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An essay by Stewart Edward White

Trout, Buckskin, And Prospectors

Title:     Trout, Buckskin, And Prospectors
Author: Stewart Edward White [More Titles by White]

As I have said, a river flows through the canon. It is a very good river with some riffles that can be waded down to the edges of black pools or white chutes of water; with appropriate big trees fallen slantwise into it to form deep holes; and with hurrying smooth stretches of some breadth. In all of these various places are rainbow trout.

There is no use fishing until late afternoon. The clear sun of the high altitudes searches out mercilessly the bottom of the stream, throwing its miniature boulders, mountains, and valleys as plainly into relief as the buttes of Arizona at noon. Then the trout quite refuse. Here and there, if you walk far enough and climb hard enough over all sorts of obstructions, you may discover a few spots shaded by big trees or rocks where you can pick up a half dozen fish; but it is slow work. When, however, the shadow of the two huge mountains feels its way across the stream, then, as though a signal had been given, the trout begin to rise. For an hour and a half there is noble sport indeed.

The stream fairly swarmed with them, but of course some places were better than others. Near the upper reaches the water boiled like seltzer around the base of a tremendous tree. There the pool was at least ten feet deep and shot with bubbles throughout the whole of its depth, but it was full of fish. They rose eagerly to your gyrating fly,--and took it away with them down to subaqueous chambers and passages among the roots of that tree. After which you broke your leader. Royal Coachman was the best lure, and therefore valuable exceedingly were Royal Coachmen. Whenever we lost one we lifted up our voices in lament, and went away from there, calling to mind that there were other pools, many other pools, free of obstruction and with fish in them. Yet such is the perversity of fishermen, we were back losing more Royal Coachmen the very next day. In all I managed to disengage just three rather small trout from that pool, and in return decorated their ancestral halls with festoons of leaders and the brilliance of many flies.

Now this was foolishness. All you had to do was to walk through a grove of cottonwoods, over a brook, through another grove of pines, down a sloping meadow to where one of the gigantic pine-trees had obligingly spanned the current. You crossed that, traversed another meadow, broke through a thicket, slid down a steep grassy bank, and there you were. A great many years before a pine-tree had fallen across the current. Now its whitened skeleton lay there, opposing a barrier for about twenty-five feet out into the stream. Most of the water turned aside, of course, and boiled frantically around the end as though trying to catch up with the rest of the stream which had gone on without it, but some of it dived down under and came up on the other side. There, as though bewildered, it paused in an uneasy pool. Its constant action had excavated a very deep hole, the debris of which had formed a bar immediately below. You waded out on the bar and cast along the length of the pine skeleton over the pool.

If you were methodical, you first shortened your line, and began near the bank, gradually working out until you were casting forty-five feet to the very edge of the fast current. I know of nothing pleasanter for you to do. You see, the evening shadow was across the river, and a beautiful grass slope at your back. Over the way was a grove of trees whose birds were very busy because it was near their sunset, while towering over them were mountains, quite peaceful by way of contrast because THEIR sunset was still far distant. The river was in a great hurry, and was talking to itself like a man who has been detained and is now at last making up time to his important engagement. And from the deep black shadow beneath the pine skeleton, occasionally flashed white bodies that made concentric circles where they broke the surface of the water, and which fought you to a finish in the glory of battle. The casting was against the current, so your flies could rest but the briefest possible moment on the surface of the stream. That moment was enough. Day after day you could catch your required number from an apparently inexhaustible supply.

I might inform you further of the gorge downstream, where you lie flat on your stomach ten feet above the river, and with one hand cautiously extended over the edge cast accurately into the angle of the cliff. Then when you get your strike, you tow him downstream, clamber precariously to the water's level--still playing your fish--and there land him,--if he has accommodatingly stayed hooked. A three-pound fish will make you a lot of tribulation at this game.

We lived on fish and venison, and had all we wanted. The bear-trails were plenty enough, and the signs were comparatively fresh, but at the time of our visit the animals themselves had gone over the mountains on some sort of a picnic. Grouse, too, were numerous in the popple thickets, and flushed much like our ruffed grouse of the East. They afforded first-rate wing-shooting for Sure-Pop, the little shot-gun.

