This valley we are in is called Round Valley. You can’t see it in the dark, but as you came in on the farm road, the valley edge was off to your right in almost a perfectly round bowl. It was almost as if a meteor hit many thousands of years ago and the other side of the bowl has long since worn away.
This is the southern end of Long Valley, which stretches 50 miles all the way up to the end of Payette Lake, by McCall.
The earliest residents of this valley, that we know of, were the Sheepeater Indians. They are a tribe of the Shoshoni Indians, who lived in parts Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah. The Sheepeaters were called that because they were expert hunters of mountain sheep. They would move a lot during the summer, hunting game, and then would settle down into winter camps.
The first white men came into Long Valley in the early 1800s. They were trappers for the Hudson Bay company. Gold was discovered in 1862, so the next white men in this area were prospectors and miners. During this time, Idaho City was the biggest town in the whole Northwest. The miners were very busy here for about 40 years before that industry dwindled away.
In 1879 was the last big battle between Indians and the settlers, known as the Sheepeater Indian war. Settlers claimed that the Sheepeaters had stolen cattle and there was a confrontation near where Cascade is now. Three settlers were killed, so the army set out after the Indians to round them up. It took a year for the soldiers to finally capture them, after which they were sent to the Fort Hall Indian Reservation near Pocatello. However, some of the Sheepeaters escaped and lived in the mountains for many years after that.
The next group of settlers in this valley were farmers from Finland. They came and built up farms from 1890 to 1930 and this brings me to the most important part of my story tonight.
Long before the Ringle’s came here, the first farmer in Round Valley was Finnish, his name was Mikko Ahtaani. He thought this would be good land here and was surprised that it hadn’t been settled already. Some of the older farmers told him that the Sheepeaters warned them to stay away from Round Valley. They said it was dangerous, called it the valley of the Witiko. Now the Finnish farmers didn’t know the Shoshoni language very well, but as far as they could tell, Witiko meant spirit beast. The Sheepeaters wouldn’t set up winter camp anywhere near here.
Mikko didn’t think much of old legends, so he set up farm here, not too far from where we are now, just a little north. That first summer, he plowed and planted crops and built a crude log cabin. Not like the ones you’ve seen, but Finnish style. Then he brought in a few cattle, which were important to get through the winter. They provided milk, butter, and meat, if necessary. Remember, there weren’t grocery stores nearby back then.
Not long after the first snow that winter, Mikko’s oldest boy was up in the hills behind us cutting firewood, when he comes back early. He tells his father that he’s seen a bear wallow – a huge bear wallow up in the hills. Now bears can get infested with ticks and other bugs and so they make a wallow and roll around in it to give themselves some protection. They scrape a big hole in some soft mud and the water runs in and they stir it all up and lay down in it.
So Mikko follows his boy up to that wallow and is just shocked. He’s seen bears many times, but this wallow was a good four times bigger than any he’d ever seen before. He started to be worried about his cattle, which was justified because it was only a week later that his first cow was killed. The next week another cow was killed. This one was torn up, with little of the meat eaten. Mikko figured that this bear was sending him a message. It was then that he knew that it was either him or the bear. One of them had to go, and Mikko had no intention of being the one that lost this battle.
He had hunted bear before, but never one like this. Its tracks were unusual, much bigger than any he had seen and he knew that a bear that could toss around a 1500 pound cow had to be carefully dealt with. He would have to get bigger traps than any he had with him, so he planned out his strategy and ordered some special traps from the blacksmith in Cascade.
Every day, Mikko would travel around the hills, looking for a fresh wallow. Finally, he found a gigantic wallow up the draw. It was time to set the traps. The next morning, bright and early, travels back up to the draw and gets the traps ready. They’re huge leg traps a foot around with 12 feet of iron chain attached, each link the size of an egg. He chops up a dead tree into two 8 foot sections, each a foot and a half in diameter. Then he attaches each chain to a trap on one end and a log on the other end.
Now the reason he didn’t tie the trap off onto a tree or a rock is that a bear this size will get into the trap and give it a yank and if it was hooked into something solid, he’d just snap the chain clean and be off. What you do is tie it to a big drag. He gives it a yank and it drags a little and then another yank and it drags a little more but he can’t move very fast and he can’t get enough tension to snap the chain.
So he hooks up these big logs and lays out both traps in that wallow and then takes a stick and stirs it all around in the mud and lets it settle back down and cover the traps with a layer of mud.
