Thursday, June 01, 2023

Column: Memories in the Scotchman Peaks

by Charlie Clough
| April 16, 2009 12:00 AM

The year was 1975, and we had just driven to the ridge-top at the head of Dry Creek in the Bull River country. Dad and I stepped out of the truck’s warm cab into a crisp September morning, as the rising sun blushed upon the tops of Sawtooth and Middle Mountains. A new day had arrived in the Scotchman Peaks.

As Dad swung his daypack onto his shoulders, I remember thinking that he still got around pretty well for an “older guy” but that was back in an earlier life, when he was 55 and I was 32.

A good friend had let us know that a sizeable herd of elk was roaming around the head end of the South Fork of Ross Creek. The rut was on, and we had come up to hear elk music … perhaps to join the bulls in a song or two.

I carried a 12-gauge pump gun and Dad cradled his 12-gauge double automatic as we headed south along the ridge-top, looking for an open view into the South Fork drainage. We had agreed to spend the first hour or so of this golden morning glassing for elk and possibly bears. The scatter guns were along to assist with any blue grouse encounters, later in the day.

We found a small, open, rocky bluff, cushioned with bear grass and splashed with crimson huckleberry brush. From that vantage point, we had a great view of the South Fork, still cloaked in shadow, below.

The first rays of sun hit us as we settled down on our perch, and I pulled out my reed and grunt tube. I almost choked on the reed when a particularly brassy Steller’s jay landed right behind us and erupted with its cacophony, “Kwesh-kwesh-kwesh!”

Regaining my composure, I stood up, filled my lungs with delicious mountain air and turned loose my best herd bull call … the baritone bellow that quickly rises to a testosterone-induced scream, broken off at the end by a series of squealing grunts. The cold, dense air carried the challenge across the basin, where it reverberated off the far side and echoed throughout the canyon.

About 30 seconds went by .. then, my solo became a duet. Up, out of the bottom, a mighty  answer boiled  … heat and passion, unfettered and unvarnished. I looked at Dad; his grin said it all. Then, halfway up Sawtooth, on the opposite side of the basin, a second bull joined the concert, braying like a jackass. His offering was countered immediately by a full-throated roar from the lord of the darkness, below us.

I put the grunt tube down and set my reed aside. Dad had his 10X binoculars out and took about a minute to find the bull on the side of Sawtooth. I dug out my spotting scope, and we quickly determined the raghorn status of that noisy youngster. We watched as he raked a young subalpine fir with his antlers, then, threw his head back to squeal again. 

Dad reached into his daypack and pulled out a thermos of coffee and an extra cup. As he poured, sunlit tendrils of steam swirled around his head and rose, as if to join the resounding rhapsody. He extended a cup of hot java my way and poured another for himself.

He raised his cup and exclaimed, “This is the life!”

“That it is!” I responded, and clicked my cup to his. Oblivious to us, the two contenders continued their ancient song which rang back and forth through the wild Scotchman Peaks high country. We must have sat there for half an hour listening and looking … feeling the wildness of that wondrous land.

Then, we picked up our gear and continued along the ridge, toward the divide between the South Fork and East Blue Creek. We had been treated to a magnificent beginning of an unforgettable day of in the wilderness.

(Charlie Clough is a third generation native of Libby and serves on the Friends of Scotchman Peaks board).