By Hal Herring
There is a place northeast of Malta, Montana, and just south of the Canadian border, called Frenchman’s Creek. There’s not much of a creek there, although long ago, in some rainier, ice-melting epoch of atlatl-throwing hunters and thundering bison, there must have been, because there’s a wild and complicated system of breaks there--coulees cut deep by water, with wind scoured badlands, strange hoodoo figures of soft rock carved and sculpted by weather. There’s no place I know that is more out of the way, or where it would be more pure fun and adventure to chase some old toad of a mule deer buck, grown old and wily way out here where only the hardiest hunters threaten him. And he’s there. This is all public land we’re talking about and it’s way out beyond the gumbo roads, out where the mosquitoes whine and the rattlesnakes take the sun on the pale clay banks, the sky goes on forever and any misstep, my friend, and you’ll be in just as much trouble as any careless atlatl thrower of old.
To the east of Frenchman’s and across an odd ridge piled up by ancient glaciers is Bitter Creek. It’s not much to look at either, a trickle of alkali water, smaller, less dramatic breaks, but it’s a last holdout of the native grasses that once covered our American prairies- this country was too hard and thin-soiled for farming, and, uniquely in the northern plains, much of it has never felt the rip of a homesteader’s plow. There are muleys here, too, and they are the hardest traveling mule deer known to science, wandering 65 miles or more up into Canada, dropping south towards the Milk River. Studies show that many of these deer live to very old ages, so they are doing something right, and they possess some simple genius in how to survive and thrive in country that, just this past winter, often appeared as deadly as the surface of Venus.