Mornings in the Five Bears camp start about seven a.m. if you are not working there. John Ronson, the camp cook, has been working since before dawn, and you can take a cup of coffee from the kitchen tent and walk out the length of the camp–the sweet smell of the horses and mules rising with the sun–and find a cow and calf elk easing through the timber to get a lick of the salt laid down for the stock. A darker shape there is a moose, staring at you wide-eared. Kelly, the older of the two Karelian bear dogs in camp, ignores the moose and the elk.
She is deaf, cloudy-eyed and white-muzzled–a veteran of adventures, guarding and confrontations with bears, wolves and coyotes that most dogs could not imagine–much less survive. In her sleep, she twitches and growls softly, dreaming a warrior’s dreams. Kelly is Shadow’s mentor–a younger, sassier version of Kelly–who would clearly like to chase the moose but does not. Both dogs spend the night outside, and when Ronson gets up and starts the fire, they come in to the kitchen tent and sack out in front of the stove, their shift over for a while.
As a stranger whose presence in camp has been approved by Gary Peters, both dogs tolerate me, but they both watch me closely. If I speak to them, I am carefully ignored. I drink my coffee and stand in the strengthening sun and talk with the two wranglers, young Orrin Parker and Gary’s nephew Jeremy Peters. They have saddled their riding horses and are loading a brawny pack mule with tools, a shovel, a Pulaski, a pick, two small Stihl chainsaws, gas and oil for a day of clearing trail, which is a big part of life here in a forest where age and pine beetles are killing square miles of lodgepole pine that fall like giant Pick-up Sticks with every windstorm.
Today, as much as the fishing is calling to me–crying out to me would be a better way to put it–we are going on a long ride to see the country. My experience in the Bitterroots–many years’ worth–is almost entirely from the height of a hiking boot’s sole, so I am eager to see this place from the best possible vantage point, which is high in the saddle with the saddle cinched tight on the surefooted and good natured mule, Ruby.
We eat a logger’s breakfast of hash browns, pancakes, bacon and eggs; then saddle up and hit the trail again, going up yet another fork of Kelly Creek threading the lush little meadows in the shade of towering spruce trees, studying the tracks of bear, moose and wolf until we come to a hidden fork that seems to go straight uphill to the sky.
We climb it, up and up, the mules setting each foot carefully through the kind of brush field that, as far as I know, only exist in the Bitterroots. These yawning southern exposures of the mountains are a tangled maze of plant life, a bear and elk heaven nourished by water seeping from the hold-out snows high above, water purified by passage through a million miles of roots, tons of granite, acres of bog plants, to trickle finally into the tiny tributaries that will create Kelly Creek itself.
After a couple thousand feet of stiff climbing, the mules blowing and sweating, we top out on the ridge in a stand of wide-spaced lodgepole pines, the ground carpeted with grouse whortleberry bushes, the berries not yet ripe. The trail is flat now. We tie the mules and take our lunches out of the saddlebags and follow Gary on foot down the ridge. The pines get thinner, the granite slabs more prevalent until the ridge is just a wide edge of rock in the sky, and we stand there taking it all in.
There are the rock spires of Kelly’s Sister and Bruin Hill, the long Toboggan Ridge–it has a road on it that eventually leads to the bridge where I stood on lower Kelly Creek in 1993. You can see the big valley of Cayuse Creek arching in from the south and see the place where Cayuse joins Kelly Creek a few miles below Hansen Meadows, where we are going to fish tomorrow. Way to the south snakes the ancient Lolo Trail where the Salish traveled west to the mighty Lochsa River for the salmon run, and the Nez Perce travelled east to the buffalo plains.
West of us, beyond the Kelly Forks of the Clearwater River are the shadowy cedars of the Wietas Creek country, and north of that are the peaks of the Mallard-Larkins, a place that has been a proposed wilderness area since the 1960s. We sit on a jumble of house-sized boulders up there in the sky talking about the country; about wolves, mules, dogs and elk hunting, about how best to try and keep the last wildest places like this one from joining the long list of wondrous wild rivers and lands in our country–and around the world–that have been swept into the flood of business-as-usual, recreation-as-usual–places that were once like this–mysterious, rich and pristine; but are now loud, trampled, and just plain too much like everywhere else.
It can’t happen here. There’s too much at stake.