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J W Newell Describes Spectacular Battle of the Elements

in Fourth Installment of Absorbing Story of Adventure; Travelers

Encounter Several Unique Experiences with Animals and Reptiles

From The Sheridan Post, 7 January 1923

Big Horn Canyon - 1 Big Horn Canyon - 2 Big Horn Canyon - 3 Big Horn Canyon - 4

(This is the fourth installment of a story written by J W Newell, formerly editor of The Post giving the details of a trip by boat through the Big Horn canyon of Wyoming. The journey was made by four Sheridan men, W G Griffen, James and Thomas Robinson and Mr Newell, 30 years ago. It is one of only two such trips ever made, according to available records and always has been considered an extremely hazardous adventure. In his account, Mr Newell writes of Mr Griffen as "George," Thomas Robinson as "Tom," James Robinson as "Judge." In the last installment the party was passing into the dangerous part of the canyon -- Post Editor's Note.)

About this time what appeared to be a violent storm was approaching from the southwest, directly into the head of the canyon. The wind rose rapidly and as it howled and  screamed through the canyon among the cliffs and crags honeycombed by erosion and the action of all elements combined, accompanied by the most vivid flashes of lightning and the heavy roll of thunder, might easily have been conjured, by any person the least bit superstitious, into the demonical sounds that had been described to us at McDonald's Ferry. Mr Alexander Forbes of Boston, who, in company with his brother, Garret, passed through the canyon in a boat in the month of July 1903, had an interesting experience which he relates briefly: "As I was walking down one of the sandy beaches on the river's edge I heard a howl, beginning at a high pitch and sweeping down into a bass clef. I stopped short and looked around; I could hear nothing but the roar of the river. I took a step backwards and the howl reversed itself, starting low and rising to a high pitch. I then moved back and forth over the same ground and found the noise to be no more than the roar of the river, rising and falling like a siren. It seems the rocks around me formed a sort of sounding board, treating the sound as a prism treats sunlight, placing the tones according to their pitch, the high in one place and the low in another."

The storm came on, and such a storm one rarely witnesses in a lifetime. The floodgates of the heavens must have been opened wide, for the rain fell in almost a solid mass, the lightning splintered trees and rocks around us, and the thunder caused the earth to tremble like an aspen leaf. Within a few moments after the rain began falling the river began to rise, and in an hour's time it had risen four feet, sufficient to drive us out of our camp in a sheltered nook to another higher up the mountain side. This tremendous addition to the volume of water in the river made our  mode of travel doubly dangerous, and we remained in camp several days, occupying the time with climbing out of the canyon and seeking adventures. We frequently had to go up or down some distance to find a  place where it was possible to climb out.

It was on one of these trips that Judge witnessed a fight between two rams of giant size and correspondingly large and heavy horns. He topped a ridge cautiously, and lying prone upon his stomach pushed himself up behind a clump of sagebrush. Peering through this he saw a band of mountain sheep about half a mile distant, in a state of considerable commotion. With the aid of his field glasses he was able to determine the cause of their extraordinary movements. Two large rams were contesting for the right to dominate the herd, a custom among all wild animals, as well as among some of the higher animals who consider themselves civilized. The rams would come together with a sound like a pile-driver, back away several rods and with a snort of defiance fly at each other again with all their speed and strength. The impact  would jar the earth, the sheep ricochet, gather themselves and [go] at it again. It would probably have been a fight to a finish had not the hunter conceived the idea that he could hit one of them and fired during a brief respite in the battle. The distance was too great to shoot with accuracy, but it stopped a savage fight and dispersed the spectators.

Our supply of fresh meat was now exhausted and a general hunt was proclaimed for the next day. It had been our custom to hunt singly, but on this occasion, for no particular reason, we all went together. After scaling the wall, which required some time and much hard labor, we were not long in locating a band of sheep on a ledge far up the side of the mountain. When we had gotten as near as was possible we were yet some three or four hundred yards distance and below them at an angle of about 45 degrees, but we opened fire at the band, unable at that great distance to select aim. The sheep bounded around some on the ledge but we could not see that any of them had been hit. Another volley was fired with the same result, but at the third volley one of them threw his head up high, ran backwards and tumbled off the ledge, almost 100 feet to the ground. Ordinarily such a fall would have killed an animal without the wound that had caused the fall, so we very leisurely made our way up the steep incline to where the sheep had fallen. There was no sheep there, but a trail of blood led away down the side of the mountain. Taking this trail I followed the sheep while the other members of the party paid further attention to the main band on the ledge, hoping, by making a detour to approach them from another angle and secure some good heads which had been seen through the glasses.

