Smoke Signals

Nov/Dec 2011


Captain - Staff Writer







































Over the years there have been many claims about just who discovered South Pass. There have been statements from people alive and in the west during the fur trade days that it was discovered by John Coulter, by John C. Fremont, by David Stuart, by Wilson P. Hunt, and by the French fur traders of the Verendrie (sp) family during the 1700s.

There is a good argument for all of these and others except for Fremont. He had no part in its discovery. In 1856, Ramsey Crooks (an early employee of J.J. Astor and in my mind the greatest of all the mountain men) in a letter to the Detroit Advertiser claimed that Wilson Hunt and a small party discovered it in November of 1812. Even Crooks, who knew Hunt and who was in the Rocky Mountain west for Astor much earlier, was wrong. It appears that the pass was discovered several times and forgotten because those who found it and used it didnít go back, failed to consider it important, and forgot it. Of course, the Indians had been using it for centuries when the first white man put a "civilized" foot on it.

Not more than a few weeks ago, I zipped over it as though it had never been tough slogging for anyone. At first glance its discovery seems an obvious thing. Who could miss it? Well, if you donít hit the beginning at just the right place (on either side) you would not know it was there. Especially if the paved road didnít lead the way. But even with the paved road, although it is taught in schools that it was a smooth, even, gradual pass over the mountains, if you travel it you will realize what a crock that is! It has places steep enough that your fuel mileage drops precipitously. If you had to get off the asphalt the rocks would shred your Goodyears (or Toyos, or Hancooks or whatever) in an instant. The roughness of the terrain would break springs, pop ball joints, and poke cavernous holes in your oil pain. But it beat the daylights out of trying to get wagons (or your finest four wheel drive) over the Rockies without it.

The reason I used the Pass is that I had been up in Montana visiting some extended family members near Laurel, just a short way from Billings. One of them had recently married a young fellow who owned the ruggedest, roughest, boat I had ever seen. It had a flat bottom, heavy metal framework, a big V8 engine and a biiiig water-pumper. We took it out and launched it into the Yellowstone River whose main channel wasnít running more water than was needed to float a good sized maple leaf. Mitch pushed that enormous boat over gravel with shallows of no more than six inches of water, whipped it around sleepers, leaped it gazelle-like over gravel bars, and scared me into a quivering lump of protoplasm that clung like a bowl of green jello with hands permanently malformed into flexless hooks.

I had long dreamed of throwing my canoe into the Yellowstone up above Yankee Boy canyon toward the Park and floating it down to Billings. I want you to know that I have changed my mind. I donít think my canoe, (a nice Old Town) would make it. That monster machine of Mitchís might, but that little trip cast doubt on that, as well. But at the right time of year what an adventure that would be! And let me assure you that the fishing on the Yellowstone is fine!

So comeíon, guys. If you want some adventure, begin networking among the members of the NAF and get out amongst them. Howdy has long been inviting members up to his part of the country but that is something I am no longer thinking of doing. Howdy goes to great lengths to get things ready for some real adventuresóboth on the rivers and off. Howdy and I are not going to wait for you, but if you can catch up you can come along and see just how well you stack up against the Rocky Mountain wilderness.

I want to talk about something else for a moment. I am not touting one magazine over another, but for those who enjoy the primitive archery lifestyle or hobby, I invite you to visit any bookstore with a decent magazine rack. Forget those attractive slicks that entice you to hunt with traditional bows and migrate instantly to a grand magazine called "Primitive Archer. True, it does have some hunting articles, but it also features how-to articles that will show you how to make arrows, bow strings, string wax, laminated and stick bows, horse bows, bracers, tabs, and more. There are articles on fletching, arrow making, knapping, traditions, making rawhide, quivers, obtaining bow wood, preparing bow wood, plants and herbs used for medicinal and food purposes, making bows, and just so much more that once you see it, you just canít resist it. Even if you are not an archer, pick one up and you soon will be. Let me tell you, I got a Dennis Mulford long rifle two years ago and I havenít even loaded it yet. My primitive bows are just too attractive to me. If I have five minutes I can step out on the front porch where Iíve set up a target, and shoot (about 20 yards). When Iím finished I donít have to worry about cleaning the thing (of course, if I have missed and hit a baluster Iím in trouble with the one who must always be listened to!). Archery is a lot like golf (I understand). It is a pastime that demands attention to every movement, every shot. "My gosh, how I love it," is the lament so often heard when people discuss it. If you want a real challenge make primitive archery a part of your NAF experience. And if you can fit it in, make a trip to South Pass, park, and take a hike. Revel in that historic countryóand donít forget to take along your bow and a quiver full of arrows!

Respectfully Yr Hmbl, Obít Etc.  

Bill Cunningham



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