6/11 Idaho Magazine Features - "The Demons of Boulder Lake" (non-fiction)

Daniel Claar - Idaho's Premier Backcountry Writer

Winner - Idaho Magazine Publisher's Choice Award 2010
"The Proper Filter"

Winner - Idaho Magazine Judge's Choice Award 2011
"Where the River Leads"

"Hot Spring Break "

"Stampede! "

"Seeing Things"
Winner - Idaho Magazine Second Place 2011

Friday, October 22, 2010

God's Dogs

     Two spastic bloodhounds follow Ted around his drafty cabin as he gathers cold weather gear, firearms, and hollow-point ammunition from various closets. The nearly grown canines playfully paw at one another as they stumble around the stocky man's feet. As usual, Molly and Bosco assume they’ve already been invited and it's only a matter of time before the “mount-up” command is issued. Ted shakes his head, rolls his eyes, and smiles faintly as he gently kicks his way through their heavy, writhing bodies.

     “I already said you ain't comin'. Not this time. Too dangerous for you youngsters. Maybe if you weren’t all feet and ears, I could use you out there.”

     Encouraged by any word from their owner, the bloodhounds renew their efforts to get his attention. Ted finally has to trick the dogs into thinking they are departing by way of the backyard gate. As he opens the rear door of his cabin, the hounds burst through, leading the charge, only to have Ted promptly shut and lock the door behind them. The last thing he sees is Molly and Bosco manically licking each other's faces as if to reward themselves for a job well done. Ted can't bear to peek through the window and watch their expressions change as the tragic reality sets in; they are being left behind.

     He was serious when he said the mission was too dangerous. Not only dangerous, but also illegal. Ted smiled grimly, momentarily considering the consequences of his plan before repeating the mantra he’d recently adopted – When the government is unable, or unwilling to act, the free citizens of this state shall rise up and represent the will of its people.

     Although the small town of Timberline consists mostly of outcasts and loners, the few people Ted had spoken with agreed on the problem and the solution. The Feds pushed their agenda on an unwilling populous and now stand idly by while the livelihood and culture of their community is being threatened. For far too long now, pencil-pushers in Washington had made decisions over geographical areas they had never even visited.

     Most of the words rattling around Ted's mind were first articulated by a young, blond haired, blue-eyed rancher by the name of Erik, who spoke openly on behalf of his wealthy father. Erik had rounded up half the town in a door to door campaign and arranged a monthly meeting to discuss recent killings, missing pets, and their collective failure to find big game. He also spoke of guerrilla tactics that would openly defy federal law and be nearly impossible to pin on any one perpetrator. “We have the advantage,” Erik always said. “This is our land and we know it better than anyone.”

     One of the key strategies, according to the young rancher, is to act as a purely isolated agent. The less anybody knows, the harder it is to question and ultimately convict the transgressors. Despite Erik's insistence on silence, some of Ted's friends already whispered of their own successful ventures and he had felt the sharp bite of jealousy. He too wanted to be part of the solution, part of a political cause bigger than himself.

     Quietly slipping out the front door with arms full of equipment, Ted sniffs the crisp morning air. Still six weeks away, it already smells like winter. The night’s remaining stars sparkle faintly in the purplish light of impending dawn. A thick white blanket of fresh powder covers the town. The first real snowstorm of the year blew through overnight and the forecast now called for clear and cold skies. As he tosses his gear in the backseat and hangs his .223 on the gun rack, Ted hears a couple of protest whimpers from the fenced backyard. Ignoring his bloodhounds, Ted checks the hitch to ensure the small flatbed trailer carrying his battered ATV is securely attached.

     Sipping coffee from a thermos as he drives the snow covered streets of Timberline, Ted’s carves the first deep tracks in twenty inches of virgin powder. On the edge of town, he drives past the ranch of the town’s oldest inhabitant. Jeremiah Winston had run the small cattle operation for the last sixty years and had even been friends with Ted’s Grandfather. As usual, the old rancher is already up and checking on his herd of Black Angus, except this time Ted is greeted by a sight he never thought to witness. Jeremiah, a man born and raised in a horse saddle, is out on his property plowing through the snow on an ATV very similar to the one on Ted’s trailer.

     “No good, soulless fashion trend,” Ted had heard the rancher say about other Timberline residents replacing their long time living steeds with four-wheel drive machines. Before hurting his back in a recent woodcutting accident, Jeremiah led countless mounted big game expeditions as an amateur outfitter and was one of the town’s most successful hunters. Ted shakes his head thinking the old man must have finally given up on horse riding altogether. The younger man taps his horn in neighborly fashion before driving beyond the borders of the small town. A couple miles later, he turns onto a steep side road slowly climbing into the high mountain meadows overlooking Timberline’s broad river valley.

