The One-Eyed Berkins|
by Kathe Campbell
With the ringing of September's school bell, our youngsters returned with a wealth of wild and woolly essay fodder. After amassing many summer customs, we were now entering a period of nature's maturity verging on decline. Our little tribe had established deep seasonal roots over the years, but no autumn traditions. The Thanksgiving menu was in place, and we had the "Over The River And Through The Woods" part down pat, but no grandmother's house to go to. So we decided to return to His extraordinary land of plenty for cooler nights, blustery winds, and sharing of the game harvest. Heaven forbid we should miss the last hurrah of the year . . . hunting season.
We loaded up our outfit on a bright Wednesday afternoon. The army tent, portable kitchen, sleeping and duffle bags, hunting gear, and our holiday feast. We pulled the little hunting jeep part time, other times the guys drove her the 77 miles in fair weather. Little did we imagine that setting up a hunting camp next to Prickly Pear Creek in Potosi Canyon would blaze new family trails. Could this be the beginning of our first Montana autumnal tradition?
With nary a false move and macho hearts pounding, the guys rushed off to stalk a small bunch of mule deer. After starting a fire, the girls and I sat transfixed by the burst of color in brilliant contrast with the lofty firs and pines on the hills. How sad that it's beauty would soon be cut short by old man winter's wrath as we glassed it's plummeting demise. Young curl horns and goats were spotted frolicking upon a new skiff of snow on the peaks, and the one-eyed berkins waited for the cover of night to venture out. The men would be scraping the sky with the jeep near the place in a day or two, then off on foot along the ridges for serious tracking.
Summer eves gone, nippy breezes triggered a round of shivers while a sickle moon darkened our day early. After devouring chili and somores in front of cozy coals, we listened to the unraveling and riveting details of the afternoon hunt. The scene stirred up perpetual mind pictures of this family's glory days. Our autumn traditions were off and running.
The following morning brought annoyed youngsters on the distaff side begging a serious audience with the patriarch of our clan. They held hands and nervously hemmed and hawed in their quest for tongue-tied words. Cleverly though, they waited until after the excitement of the first buck was harvested and hung for all to admire. Suddenly, bits and pieces of complaints spilled out beneath restrained giggles.
"Waking up to icy noses, that awful outhouse, pesky squirrels storing pinecones in sleeping bags, and the guys making disgusting poppers all night. When do we get to see some berkins?" And lastly, "nobody, just nobody pitches a big 'ol ugly army tent and lives outdoors in the cold, Dad!"
Having tossed in a few new-fangled throw-away cameras may have been the most ingenious thing this matriarch ever did. Keeping disgruntled little minds busy as 'chief photographers' sent spiteful little grumbles off with the wind. Joyous waves of girlish squeals ricocheted off towering ramparts while jeeping into back country to retrieve their dad's white-robed billy goat.
With the evening campfire, the guys perfected their elk calls, but alas, the biggest bull on the mountain was left for next time. Instead, we anticipated winter's succulent venison and homemade jerky, another tradition in the making, but still no sign of the berkins.
The illusive berkins had been briefly seen everywhere, those round shiny eyes aglow as our vehicles approached out of the dark. It seemed so strange that we never saw these one-eyed creatures in the daylight hours, only at night, frozen stiff by our headlights. They were nocturnally abundant in the cities, along the freeways, in the country, and now high in our Montana mountains ogling warily from behind tall grass.
"We'll jeep into the woods tomorrow evening with flashlights," their brother offered. "Maybe we'll get lucky and see those creatures. You must promise to stand very still though. They're liable to run off with people skulking about the forest."
"Something bad musta happened to their other eye," the littlest one declared while pressing her nose on the jeep window.
After the customary family vote the following autumn, our herd pulled up next to Prickly Pear Creek in a new truck towing a snazzy new camper. The patriarch divulged he'd been thinking about family creature comforts for a long time, especially his. Within was stored healthier frames of small minds, the pups, all the comforts of home, and our customary Thanksgiving feast.
Until the day he succumbed on upper Pony Creek, the game warden never missed a meal with us, or his daily dose of pumpkin pie dolloped with whipped cream. With the nagging question still utmost, two little girls begged the keeper of the mountain to show them the cunning one-eyed berkin. Without thinking twice, or noting chagrined frowns, the warden fairly exploded with an uproarious rebound. "Oh you mean all those beer cans along the roadside that shine like eyes in your headlights?"
The jig was up as the girls stood utterly crushed, huge let down masking little faces as gales of laughter pierced the evening cold. "B E E R C A N S!! Is that what one-eyed berkins are? We're never speaking to you guys again," as they about-faced and marched off in two little huffs, until time for campfire somores that is.
Only a river's high water or the wood's deep snow could break the ritual so perfectly created and committed to everlasting memories. We oft scan through photos and feel a special spiritual warmth, for there's nothing like saying grace so close to God. Equally nice, our now grown clan has adopted the tradition in their own families. They will bless a fine Thanksgiving meal on yet another mountain, the new generations pursuing their own last hurrah, and of course, the one-eyed berkins.