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Friday, February 19, 2010

Last of the true mountain men

As I last mentioned, the first thing I did when my old friend, Harry, told me he was having a stroke on our way out to go fishing was to turn around and head for the hospital. 
Harry told me to go back up the river. He said it wouldn't really hit for a day or two because that's the way it was with his other stroke.
Other stroke? I didn't know about the other stroke. 
I knew about his heart attack. That started when we were road hunting that fall with his friend, Boone.
Harry must have been in his 70s. Boone was eightysomething. I was researching the history of the Dungeness River. 
What Harry and Boone didn't know about the Dungeness wasn't worth knowing. 
They showed me what was left of our pioneer heritage. It was a haunted valley of abandoned farms, mines, distilleries, logging and hunting camps connected with trails, roads and lookouts that have long since disappeared.
I thought I would write about it someday, so here goes. 
Harry and Boone were the last of the mountain men, self-described reprobates and moonshine connoisseurs. They homesteaded, hunted, fished, trapped, logged and guided decades before I was born. 
They were living historic monuments. 
My job was to remember everything they said. I had to remember it. I didn't have a tape recorder. 
I couldn't write it down. That's impossible while you're driving and your guides are arguing over which way to turn and the names of every creek, hollow and knob along the way. 
Geographic place names are a record of the past. 
Graveyard Spit was named after a massacre. Whiskey Flats was named after the town's leading industry. 
Wildcat Creek was named after one of Boone's old girlfriends. 
That's what Harry said anyway. 
All I knew for sure at the time was that we were headed for a ridge above a cranberry bog. 
Harry said that was where the big bucks moved in when the mushrooms sprouted in the fall rains. 
In one sentence Harry outlined the natural history of blacktail deer on Upper Dungeness. 
You might miss that, along with every homestead and logging show on that ridge, if you didn't listen. 
So I did. 
They rode shotgun.
Harry had his Long Tom, a single-shot 12-gauge that fed his family. 
Boone had a rifle that looked like a piece of lever-action scrap metal. 
He claimed to have killed two elk with it. Both were big five-point bulls, he said. One was shot at the head of Lost River and the other was up the Lillian River. 
These are remote tributaries of the upper Elwha, now deep within Olympic National Park. 
Boone and his father hunted and guided up there before there was a park. They built the first trails and cabins, now long destroyed. 
Boone offered to draw me a map of his old hunting country in his own style, with the letters backwards so I would have to look at it in a mirror to read it. 
I thought a map like that would be worth a fortune just for all the antique whiskey bottles you'd find around where the cabins stood.
But Boone died before he drew that map. 
Now it looked like Harry was going to quit my research project. 
He still wanted to go fishing. It was February. The Dungeness was loaded with big steelhead.
Harry said he could probably catch our limit in an hour. 
That did it. I drove up the river feeling like an accessory to fishing assisted suicide.

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