After following the trail for about half a mile, and [while] crossing a little draw fringed with small trees and thick brush, I missed the trail, and was looking around to find it when the wounded animal rushed out of the brush and was upon me before I could turn. It was only a yearling, and much weakened from loss of blood, or the outcome of the fight when ensued might have been different. However he secured the first fall. His weakened condition enabled me to avoid his further attacks until I recovered my rifle and put an end to him. Examination disclosed a broken under-jaw from which he bled profusely, and which had caused him to run backwards and fall off the ledge. When the other hunters again approached the ledge in position to do execution ,the sheep were gone and no trophies were secured.

The next day Judge brought in a deer, which made too much fresh meat to have on hand at one time in hot weather, so we made camp at the mouth of Dry Head creek on the north side of the river, where we remained several days and "jerked" our surplus meat. The process of "jerking" consists in cutting the meat in small strips or chunks about the size of a person's hand, twisting and beating it to break the grain as much as possible, dipping it in boiling brine a few seconds, then hanging it in the sun to dry.

We had now crossed the state line into Montana, and were on the Crow Indian reservation, hunting without a permit. While this was not at that time considered a very serious offense, yet we were liable to arrest at any time, and we soon became aware that this portion of the canyon on the reservation was patrolled, occasionally, at least, by Indian police.  No explanation or satisfactory excuse could be made to an Indian policeman, and an arrest involved a trip to Crow Agency, there to pay any  penalty the agent saw fit to impose. His authority was supreme, and the best way to avoid unpleasant consequences was to keep out of his clutches. Therefore we usually concealed our camp as best we could, hid our boat among the rocks, camouflaged it with drift wood and took the chances of meeting up with the Indians on our excursions. Only once did we see an Indian as he rode up the trail and down again the same day.

One night after a hard day's work making a long portage which involved the climbing over a rough "hog-back" 100 feet or more in height, and which terminated at the water's edge in a vertical wall at the side of a dangerous rapid, we made our bed on a dry sand-bar, someone having suggested that it would be a nice, soft place to sleep. We turned in early and slept the sleep of just and tired explorers. Next morning we arose with every joint and muscle stiff and aching. I was reminded of the Indian who, having been told that feathers made a nice soft pillow, procured one large eagle feather, placed it on a rock, laid his head upon it and slept. When he awoke there was a sore place on the back of his head which he caressed tenderly, glanced with contempt at the feather on the rock and said, "Ugh! White man damn liar."

On one of the hunting trips above the canyon Judge and I were attracted to a large rock from which came a peculiar sound or sounds, which proved to be a combination of the buzz of snake rattles and the frightened barking of a chipmunk. An uncommonly large rattlesnake was coiled with head erect and weaving back and forth, his rattles vibrating at lightning speed while a chipmunk danced and barked in front, seemingly held by some spell or charm, and all the time drawing a little nearer. When within striking distance the snake fastened its poisonous fangs in the head of the rodent and all was over in a moment. Then the snake coiled itself around the body of its victim, crushed it, drew it out to more than twice its natural length, covered it with slime from the mouth, and began to swallow it. At this stage of the proceedings another snake appeared from beneath the rock, took in the situation, seized the other end of the dead animal and began to swallow from the other direction. When their noses met near the middle of the delectable morsel, the fun commenced. Neither one could harm the other, and a genuine tug-of-war was enacted such as the rocky sentinels had never before witnessed. They twisted and rolled themselves into a ball, struggled and writhed in frenzy, until, having had the worth of our money, we ended the performance with shots from our guns. Two strings of rattles, each as long as a finger, we secured and brought home with us as mementos of the reptilian encounter.

One evening when we had pitched our tent and made camp at a sharp bend in the river, we discovered a band of mountain sheep in a recess of the canyon on the opposite side, where a jutting rock cast a dark shadow on the rugged wall. Among the sheep were several rams with large horns such as we coveted. Tom took his rifle, crossed in the boat and approached within easy shooting distance. While casting his eye over the bunch to select the one he proposed to kill first, they suddenly took alarm, ran, jumped, hopped and skipped from rock to rock in a diagonal course up the slightly sloping face of the wall and disappeared over the rim rock. Tom returned empty handed and crestfallen, declaring that he'd "Be damned if he'd shoot an animal that could climb a shadow and get away over the top of a mountain."

For more on the Newell & Company's trip down the Big Horn,

go to Big Horn Canyon Heretofore Supposed to Be Impassable by J. W. Newell

Big Horn Canyon - 1 Big Horn Canyon - 2 Big Horn Canyon - 3 Big Horn Canyon - 4

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