Grizzly fur traders, trappers, and hardy women
Having perused the Art Festival a number of laps, eating my share of fresh cherry-lime gelato, taking in all the glorious art and music, and tired of dodging the throng, I remembered the Mountain Man Rendezvous was under way out Washington Gulch, tucked into a sweet, quiet meadow far away from the bustling tent city art metropolis.
Feeling the need to retreat to a make believe world, I headed up the mountain.
However, upon arrival at the encampment I discovered not a superficially enshrouded costumed affair, but a true to historical-life reenactment of American trappers, women, children, and Native Americans—even the dogs seemed to know their part. Daily life lived as it was in the early 1800s for pioneer fur traders and trappers, intact with all its rowdy bawdiness. It was down and dirty in certain areas of the camp, especially when happy hour began. I asked when the magic hour started at the makeshift saloon with a fire pit dug into the dirt in the center of the open tent. “Every hour is happy hour here!” was the resounding chorus.
These people are the real thing, incarnates of their chosen characters, and as wild as the West once was. The addiction is in the camaraderie and dedication to preserving the wild culture and spirit of the real America. Stores were set up in several of the 20 or so tents and teepees selling everything from antique trading bead necklaces that were over a hundred years old to knives, bows and arrows, handcrafted thigh-high moccasins and fur hats. The aroma of stewed meats boiling in pots over wood stoves in tents filled the air, along with the smell of gunpowder.
Brad Creed has been involved with the organization of the event for about 10 of its 25 years or so. “Me and Rat [Mike Ratterman] run it,” he quips about getting roped into the volunteer job. “The camp is anywhere from 20 to 30 primitive camps on a good year. We only invite so many people and it’s mostly word of mouth, so we keep it small. There are only three rendezvous left in the state of Colorado that are no-rules rendezvous,” he says and claims the only rule the Crested Butte site has is “Use common sense.”
Brad explains that at many of the larger national events, which have families and church groups, different opinions prevail. Quiet is required after certain hours, guns must be shot at the firing range only, and cannons are not allowed. None of that seems true to the nature of the original rendezvous.
“At 6 a.m., our canon goes off. Also, you can walk up the road or valley shooting your guns if you want,” Brad says as his blue eyes gleam mischievously and he offers, “Use common sense and clean up your own blood.”
The camp games can get quite plucky and according to Brad, “One year we threw a big log over a huge council fire and had log wrestling. You’re standing on the log, wrestling above the fire. Not many people participated in that. We have muzzle loading events, knife and tomahawk throwing events, primitive archery and sometimes we have a lance throw.”
To throw this rendezvous with its wild overtones, sharp objects and gunpowder, there are modern world procedures that have to be followed. “It’s not easy covering liability with cannons and guns, and we have to pay for special land use permits,” which, Brad says, comes from the Forest Service.
But the reward, and the draw, is a living history of the 1804 to 1838 fur trader and trapper life. “They actually had these rendezvous. There were three huge fur companies at the time—Hudson Bay, American Fur Trade, and Rocky Mountain Fur Trade. They’d send out brigades to trap the beaver and they wouldn’t have just trappers—you’d also have people like camp hunters who supplied the meat, and individuals who would skin the beavers after they were trapped.”
The companies would bring whiskey (the top requirement), and trade goods like guns, knives, gun powder, coffee, and women… yes, recreational women… hey, that’s why it was called the Wild West.
“The Native Americans would also come to trade. They knew they could come and trade for blankets, guns, tobacco or any trade goods, whatever they needed,” Brad says, giving a brief glance into the history of those primitive times.
It was very international though, as the Chinese were notable importers, sending tea and other supplies across on ships, and Italy, particularly Venice, traded much sought-after beads.
“Native Americans loved beads, and all the good beads came out of Venice,” Brad notes. “Even Lewis and Clark carried thousands of pounds of beads with them to trade to the different tribes for things like passage across their lands, or a show of good will. We’ve been trading beads for 20,000 years. The oldest ones are in Afghanistan. Beads were used monetarily.”
Fortunately, the history and trading lives on at the rendezvous, where survival isn’t so much of an issue and large, profit-mongering fur companies aren’t robbing anyone blind.
“FIRE IN THE HOLE!” I heard reverberate from tent to tent across the meadow as the cannon’s concussion blasted the air and I simultaneously jumped and screamed like a little girl—much to the amusement of the young pioneer kids who were throwing axes and knives at log targets. My mother would have gone into conniptions if any of us kids at that age were ever to handle a knife sharp enough to skin a buffalo. These kids were fearless and adept with their weapons and every one of them had all of their digits intact. At one point, the cannon was loaded with candy and fired… a sort of exploding piñata, which sent all the kids scampering through the field for the goods.
Often someone would proclaim loudly some tale, taking center stage wherever they stood in true story-telling fashion, about the fate of some scoundrel or the bravery of some trapper. Pipes will be smoked and bread will be shared, stoutly ale will be drunk along with whiskey and more tales will weave around the fire.
“After 6 p.m., everyone parties down,” one grizzly milliner tells me with a slyly crinkled eye. Appropriately named “Lil’ Grizz,” he is a hat maker… although more of a mad hatter. His tent is lined with rows of hat forms. Hats displayed on wire racks are authentic 1820s replicas. “This is the favorite Boss of the Plains hat,” he says as he strokes the brim of a glorious black hat with a four-inch brim on a four and a half-inch crown, while stirring a savory hunk of meat in a cast iron pot sizzling on a wood stove.
Throughout the weekend there are competitions for bow shooting, tomahawk throwing, black powder sharp shooting, and fanciest frillies (women’s underwear). I was coerced into asking what the difference was between a breach clout and a loin clout. As if rehearsed with great anticipation for some unwary uninitiated, two musky men stepped up for the lesson. “This is a breach clout,” one said as he exhibited a swath of scratchy looking wool material that wrapped between his legs from his front to his back under a buckskin tunic…which was the cue for his buddy, Grey Buffalo Bull, to show me the difference of the free-hanging loin clout made of red wool felt. Luckily for me, I had been a daily Sunshine’s Bathhouse patron long ago in town, so did not produce the predicted blush.
A heavy rain had fallen, leaving a mist across the tall, wet grasses and rivulets streamed from the canvas tent roofs. “This is what you do for a living?” I asked of several patrons hovering around the warm sparks spitting from the pit at the ongoing happy hour of the Olfactory Assinline Saloon. One answered for the many, “No this is what I do for fun… but it keeps us alive.”
The Mountain Man Rendezvous takes place up Washington Gulch. The event is free and the public is welcome. Saturday is the best day to head out with the family or solo to witness the sporting events (archery, knife throwing, shooting and such) and chat with the encampment residents. It’s not advisable to stay after the sun sinks behind the mountains and the camp gets even more authentic…