     To his surprise, Ted finds another truck parked at the trailhead. Completely buried beneath the snow, the vehicle has obviously been there since before the storm. He is tempted to clear off the windshield to see if he recognizes the rig, but then decides if it was his truck, Ted wouldn’t want anyone touching it. Still, the presence of another vehicle complicates his plans to some degree. He will have to stay alert for any sign of the truck owner.

     Ted enjoys the warmth from the truck’s heater while finishing his coffee. To his east, the sun threatens to crest the tree-lined ridge. Stepping out into the mountain air, Ted is struck with an unusual sense of stillness radiating from the heavily frosted pine trees. Without dogs, or a human companion, the silence is almost unnerving. Stealing sideways glances into the shadowy surroundings, he fires up the ATV engine, backs it off the trailer, and mounts his .223 to a rack just above the headlights. As usual, the deafening engine of the four-wheel drive and acrid smell of burning oil provides him with the comforting sensation of one man dominating the cold and inhospitable wilderness. In these woods, he was king of the forest.

     Donning his winter gloves and sheepskin hat, Ted kicks the ATV into gear and begins his trek into the snowy backcountry. The cold air stings his cheeks as he picks up speed and the trees begin to fly past. Less than a half hour into his jarring drive, Ted notices two dark figures on the trail ahead wearing large backpacks and snowshoes trudging towards him. He feels a sudden, desperate sense of panic, before reminding himself that he hasn’t done anything wrong. In fact, Ted had listened when Erik recommended they buy and display elk tags when conducting missions, so nobody would guess their true intentions.

     Ted attempts to drive past them without a look, but the smaller figure steps into his path, waving him down with a good-natured smile. It is a young woman with blond hair spilling out from beneath a grey stocking hat. Next to her stands a much taller, broad-shouldered man with a shaggy red beard. While the lady’s expression is one of open friendliness, the man’s dark eyes, barely visible between a black fleece cap and the substantial facial hair, are more guarded. Ted pulls his ATV next to them and shuts off the engine.

     “Never had much use for snowshoes,” Ted begins. “Looks like hard work.”

     “More like good exercise,” the lady says, blue eyes flashing brightly. She is young and pretty and Ted finds himself immediately attracted to her presence. He can’t help but smile in return.

     “Figured we’d be the only ones out and about, especially this early,” says the red bearded man, speaking in a deep, almost monotone voice. Ted notices the man isn’t making eye contact with him, but rather appears to be scrutinizing his ATV and equipment. “I thought there weren’t any elk left. How you gonna find something that doesn’t exist?”

     Ted’s eyes narrow suspiciously; something about the big guy’s body language and manner of speaking left him uneasy. “Yeah,” he says, “well people always say I’m a little stubborn. Surely there has to be at least one left somewhere.”

     Ted catches a slight roll of the eyes from the younger man, before the woman subtly steps between the two men. “There are plenty of elk left,” she says. “We just saw a decent sized herd less than an hour ago.”

      The woman’s message is immediately met by skepticism from somewhere in Ted’s mind. He pictures Erik’s incredulous and mocking reaction to the girl’s assertion. Finally understanding the kind of people standing before him, Ted nearly laughs in their faces. “Really?” he scoffs. “You sure they weren’t deer?”

     The young man seems to swell up and this time his eyes lock directly on Ted; his voice slipping past tight lips in a steely hiss. “I think we know the difference, buddy. In fact, if anyone knows how things work out here, it’s us.”

     Before Ted can issue a retort, he notices the long holstered barrel sticking out below the man’s winter coat. Ted is convinced he is talking to a couple of big city “enviros”, but had never seen one carrying a large handgun or bristle with such aggression. Maybe these were some of the federal biologists Erik had warned them about. Again, the young woman tries to diffuse the tension by placing one hand her companion’s arm and speaking calmly to Ted.

     “Look,’ she says, “if you follow our tracks for about one mile back in, you will see prints and fresh poop where the herd crossed this trail. There really are plenty of them left. In fact, the entire ecosystem around here is healthier than it has been in probably a hundred years.”

     “You won’t see them though,” the red bearded man interrupts and stabs a gloved finger at Ted’s ATV. “They heard you before we did, and we heard you a loooong way back.”

     The young lady nods her head in agreement. “Maybe if you leave that thing here and walk in following our tracks, you can still find them. They don’t act like domesticated cows, not anymore; the hunters need to adapt. Embrace old school methods.”

