Sioux Charley Trail, Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness (Winter Count #1)

Stillwater River, inside the A-B boundary, on the trail to Sioux Charley
Stillwater River, inside the A-B boundary, on the trail to Sioux Charley

Stillwater River, inside the A-B boundary, on the trail to Sioux Charley

Many Plains tribes kept winter counts, pictographs of significant events strung together on buffalo hides and serving as a physical record of the year, a document of experience. This entry serves as the first in a series of winter counts.

4:30 A.M. Pitch black. Deep winter. Nothing but darkness and cold. Jack Ballard and I are making time up the trail before first light for an end-of-the-season deer hunt. The light from my headlamp swings back and forth, making me dizzy. I turn it off and move silently up the canyon. We’re aiming for a spot about three miles up and across the river. We want to get there before legal shooting light. Neither one of us is talking, just breathing and moving as rapid as we can. My breathing labors as we move up canyon. The gurgling sounds of the Stillwater racing down the canyon fill my ears. I’m finding my rhythm. Sweat starts forming under my hat.

Out of nowhere it hits us — a howl comes straight out of the darkness. We freeze. It rings out again, loud and longer, breaking towards us from straight across the river. My back shivers. “That ain’t no coyote,” Jack says. I see my breath in the beam of my headlamp before I realize I’ve switched it on. Neither one of us moves. Nothing happens. The wolf is gone. I switch off my headlamp. Darkness rushes back in. We turn and head up trail.

This photo was taken just where the canyon yawns open and the Stillwater lies quiet above the canyon. Each time I pass this spot I’m reminded of that howl. All day that wolf trailed us. We heard him only rarely, but he was always there, just out of sight, tracking us, watching us.

We had brought an old pair of knee-high rubber boots I had left over from days pouring concrete. Our plan was that one of us would cross the river in the rubber boots and then toss the boots to the other. Nice plan. It worked out well for me. I crossed over, changed back into my leather hiking boots, and lined up on the bank. Jack lined up on the opposite bank. I cocked my arm and threw. Perfect toss. One down. On the second throw, the wet rubber slipped through my hands, sending the boot six feet forward where it splashed into the middle of the Stillwater. It took off downriver and was gone in a flash. Jack waded across with a boot, a bare foot, and a scowl. As we built a small fire to dry him out, we could hear the wolf just out of sight, howling, moving through brush.