Ever since I discovered John G. Neihardt in the 1970s, I aspired to write a novel about the American mountain man. Of course over the years I discovered that Neihardt was a great poet but an inaccurate historian, which led me to various curiosities about what it was really like. Being a journalist, I went right to the source, which in 1977 meant traveling to the Jefferson Memorial Library in St. Louis.
I would check out documents one at a time to read over and copy the good stuff with a Xerox at a nickel a page (back when a nickel actually had value). Or, take notepad after notepad of notes, which I did, for seven-weeks. The point of that story is to show my devotion to seeking first-hand data and also to note that today, virtually everything I copied, every image I took back with me to Utah, each note I scribbled, is available today free of charge thanks to the Internet.
A lot of my research included hiking and four-wheeling over many intermountain passes used by both natives and beaver hunters alike. When you spend a night or two up at a lake at the very base of the highest ridgelines and wake up in a remnant of wilderness that remains, you must wonder what it was like, before Europeans sickened all the People and killed all the wildlife and cut down all the trees.
I lived in Whitefish, MT, for a few months when I returned from Alaska and drove around with this forest ranger who went to college four years so he could be temporary help “cruising timber,” which meant surveying which trees would be “harvested.” We would go back to his survey plots and look over the results of the clear cutting and honestly, words do not provide justice to the barren scorched-earth practices of removing trees at maximum efficiency. Often the “harvested” acreage is bordered by a starkly straight row of trees left behind. I could feel them gasping at the sudden sunlight burning into their needles unaccustomed to the direct intensity.
Now I live in northwest Washington where there are preciously small reserves of what we up here call “old growth.” I am miniaturized by enormous red cedars and Douglas firs, big-leaf maples. Everything around me is alive, even the rotting deadfall sprouting with their personal bonsais and beds of moss. A community of tress tall and sprawling encompass this thick conjoined mass of living matter that has been here since the glaciers receded. Where I write, a quarter-mile from my home, the ground is immersed in tangles of decomposing tree trunks so thick my hiking pole often sinks two feet deep before finding its hold.
Flat land is almost non-existent in my neighborhood and yet modern man has developed machines that can crawl up and reach out to “harvest” every tree on the slope. For some reason, places like where I write have survived the onslaught but the saw draws nearer every day. I used to write along one of the rivers surging down from Mount Baker’s glaciers. Then one day the saw moved over the ridge in front of me and the flowing river lost its serenity.
Two hundred years ago, life had complications other than robotic mechanical saws. There could be strangers with pale skin scouring up the creeks and streams for every beaver they could find.
And that was my mountain man.
I started writing about the American beaver hunters a long time ago and completed a 200,000-word entreaty on the subject but when it ended, I came to realize there was no antagonist. The only reputable antagonists in mountain man lore are the cursed Blackfeet who refused to welcome the beaver hunters with open arms as other People reputedly did. Weather and bears make for remarkable tales, but in the overall scheme of things, who were the antagonists?
And of course the answer was staring me in the face; the antagonist was my mountain man. His entry into the scene disrupted everything. The very nature of his mythological status as the lonely trapper has historical significance for his place in the North American fur trade of early 19th Century. The key to success as a fur trader west of the Missouri demanded kindling relationships among customers. Usually that meant marrying a woman and living with her family. Mountain men rarely made such attachments and instead spread out in packs like a virus. They scoured the terrain for beaver to coerce with castor-scented sticks into their iron traps or club to death after excavating into their thick homes with ice chisels and rousting them from winter’s lethargy.
No, the mountain man, the image I had revered all those decades, was the harbinger of the sickness and the killing and the logging. And perhaps their biggest damage was not the beaver they killed. Their dominance of the Intermountain West prevented British and Canadian traders from expanding south and bringing with them a more sustained-yield approach to “harvesting” beaver. In twenty years, the mountain men took them all, crashing the species toward extinction. Of course, there are some conspiracies that believe that was intentional because beaver compete with European cultural land use values. But in any event, blame all this mess on William Ashley and Jed Smith. If not for them, we’d all be part of Canada right now, and isn’t that where you want to be anyway?