Charlie Engbretzon’s Ford
Early November, 1937
Charlie Engbretson’s Ford was like all Fords, narrow-bodied and modest, fitted out with the standard bench seat that made it a comfortable ride when it only held two. But a man named Mack (not his real name) was the ranger at Deep Creek, and Mack had a wife. He also had a woman set up in a tent on the Little Clearwater a few miles upstream, where an old trail had gradually given out and been abandoned. Nobody used the trail anymore, and that was Mack.
Charlie had planned an all-weekend deer-hunting expedition with the boy sitting next to him, and they were heading back from Paradise Guard Station to the CCC camp with the boy’s first deer, a fair-sized Muley buck lying in the back of the truck. But when they stopped at the Deep Creek Ranger Station a couple miles downstream from the camp for a quick chore he he found Frank and Jessie Lantz, just in from the Salmon River and putting up their stock in the station pasture. That changed his mind. It was the weekend, and he knew that Mack was nowhere around and that if he didn’t give the Lantzes a ride over Nez Perce Pass that night, they’d be stuck at Deep Creek waiting for Mack or some other wayward soul traveling along the Paradise Road for who knew how long.
Without consulting the boy then, Charlie unilaterally cut their hunting trip short, crowded the tired couple onto his little bench seat with the (now) disappointed boy sitting sideways and hunched up next to him, and then he drove everybody out, up the Deep Creek road, past the CCC camp, up and out of the Selway Canyon and over Nez Perce Pass, then back down the other side of the mountains into the Bitterroot Valley and north to Hamilton, the boy’s home.
The boy—Stewart Brandborg--was used to these mountain characters, people who could conjure up time and make it go backwards if they wanted to, to when forests had personalities that they had opinions about. His father, Bitterroot Forest Supervisor, Guy Brandborg, was recognized even then as one of these master conjurers of for what was left of 20thCentury cowboy culture, the culture that had displaced the original one, the Ni’i mi puu's and the Salish folks', the ones that used to walk the trails with dogs near where the new Paradise Road was being built now. The boy was haphazardly being gifted an education by his father, into a world that was vital, crucial and—at least in his father opinion--would disappear like smoke if boys like Stewart didn’t pay enough attention to what his father figured was worth paying attention to, and the Lantzes were part of that education even though he didn't acknowledge such categories of divine intent at the time.
He knew the road between Deep Creek and Hamilton well enough, for instance. He’d just ridden over it with his father, Guy, (also known as "Brandy" throughout his life) who travelled it during the summer months to check on the progress of the Paradise Road. Guy had been given Charlie’s CCC crew by the New Deal government along with his supervisor position at the Bitterroot National Forest. He were going to punch the road through to Paradise, where there hadn’t been a road before. Guy and his boss, Major Evan Kelly, were foresters from Pinchot’s early mold, rough-talking, good in the saddle and committed to the public domain. Major Kelly was probably more committed to roads than Guy, but however Guy felt about roads in these places where there hadn’t been any, he didn’t flinch from the task. This was the Depression, a famous time of few jobs and much opportunity, and Guy’s true religion was the capable, underemployed mountain people like the Engbretzons and the Lantzes, whom he’d search out during just such hard times and bless with a steady government job and his own signature appreciation for rural Westerners.
Guy would stay for a day or two, then drive back to his other duties at the Supervisor’s Office in Hamilton, leaving Stewart in the Engbretson’s care for days at a time to learn a thing or two. Officially, Charlie’s job was to supervise the road crew, but Guy also granted Charlie a special dispensation to take the boy on outings, much like later generations turned their sons over to Scoutmasters. It was enough of adventure, then, driving back to Hamilton in the dark for hours pinned between three adults in an inadequate Ford, so of course Stewart didn’t whine. It wasn’t one of his options. He bunched himself inward instead, comforting himself as best he could next to his mentor, Charlie Engbretzon the “mountain man”, absorbing another experience. Taken as a whole, it was idyllic.
“Had my bed in (Charlie’s) office and his wife was a few hundred yards away in the summer tent camp where they lived. I ate with the CCC boys. We would hunt grouse, we would catch fish…” and Charlie “always had the new scheme to make things exciting”.
On this Fall morning Stewart and Charlie had gotten up at first light and bumped along the new Paradise Road that was being carved out of the canyon shoulder for about an hour until they came to where a no-name creek had been spilling into the Selway River unaided since the last Ice Age, but was now being helped under a roadbed through a culvert considerately placed by Charlie’s crew. This was seen as an improvement by Charlie, whose Ford bench seat represented a luxury that would have been unthinkable in the upper Selway just a couple of years before. There would have been no bench seats, no culverts and no road at all between the CCC camp and Paradise before then. The CCC boys had brought it all down into the Canyon especially for the purpose of improving access to firefighting efforts and timber as envisioned by Major Kelly (and Guy) and, by extension, President Franklin Roosevelt, who shared Kelly’s belief in roads. As for the CCC boys, they were mostly from the heart of poverty-stricken America, suddenly graced with a regular government paycheck and some bulldozers to more perfectly bring the 20th Century down to where the only sounds of such centuries before had been the squeaks and rattles of the Decker pack saddles and metal bits on an occasional string of government mules heading to a fire.
“Who could ask for more?” Charlie might have pointed out to young Stewart as they climbed out of the truck early that morning, shouldered their rifles, and set off up the steep sides of the little trickle of a creek to see what they could see.
Maybe the first thing they saw was the skittish wriggling of giant fish just below the surface of the water, members of those vast tribes of Steelhead that still existed in happy numbers that fall, but were slated for extinction the very next year. The Army Corps of Engineers was going to do that job, close the gates at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia, four rivers and six hundred miles downstream from the little no-name creek in the Spring. They would then fill a slackwater reservoir once and for all into a deep cut of geology accurately known as the Columbia River Gorge by pioneers but forever after would be known as “Lake Bonneville”. Charlie may have known all this, may have even said something about it to the boy--and it could have been that a skittish wriggling under the waters below their feet was the very first thing that they saw, the last free run of giants coming up from the sea.