But these things occupied, after all, only a small part of every day. We had loads of time left. Of course we explored the valley up and down. That occupied two days. After that we became lazy. One always does in a permanent camp. So did the horses. Active--or rather restless interest in life seemed to die away. Neither we nor they had to rustle hard for food. They became fastidious in their choice, and at all times of day could be seen sauntering in Indian file from one part of the meadow to the other for the sole purpose apparently of cropping a half dozen indifferent mouthfuls. The rest of the time they roosted under trees, one hind leg relaxed, their eyes half closed, their ears wabbling, the pictures of imbecile content. We were very much the same.

Of course we had our outbursts of virtue. While under their influence we undertook vast works. But after their influence had died out, we found ourselves with said vast works on our hands, and so came to cursing ourselves and our fool spasms of industry.

For instance, Wes and I decided to make buckskin from the hide of the latest deer. We did not need the buckskin--we already had two in the pack. Our ordinary procedure would have been to dry the hide for future treatment by a Mexican, at a dollar a hide, when we should have returned home. But, as I said, we were afflicted by sporadic activity, and wanted to do something.

We began with great ingenuity by constructing a graining-tool out of a table-knife. We bound it with rawhide, and encased it with wood, and wrapped it with cloth, and filed its edge square across, as is proper. After this we hunted out a very smooth, barkless log, laid the hide across it, straddled it, and began graining.

Graining is a delightful process. You grasp the tool by either end, hold the square edge at a certain angle, and push away from you mightily. A half-dozen pushes will remove a little patch of hair; twice as many more will scrape away half as much of the seal-brown grain, exposing the white of the hide. Then, if you want to, you can stop and establish in your mind a definite proportion between the amount thus exposed, the area remaining unexposed, and the muscular fatigue of these dozen and a half of mighty pushes. The proportion will be wrong. You have left out of account the fact that you are going to get almighty sick of the job; that your arms and upper back are going to ache shrewdly before you are done; and that as you go on it is going to be increasingly difficult to hold down the edges firmly enough to offer the required resistance to your knife. Besides--if you get careless--you'll scrape too hard: hence little holes in the completed buckskin. Also--if you get careless--you will probably leave the finest, tiniest shreds of grain, and each of them means a hard transparent spot in the product. Furthermore, once having started in on the job, you are like the little boy who caught the trolley: you cannot let go. It must be finished immediately, all at one heat, before the hide stiffens.

Be it understood, your first enthusiasm has evaporated, and you are thinking of fifty pleasant things you might just as well be doing.

Next you revel in grease,--lard oil, if you have it; if not, then lard, or the product of boiled brains. This you must rub into the skin. You rub it in until you suspect that your finger-nails have worn away, and you glisten to the elbows like an Eskimo cutting blubber.

By the merciful arrangement of those who invented buckskin, this entitles you to a rest. You take it--for several days--until your conscience seizes you by the scruff of the neck.

Then you transport gingerly that slippery, clammy, soggy, snaky, cold bundle of greasy horror to the bank of the creek, and there for endless hours you wash it. The grease is more reluctant to enter the stream than you are in the early morning. Your hands turn purple. The others go by on their way to the trout-pools, but you are chained to the stake.

By and by you straighten your back with creaks, and walk home like a stiff old man, carrying your hide rid of all superfluous oil. Then if you are just learning how, your instructor examines the result.

"That's all right," says he cheerfully. "Now when it dries, it will be buckskin."

That encourages you. It need not. For during the process of drying it must be your pastime constantly to pull and stretch at every square inch of that boundless skin in order to loosen all the fibres. Otherwise it would dry as stiff as whalebone. Now there is nothing on earth that seems to dry slower than buckskin. You wear your fingers down to the first joints, and, wishing to preserve the remainder for future use, you carry the hide to your instructor.

"Just beginning to dry nicely," says he.

You go back and do it some more, putting the entire strength of your body, soul, and religious convictions into the stretching of that buckskin. It looks as white as paper; and feels as soft and warm as the turf on a southern slope. Nevertheless your tyrant declares it will not do.

"It looks dry, and it feels dry," says he, "but it isn't dry. Go to it!"

But at this point your outraged soul arches its back and bucks. You sneak off and roll up that piece of buckskin, and thrust it into the alforja. You KNOW it is dry. Then with a deep sigh of relief you come out of prison into the clear, sane, lazy atmosphere of the camp.

"Do you mean to tell me that there is any one chump enough to do that for a dollar a hide?" you inquire.

"Sure," say they.

"Well, the Fool Killer is certainly behind on his dates," you conclude.

About a week later one of your companions drags out of the alforja something crumpled that resembles in general appearance and texture a rusted five-gallon coal-oil can that has been in a wreck. It is only imperceptibly less stiff and angular and cast-iron than rawhide.

