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News / Life / Clark County Life

Everybody Has a Story: Mountain trip foil for farm chores

By Bob Donald, Woodland
Published: September 2, 2023, 6:38am

Growing up on a Woodland dairy farm in the 1950s, there was always lots to do: livestock and crops to manage, equipment to fix, fences to mend and cows to milk.

Dad grew up in Kelso and quit school in ninth grade to work the land. When World War II started, he joined the U.S. Air Force as a mechanic. Within a year he became a pilot instructor, and spent the next three years teaching boys how to fly and sending them off to war.

(Dad knew Harry R. Truman, who later died in the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption. Harry had been an Air Force mechanic so when we got to his lodge on the way to Spirit Lake, he and Dad would spend hours drinking and talking.)

My first trip to the high lakes (Hanaford, Forest and Elk) near Mount St. Helens was in 1958, when I was 9 years old. After spending the summer putting up silage and hay, we loaded up three horses. It was me, Dad and Old Man Myrr, Dad’s friend.

When we got to Hanaford Lake it was dark. We still had to get to Forest Lake to camp. Dad got off his horse to get out a flashlight. Unknown to him, a large fir tree had fallen over in that exact spot, leaving a huge hole. Dad fell right down in it, did some cussing, got the flashlight and we headed on to Forest Lake.

Our panniers were gunnysacks, the tent was a piece of black plastic tied with twine to two trees. Quite comfortable.

I was up at first light, grabbed my pole and headed over to the lake. All of a sudden on my right side I heard a growl and the vine maple was shaking. I started yelling, “Bear, bear!”

Dad came running with a gun. I jumped onto an old log raft and started paddling out onto the lake.

Dad said, “Where?” I said, “There!” Well, turned out it was the horses nickering, wanting some breakfast. We took the horses about a mile back up the trail and staked them in Elk Prairie where they stayed for the week. We went up every morning, moved the horses to new spots to graze, sprayed them for horseflies — and I was off to fish.

Forest Lake was the largest, with plenty of good-sized fish. Elk Lake was small and I’d get a fish with every cast, so it was lots of fun. Hanaford had huge fish on the far side under the lily pads. I’d paddle the old raft over and try to get the big ones. Back to camp for lunch, back through the trees to fish until evening.

At the end of the week, we packed up to head out. Stowed the tent, stove and some gear in an old hollow log for next year. Dad tacked up the horses, mine first. They stood there, untied, with reins hanging. I climbed up on my horse. It would still be several years until my feet reached the stirrups, and I thought the saddle felt a little loose. So I grabbed the saddle horn and jerked it to the side to see if in fact it was loose.

That horse bucked me sky high and by the time I hit the ground, all three horses took off at a dead run, heading up the trail, shedding gear. Dad and I took off after them. When the horses got to Hanaford Lake, luckily, a couple of fellows who were camped there heard them coming and stopped them. That was the only time over many years we ever saw anyone else there.

Heading home, a few miles down the road, we turned left and headed over to Castle Creek Swamp (now Castle Lake) to see what the elk herd looked like. About a mile from the swamp was a large turnaround, and the road was washed out. Come elk season, the camp and horses would be set up there.

My job was to hike to the swamp and check it out. It was an absolutely beautiful area, a big bowl with mountains on three sides, open on the west end. There were old crab apple trees and bear everywhere. A creek ran down the center of the swamp, lined by a row of trees, and I’d sneak along checking out the meadows on each side. There was always an abundance of elk and I saw some huge bulls there.

We took elk every year. We had to be extremely careful when packing the elk out on horses, as there were areas of quicksandlike mud. If a horse went in, you’d never get it out.

My freezer was full of fish and game my entire life. Horses, fishing and hunting were the centerpieces of my life. I consider myself extremely blessed to have had such wonderful outdoor experiences.

Everybody Has a Story welcomes nonfiction contributions, 1,000 words maximum, and relevant photographs. Send to: neighbors@columbian.com or P.O. Box 180, Vancouver WA, 98666. Call “Everybody Has an Editor” Scott Hewitt, 360-735-4525, with questions.

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