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From the Mouth of the River

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The beginning of the McGillas family of the Clark Fork River Valley

Back in the early eighteen hundreds a young easterner headed West to become a mountain man. After encountering a tribe of Blackfoot Indians along the way he wrote in his diary, “The Chief offered to trade me one of his daughters for my pack horse. He stripped her of her clothes to show me she had no physical defects. Though she was slender and supple, she did not meet the qualifications of, say, the Edison twins of East Boston. Besides, her feet were not black, they were almost white.”

After spending two years helping to deplete the beaver population on the east side of the Great Divide, he ended up on the west slope and followed the Clarks Fork River west to the mouth of what is now known as Lake Pend Oreille, where a settlement of Kootenai Indians lived on its banks.

After spending a long winter trapping there, he met up with a fur trader en route to St. Louis with a load of furs and asked him to deliver a correspondence to his father, Mr. Albert Farnsworth McGillas.

Dear Dad,

I am well and in good health. Hope this finds you like wise. I have met and married a lovely, brown-skinned Kootenai girl, short and plump, but a hard worker. Good cook and replaces the need for two blankets at night. She has the sweet smell of smoked salmon about her.

I have built a cabin overlooking the Clark Fork River in this beautiful valley where I intend to reside.

 Best regards, your son,

Medford P. McGillas.

P.S. My new wife, De Grunt, whose name means, “To lift heavy things,” calls me” Dingle Feather.”

This is the start of how the McGillas family became part of our history here on the river. The old cabin still sits high above the bend in the river where each year the flood waters erode its bank closer and closer to the cabin site until some day the river will claim yet another piece of our history.

The old man living in that cabin today is Lefty McGillas, the great grandson of Dingle Feather McGillas. I often hike up to visit the old man and his dog, taking him items he could live without, but very much appreciates. Things like coffee, whiskey, sugar, salt and sometimes, canned peaches and evaporated milk. I also carry a heavy walking stick to keep his dog at bay until I reach the cabin.

Lefty and all the McGillases before him were born in and lived in that cabin. They trapped, sold furs and lived off the land with very little help from the outside world. Lefty did add a lean-to shed on the west side of the cabin for his dog because he kept dragging critters home that didn’t necessarily smell all that appealing and were sometimes still alive.

Dawg, as Lefty calls him, doesn’t smell all that good either. Dawg turned that lean-to into his own sports den where he keeps all his trophies. There’s a variety of hides, horns, half eaten creatures of unknown origin and lots of hiking shoes, backpacks and other items of clothing left behind by unsuspecting hikers caught on the trail leading past Lefty’s cabin. Sometimes he has to run frightened hikers all the way back down to the river until they lose something worthy of a


Everyone who’s ever seen Dawg and lived, says he’s a cross between a wolverine and something really big and ugly.

My very first encounter with Lefty was while I was fishing the river some distance up from the old bridge. It was one of those days when the fish weren’t biting. I had thrown everything but a rock at those fish and they just weren’t feeding. I was sitting on the bank in the shade of a big cottonwood tree eating a bologna and onion sandwich, when he just appeared out of nowhere, standing there looking down at me. I almost jumped in the river.

 “Kinda spooky aint ya?” he said with a toothy grin. He was holding two big fat trout on a green willow stick. Dawg on the other hand was holding my sandwich along with my hand in his mouth, all the while looking down at me and snarling. I tenderly let go of the sandwich and was taken aback by the fact that his breath was melting the buttons off of my shirt. With his green eye he was calculating how much time I had to live while his blue eye was scanning the area for more sandwiches. Every time he blinked, that blue eye would start the search all over again.

 “Don’t mind old Dawg. He’s kinda bossy,” Lefty said, shoving Dawg aside and hunkering down on the river bank beside me. “Goin fishin’?” he asked.

 “Been,” I said, rubbing the circulation back into my hand.

 “Don’t see no fish,” he said.

 “Got none,” I replied.

 “Oh, been fishin’ stead a catchin’,” he said, holding up the two fat trout on his stick.

 “They haven’t been feeding where I been fishing, I guess,” I mumbled.

 “Well, ya gotta make ‘em hungry,” he explained. “Come on, I’ll show ya. You packin’ any tobacco?”

 “No. Fish can’t smoke!”

 “But I do. Now, lets go back up the river a piece to that deep hole where the old log is jammed up against the bank. Now, ya just wade out there to the middle of this here stream and get your pole ready. Now, start dancing a jig.”

 “You’re pullin’ my Johnson aren’t you? I’m standing here in knee deep water at the head of this deep pool and you want me to dance a jig? Is this some kinda rain dance or something?”

 “No, taint, but look at the water. It’s getting all muddy and dirtyin’ up the pool. Just keep shuffling your feet until the dirty water goes out the other end of the pool. Then let your bait loose on this here end and it’ll carry on down through the pool,” he explained.

 After two nice Rainbow, he asked, “You married?”

 “Yes, I am. It’s just me and my wife,” I said.

 “Them’s anuff fish for two hungry people, lets quit.”

 “Okay, but tell me what made those fish bite?”

 “Well, it’s simple. They thought there was a storm up the country that was bringin’ food down the river and they didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity for a good feed. Besides, their brain is no bigger than a pinto bean, and anybody can outsmart one.”

This is how I met Lefty McGillas and his dog, Dawg. More stories of the history of the Clark Fork and the McGillas family will appear in the River Journal periodically.


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Boots Reynolds Boots Reynolds The "internationally-renowned cowboy artist" Boots Reynolds has moved his comedic interpretation of life into the writing field with his regular column in the River Journal - From the Mouth of the River.

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