"What is this?" the discoverer inquires.

Then quietly you go out and sit on a high place before recognition brings inevitable--and sickening--chaff. For you know it at a glance. It is your buckskin.

Along about the middle of that century an old prospector with four burros descended the Basin Trail and went into camp just below us. Towards evening he sauntered in.

I sincerely wish I could sketch this man for you just as he came down through the fire-lit trees. He was about six feet tall, very leanly built, with a weather-beaten face of mahogany on which was superimposed a sweeping mustache and beetling eye-brows. These had originally been brown, but the sun had bleached them almost white in remarkable contrast to his complexion. Eyes keen as sunlight twinkled far down beneath the shadows of the brows and a floppy old sombrero hat. The usual flannel shirt, waistcoat, mountain-boots, and six-shooter completed the outfit. He might have been forty, but was probably nearer sixty years of age.

"Howdy, boys," said he, and dropped to the fireside, where he promptly annexed a coal for his pipe.

We all greeted him, but gradually the talk fell to him and Wes. It was commonplace talk enough from one point of view: taken in essence it was merely like the inquiry and answer of the civilized man as to another's itinerary--"Did you visit Florence? Berlin? St. Petersburg?"--and then the comparing of impressions. Only here again that old familiar magic of unfamiliar names threw its glamour over the terse sentences.

"Over beyond the Piute Monument," the old prospector explained, "down through the Inyo Range, a leetle north of Death Valley--"

"Back in seventy-eight when I was up in Bay Horse Canon over by Lost River--"

"Was you ever over in th' Panamit Mountains?--North of th' Telescope Range?--"

That was all there was to it, with long pauses for drawing at the pipes. Yet somehow in the aggregate that catalogue of names gradually established in the minds of us two who listened an impression of long years, of wide wilderness, of wandering far over the face of the earth. The old man had wintered here, summered a thousand miles away, made his strike at one end of the world, lost it somehow, and cheerfully tried for a repetition of his luck at the other. I do not believe the possibility of wealth, though always of course in the background, was ever near enough his hope to be considered a motive for action. Rather was it a dream, remote, something to be gained to-morrow, but never to-day, like the mediaeval Christian's idea of heaven. His interest was in the search. For that one could see in him a real enthusiasm. He had his smattering of theory, his very real empirical knowledge, and his superstitions, like all prospectors. So long as he could keep in grub, own a little train of burros, and lead the life he loved, he was happy.

Perhaps one of the chief elements of this remarkable interest in the game rather than the prizes of it was his desire to vindicate his guesses or his conclusions. He liked to predict to himself the outcome of his solitary operations, and then to prove that prediction through laborious days. His life was a gigantic game of solitaire. In fact, he mentioned a dozen of his claims many years apart which he had developed to a certain point,--"so I could see what they was,"--and then abandoned in favor of fresher discoveries. He cherished the illusion that these were properties to whose completion some day he would return. But we knew better; he had carried them to the point where the result was no longer in doubt and then, like one who has no interest in playing on in an evidently prescribed order, had laid his cards on the table to begin a new game.

This man was skilled in his profession; he had pursued it for thirty odd years; he was frugal and industrious; undoubtedly of his long series of discoveries a fair percentage were valuable and are producing-properties to-day. Yet he confessed his bank balance to be less than five hundred dollars. Why was this? Simply and solely because he did not care. At heart it was entirely immaterial to him whether he ever owned a dollar above his expenses. When he sold his claims, he let them go easily, loath to bother himself with business details, eager to get away from the fuss and nuisance. The few hundred dollars he received he probably sunk in unproductive mining work, or was fleeced out of in the towns. Then joyfully he turned back to his beloved mountains and the life of his slow deep delight and his pecking away before the open doors of fortune. By and by he would build himself a little cabin down in the lower pine mountains, where he would grow a white beard, putter with occult wilderness crafts, and smoke long contemplative hours in the sun before his door. For tourists he would braid rawhide reins and quirts, or make buckskin. The jays and woodpeckers and Douglas squirrels would become fond of him. So he would be gathered to his fathers, a gentle old man whose life had been spent harmlessly in the open. He had had his ideal to which blindly he reached; he had in his indirect way contributed the fruits of his labor to mankind; his recompenses he had chosen according to his desires. When you consider these things, you perforce have to revise your first notion of him as a useless sort of old ruffian. As you come to know him better, you must love him for the kindliness, the simple honesty, the modesty, and charity that he seems to draw from his mountain environment. There are hundreds of him buried in the great canons of the West.

