Tom Ross: Pioneer storyteller recalled days when large grizzly bear roamed Steamboat’s Storm Mountain
Steamboat Springs — Right off the top of this column, I need to acknowledge Steamboat native Harry Thompson has been right all along, and I have been mistaken.
It was way back in August that Thompson stopped by my desk in the newsroom and prophesied we were going to have an early winter. I told him that based on my vast experience, I was sure that it was too early to make that prediction, whereupon he reassured me that he could read the signs.
Turns out, Thompson knew exactly what he was talking about. We are experiencing what might turn out to be the earliest winter in 35 years. By now, the black bears, their reserves restored by this year’s bumper crop of berries, are selecting the dens where they will stay out of our hair during the longest, darkest season of the year. And I owe Thompson a dark beer.
Black bears have become an all-too-familiar sight for some Steamboat residents. Bears are wonderful to observe from a distance, and of course, they had first dibs on this valley. But when they let themselves into one’s automobile or kitchen, they aren’t nearly as charming.
Things could be a lot dicier in Steamboat. We still could have grizzly bears roaming the fringes of the Park Range. And if you don’t believe there once were grizzlies in this neighborhood, you might want to pop over to the Bud Werner Memorial Library and pick up a copy of Lulita Crawford Pritchett’s book, “Remember the Old Yampa Valley.”
The author was the granddaughter of James and Margaret Crawford, the first settlers of Steamboat Springs, who brought their family here in spring 1876.
In “Remember the Old Yampa Valley,” Pritchett, who died in 1991, tells the story of how her Uncle Logan Crawford tried, but failed, to rid Strawberry Park of a formidable grizz known to locals as Old Mose.
According to Pritchett, the stories of a large bear here known as Old Mose were inspired by the residents of Park, Chaffee and Fremont counties where a bear known by the same name was terrorizing South Park livestock and perturbing the heck out of ranchers.
“Grizzlies had a reputation for being wanton killers, endowed with human cunning and a capacity to withstand rifle fire,” Pritchett wrote. “As large as they were, they had the quickness of a cat. They could make matchsticks out of a pole fence and knock over a grown bull with the slap of a paw.”
Steamboat’s Old Mose already had treed one local hunter overnight when another hunter named Len Pollard had a more intimate contact with the bear.
I’ll let Pritchett tell it in her own words: “Trailing Mose early in the spring (Pollard) camped and rolled himself in a green elk hide to sleep. The hide froze together. Mose ambled into camp, picked up the hide with Len inside it and carried it a half-mile before he abandoned it.”
Upon hearing that yarn, Pritchett wrote, Logan Crawford resolved to take a shot at Mose. His opportunity came in the autumn of that same year when he and his father took a wagon to the base of Storm Mountain (now Steamboat Ski Area) to pick up an elk that James Crawford had killed the day before. But when they located the carcass, they found it was partially eaten and covered with a pile of sticks and dirt.
“Bear!” the elder Crawford pronounced. “He’ll be back, and we’ll be ready for him.”
At the crack of dawn the next day, the Crawfords tied up their horses some distance away and slipped up through “the frosted ferns” to wait beneath the cover of some trees.
Shortly, not one but two grizzlies, recognizable by their dish-shaped faces, approached the elk carcass. James Crawford dropped the smaller of the two with a single shot, and Logan Crawford leveled his gun at the second grizz, which was roughly the size of a small cabin.
“The gun kicked back at him with a deafening explosion and plowed a green furrow in an aspen tree,” Pritchett wrote.
James Crawford consoled his companion.
“Never mind, son. You’re not the only man to miss Old Mose.”
Three weeks later, with “snow capping the beaver lodges,” two Steamboat men connected to the local sawmill, John Suttle and Billy St. John, invited Logan Crawford to go elk hunting with them near Strawberry Park Hot Springs. Logan Crawford saw it as a chance to maybe relocate Old Mose. He left his partners behind to head in the direction of Elk Park on his horse, Nibs.
After some distance, Nibs suddenly stiffened, and Logan Crawford looked across the drainage to spy a large, dark shape with a “huge head and great shoulders.”
Man and horse engaged in a wild pursuit, but the bear eluded them, and they never caught up with Old Mose again.
It’s widely believed that there are no longer any grizzly bears in the Colorado Rockies. But a few years ago, a Steamboat hunter, who was playing host to two veteran hunters from Alaska, told me they had definitely encountered a grizzly while hunting elk on Buffalo Pass. He said the guys from Alaska could not have mistaken a black bear for a grizz. I didn’t share that story with you because several days later, they denied their own story, which made me believe it even more.
So, I wouldn’t be shocked if the great-great-great-great (really great) granddaughter of Old Mose was up there now, preparing to settle into her den for the winter.
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