By Ron Watters
Felix Burgess stood on his skis surveying the macabre scene. Six bison heads wrapped in gunny sacks hung in trees high enough to be out of reach of the wolves. As Burgess and fellow scout Sergeant Troike picked around the camp for more evidence, six shots rang out in the distance.
The shots were from Edgar Howell’s rifle, just downing five more buffalo. Howell was a poacher, a furtive and effective one. The May 1894 issue of "Forest and Stream" described him as dirty and ragged with a beard that had been scissored off. Large sloping shoulders and greasy, unkempt hair that curled up the back of his neck topped his five foot, ten inch frame. Earlier that winter, Howell established a camp on a Pelican Creek tributary east of Yellowstone Lake in the middle of the park. His purpose was to kill as many bison as he could.
Amazingly, Howell did his sordid winter work with no shoes. He wore just a ragged pair of thin socks. He managed adequately, though, in subzero temperatures by wrapping his feet in meal sacks which were nailed to his 12-foot long skis and lashed in place with leather thongs. Sometime during the winter, he broke one of his skis. Cutting a triangular piece of fir five feet long, he fixed the ski by nailing it to its base. A coating of pine resin waterproofed the fir splice and his skis.
Both military scouts stationed in Yellowstone, Burgess and Troike, alerted to Howell’s illegal business, had been sent out to apprehend him. The two scouts skied in the direction of the shots. Coming to a clearing’s edge, they caught sight of the poacher in the distance. Since Troike had no weapon, Burgess sent him into the trees while he snuck in closer.
"Howell made his killing out in a little valley," said Burgess later to the "Forest and Stream" reporter, "and when I saw him, he was about 400 yards away from the cover of timber."
Apprehensive, Burgess had only a .38 caliber army revolver, while Howell’s rifle leaned up against a dead buffalo a mere 15 feet away. Poachers were always regarded as dangerous, and Howell was no exception. One winter, when a soldier on patrol in the Yellowstone backcountry disappeared, it was suspected he was the victim of a poacher.
"His hat was sort of flapped down over his eyes, and his head was toward me," Burgess continued. "He was leaning over, skinning on the head of one of the buffalo."
Howell, with the rifle, had the distinct advantage. Having only a revolver with limited range, Burgess crept as close as possible to Howell. Burgess hoped that noise from the blowing wind might keep Howell from hearing him. Nevertheless, he would have to move quickly on his skis—and hope that Howell didn’t look up.
Burgess skied quickly to within 15 feet of Howell, between him and his rifle. "I called to him to throw up his hands, and that was the first he knew of anyone but him being anywhere in that country," reported Burgess. "He kind of stopped and stood stupid like, and I told him to drop his knife."
Howell, having no other choice, did as instructed. One more Yellowstone poacher had been captured, a la ski.
The skis used by Howell and the Yellowstone Scouts were simply constructed out of one solid wood piece. Many skis were just a whipsawed piece of lumber four to six inches in width with an upturned tip, but they worked well enough to transport the skier to where he wanted to go. The length varied from five feet to as long as 12, but averaged around six to eight feet. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, skis were called snowshoes or long snowshoes. What we now call snowshoes were called webs.
The upturned tip was important, for it allowed the ski to ride on top of the snow. Without it, the ski would plunge into the snow. With time, however, a ski tip would begin to lose its curve and sag, especially when the skis were used in wet, sloppy snow. To help keep tips curved up, some skiers attached a wire to the tip and stretched it taut, nailing it down to a point lower on the ski.
To attach the skier’s boot to the ski, the usual method in the 1800s was a simple leather strap binding, cinched snug against the boot. Because old skis fascinate me, I’ve spent some time experimenting with them. With the way the boots are secured, they’re a formidable piece of equipment.
The simple leather strap over the foot provides absolutely no turning power. On a gentle slope, when I tried turning the tip of the ski, the boot would twist completely off the ski, and the ski would continue running straight. It is rather akin to driving an automobile, turning the steering wheel and having nothing happen. A simple task such as making a turn to the right while on flat ground is a major effort requiring many small steps until the desired angle is reached. A kick turn is almost out of the question.
