The pick up truck lurched over the prairie, Rockies in the rear view.
Joe, my Blackfoot Indian fishing guide, was telling the legend of the Morning Star.
One moment: “Which fly for this trout?” Next “What’s the purpose of life?”
I’d confessed I was terrified of wildlife. He was unfussed.
Joe, father of four, is the first Blackfoot to own a farm. But he and his wife Kathy, a schoolteacher, augment their income by guests who ride, swim, hike, watch wildlife — or just pay to fish with Joe.
Now Joe pointed to a cliff. Etched in the rock was the sign of the Morning Star. He’d even named his business after it. Then came the story. A beautiful maiden was taken to heaven by a handsome young warrior named Morning Star. Unhappy, the girl returned to earth, knowing she could never rejoin him alive.
Only when she died, from grief, was she re-united.
Now a bifocal vision. In the distance, Joe’s sacred mountain, in the foreground the empty plains. The prairies held the eye, engaged the spirit, snatched the mind.
My fear faded now, frail trivia in such a setting.
Then — my gut tightened. Joe had a 44 Magnum… the most powerful of handguns. Yet not enough to stop a grizzly.
Joe had tried and failed. “The shot tore open his chest, the blood pumped out, but he carried on running until it had all gone. Fifty yards. Then some more on pure adrenaline.”
He went on “When we see the grizzly — don’t shout at it.” It hadn’t been my first thought…..
The river was a secret the prairie had hugged to itself in a canyon. Between one hundred foot cliffs, glasslike green water glided over falls to become brilliant white, thunderous cauldrons. Instant death.
“Now” said Joe, “how about some kamikaze wading?”..
“Watch what I do and do the same.” Then: “When you fall in don’t go forwards. Fall in so you sit. That way you just get wet.”
Why was it always ‘When’ the grizzly.. ‘when’ you fall, never “if”? Maybe I’d find out…
He clamped his rod in his teeth, clutched an inch of rock jutting out from the cliff, then swung himself round the face, knee deep in a torrent, perched on blatantly slippery weed-covered rocks. A quick heave and he was up on the one dry stone above the falls. Just inches from the cascade.
I could feel every follicle. Didn’t he know I was five foot five, fifty five and terrified? But the fishing did look good. So I tried — and got stuck. He simply put out an arm and swung me to safety. Suddenly I was Tarzan.
But now Joe was anxious. To him this was a special place, but for two years high water had blocked the way to his sacred mountain. Would I mind, being left alone for a short while?
“Fine” I said. He waded across the river and vanished upstream.
The canyon was time-warped, exactly as it had been a millennium ago. Here Indians and animals had shared the roots and fruits of the plain. Now my senses too were heightened.
A small rock plopped into the water from the cliff.
The cliff….now I was upstream I could see a gap, a steep slash of scree. My brain went pale. It was where a grizzly would come down…….
It was only a matter of time. Already I could see the saliva dripping from its jaws, feel the crunch of those claws and teeth. Not “if”, but “when”…….
I couldn’t cross the river. Upstream there was just the sheer wall. Downstream? I’d read how fast they moved.
If they could catch salmon ……I checked my watch. Five minutes before Joe was due back. Now I remembered… Noisy humans put them off.
Having a four year old son can be a help. For twenty minutes, I sang “Following the Leader” from Peter Pan. It doesn’t engage the brain. That was still working on strategy. Maybe I’d try to get back down the falls. But Joe would wonder why.
For, unbelievably, the bear had yet to appear. But it was only a matter of time…..
If Joe heard my singing he didn’t mention it.
“You OK?” he asked “Fine” I lied. But, I thought, how odd. That bear in my brain had been real. Why then couldn’t I mention it to someone who totally understood?
We drove back, the Rockies now black silhouettes under a reddish glow.
And Joe told me about “The Sweat” — a religious ritual which involves cleansing the body through steam in a crude sauna and the mind through group confession.
But, as with everything Indian, it’s more than that.
Now it was he who couldn’t explain. He said “Something appears. Maybe it’s paranormal.
You see things, or rather, you sense they’re there. But you could only know if you’ve been there.” Don’t worry” I said “I think I know what you mean.”
The author, Graham Mole, is a fishing addict and full blown coward who’s been known to take a half mile detour around a Jersey cow. He’s still alive ……just.