Our prospector was a little uncertain as to his plans. Along toward autumn he intended to land at some reputed placers near Dinkey Creek. There might be something in that district. He thought he would take a look. In the mean time he was just poking up through the country--he and his jackasses. Good way to spend the summer. Perhaps he might run across something 'most anywhere; up near the top of that mountain opposite looked mineralized. Didn't know but what he'd take a look at her to-morrow.

He camped near us during three days. I never saw a more modest, self-effacing man. He seemed genuinely, childishly, almost helplessly interested in our fly-fishing, shooting, our bear-skins, and our travels. You would have thought from his demeanor--which was sincere and not in the least ironical--that he had never seen or heard anything quite like that before, and was struck with wonder at it. Yet he had cast flies before we were born, and shot even earlier than he had cast a fly, and was a very Ishmael for travel. Rarely could you get an account of his own experiences, and then only in illustration of something else.

"If you-all likes bear-hunting," said he, "you ought to get up in eastern Oregon. I summered there once. The only trouble is, the brush is thick as hair. You 'most always have to bait them, or wait for them to come and drink. The brush is so small you ain't got much chance. I run onto a she-bear and cubs that way once. Didn't have nothin' but my six-shooter, and I met her within six foot."

He stopped with an air of finality.

"Well, what did you do?" we asked.

"Me?" he inquired, surprised. "Oh, I just leaked out of th' landscape."

He prospected the mountain opposite, loafed with us a little, and then decided that he must be going. About eight o'clock in the morning he passed us, hazing his burros, his tall, lean figure elastic in defiance of years.

"So long, boys," he called; "good luck!"

"So long," we responded heartily. "Be good to yourself."

He plunged into the river without hesitation, emerged dripping on the other side, and disappeared in the brush. From time to time during the rest of the morning we heard the intermittent tinkling of his bell-animal rising higher and higher above us on the trail.

In the person of this man we gained our first connection, so to speak, with the Golden Trout. He had caught some of them, and could tell us of their habits.

Few fishermen west of the Rockies have not heard of the Golden Trout, though, equally, few have much definite information concerning it. Such information usually runs about as follows:

It is a medium size fish of the true trout family, resembling a rainbow except that it is of a rich golden color. The peculiarity that makes its capture a dream to be dreamed of is that it swims in but one little stream of all the round globe. If you would catch a Golden Trout, you must climb up under the very base of the end of the High Sierras. There is born a stream that flows down from an elevation of about ten thousand feet to about eight thousand before it takes a long plunge into a branch of the Kern River. Over the twenty miles of its course you can cast your fly for Golden Trout; but what is the nature of that stream, that fish, or the method of its capture, few can tell you with any pretense of accuracy.

To be sure, there are legends. One, particularly striking, claims that the Golden Trout occurs in one other stream--situated in Central Asia!--and that the fish is therefore a remnant of some pre-glacial period, like Sequoia trees, a sort of grand-daddy of all trout, as it were. This is but a sample of what you will hear discussed.

Of course from the very start we had had our eye on the Golden Trout, and intended sooner or later to work our way to his habitat. Our prospector had just come from there.

"It's about four weeks south, the way you and me travels," said he. "You don't want to try Harrison's Pass; it's chock full of tribulation. Go around by way of the Giant Forest. She's pretty good there, too, some sizable timber. Then over by Redwood Meadows, and Timber Gap, by Mineral King, and over through Farewell Gap. You turn east there, on a new trail. She's steeper than straight-up-an'-down, but shorter than the other. When you get down in the canon of Kern River,--say, she's a fine canon, too,--you want to go downstream about two mile to where there's a sort of natural overflowed lake full of stubs stickin' up. You'll get some awful big rainbows in there. Then your best way is to go right up Whitney Creek Trail to a big high meadows mighty nigh to timber-line. That's where I camped. They's lots of them little yaller fish there. Oh, they bite well enough. You'll catch 'em. They's a little shy."

So in that guise--as the desire for new and distant things--did our angel with the flaming sword finally come to us.

We caught reluctant horses reluctantly. All the first day was to be a climb. We knew it; and I suspect that they knew it too. Then we packed and addressed ourselves to the task offered us by the Basin Trail.

[The end]
Stewart Edward White's essay: Trout, Buckskin, And Prospectors