August 12, 1841

“I, in company with another man (J. John), went some distance below the camp to fish in the river; fished sometime without success–concluded we could spend the afternoon more agreeably.”

So begins the journal version of a story John Bidwell told seemingly every time he told about his overland journey to California. He and James “Jimmy” John had time to go fishing because the company was waiting for the return of the four men they had sent to Ft. Hall for supplies and information. The day was hot, and looking across the valley they could see a mountain with inviting patches of snow.

“Supposed the snow not more than 4 miles distant; set out without our guns knowing they would be a hindrance in ascending the mountain.”

They walked and walked, but the mountain never seemed to get any closer. Bidwell suggested they return to camp, but Jimmy gave him a scornful look and kept walking. “I called to him to stop, but he would not even look back. A firm resolve seized me to overtake him, but not again to ask him to return.”

“The rocks were sharp, and soon cut through our moccasins and made our feet bleed. But up and up we went until long after midnight, and until a cloud covered the mountain.” In the dark they crawled under a stunted tree and lay there shivering. They had no coats or blankets to keep them warm.  “When daylight came we discovered we had lain in the nest of a grizzly bear. The hair was rubbed off the brush and there were all the signs of the grizzly’s lair.”

As soon as day dawned they continued up the mountain and found the snow. It had hardened into ice, but John cut a large piece out with his knife and wrapped it in his handkerchief. They decided to take a shorter but steeper route back to the camp.

“At first the way was smooth and easy but soon we were sliding down in the snow and mud with our buckskin suits wet and bedraggled. This way soon led into a most rugged canyon and thickets so dense that it became impossible to pass through them except in the trails of the grizzly bears. . . . We carried our sheath knives in our hands at every step, for we knew not at what instant we would meet a bear face-to-face.”

The two footsore adventurers limped across the hot valley until at last they came into camp about noon. “They supposed without a doubt, that the Blackfeet had got us, had been up all night in guard, every fire had been put out, they had been out twice in search of us and were about to start again when we arrived. We were received with a mixture of joy and reprehension.”

“Their first questions were “Where have you been?” “Where have you been?” I was able to answer triumphantly, “We have been up to the snow!”  and to demonstrate the fact by showing all the snow I had left, which was now reduced to a ball about the size of my fist.” (The First Emigrant Train to California)

He was lucky that someone didn’t beat him over the head with that chunk of ice.

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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