NAKED CAME THE STRANGER

 

There are strange things done in the midnight sun

By the men who moil for gold;

            The Arctic trails have their secret tales

That would make your blood run cold;

            The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,

But the queerest they ever did see

            Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge

            I cremated Sam McGee.

 

            I suspect that most of you are familiar with the Robert Service poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee” that has been recited around campfires for generations. I am often reminded of those words this time of year, with the rites of fall and hunting season upon us. This is when we join friends and family for time afield and around those campfires where we tell our own tales of strange things done right here under our big blue Montana sky.

Last week during our annual Goose Camp up at Swan Lake, we again heard the strange tale of Gabby and Gimpy and the hunting license. When the story is told, by either Gimpy or Gabby, there is always some discussion and even some disagreement about the sequence of events and the facts of the matter, and I don’t think it’s ever told in exactly the same way. So the old story always seems fresh and new enough that we can manage to laugh until we cry just about every time we hear it.

If you have read this column over the years, you may have heard this story, too. So this is a test of your memory. as well as my own.

Whatever the case, it must have seemed a strange thing when the three duck hunters heading home from a morning’s shoot rounded a bend in the Swan River one October day many years ago and saw a naked man running in place in the brush along the bank. Those hunters are probably still wondering about that fellow. If they chance to read this or have encountered a previous retelling of the tale, I hope the record will be set straight. That’s because I know who that naked man was, and what he was doing.

Gimpy and Gabby are pals of mine who have ranged the mountains and rivers of Montana together, hunting, fishing and adventuring since boyhood. In many ways they are as close as you can come to being identical twins without being related. In others they are as far apart as fire and ice.

Gimpy’s name comes from his peculiar gait, much like that of a three-legged dog, the result of old athletic injuries and multiple hip replacements. On a dance floor it makes him seem to be a better dancer than he really is. Gabby’s name comes from his enthusiastic conversational style and his keen and insightful observational skills.

Gimpy is a hunter with little or no blood lust. Hunting is an excuse to get out into the wild with his friends. He likes a good snooze in a shady spot, and is more excited about another’s success than his own. For Gabby, hunting is intense and purposeful. He has a strong sense of hunting honor and tradition, however, and sometimes when they hunt together, things get confusing, like the time I watched them both shoot at the same goose.

“Nice shot!” Gimpy shouted when the goose fell.

“What do you mean? You shot it.” Gabby shouted back.

“Couldn’t have been me, you shoot better.”

“No way, you shot an instant before me and it was a hit.”

“Nah, you got it.  I know I flinched.”

“Well that just can’t be.”

And so it went, until they finally agreed to share the kill.

On the day in question, hunting the sloughs on the Swan River had been slow so Gabby decided to explore some potholes on the far side of the river. With no boat, that meant he had to find a shallow spot to wade across. The river in that particular reach is deep and slow, so finding a decent ford took a while.

After crossing the river, Gabby reached into his pocket and found that his hunting license was not in its usual spot. He remembered he had given it to Gimpy the day before to hold while he was changing shirts. So he set off down the river to find Gimpy and spotted him snoozing on a grassy bank on the far side of that wide, deep channel.

“Hey Gimpy, you’ve got my license.”

“Huh?” Gimpy was startled from his sleep.

“You’ve got my license.  Throw it over here would you?”

The river was nearly thirty yards wide at that spot.

“What do you mean throw it over?  Get it later.”

“I might run into a game warden, throw it over here.”

Gimpy lost the argument. He carefully tied the license around a couple of shotgun shells with a piece of twine, wound up and let it fly toward Gabby.

Now Gimpy was known for having something of a cannon for an arm. So Gabby had no doubt that Gimpy would launch the license in a manner that Gabby would be able to gather it in like a high and gentle pop fly.

Instead of a pop fly, however, Gimpy had wound up and fired that missile at Gabby as though it were a fastball—no arc whatsoever.

Glunk!  It dropped short with a splash, just out of Gabby’s reach. It lit in a deep pool next to the bank and Gabby could see it drop through the cold, clear water until it was nearly out of sight when it came to rest.

“Why did you go and do that?”

“You told me to throw it.”

Gimpy watched for a while as Gabby tried unsuccessfully to snag the license with a branch but eventually lost interest and wandered away. That’s when Gabby took off his clothes and jumped into the icy water. It took three dives to retrieve the license. He was nearly blue with cold when he finally came up with the prize, so he started running in place to warm up and dry off before he put his clothes back on.

That’s when the hunters came around the bend in the boat. Startled, they gawked for a moment before coming closer to offer assistance.

“No thanks, everything’s fine here,” Gimpy kept running as he said it.

The hunters seemed unconvinced, but they headed away and out of sight downstream.

Gabby was still running in place a few minutes later when the concerned hunters reappeared from downstream and again inquired after his well being.

“No, really, I’m fine. Sorry you went to the trouble.”

Though they still seemed unconvinced, the hunters left for good, quizzical frowns furrowing their brows.

Later that day, when Gabby opened the license to dry it out on the stove, he noticed that it was Gimpy’s license, and not his own.

There are probably reasonable explanations, just like this, for nearly anything you see out there when you are on the hunt this fall.  After all, naked folks in the wild are a dime a dozen during hunting season. And if this story seems familiar, that’s good. It means you’ve heard it before, maybe more than once, and you’re not losing your marbles yet.

Whatever the case, enjoy your days in the field this fall, gather the stories, especially the strange ones, and cherish the memories.

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