hot and cold running medicated water. There was a warm, almost hot, mineral spring at the forks of the North and South Fork. Over the years users of the spring had dug out a sizable pool. There was a cave where the water came out. I took advantage of this convenience whenever possible. I was told by some of the old-timers that in the '90s, in the late summer and early fall, a hundred or more folks from as far down as Great Falls would be camped at the springs. It was a beautiful spot until the Reclamation outfit ruined it with Gibson dam. In the fall of 1907 I helped build a beautiful two- room log cabin on the flat just below the spring. When Gibson Dam was built, the cabin was moved up to Arsenic Creek and burned in the 1919 fire. Incidentally, there was a double log cabin on Arsenic Creek known as the Choteau or Medicine Cabin, built by some Choteau men and used as a hunting camp in the fall. It was a convenient stopping place for all of us travelers.

What about the forest fires? Well, there just weren't any. I do not recall that we had any lightning to speak of all that summer, and it was plenty hot at times. Also, there were not very many people roaming around in the hills.

When I left Kalispell, my equipment consisted of a regular stock saddle with a blanket and bridle and a sawbuck packsaddle with a blanket and saddle pad, a pair of canvas alforjas (pack bags), a halter, and a lead rope for the packhorse. Camp equipment, consisting of two long- handled fry pans, three tin plates, coffee pot, table knives, forks and spoons, a hunting knife in scabbard, a .32 Special 1894 Winchester rifle with leather scabbard, my camp bed, and extra clothes, a yellow Fish brand slicker (raincoat to you) and a canvas pack cover 7x7.

My food supply consisted of a slab of Winchester bacon, 10 pounds flour, can of baking powder, salt, sugar, canned tomatoes, corn, string beans and milk-three of each. This stuff made a packhorse's load about 180 pounds. It was packed in the alforjas, which made two side packs for the packhorses, and the bed folded into a top pack with the canvas pack over it-rain and dust proof. Then I threw a diamond hitch (the one-man diamond which Jack Clack showed me) over the canvas cover, and we were ready to travel. The saddle horse carried the rifle in a leather scabbard, which hung from the saddle horn, my slicker, and me, which spent in travel with this kind of an outfit. Each individual used his own variation according to personal ideas and desires.

Cooking was done over an open fire, and you soon became accustomed to a regular routine of setting up camp. First, the horses were turned out to graze. Maybe you hobbled them or picketed one and turned the others loose to graze. Then you rustled some dry wood, selected a place downwind for your campfire, and got the fire started. Then you set up camp. Most of us carried a 7x9 tent with 18-inch sidewalls; this was pitched in a convenient dry place. The bedroll was spread over fir boughs, if you were inclined to luxury. By that time, the fire had burned down to a good bed of coals (only tenderfeet attempt to cook over a blazing fire). You ate, washed dishes, smoked a pipe or two or a cigarette, took a good look at the horses and probably, just before bedding down, decided for various reasons -- poor feed, stormy weather prospects -- to catch the horses and tie them up for the night. For various reasons, known only to a horse, they will take off during the night; and you have a long walk to find them. Sometimes you don't find them for 3 or 4 days; that's hard on the legs, not to mention your temper. In the morning you start a fire, check the horses, fix breakfast, pack up, bring in the horses, saddle up, and you are on your way.

In those early days you probably spent an hour or two cutting logs out of the trail or just clearing the way to get through to where you wanted to go. That was the way you lived in the field, as it is sometimes referred to. Old Henry Waldref had a homemade sheet iron folding stove that he packed with him. On a cold wet night, it would make a 7x9 tent almost luxurious living. Oh yes, most of us packed a sourdough can with us at all times. Couldn't live without it!

So went the life of a forest ranger in 1907-08.

Compiled/Edited by Rick & Susie Graetz
University of Montana
Department of Geography