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The Bluepenciler

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Of cows and mice and the Order of the Purple Toe

When the stars shine bright and you can see your breath, draw closer to the campfire and draw close to your friends and listen to the sounds of the night.

In the heart of the Bull River Valley one recent Saturday evening those night sounds were accentuated by the haunting notes of bagpipes and the stories told by three remarkable people. Young Danny Walden, a 16 year old high school student from Sandpoint, added just the right flavor to an evening around a campfire at the Historic Bull River Ranger Station with melodies from the Scottish Highlands Bagpipes he has mastered.

Jonathan Johnson, a part-time Cocolalla resident, spoke of his dad, his uncle, the Clark Fork Valley and cows; Renee D’Aoust, with the help of Sandy Compton, joined the campfire gathering from Clark Fork and presented the world premier of a two-person, three-act play she wrote about mice; and Sandy, whose ancestors homesteaded near Heron on Blue Creek, took those friends huddled within the circle of flickering firelight on a journey with the Nez Perce Indians, and on his own journey during which, he announced, was conceived an elite society dubbed The Order of the Purple Toe.

The program, “The Past and the Present: Linked by Nature,” was the grand finale of a season of presentations orchestrated by the Bull River Outdoors Education Association. Since May, more than a dozen programs attracted hundreds of people who wanted to learn about wolves, hike the high country of the Cabinet Mountains, explore the effects of glacial ice and catastrophic flooding in the lower Clark Fork, or experience the enlightened expressions on children’s faces as they discovered something new about the natural world in which we live.

A campfire in the shadow of the old ranger station built in 1908 by Granville “Granny” Gordon on a cold, clear, starry night was a great place to gather in celebration of another successful summer of these activities. Nan Compton was there, one of the people who helped preserve the historic building for future generations; and Jim Mershon was there serving up cowboy coffee. He was the Forest Service district ranger when the Bull River programs were first organized and offered the kind of support and guidance that helped make the effort so successful. Mindy Ferrell was there, the woman who took over after Debbie Boots left and selflessly kept the programs going year after year for the benefit of young and old alike.

Jonathan’s uncle was there, and not a one of us, surrounded by the dark of night, drawn in close to the leaping flames, escaped the emotion of the moment Steve found the cold, dead calf lying on the muddy ground in the corral. Jonathan had spent days struggling to convince the cow to nurse her baby; trying to teach the calf where to go for the nourishment it needed to survive, cradling its cold, wet face lathered with the mucus of birth when its own mother ignored the poor little orphan.

Renee’s mom and dad were there, and who couldn’t help but notice the delight dancing on their faces and the pride beaming like spotlights from their eyes and smiles as their daughter connected with the audience and thrilled them with her own glowing smiles, thoughtful prose and poetry? 

Danny’s mom and dad were there, too, fussing over him as he stood straight and determined in the shadows just beyond the warmth of the fire that must’ve tortured him throughout the chilled evening. But there was not a word of complaint - just the occasional soulful interlude of music so magical that all you could do was close your eyes and let it wash over you in calm, serene waves of harmony.

And I was there as well, grimacing in vicarious pain when Sandy described the injury he incurred to that dang toe while wading the icy current of the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone at exactly the same place the much more deeply hurting Nez Perce crossed over a century ago.

So I threw another log on the fire, settled back in my chair and basked in its warmth and the warmth of those illuminated in its dancing glow.

When the stars shine bright and you can see your breath, draw closer to the campfire and draw close to your friends and listen to the sounds of the night.

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Author info

Dennis Nicholls Dennis Nicholls was the founder, publisher, janitor and paperboy of the River Journal from 1993 to 2001. He passed away in 2009.

Tagged as:

Bull River Ranger Station, storytelling, Danny Walden, Bull River Outdoors Education Association

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