When I made my ungainly attempts to control the skis on flat and low-angled hills, I often found myself spread-eagle on the snow. As I struggled to get back up, I remembered a description of a fellow in similar straights which appeared in the "Owyhee Avalanche," a mining town newspaper in 1865: "One shoe stuck perpendicular in the road, while the other went through the wood pile . . . while his legs sticking out the snow, gave him the appearance of having made a dive for China. Such maneuvers on tolerably level ground only show what the man could do on a mountain side." I was glad no reporters were on hand to describe my attempts at the long snowshoe.
As difficult to maneuver as they were, skis were vital in the winter. They were never more important, nor used for a greater variety of purposes than in the late 1800s in western U.S. mountainous regions. In fact, when skiing is viewed in its purest, most original form, as a means of travel, the last three decades of the 19th century were the glory years.
Take, for instance, Idaho. In the Owhyee Mountains located 50 miles south of Boise, an old ghost town by the name of Silver City stands as a tribute to a once thriving gold and silver mining hub, one of the richest in Idaho. A Swede by the name of Whistling Anderson made his living there through odd jobs. One really odd job came his way—transporting the corpse of a Chinese cook. Members of Silver City’s Chinese community contracted him to retrieve the cook’s body for a proper Chinese burial in the town’s graveyard.
As his name suggests, Anderson liked to whistle. Wherever he went and however he went—walking, riding or skiing—the air would be filled with melodies escaping his pursed lips. The body he needed to retrieve rested along Reynolds Creek north of Silver City. So off to Reynolds Creek he went, whistling and skiing his way through the Owhyee Mountains.
The story of Anderson’s trip is told in a 1939 book, one of a series published as part of Roosevelt’s Federal Writer’s Project. The program provided jobs for artists and writers who had been left unemployed during the Depression years. While not pretending to be historically accurate, the book’s primary purpose was to preserve a part of western story-telling traditions before they were lost.
Whistling Anderson reached the corpse and found the cook wrapped in canvas, frozen solid. It is likely that Anderson considered in advance how he would bring the body back. Finding the cook frozen stiff as a board made it all the easier. Anderson fashioned a sled out of his skis, lashing the corpse on top with leather thongs.
After a night’s rest, the Swede took off dragging the sled and body behind him with a tow rope. It must have been quite a chore getting the sled up and out of the Reynolds Creek drainage, and certainly by the time Anderson reached the summit outside of Booneville, he was ready for some easier traveling. He found respite by climbing atop the corpse, pushing off and riding it down the hill like a toboggan—only in this case the toboggan happened to be a frozen cadaver.
"All went well," according to the Federal Writer’s account, "until he struck a curve in the trail; the Swede, corpse and all took to the air and went down the mountain like something out of a cannon. At the bottom, the Swede dug himself out and seized his rope and set off again."
At Booneville, tired of dragging the load, he propped the corpse up against the outside wall of a saloon and went in for a few drinks. He staggered out sometime later and skied into Silver City, dragging his load off to the graveyard.
Upon arrival, Anderson found that collecting from his Chinese employers wasn’t easy. The principals gathered at the graveyard: Anderson demanded payment for his services while the Chinese prevaricated. Word spread fast. Eventually most of Silver City’s Chinese population appeared, eyeing nervously the corpse strapped to Anderson’s skis. They listened to the Swede’s heavily-accented protestations.
"To hell with you all!" Anderson finally yelled in frustration. "Ay tank Ay tak him home and feed him to my pet fox!"
He began to drag the sled toward home. Promptly, the Chinese responded by digging up $50 amongst them to take possession of the corpse.
Untying the dead cook from the skis and removing the canvas covering, they leaned him against a tombstone. A clean shirt replaced snow and ice which had accumulated on the body from Anderson’s rather rough handling.
All of this, however, was of no concern to Anderson. He was hungry—and thirsty, again—and was off, whistling his way back through Silver City.
