Article by: Jim Billipp
I’ve been traveling from Boston to the Sawtooths every other year or so for the last twenty-five. I like to backpack into some stunningly beautiful high mountain lake, slow and heavy style. I set up camp and stay put for four or five days, exploring a bit, fishing, and jumping off high rocks into clear, freezing water during the heat of the day. I take very little food and eat a lot of trout.
About fifteen years ago I went into the White Clouds, a part of the SNRA I wasn’t familiar with, just for a change. I don’t remember the name of the lake I visited, but it was an easy hike in on a fairly flat trail. A small stream flowed out of the lake and down through a big grassy meadow, which offered plenty of good campsites.
When I got there the meadow was bathed in that golden late summer afternoon light. I dropped my pack and wandered through tall grass looking for a flat tent site. Suddenly I felt I was being watched. I looked up and saw a big red fox staring at me from the edge of the meadow. We held eye contact for a few beats, then he dropped his gaze and slipped into the woods.
I set up my tent across the stream from a well-used kitchen area with a nice fire ring and good sitting stones. Someone had left a pine pole cantilevered over the fire pit, with one end sticking up in the air. It looked cool, kind of sculptural. I wasn’t planning on building a fire so I left it there. I put my fly-rod together and went up to the lake to swim and try the fishing.
On my way back I saw the fox sniffing around my tent. He was magnificent, with a thick coat of bright red fur darkening to black down his legs and tail. He was clearly healthy, well-fed, and familiar with campers. He watched me stop at the kitchen and hang a pair of cutthroats from the raised log, then trotted away as I approached the tent.
I filleted the trout on a flat rock in the stream below the kitchen, and cut each of the fillets into four or five pieces. I cleaned the knife and slid it back in its leather sheath, leaving the carcasses on the rock for the fox.
After shaking the trout pieces in a paper bag with cornmeal, I deep fried them and ate the crispy chunks with soy, wasabi and ginger. That’s my standard Sawtooth dinner, and it’s damn good fare paired with lake-cold beer.
In the morning I walked downstream to the fillet rock sipping a cup of coffee, curious to see if the fox had found the trout. Yup, the filleted fish were gone.
I fished the lake again that afternoon. Trout were rising everywhere, and I had a fine time dropping little hoppers in the growing rings. It’s a challenge to hold onto those frisky westslope cutthroats long enough to see how beautiful they are, and thrilling to have one explode from your hand and dart back to deep water. I killed two nice fish for dinner and filleted them down at the rock, leaving the carcasses as before.
First thing next morning I walked downstream to check the rock. All that was left of the fish was a red smudge on the granite. The stone had been licked clean.
That afternoon I brought a pair of trout down from the lake on a string, and stopped at the kitchen for my knife and a bowl. The cooking gear was all stashed in the kitchen rocks, just as I’d left it— everything but the knife. I looked around, increasingly disoriented. My little Rapala fillet knife had simply disappeared, and it was the only knife I had.
I checked down at the fillet station, and back up at the lake. I knew the knife wasn’t in my tent, but I looked there too. Finally, I came across a plastic fast-food knife at the bottom of my pack. I scraped the plastic on a rock until it was sharp enough to open the fish.
I gutted the trout, and fried them whole. After dinner I took what was left down to the rock. I had eaten all the meat, even the heads and crispy tails. There was nothing left for the fox but bones.
Leaving my tent the next morning, I spotted the fox way downstream, he was standing still looking right back at me. I stepped into the kitchen and sat to light the stove. There on the ground in front of me was the missing knife! And right next to it, also covered in dust, lay its sheath. There were finely pointed dents on the knife’s wooden handle, and the same fox-tooth tooling was all over the leather sheath. No blood was visible on either of them. The fox had managed to carry of a very sharp, pointed knife, take it out of its sheath, chew on them both, and then bring them back—all without cutting himself.
I stood and turned all the way around, searching for the fox. Something magical had happened, and now the rocks, the meadow, the stream, the sky, the surrounding woods and mountains— everything was suddenly vibrant, alive, and connected. I had planned to pack up and leave after breakfast. Instead, I took my fly rod back up to the lake. Stanley could wait, I wasn’t going anywhere until I squared up with foxy.
Dinner was particularly enjoyable that night. My deep-fried cutthroat fillets never tasted better, and the fox surely relished the whole, uncut trout I left him along with the fillet leftovers. He had earned it, and confirmed his clan’s fabled cunning in the process.
On my last morning at the lake, I sat in the kitchen drinking coffee and packing up. A too-close sound startled me, and I looked up in time to see the fox clear the bushes. I reached for my camera as he jumped onto the pole sticking up over the fire pit. The pole was angled such that the fox got higher of the ground and closer to me as he came prancing up.
I wish I could find that photograph. It’s not great, because the fox came out a little blurry. But I did catch him, balanced up there like a circus performer, a step before he leapt over my shoulder and bounded off.
Of course I think of that fox every time I use the knife he borrowed. I run my fingers over the weathered leather sheath, feel the dents his sharp, careful little teeth left, and I smile. The fox is long dead and gone, but his magic is still fresh.