By Chuck Carpenter
In 1965 my family loaded up everything we owned and moved from Alaska back to Western Montana. We spent a few days with my grandparents in Hamilton, Montana and then rented a house south of Conner, Montana along the East Fork of the Bitterroot River.
With lots of great fishing and hunting right out the back door, my two younger brothers and I were in paradise.
The only problem was that while we were in Alaska, Montana had started the mandatory 12-and-older Hunters Education Program. In Alaska it was up to your parents when you could hunt, but you had to be accompanied by an adult until you were 16 years of age.
This wasn’t a problem for me; I was old enough to take the Montana Hunters Safety Course and was ready to go. My two younger brothers had hunted a few big game species but now had to wait a few years to hunt until they were old enough to take the course.
It wasn’t long before we met most of the neighbor kids. The closest lived about two miles away. We spent lots of time tromping up and down the Bitterroot River, catching fish for supper.
About a mile and a half up the river there was an older house with a couple of outbuildings. It was a neat looking little place, very well kept. Two small creeks come down right behind the house and run into the river.
On some of our fishing trips I asked a few of the neighbor kids to come along. All of them told me not to go anywhere near that neat looking little place. They said the old man that lived there was crazy and really mean and nasty! I stayed clear of the place, always going way around his property fences on my excursions.
The first hunt I was able to go on after coming back from Alaska was a black bear hunt. I hiked off out of the back of our house and over a hill and dropped down into one of the small creeks that run down through the place where the mean guy lived. Lots of bear sign was in the area. The bears had been traveling up and down the creek, feeding on some of the many chokecherries that were growing there.
I eased up along the creek on an old overgrown logging road. I hadn’t traveled too far when I was able to harvest a nice, fat, medium-sized bear that would be good meat for the family. I dressed out the bear and pulled it down close to the old road.
Now I had to figure out how to get him home. I could cut him up and back-pack him in pieces back up and over the hill the way I had come. Or I could try to find out where the road comes out and have my dad come and pick me up when he got home from work.
I started back down the old logging road. About a mile down the road I came to a gate with a No Trespassing sign on it. One hundred yards through the trees I could see the house where the mean ole guy lived. The road went right through his yard and out to Highway 93, the way we would have to come if we were going to drive.
I walked back and forth along the gate. I thought about just turning around and packing my bear home the hard way. What should I do, I wondered? What would happen if I just walked up and knocked on the door? Would I be shot? Would I be beaten, or worse?
I swallowed hard and eased through the gate. It took me longer to walk the one hundred yards to the house than it would have taken me to cover the mile back to my bear.
I swallowed hard again and knocked on the door. I could hear someone walking to the door. “Well, here goes,” I thought.
The door opened and there was this little cute gray-haired lady. She had twinkling blue eyes and a big smile on her face. She looked almost like Mrs. Santa Claus.
“What can I help you with, young man?” she quietly asked. I explained my dilemma to her. “Well, you will have to talk to Fred,” she replied. She looked back over her shoulder and said, “Fred, there is someone here to talk to you.”
I could hear someone in the kitchen thumping around and coming in my direction. A tall, thin, older gentleman come out of the kitchen on crutches. He stopped in the doorway and looked me up and down. A huge smile appeared on his face. “That’s a good-looking rifle you have, young fellow,” he said. “What can I do for you?” he asked.
I spent the next hour explaining about my hunt – and having milk and cookies. The ole man just kept grinning. He wanted to know every detail. I think he was as excited as I was.
The names of my newfound friends were Fred and Alice Stirwalt. Fred had been in the First World War and was wounded really bad. He couldn’t get around without the crutches.
After our visit, he called my mother to see if it would be alright if he picked up my bear and brought it home for me. My mother told Fred: “Well that little [bad word!]. I didn’t think he would find anything on his hunt!” And she thanked Fred for helping me.
We loaded up in Fred’s jeep and picked up my bear. Me and my family became really close friends with Fred and Alice. My dad, brothers and I had many great times hunting and fishing with Fred. Our families shared many meals together. I will never forget the big smiles on the Stirwalts’ faces each time we would see them.
I’m not sure why the other kids in the area were so scared of Fred. He was always kind and happy to see everyone. The mean ole man up the road turned out to be the best friend and neighbor you could ask for!
Chuck Carpenter, who now lives in Idaho, likes to hunt, fish and trap. He worked on a farm as a boy; then, as an adult, he took a job with the Department of Interior’s Animal Damage Control, now called USDA Wildlife Services. He ultimately became a district supervisor. He retired in 2011.