Coming from oral tradition, it’s a sure bet that some parts of Anderson’s story have been embellished, but it does illustrate the importance of skis. Skis these days are used for recreation and very rarely for work or transportation. In the 1800s, however, they were winter wheels. They were as important as the horse was at other times of the year.
Travelers who didn’t mind a little cold weather and snow could throw a pack over their shoulders, strap on skis and head out across the wilderness. It wasn’t necessarily unpleasant.
Skiers of this period often timed their travels so that they spent nights in existing shelters protected from the cold. Anderson stayed overnight at the Jordan place when he picked up the frozen Chinese cook. In Yellowstone Park, authorities encouraged the building of cabins and lodges at popular sites such as Old Faithful, Canyon, Mammoth and other locations which were about a day apart on skis. Early park travelers could ski through the park and be able to stay in relative comfort beside a warm fire each night.
Throughout the western mountains, travelers heading to and from mining towns in the winter preferred having a roof over their heads rather than sleeping in the snow. Shelters included ranches and way stations or small cramped cabins often referred to as smoke houses, built specifically for the winter stops.
Of course, many who eschewed winter travel waited until spring or until the trails were sufficiently broken to allow sleigh or horse travel. Others simply moved to the lower elevations, waiting for snow melt before returning to the mountains. Yet, those well-versed in winter nuances—and there were many from all walks of life—thought nothing of getting around in the snow.
Often winter required a combination of traveling methods. When higher elevation deep snows prevented stages from accessing mountain towns, passengers transferred to sleighs. If the snow was deep and the trail hadn’t been broken out for sleighs, prepared passengers strapped on snowshoes or webs.
On long trips in the late 19th century, energetic travelers covered hundreds of mountainous miles. Snowshoe Thompson of the California Sierras delivered mail via skis. In other states--Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho--mail carriers, like Thompson, used skis to carry mail in and out of remote snow-bound towns.
But long ski trips weren't limited to mail carriers. For instance, Bill Richardson, who lived in the mining town of Florence in north central Idaho, learned from his brother’s letter about promising mining possibilities in Leesburg, over a hundred miles away. "When Bill finally received the letter," wrote historian G. E. Shoup, "winter had set in, snow lay deep over the mountains, miners on high altitudes holed up for the winter, and travel curtailed to adventurous snowshoers." This didn’t stop Richardson, nor did a lack of precise information on where Leesburg was located. He knew that the new diggings were to the east of Florence. That was good enough!
Shoup continued: "A few pounds of flour mixed with yeast powder and salt was put in a serviceable sack, with tobacco and matches stowed away in warm clothes suitable for his requirements. A single wool blanket slung over his shoulder, Bill put on his snowshoes and, alone, turned his face eastward." A few days later he arrived at his brother’s cabin in Leesburg, having traversed some 140 miles of a mountainous wilderness.
In Idaho's central Sawtooth Valley, two lovers living in a mining town thought nothing of using skis to get to their wedding. After a blossoming romance, D.W. Kelly and Miss Birdie Smith planned to wed in Pocatello in southeast Idaho. In February 1887, however, there were no plowed or broken trails between the Sawtooths and the railroad station at Ketchum.
The local Ketchum paper described the first part of their "ante-bridal" trip: "Snow shoes were brought into requisition, and the morning sun next day shone out upon the path of the two venturesome spirits as they gaily skirted along the unbroken field of glittering snow, dragging behind them a toboggan on which were securely lashed their trunks and bundles of other little indispensable effects necessary to the trip."
They climbed over an 8,000-foot pass and then skied down to Boulder Station, where they rode a horse-drawn sleigh the remaining miles to Ketchum. After spending the night in the Baxter Hotel, they took the train to Pocatello where they were married.
Love. Conveyance. Fortune seeking. Lawlessness. Through the years, skis have been used for a multitude of purposes--some weird, some bad, but mostly good. Skis have changed, of course. Fiberglass laminates have replaced wood. Metal clip-in bindings have replaced leather straps. Wool has given away to nylon, lycra and pile. But the history and traditions are still there.
When we clip into a pair of cross country skis, we clip into that rich and colorful history. Indeed, cross country skiing is more than a sport. It's a way of life.