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The Wild Without Firearms
HAD I encountered the two gray wolves during my first unarmed camping-trip into the wilds, the experience would hardly have suggested to me that going without firearms is the best way to enjoy wild nature. But I had made many unarmed excursions beyond the trail be fore I had that adventure, and the habit of going without a gun was so firmly fixed and so satisfactory that even a perilous wolf encounter did not arouse any desire for firearms. The habit continued, and to-day the only way I can enjoy the wilds is to leave guns behind.
On that autumn afternoon I was walking along slowly, reflectively, in a deep forest. Not a breath of air moved, and even the aspen’s golden leaves stood still in the sunlight. All was calm and peaceful around and within me, when I came to a little sunny frost-tanned grass-plot surrounded by tall, crowding pines. I felt drawn to its warmth and repose and stepped joyfully into it. Suddenly two gray wolves sprang from almost beneath my feet and faced me defiantly. At a few feet distance they made an impressive show of ferocity, standing ready apparently to hurl them selves upon me.
Now the gray wolf is a powerful, savage beast, and directing his strong jaws, tireless muscles, keen scent, and all-seeing eyes are exceedingly nimble wits. He is well equipped to make the severe struggle for existence which his present environment compels. In many Western localities, despite the high price offered for his scalp, he has managed not only to live, but to increase and multiply. I had seen gray wolves pull down big game. On one occasion I had seen a vigorous long-horned steer fall after a desperate struggle with two of these fearfully fanged animals. Many times I had come across scattered bones which told of their triumph; and altogether I was so impressed with their deadliness that a glimpse of one of them usually gave me over to a temporary dread.
The two wolves facing me seemed to have been asleep in the sun when I disturbed them. I realized the danger and was alarmed, of course, but my faculties were under control, were stimulated, indeed, to unusual alertness, and I kept a bold front and faced them without flinching. Their expression was one of mingled surprise and anger, together with the apparent determination to sell their lives as dearly as possible. I gave them all the attention which their appearance and their reputation demanded. Not once did I take my eyes off them. I held them at bay with my eyes. I still have a vivid picture of terribly gleaming teeth, bristling backs, and bulging muscles in savage readiness.
They made no move to attack. I was afraid to attack and I dared not run away. I remembered that some trees I could almost reach behind me had limbs that stretched out toward me, yet I felt that to wheel, spring for a limb, and swing up beyond their reach could not be done quickly enough to escape those fierce jaws.
Both sides were of the same mind, ready to fight, but not at all eager to do so. Under these conditions our nearness was embarrassing, and we faced each other for what seemed, to me at least, a long time. My mind working like lightning, I thought of several possible ways of escaping. I considered each at length, found it faulty, and dismissed it. Meanwhile, not a sound had been made. I had not moved, but something had to be done. Slowly I worked the small folding axe from its sheath, and with the slowest of movements placed it in my right coat-pocket with the handle up, ready for instant use. I did this with studied deliberation, lest a sudden movement should release the springs that held the wolves back. I kept on staring. Statues, al most, we must have appeared to the “camp-bird” whose call from a near-by limb told me we were observed, and whose nearness gave me courage. Then, looking the nearer of the two wolves squarely in the eye, I said to him, “Well, why don’t you move?” as though we were playing checkers instead of the game of life. He made no reply, but the spell was broken. I believe that both sides had been bluffing. In attempting to use my kodak while continuing the bluff, I brought matters to a focus. “What a picture you fellows will make,” I said aloud, as my right hand slowly worked the kodak out of the case which hung under my left arm. Still keeping up a steady fire of looks, I brought the kodak in front of me ready to focus, and then touched the spring that released the folding front. When the kodak mysteriously, suddenly opened before the wolves, they fled for their lives. In an instant they had cleared the grassy space and vanished into the woods. I did not get their picture.
With a gun, the wolf encounter could not have ended more happily. At any rate, I have not for a moment cared for a gun since I returned enthusiastic from my first delightful trip into the wilds without one. Out in the wilds with nature is one of the safest and most sanitary of places. Bears are not seeking to devour, and the death-list from lions, wolves, snakes, and all other bug bears combined does not equal the death-list from fire, automobiles, street-cars, or banquets. Being afraid of nature or a rainstorm is like being afraid of the dark.