     Suddenly feeling as though he is being lectured by a couple of kids, Ted restarts his ATV with a loud roar. “Thanks,” he shouts to be heard over the engine, “but I’ve been hunting since you two were in kindergarten and I don’t need your help. Nobody around here needs your help!”

     Before either of the strangers can respond, Ted peels out in the snow and guns the machine around them. He feels the nervous energy of the encounter flooding his veins. Imagine if those know-it-all hippies understood what he was really up to. He hears Erik’s voice reassuring him from some distant place; these tourists have no idea what they are talking about. Ted suddenly finds himself angry that anyone would have the audacity to speak to him as if they understood his home country any better.

     Ted is still stewing over the encounter when he drives across a wide swath of animal tracks intersecting the snow covered trail. Bringing the ATV to a lurching stop, Ted steps off to examine the animal prints. His face floods with heat as he realizes the tracks clearly belong to a sizable herd of elk, just like the two strangers insisted. Ted scratches his salt and pepper grizzled chin trying to make sense of the evidence. For a moment, he is tempted to follow the elk tracks as well. He has the required tag and needs a freezer full of meat, but one herd does not make for a sustainable population and his mission, his obligation to the greater good, holds his focus elsewhere.

     Ted re-starts the ATV and continues down the trail, still driving over the snowshoe tracks left earlier that morning. Another couple of miles and he too would have to leave his machine behind and trudge a short ways through the snow in order to check on something he had left hidden a couple weeks ago. Although now frozen and certainly less ripe than it had been, Ted was positive the bucket of lard and trout guts had attracted something. At the very least, he was hoping for more tracks to follow. Ted could feel the excitement beginning to burn hot in his chest. Soon, he too would have a little something to whisper in Erik’s ear.

     So blanketed by deep powder, Ted nearly misses the giant slab of granite marking his intended side path. During the spring and summer, a small lake-fed stream flows beneath the massive, rectangular rock with crystal clear water. It was up this very drainage that Ted had found the muddy tracks nearly a month ago and his idea had begun to take shape. Two weeks later, he had returned with his rancid bucket of bait and now that a couple more weeks had passed, it was time to see if his plan had come to fruition. Ted steps off his ATV, slings the .223 over one shoulder and walks past the boulder into the shadowy tree line.

     Almost immediately, Ted finds himself wishing he had brought better footwear. His old waterproof logging boots reach the bottom of his knee-caps, but still, every other step in the loose powder, brings a tiny amount of icy wetness dripping down his shins. By the time he is within a hundred yards of the bucket, he can feel the first chills setting into his socked feet. Squatting low, Ted peers into the forest ahead while making sure to stay hidden amongst the trees. There is no evidence of life, no sound, no motion, nothing. That might be a good sign, Ted decides, and creeps ever closer to his baited trap.

     Ted’s disappointment is palpable as he approaches the white, five-gallon bucket and sees no sign of disturbance. The lard and fish entrails are frozen into a solid mass, but nothing appears to have approached the bucket, not even to investigate the fetid scent. At least with the undisturbed snow, Ted is certain no predators have been in the area since the storm. Maybe the wind never pushed the scent in their direction, or maybe, they could detect the secret ingredient that would have left them writhing and dying on the spot.

     Ted stands there for nearly five minutes, not knowing what to do and feeling somewhat foolish, until the numbing cold in his feet reminds him that he is poorly prepared to be wading through deep powder. Again, he is tempted to return to his ATV and follow the elk tracks, but knows a pair of snowshoes is needed to prolong his quest. The thought instantly reminds him of the two strangers and his eyes squint down hard. No. He isn’t envious of those people for any reason. What he needs to do is to give his trap a little more time, and while he’s at it, start thinking of a couple more ideas. Next time, I’ll hit the enemy on multiple fronts, he quickly decides.

     With the exception of his numb toes, the meager rays of the early November sun finally begin to warm Ted’s body as he backtracks to the parked ATV. By the time he reaches a small break in the trees overlooking the main trail, and his barely visible four-wheeler parked in the distance, a thin sheen of sweat has spread from his warm torso out to his appendages. Ted stops and is in the process of unslinging the .223 from his shoulder in order to shed his heavy, camouflaged coat when he spots the black creature.

     Dark as any moonless night, and still as carved ebony, the shaggy beast is crouched low in the snow less than fifty yards away. Frozen in its tracks and unaware of Ted’s presence, the massive wolf stares intently into a nearby stand of trees. In an instant, he understands how their full winter coats lead people into misjudging their actual size. Rumors of two hundred pound monsters prowling the nearby forests of Timberline were common despite the largest one ever killed in their region weighing just over half that amount. Still, Erik encouraged the use of hysteria as a means to attract support to his cause and even liked to play up a known lie about the wild canines being attracted to the sounds of human babies; an assertion that always made Ted laugh, especially when others nodded their heads in steadfast agreement.

