Living off nature’s bounty

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    Early Flathead Valley hunters are seen with a bear. The man at center is the author’s uncle Addie.. (Rick Funk photos)

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    Early Flathead Valley hunters are seen with a bear. The man at center is the author’s uncle Addie.. (Rick Funk photos)

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I have often wondered what my great-grandparents’ first thoughts were when they looked out on the expanse we now call the Flathead Valley. Imagine gazing at more trees with little or no land that had been manually cleared. A few houses and homesteads were scattered between miles of timber and shrubbery. What roads they found were merely two wagon ruts. Distances to neighbor’s houses or town were measured in hours or days not miles of travel.

The nearest grocery store was probably The Mercantile, either in Demersville or Kalispell. Certain food staples could be store-bought, but others were grown on the farm or hunted and harvested in the fields and nearby mountains.

Where our homestead was located, Somers Stage Road, the foothills were just a mile or so to west. In the early days and during the frequent layoffs at the local mills, the only meat harvested was wild game. Venison, upland bird, an occasional bear or elk all were eagerly added to the larder. The smoke house was in constant use.

Again, because of location near Flathead Lake, fish and waterfowl were sought by the family. During the 1880s, cutthroat and bull trout were harvested during their runs. Later the Lake Superior whitefish and lake trout were introduced and added to the standard fare.

There were always family stories involving the outdoor adventures.

Great-grandfather Adam was not known for his hunting skill. He was known as a hard worker, not for being a great shot. Because of this, his gun of choice was a beast; a 10-gauge, twin-hammered, doubled-barreled Remington shotgun.

One day he and a group of his neighbors got together to try and collect a few deer. Because everyone else had rifles, great-grandpa said he would play bird dog and work his way through the creek bottoms.

Because he was trying to drive the deer ahead of him, Adam did not try to be quiet — just the opposite. Half way through the drive, he spotted the outline of a fine buck just ahead. If he had been toting a rifle, he wouldn’t have attempted to shoot. As it was, he cocked the left hammer, lined up in the center of the chest and pulled the trigger. The deer momentarily disappeared behind a cloud of smoke. When Adam advanced, he found the deer with four double-ought buckshot in the chest. On that particular hunt, great-grandpa was the only successful hunter.

Not long after that, a close friend stopped to talk about an upcoming hunt. When he left, he borrowed the shotgun. The following night, he returned the shotgun along with a quarter of a deer. He too was the only one to score during the hunt.

When great-grandpa first started hunting, there were no seasons and the possession limit was all you could place in a wagon bed full plus a couple of extras for good measure. Limits and licenses were instituted to insure that game was available for future generations. But the game wardens of those days looked out for the poor folk. There were no food-stamp programs.

One day during the Great Depression, dad and my grandpa Ed were working on some harnesses in front of the barn. A car turned into the lane. It turned out to be the game warden who was a close friend of the family. Grandpa invited him into the house for a cup of coffee.

As they were talking, the warden casually asked grandpa if he knew so and so over by Rogers Lake.

Grandpa replied he did and asked why.

“Oh, I have had some complaints that he’s been poaching. I am going to go out there tomorrow and have a look around.”

As soon as the warden left, dad and grandpa drove out to Rogers Lake and helped the old-timer move three deer carcasses out of the barn and into the woods.

It turned out the old boy was helping three or four families get through the winter. The warden knew this and wasn’t about to punish him.

About three weeks following the trip to Rogers Lake, three Dudes from Spokane came over to the valley, shot a couple of trophy bucks, cut off the horns and were trying to make their getaway. They drove to the first corner and found the road blocked. The warden’s car sat crossways in the road and warden was cleaning his finger nails with his hunting knife. It cost the Dudes three new rifles and a hefty fine to finally get out of town.

I was reminded of these stories a couple of weeks again while my wife and I were making huckleberry syrup for Christmas packages. I have always felt blessed that I was born in an area where Nature’s abundance abounds and is free for the taking (almost).

If there is one animal that the family has had difficulty considering it as neighbor is has been bears — black bears. I once asked my uncle Addy if he had ever had problems with bears. He answered: “Not with grizzly bears, they’ve always been gentlemen. Just black bears.”

Addy was a packer for the Forest Service. He would haul in groceries to the fire lookouts, trail crews and firefighters. Often, by the time he returned to Spotted Bear Ranger Station only to find a message that the grub he had brought it had been eaten by a bear.

Addy would have to reload the mules and borrow a rifle. He’d wait up at night and waylay the bear.

One time one of the seasonal workers wanted to collect a bear. He had a license and borrowed a rifle, he and Addy and one other worker went out. When the bear was spotted the trio made their way closer. When the would-be hunter figured he was close enough, he shot the bear.

Unfortunately the would-be hunter’s aim was not true and the bear turned and ran toward the two non-hunters. Those two took off running. Addy was over 6 feet tall, and had long legs and reputation for being fast. He found himself behind the other fellow who was short and slow. Addy kept yelling “Get out of my way!”

My trouble happened one day at school. It had been a hot, dry summer. There were no berries and the bears had moved lower into populated areas. A smallish bear, 200 pounds, took up residence in the area around Kila School and was making quite a living eating fruit off of the trees.

One day the ladies in the kitchen were baking bread. I snatched up a warm bun, slathered it with butter and went to the window to eat it. I looked up the hill and here came that bear. It was nearly 140 degrees in the kitchen and every window and both doors were open. As the bear passed by the neighbor’s house out came a little old cowboy who must have been in his 70s. He was building a loop in a lasso.

With the bear oblivious to his presence he let the loop fly. It settled on the bear as neatly as a fly cast from a bamboo rod. Snatching the loop tight, he sicced his blue healer on it. I was watching all of this and decided to let my principal know. I called her. She came over snagged a bun, slathered it with butter and we watched the proceedings.

When the old man was tired of the game, he reeled the bear in, and removed the lasso. As a parting shot, he swatted the bear on the nose which sent it up the biggest tree in the area. Then the old man went back into the house. The blue healer followed along and just before the door closed he looked back at the bear and I swear he was smiling.

At that moment, the bell rang. My principal looked at the bear in the tree and the house the old man had disappeared into and finally at me.

“It’s three o’clock.” She stated. I nodded my head in agreement. “The kindergarten, first- and second-graders are getting out of class.”

Again I agreed with her. Pointing her finger at me she said, “You have to keep that bear up that tree until they are all gone.”

I was about to ask which paragraph in my contract covered this when she turned on her heel and left.

About three minutes later, the first of the little kids came around the building, and there was Mr. Funk under a huge pine tree, jumping up and down, shouting, “Bark! Bark, bark. Bark! Bark!” To this day, I don’t think many if any of those kids spotted the bear, trembling with fear at the nut down below.

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