The time of that first excursion was spent among scenes that I had visited before, but the discoveries I made and the deeper feelings it stirred within me, led me to think it more worth while than any previous trip among the same delightful scenes. The first day, especially, was excitingly crowded with new sights and sounds and fancies. I fear that during the earlier trips the rifle had obscured most of the scenes in which it could not figure, and as a result I missed fairyland and most of the sunsets.
When I arrived at the alpine lake by which I was to camp, evening’s long rays and shadows were romantically robing the picturesque wild border of the lake. The crags, the temples, the flower-edged snowdrifts, and the grass-plots of this wild garden seemed half-unreal, as over them the long lights and torn shadows grouped and changed, lingered and vanished, in the last moments of the sun. The deep purple of evening was over all, and the ruined crag with the broken pine on the ridge-top was black against the evening’s golden glow, when I hastened to make camp by a pine temple while the beautiful world of sunset’s hour slowly faded into the night.
The camp-fire was a glory-burst in the dark ness, and the small many-spired evergreen temple before me shone an illuminated cathedral in the night. All that evening I believed in fairies, and by watching the changing camp-fire kept my fancies frolicking in realms of mystery where all the world was young. I lay down without a gun, and while the fire changed and faded to black and gray the coyotes began to howl. But their voices did not seem as lonely or menacing as when I had had à rifle by my side. As I lay listening to them, I thought I detected merriment in their tones, and in a little while their shouts rang as merrily as though they were boys at play. Never before had I realized that coyotes too had enjoyments, and I listened to their shouts with pleasure. At last the illumination faded from the cathedral grove and its templed top stood in charcoal against the clear heavens as I fell asleep beneath the peaceful stars.
The next morning I loitered here and there, getting acquainted with the lake-shore, for with out a gun all objects, or my eyes, were so changed that I had only a dim recollection of having seen the place before. From time to time, as I walked about, I stopped to try to win the confidence of the small folk in fur and feathers. I found some that trusted me, and at noon a chipmunk, a camp-bird, a chickadee, and myself were several times busy with the same bit of luncheon at once.
Some years ago mountain sheep often came in flocks to lick the salty soil in a ruined crater on Specimen Mountain. One day I climbed up and hid myself in the crags to watch them. More than a hundred of them came. After licking for a time, many lay down. Some of the rams posed themselves on the rocks in heroic attitudes and looked -serenely and watchfully around. Young lambs ran about, and a few occasionally raced up and down smooth, rocky steeps, seemingly with out the slightest regard for the laws of falling bodies. I was close to the flock, but luckily they did not suspect my presence. After enjoying their fine wild play for more than two hours, I slipped away and left them in their home among the crags.
One spring day I paused in a whirl of mist and wet snow to look for the trail. I could see only a few yards ahead. As I peered ahead, a bear emerged from the gloom, heading straight for me. Behind her were two cubs. I caught her impatient expression when she beheld me. She stopped, and then, with a growl of anger, she wheeled and boxed cubs right and left like an angry mother. The bears disappeared in the direction from which [they had come, the cubs urged on with spanks from behind as all vanished in the falling snow.
The gray Douglas squirrel is one of the most active, audacious, and outspoken of animals. He enjoys seclusion and claims to be monarch of all he surveys, and no trespasser is too big to escape a scolding from him. Many times he has given me a terrible tongue-lashing with a desperate accompaniment of fierce facial expressions, bristling whiskers, and emphatic gestures. I love this brave fellow creature; but if he were only a few inches bigger, I should never risk my life in his woods without a gun.
This is a beautiful world, and all who go out under the open sky will feel the gentle, kindly influence of Nature and hear her good tidings. The forests of the earth are the flags of Nature. They appeal to all and awaken inspiring universal feelings. Enter the forest and the boundaries of nations are forgotten. It may be that some time an immortal pine will be the flag of a united and peaceful world.