     Unable to believe his luck, and fighting to calm his racing heart, Ted maneuvers the butt of the rifle slowly to his shoulder and then gradually works the scope up over his right eye. Through the amplified tunnel, the monstrous black wolf is even more intimidating. Raised hackles on the monster’s neck give it the broad sloping shouldered look of a small grizzly and its eyes are the icy dark slits of a remorseless void. The sharp tips of ivory fangs protruding past sneering lips stand out in stark contrast to the rest of the black beast. Ted is staring at a perfectly evolved killing machine, and looking down his rifle scope at the object of his mission.

     Ted tries to look beyond the creature to see what poor animal the wolf is stalking. He imagines an elk hidden in the stand of spruce and can’t help but smile broadly at the scene’s potential. Ted pictures himself telling Erik how he dropped the wolf with his first shot, and then with a second round, took down the elk as it burst from its hiding place. Even if he can’t bring the elk down, he will at least save the animal from a much crueler fate at the hands of this invasive species. In either case, his tale will be long be remembered in private circles around Timberline.

     Unable to spot any prey amongst the trees, Ted exhales calmly and places the scope’s crosshairs on the center of the wolf’s thick torso, just behind the front shoulder blade. The pine scent in the air and distant bird calls become unusually vivid, nearly tangible in the form of a taste on his tongue as the life-long hunting instincts take hold. Ted’s touches the trigger ever so lightly and begins to squeeze when a sudden movement out of the corner of his eye causes him to release the building pressure on his fingertip.

     A white blur, nearly undistinguishable from its wintery surrounding, appears from the stand of trees and charges the black wolf. It is a second wolf, much smaller than the big male and it pounces on the larger canine in one stunningly athletic leap. A cloud of powder erupts into the air, sun rays sparkling of the individual frozen crystals like diamonds and the two animals are momentarily lost from sight. Ted car hear their low, guttural growls as the thrashing escalates. When they emerge from the snow, Ted realizes the two animals are licking at each other while still trying to use their necks and shoulders for superior positioning; the ferocious sounds of their combat, just a frightening play fight.

     In a heart seizing instant, Ted is staring at Molly and Bosco, just two big dogs wrestling in the snow like he had witnessed just hours ago. Except, it isn’t just his bloodhounds he sees in the fighting wolves. As a lover of dogs since childhood, Ted recognizes a bit of every canine he has ever owned radiating from the presence of the two wild animals. At the same moment, he also understands that no dog, not even one possessing the best traits of every living breed, could ever compare to one of these wolves. Somewhere along the way, dogs had lost a substantial bit of that wild magic, the unimaginable majesty right before his very eyes.

     At the top of the chain, and with the entire forest as their playground, the two canines appear unburdened by a visible care in the world. Every description of these terrifying animals that he has ever heard suddenly so overblown, so exaggerated, and yet unbelievably understated and shortchanged. These aren’t evil monsters, prowling the dark woods with glowing red eyes, looking for innocent prey to shred. Instead, they are the epitome of beauty, grace, and power manifested into a living, breathing form the likes of which he has never known; they are works of art.

     As he watches with the once rigid barrel of his rifle drooping ever lower, the black wolf does a feint charge and then whirls on its heels kicking up a fresh wave of powder. Moving impossibly fast, the dark creature charges into the trees and out of Ted’s sight. The white wolf immediately goes to give chase, but then, after appearing to remember something, turns around and stares directly at the spot where Ted is half-hidden behind a thin tree; her eyes focused on his. She gives him a long, penetrating look before spinning back around and following her black mate into the forest.

     Ted stands in place, rifle at his side, too stunned to move. The white wolf must have known he was there the whole time. Ted realizes his whole body is shaking. He pictures the disappointed look on Erik’s face, the incredulous looks of the entire group closing in on him before the image is washed away and replaced with the two wolves playing in the snow. Again, he thinks about Bosco and Molly and suddenly wishes he was already home. He can’t wait to scratch their sloppy ears and watch them trip all over themselves. Besides, nobody needs to know what he had just seen. Nobody would hear of his failure to act. His lips break into a smile. For a failure he feels pretty good. Ignoring the icy chill in his feet, he turns around to retrace his footsteps back up the drainage. He has a bucket to collect before going home to his dogs.

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