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Footprints in the Forest

November 13, 2002

Seven or eight years ago I was working on a Forest Service timber contract up Elk Creek. I spent a lot of months and walked a lot of miles up there and everywhere I went I’d cross these faded footprints. I could be on the windswept ridges of the West Fork or somewhere down in the deepest, darkest, nastiest hole in Lost Cabin Gulch, and there’d be those footprints. From Lone Cliff to Divide Peak to Jack’s Gulch, there’d be those footprints; old and worn by the elements, headed up, headed down, cutting across the hillsides, disappearing into the forest.

I followed those footprints wherever I could and they’d take me to these lofty, rocky pinnacles looking out over the East Fork, or into some thicket of timber off the back side of Beaver Peak so dense I’d have to get down on my hands and knees and crawl to get anywhere. And at times, just when I thought I’d lost those footprints, when they seemed to just vanish into nothing more than a memory, there they’d be on the other side of some chaotic blowdown or just over a ridge in a bare spot of thin soil, barely discernible.

It didn’t take long for me to find out whose footprints those were. I got in the habit of stopping by the Hereford on my way home from a day or two in the mountains, and without fail there’d be Don Sharp at the bar or tinkering with this and fiddling with that – doing the stuff that always needs doing to keep a business like the Hereford running – and it got to where he’d ask me, “Dennis, where’ve you been today?” And I might say somewhere on the narrow ridge between Butte and Cascade creeks and he’d say, “My god, that hellhole?” And he’d go off about a waterfall or an elk wallow or some pocket of big red fir, and amazed, I’d reply, “Yeah, that was the place; I had a plot there and those trees are 200 years old.” Or something like that.

I got to know Elk Creek real good that summer by hiking day after day up one side and down the other. I got to know it better by sitting next to Don on a barstool and listening to him tell the stories he had collected over a lifetime of “up one side and down the other.”

Don’s only son, Randy, told me his dad had a rough exterior, that he came across as a gruff character; but underneath that was a heart of gold. I discovered that was perhaps one of the truest things about Don Sharp. He was quick to laugh, full of stories and genuinely interested in the things I did and the places I went. I imagine a lot of other people found him that way too.

For 49 years Don had the best woman he could’ve had by his side. He loved the outdoors and Bev loved it as much as he did. Perhaps she became an even better hunter than he was, though he had a shed full of antlers, testimony to his ability to fill his freezer with wild meat for the winter. I’ve had a peek in that shed and couldn’t believe my eyes at some of the trophies hidden in there, collecting memories and just waiting for anytime Don would tell the story of this hunt or that hunt to anyone willing to listen.

If there was anything he loved as much as hunting and being in the outdoors it was his pets – the dogs and cats around the house, of course, but more than that, the birds and squirrels and other critters that visited he and Bev on Elk Creek Road. But you know what he loved most of all? It shouldn’t come as a surprise – his family, first and foremost: Randy, Susie, Lisa, Shelly, and two grand-children, James first, whom Don always called Spank and who gave him a great-grandchild not long ago; and Cameo; and his grand -stepson, another James who gave Don two more great-grandchildren. Bev said he was especially happy when all his kids were gathered at his table. I’ve been at some of those family gatherings over the years, invited to be a part of the down-home, this is who we are, let’s get together and share our lives for awhile, and food. Have I told you some of the best cooks in the land are part of this family?

No wonder Don and Bev purchased the Hereford Restaurant 16 years ago and have run one of the most successful businesses in this valley. That’s because of the great food, for sure, but more than that, it must also be because of the atmosphere of the place, an atmosphere created largely by Don himself. From the picture frames on the walls to the Lazy Susans on the tables to the dining room sign, the booths and the tables themselves, Don built all that stuff. He was quite the woodworker and thank god he shared his talent with all of us, not by simply putting it on display, but setting it up for us to use.

How do you sum up 69 years in a few moments, in a few words set down on paper? You can’t, really, but his wife and children say it best and most succinctly: He loved his family, he loved the outdoors, he loved Montana and its history, and he loved helping his neighbors. Did he seem gruff to you on the outside? Probably. But it rarely took long to find out what a heart of gold he had just beneath the surface.

What bits of that gold Don Sharp shared with me I’ll treasure all the days of my life and I’ll remember the stories he told, especially whenever I’m in a canyon crowded with tall timber, echoing the laughter of a waterfall, full of elk sign; and there, in the shadows beneath the brush, over a log, on that narrow ledge, I catch the fleeting glimpse of a footprint, and I bet I’ll know whose it was.


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

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