SHERIDAN PARTY ON BOAT TRIP
THROUGH BIG HORN CANYON HITS
SPORT AND DANGER AT ONE TIME
Finds Fine Hunting and Fish as River Grows Deeper;
Ominous Roar Ahead Indicates Approach to Waterfall and Stream
Increases in Speed of Current; Narrow Escape From Disaster
(This is the third installment of the story of the first trip by boat ever made through the canyon of the Big Horn river of Wyoming, written by J W Newell, former editor of The Post and one of the members of the party which dared death in making the hazardous journey. The others were W G Griffen of Sheridan, and James P and Thomas Robinson. -- Post Editor's Note.)
By this time we had come to recognize and address each other as "Judge," "Tom," "George," and "J W," and these appellations I shall employ in the further narration of this story. Not having any memoranda to guide me the occurrences hereinafter related may not come in their proper sequence, but that need not necessarily spoil the story.
The volume of water in the river was noticeably increasing, and there were frequent deep places; consequently, the fishing tackle was strung up and every man tried his luck. As a result four and five-pound wall-eyed pike and catfish became a staple article of food with us. No trout were caught until we got down into the canyon, probably because the temperature of the water was too high, but pike and catfish were reasonably abundant. Judging from the amount of tackle they broke up and carried away for us, there must have been some whoppers in there -- but I am not telling a fish story now.
During the last day's run before entering the canyon there were a good many ducks on the river, and George gave us an exhibition of expert marksmanship by clipping off a number of their heads with bullets from his rifle. By the way, Mr Griffen deserves a niche in the hall of fame where the portraits of eminent culinary artists are preserved for the admiration of future generations. Those ducks, of the large canvasback variety, were half boiled, half baked and basted in an old-fashioned Dutch oven, and when served were the most delicious and toothsome morsels ever tasted by man. Mr Griffen's skill was manifested in everything he cooked. He could fry fish, bake ducks, cook fresh wild meat of any and every kind brought to him, in any style desired, bake bread, pies and cakes, and make coffee -- Oh, Man! his coffee was like the nectar of the gods, and we used it so intemperately that our supply was exhausted before we reached home. If Mrs Griffen has not already discovered these accomplishments of her husband, he may not thank me for exposing him, but I couldn't resist the temptation.
River Grows Deep
As we approached the head of the canyon the river bed narrowed to less than half its former average width and became very deep. A sounding line 75 feet long with a pound of lead for a sinker failed to reach bottom and a strong undercurrent carried the line downstream faster than the boat could be propelled on the surface. At the end of a few hundred yards the river spread out again, the current on the surface increased in rapidity and the undertow became less apparent.
We were now within the canyon proper and would soon be beyond a point from which we could not return without abandoning our outfit, scaling the mighty walls of stone which nothing but a mountain sheep or goat could climb, and "hoofing" it home. However, such an ending of the expedition was not to be contemplated. Whatever thoughts were in the mind of individual members of the party, each discreetly kept them to himself and put on a bold front.
Walls 500 feet high
The entrance is through a true box canyon, the walls of which are perpendicular from the water's edge, and 500 feet high (All figures used herein denoting elevations at various points are absolutely correct, as determined by Mr. Edward Gillette, C E, and his party of railroad surveyors, by process of triangulation, as they ran a preliminary line through the canyon in February, 1891, when they could travel on the ice). The great height of the walls so close together shut out the brilliant light of midday, cooled the atmosphere and produced a condition similar to early evening twilight.
Ever since man, red or white, began to hunt and kill for a living or to obtain trophies, this canyon has been a sanctuary for mountain sheep, the Big Horns of the Rockies, the most eagle-eyed and keen-scented of animals that have survived the slaughter, and ordinarily very difficult to approach, but in this sheltered refuge provided by nature, and which had seldom, if ever, been invaded by man, they were comparatively tame when we first interviewed them. Before we got through they were as alert and cautious as it is possible for any wild game animal to be.
One of the first moving objects to attract our attention after entering the canyon was one of those animals feeding leisurely on the slope of the river bank, several hundred feet above the water's edge and about 150 yards distant. Our boat was floating noiselessly down the current, and if he saw it at all he did not manifest any alarm. Judge, being the senior member of the party, was selected to make the first kill of large game, while the rest of us stood with rifles at shoulder to fire a volley in case Judge should miss. But he did not miss, and a fine fat young sheep toppled over and rolled down the steep incline to within a short distance of the river. To dress the carcass and stow it away for future use was but a short job. It subsequently satisfied our appetites, but not our ambition, which was to get sheep with large horns which we could carry home as trophies of the expedition. As yet none had been sighted, and our aspirations led us on many a long and weary tramp before they finally ended in complete failure. Many magnificent heads were seen by the aid of field glasses, and several shots fired at long range without effect. You may think that we were not very expert hunters if, amid this riot of wilderness and wild game we could not get what we wanted. Well, we were not, but many another hunter with years of experience has frequently met with no better success. Every shot fired in the canyon echoes and reverberates from cliff to cliff until there seems to have been a hundred shots fired. Very naturally this sort of bombardment soon put the sheep nearly all out of the canyon and onto the highest mountain peaks where they were extremely hard to see and harder to get at.