Mikko had a dog, a little runt dog that wasn’t much good at chasing rabbits, but was a good guard dog. When the bear tripped the trap, he would start growling and carrying on and the dog would pick up on it. They have good ears, dogs do. And then Mikko would run up to the wallow and shoot the dog with his trusty old single shot Browning rifle.
Nothing happened the first night or the second night, but early in the morning of the third night, Mikko’s dog awakened him barking up something awful. Mikko jumped into his clothes, grabbed his rifle, and set off up the hill. It was a partial moon, just enough to see with, but he had to be careful. He gets up to the wallow and sees nothing. A quick look showed that both traps are gone and the drags left a clear trail. He follows the trail just a short ways and then steps back in astonishment. One of the drags was 6 feet up in a tree, wedged between a split trunk and the chain was snapped off. A bear smart enough and strong enough to wedge the drag up in a tree was something Mikko had never heard of before.
Now he’s scared and decides to take it real easy and follow that trail more slowly. He checks his rifle and it’s ready to go, but suddenly he realizes that he left his box of shells back home as he rushed out the door. Panicked, he felt all over and sighed a breath of relief when he found four shells in his coat pocket. That should be enough, but it made him nervous not to have more.
30 minutes go by. He can hear the beast up the hill, but hasn’t gotten a look at it. He’s trying to follow a line of trees around to the side, to get a clear shot, going carefully so as to not make any noise. Stepping across a fallen tree, a branch catches on his coat and he drops his rifle, it hits the tree and fires BANG! Mikko jumps and grabs the rifle, ejects the shell and throws another one in – three more left. And then he hears it. Tree branches cracking, grunting, straining. The bear was coming directly for him!
Mikko looks around frantically for a clearing, an opening, somewhere he can take a stand and get a shot at the beast. His heart was pounding. Three bullets left, he was on the verge of panic. There it is, a clearing, he rushes to the opposite side and drops behind a large rock. Twisting around, he looks across the clearing and his blood runs cold. He can see the beast above the brush, with the moonlight lighting it from behind. It must be 11 feet tall and he can see the trap on its right forearm, the chain swinging. Silhouetted in the light are the longest claws he’s ever seen, each must be 5 inches long.
Mikko turns away, he can’t bear it, but quickly takes another look. And then, horrible enough almost to stop his heart, the beast’s eyes zero in on him – and they’re glowing red, a horrible red like the embers of hell. Mikko suddenly understood why the Sheepeaters wouldn’t winter here in Round Valley. They had seen this beast too.
He rested his rifle on the rock and waited for a clear shot. One at the head, then one at his chest. One bullet left. The beast kept coming. They red eyes bearing down on him. One bullet left. (pause) One bullet left. Mikko lined up the rifle for one last shot. The eyes flashed red at him again and he squeezed the trigger. The monster gave a grunt and slumped to the ground. Mikko shuddered and fought to control himself. He waited 20 minutes and finally got up and carefully approached. In the dim moonlight, he could see that this beast wasn’t brown, but silvery gray, something he hadn’t noticed when it was coming at him. It was long and thin, with long legs and long fur; much too big for a brown bear, but all the wrong shape for a Grizzly. He edged closer to look at the paws. Not paws so much, but.. just then, the red-eyed monster came to life, rolling to the side and swiping Mikko with his claws! Hot, coursing agony ran through his leg and he stumbled. He twisted and threw his rifle at the monster hearing it make a satisfying thumk, then he ran and ran and ran.
The next morning, Mikko went back up the draw with his oldest boy. Each with a rifle and a box of shells, but they never did find the beast. They stayed 5 more years in the valley and finally left when early rains ruined their crops. It was enough.
The beast never returned. They never knew what it was, except that the Sheepeaters called it Witiko. Since that time, no one has seen the beast. There have been cattle killed from time to time, always in the early part of winter, but never could anyone tell whether it was done by this beast or a regular grizzly. A few years back, some researches from Germany came here to Round Valley. They were convinced that the Witiko Mikko saw was a distinct animal, separate from a bear, related more to a long lost branch of snow apes. They thought it was a Yeti, but they never did find anything.
(The hunting part of this story is loosely based on Old Ephraim by Delose Conner. It appears in his book Folk and Campfire Stories, which is the finest campfire story book ever published and unfortunately is very hard to find.)