Perhaps there is nothing so intoxicating as a snow-slide; to shoot down, down, over the cool, smooth surface for a thousand, yes, sometimes two thousand feet at a time, and just enough of risk to make it interesting; but here, again, a new hand must go slow. My hunter, Frank Chat-field, than whom there is not a better shot, a better mountaineer, a better tracker, or a better man in the mountains, is a terrible fellow down-hill. How he keeps his balance on a snow-field, turning one foot into a toboggan, the other cocked up in front, while he steers with his rifle-butt, is to-day a mystery to me. I rashly once, and only once, tried to keep up with him on a snow-slide, and only succeeded in making myself feel, from my head to my heels, like a very-much-grated nutmeg. I almost broke my rifle, did tear my hand, and so hopelessly damaged my single remaining hunting-suit that when, clad in what was left of it, a fortnight after, I humbly sought to claim a place in the Northern Pacific Railroad dining-car, the conductor was for summarily ejecting me, and said frankly that such as I had no right to come in there.
Lay the lesson to heart, therefore, and if you want to keep your clothes, or get your dinner, go slow on snow; keep both feet down, put on plenty of brake, and you will have a delicious slide on your way to the valley. In this way, snow-slopes that seem absolutely precipitous from below, and even from above look too steep for safety, may be descended at a considerable pace and without risk. They are, however, I must confess, a little scaring at first; and I don't think a team of mules could have dragged me down the first I tried, had there been a possibility of getting home any other way. They are very unlike the snow-fields in the Alps, where the snow is much softer, and where I have seen them not nearly so steep.
Before referring more specially to camping and hunting in this life-giving region, let me add one word about the lake-system of the Upper Yellowstone. Where can such lakes be found as these? The great Yellowstone, Lewis, Shoshone, Jackson, and Heart Lakes, all lying within an area of sixty miles square, clear as only Rocky Mountain lakes can be, full of trout, still reflecting the stately antlers of the elk, and now and then the uncouth form of the moose, and still affording a safe home to the much-persecuted beaver. Fortunately these lakes, excepting Jackson, are within the boundaries of the park. If the suggestions of the gentlemen who have done such valuable work in surveying that region are adopted by the Government, the park will be doubled in size, and thus a safe retreat, and, what is of more importance still, a safe summer breeding-place will be preserved as an inviolate sanctuary for our noble American game. None of these lakes is so little known, or more worth the knowing, than Heart Lake. It is not easy of access, as it lies in a dense forest ten miles due south of the Thumb of the great Yellowstone Lake, hidden by a short but steep range of hills that rise over two thousand five hundred feet above the unbroken woodland.
We were bound to get to Heart Lake; none of our men had ever been there. For days and days we had been in the timber, timber that stood as thick as Yellowstone pine can stand, and often were without a sign of a trail. We were having terrible bother with our packs, and the men wanted to get out of the timber at any cost; nothing would do them but a direct ascent of the mountain-ridge which I have just mentioned.*
Up we got at last; and at our very feet lay the lovely lake, blue as cloudless sky and clear, unruffled waters ever looked. We had, as was not to be wondered at, a very bad time getting down; and then at the foot lay a "formation" as hot-springs and geysers are called out there full of treacherous spots. Into these, of course, two of the most troublesome pack-horses floundered. It was late in the day; the march had been long and very wearying, with constant shifting of packs in the timber and on the hill; and if there was a little more sulphur in the air, just for fifteen minutes or so, than the neighboring springs accounted for, Western men, at least, will make some allowances.
* If you want to get on with your men, tell them where you want to go, where you will go at any cost, and then don't bother them about the road. Most greenhorns drive their men wild with perpetual questioning.
At last we were in camp, and such a camp! Circled by a belt of old pines, gnarled and twisted by the winter winds that had swept across the lake till their limbs were more like the limbs of oak than those of coniferae. On one side a narrow strip of snowy sand; on the other a green meadow, down which flowed a clear stream, heated to about 70° by many hot-springs that flowed in farther up. The sandy shore ended in a little spit running out some four hundred yards into the water; and there, in perfect content, and moved by a slowly awakening curiosity, sat a sedate family of geese, father and mother and some ten inexperienced but well-developed youngsters. South of us lay the water; east of us spread the unbroken forest, rising higher and higher till all vegetation fell away from the scarped and turreted summits of the main range of the Shoshone; while on our right, to the west, sheer out of the lake rose Mount Sheridan almost ten thousand five hundred feet, its broad forehead still capped with snow, while a little farther on another summit rose, fiery red where the setting sun smote on its great cliffs, once clay, but now turned to red concrete by subterranean fire.
Our dinner of elk-steak, seasoned by one or two of the very last remaining onions, delicious bread (two parts flour and one part Indian corn), and, oh! such coffee, is a memory with me still. Then pipes were lit, and we laid us down "upon the yellow sand." And over the crest of the mountain peeped the horn of the new moon; not a sound broke the stillness, save when, at regular intervals of fifteen minutes, a geyser, hidden in the pines about a half-mile away, burst into its brief tumult. Many lovely camps we remember; but, among them all, none were more beautiful than that by Heart Lake.