Tom Ross: Pass the porcupine stew

Early settlers used skis for work, rarely for play

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Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Tom here.

Winter appears to have settled in for good, and some of you who are new to the Yampa Valley may be wondering what you have gotten yourselves into.

If all goes well, you won't have to undergo the privations that the earliest Caucasian settlers were subjected to during a streak of harsh winters toward the end of the 19th century. That should mean that you won't lose any toes to frostbite, and you won't have to dig a 25-foot-deep pit in the snow to get drinking water. If you're lucky, your Christmas dinner will be something a little more elegant than porcupine stew and dumplings topped off with raisin/suet pudding that was boiled for two hours in a sack over the campfire.

Sureva Towler tells the story in her 1987 book, "The History of Skiing at Steamboat Springs," about the first Christmas dinner in Routt County, prepared in 1874 by a four-man ski party that was trapping fox and coyotes on the Elk River.

After a hearty breakfast of fried grouse, Thomas Iles, who would one day be among the first Routt County Commissioners, got serious about cooking Christmas dinner. He simmered the porcupine stew for four hours and prepared biscuits in a Dutch oven heaped with coals. Raisins had to substitute for plums in the pudding.

Probably the best source of the earliest ski history in the Steamboat area is prolific author Lulita Crawford Pritchett. She was the granddaughter of James and Margaret Crawford, who were the first Caucasian family to homestead here in 1875. They learned to make Norwegian snowshoes, what we would call skis, and used them for transportation more than sport.

Pritchett's most enlightening accounts of early settlers' winter hardships are centered around her Uncle John Crawford's ill-timed efforts to establish a gold mine on the lower slopes of Soda Mountain in the winter of 1897 and around the harrowing tale of a skiing postman who lost his way - and nine of his toes - in 1881.

John Crawford and his partners in the mine used 9-foot homemade skis of spruce to take occasional trips to town from their mine, about 11 miles into the hills as the eagle flies. John's brother, Logan, once skied over the top of Buffalo Pass into North Park to tell a man that his daughter was seriously ill in Steamboat.

John Logan's efforts to excavate a gold mine on Yellow Creek - a tributary of the north fork of Soda Creek - exposed them to the harsh winter of 1897-98, when snow on the level was 25 feet deep. John proved that depth by lopping off the limb of a tree at the snow line and measuring it the following summer. There was 18 feet of snow on the roof of their cabin, which they were constantly forced to prop up with new spruce logs.

Their partner, Bill Williams, was trying to snag a drink with a tin cup one January day and fell into the snow well. The hole was so deep that he could not extricate himself, and John could not pull him out.

Finally, they made a ladder of their snowshoes and poles and rescued Bill. His pants were frozen stiff and his teeth were chattering, but after they got him back to the cabin and fed him a dose of pepper sauce, he came around.

The early settlers of the Yampa Valley depended upon skiing mailmen for contact from the outside world during the long winter. The U.S. government paid the mail carriers $40 a month to trek through the snowy wilderness, with as much as 70 pounds of mail on their backs.

One winter, a mail carrier named Coburn became lost in a blizzard near Egeria Park, close to modern-day Toponas. A rancher named Elmer Brooks knew the man was lost because he had attempted to meet him to receive his mail.

Finally, the half-frozen mail carrier stumbled into the midway mail cabin, where he was promptly located.

"He was delirious," Brooks wrote in his memoirs. "He said he thought he saw someone beckoning him through the storm, and that's how he made it to the cabin."

Another early mail carrier, Zene Maudlin, told the Steamboat Pilot that he and a group of men built a crude sled to haul the mail carrier the final 22 miles into Steamboat Springs.

The man's feet were frozen, and he lost all but one toe to a frontier surgeon, a condition that laid him up until summer.

Brooks later lamented that he didn't receive that winter's mail until after the spring thaw.

Newcomers, don't be concerned. You'll receive daily mail service in Steamboat this winter. And you will survive the winter of 2008-09 with all of your toes intact.

That is, unless there's a really big blizzard.

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