Hear an Ominous Roar
We floated tranquilly on down the stream, all unconscious of what we were very soon to encounter. The sound of falling water came faintly to our ears and gradually increased to an ominous roar, and we suspected that it was one of the fabled falls. The water was so deep we could not reach bottom or row ashore, the current was running like a mill race, and we expected momentarily to meet the fate that had been predicted for us. All were good swimmers, but we could not swim and tow the boat. It is doubtful if an expert swimmer could have reached the shore unencumbered. Half stupefied, we sat still and let the boat glide along. The roar of falling water increased, and the surface of the stream disappeared from view a few short rods ahead. Amazement and dismay were plainly depicted on every countenance, but to sit idly there and watch events transpire was to invite immediate disaster, and a realization of imminent danger brought about a violent reaction. Every man arose to his feet and prepared to make the best fight he could for his life. Then the bow of the boat tipped downward, we could see ahead, and appeared to be entering a dark tunnel at the end of a turbulent rapid. The boat bobbed, jumped, bucked and "sunfished" like an unbroken cow pony. Seizing the long poles each one exerted his whole strength in guiding the boat and avoiding the many boulders and jagged rocks whose ugly heads appeared above the surface. By almost superhuman efforts we succeeded in avoiding the most dangerous places in the rapid, and the boat soon shot over the last shoal into smooth water. The suspense was over, but perspiration streamed down every man's face. Figuratively speaking, we had "sweat blood" during the past few moments.
Had we known what we were approaching we would have stopped before it was too late, reconnoitered, taken the necessary precaution which we were prepared for and fully intended to observe. We had provided ourselves with a hundred feet of new three-quarter-inch rope which was to be made fast to the stern of the boat, and with two men on shore at the other extremity the boat could not have been eased down with safety. However, the lesson proved valuable to us and we never "shot" any more rapids. At the short turns in the river just above and below the rapids the cliffs overhang the water to the extent of from 75 to 100 feet from the vertical, interlocking at the top, obscuring the horizon and forming what appeared to be a tunnel. As we rounded the turn they spread apart, admitting the light and dispelling the illusion.
Two weeks of our allotted time had now expired. Considering that we had ample time in which to complete the passage, we traveled as leisurely as we pleased, camping at every inviting place whether it was night or noon, climbing out on top as often as we could find places where the walls could be scaled, and investigating every nook and cranny which promised to be of interest.
Reach Devil's Canyon
Arriving at the mouth of Devil's Canyon, the first important tributary putting in from the southeast and carrying a beautiful stream of crystal water, ice cold from the melting snow only a few miles distant, we stood in front of one of the most awe-inspiring scenes of the trip. The walls are 1,000 feet high, almost perpendicular, and extend far back into the mountain. Tom, to whose lot it fell to explore the gorge, said he found no place in a day's travel where it was possible for him to climb out. The narrow strip of sky visible overhead appeared as a silvered ribbon, and stars could be faintly discerned in the firmament. This was the natural home of the trout, the large, speckled beauties of the native variety, (the eastern Brook trout had not at that time been introduced into these waters), and they inhabited this stream in unlimited numbers. Tom returned late at night, completely exhausted from his day's work. He brought in about 25 trout ranging from 18 to 28 inches in length and weighing -- well, we had no means of weighing them, and I am afraid to hazard a guess at their weight for fear I will not get it large enough. They were placed in the water until next morning, then spread out on the pebbly beach of the stream. Here the photographic camera was employed, and the result is presented elsewhere in connection with this story.
Many Other Tributaries
There are numerous other tributaries, nameless to us, each of which afforded a good day's sport with rod and line, but none of them were in a class with Devil's canyon, either in size or quantity of fish.
On a subsequent day as we floated downstream we saw a lone mountain sheep drinking from the river at the water's edge. Here again, the camera was requisitioned, but to use it it was necessary to make a landing. It was of a style in use before kodaks were invented, a kind of cheese-box affair, had to be mounted on a tripod and leveled like a surveyor's transit. To gain the opposite shore it was necessary to vigorously use the poles with which we propelled the boat when we wanted to go where the current would not take us, and in doing so the attention of the sheep was attracted. He gazed at us a few moments, then ambled slowly away up the side of the canyon. But before he passed out of sight the camera was adjusted and a picture taken which George still retains, although it is too dim to appear in these columns to advantage.
(The next installment of this absorbing story of adventure will appear in The Post next Sunday.)
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