OGDEN — The grizzled mountain man steadies himself on the shore as he gingerly steps down into a buffalo-hide boat without tipping it.
Paddling away from the shoreline, the edges of the handmade watercraft are precariously dipping closer to the surface of the water, but the inside of the boat and its occupant remain dry.
While it sounds like a scene from a historic film, the action played out this week on a pond at Fort Buenaventura in Ogden as two men prepare for a trek to retrace the route of famed mountain man Jim Bridger.
"Now we're ... not just running the river and enjoying the sights or the excitement of running a set of rapids. We're doing it in the most primitive, early-style as documented by the journals and historical things," said Larry Price, a member of the American Mountain Men association who tested the boat Wednesday morning clad in full frontiersman gear.
He was joined by Mark Balliet, who is working on earning his membership into the American Mountain Men and will accompany Price on a weeklong canoe trip down the Bear River in May. The men decided that March 17, the date of Bridger's birthday, would be a good time to test the boat made of buffalo hide.
Born in 1804, Bridger canoed the Bear River, discovering the Great Salt Lake in 1825. He initially thought he'd found the Pacific Ocean. The men are marking the event a few years ahead of its bicentennial because they fear demands on the river water could shrink the river to the point it could not be rowed.
"So that's what the whole exercise here is: Experience it before it's too late," Price said.
The men tested the boat on Wednesday morning to see whether it would support Price's weight without taking on water and if he could direct it with his oar or if it would just spin in circles.
Creating a bona fide frontier boat
The boat was tied to shore with a hand-braided hemp rope and watched over by Balliet during the test run.
Price tried two positions on two excursions. One kneeling, finding the height was useful for his paddling because it provided deeper strokes and more room to maneuver. He then sat down in the boat with his legs in front of him and his feet resting near a semblance of the bow of the boat. This position afforded him more stability, he said.
The men created their own version of what is known as a bull boat, made from the hide of a male buffalo.
The framework that gives the boat shape is made of willow branches, and the lashings are made of raw, untanned hide and natural fibers. Price's oar is hand-carved from oak.
Price took the time to teach Balliet how to tan the hide with the brains of pigs, in order to preserve the buffalo hide. Tanning hides with the brains follows Native American traditions, Price said, and fits the period in which Bridger lived.
Learning about brain-tanning, trapping, fishing and much more are needed if you want to be part of the American Mountain Men. Balliet says Price is the Jedi master and he is the young padawan as he works to complete the 10 requirements to be a full member of the group.
"And my job ... is to tutor and mentor him and point out some of the things that aren't historically or period-correct so that he can then modify what he's been doing or the clothing he wears, or the gear that he takes," Price said.
The men learned a few things during the trial float.
Price said the buffalo hide is much like the hardened dog chew toys when dried, but it softens up and loses shape as it absorbs water. This means the primitive boat will need to sit on shore and dry during parts of the journey planned for May 21-27, Price said, which could cause delays in reaching their destination.
Price also now hopes to add a basic rudder and another paddle out of buffalo scapulas, if he can obtain some.
These period-perfect prerequisites are needed for the optimal mountain man experience.
"So every part of it is stuff that Jim Bridger could have had or would have had on hand to make this exploration," Price said. "There's all kinds of things you can assume, but until you get in and experience it, you're lacking some of the speed limit signs, you're lacking some of the curves in the road."
Why try the trip now?
Price said they would have commemorated Bridger's trip nearer its 200th anniversary in 2025, but they are both concerned with proposals to divert water from the Bear River.
The Utah Division of Water Resources published a report in October 2019 on the Bear River Development plans. Initially, the project approved by the Utah Legislature in 1991 anticipated Box Elder, Weber, Davis and Salt Lake counties would need the water by 2015, but it has been delayed with water needs expected to be critical around 2045.
The development plan would affect the water level of the Bear River, the marshes and the Great Salt Lake, though it also looks at ways to mitigate the impacts downstream.
The 2019 feasibility study explores 13 possible reservoir and pipeline alignments for the Bear River, estimating it would cost anywhere from $1.5 billion to $2.8 billion. It has drawn the ire of multiple groups, including the Utah Rivers Council and Friends of the Great Salt Lake, that are critical of the project because of its impacts on the watershed.
The project is in a planning stage and will have to go through an extensive federal environmental analysis before it is approved. Next steps include additional studies that will look at climate variability and the Great Salt Lake.
Price is keenly aware of these further studies: "How can we mitigate and how can we do that responsibly?"
"We just need to be aware of the impact of what's happening, anticipate, and plan. ... Here is something that happened, historically documented, that's significant, that is going away, cannot be replicated anymore," Price said. "For us, it's archaeological, experiential living, and adds to our skill and vocabulary to be self-sufficient and easily survive."
Expectations for May's adventure
The boat won't be the only difficulty these men face on their planned adventure.
"Bridger had an advantage as far as food. He could shoot what he wanted on the way down the river to eat and whatever dried food that he had that he took with him. That's what we've got to look at for however long this is going to take to do this trip," Balliet said.
The men plan on primitive fishing and are taking their flintlock smooth-bored muskets to shoot turkey if they happen upon any. Balliet says it'll be hunting season and he'll have his license.
"I don't think the ranchers around there would be too happy if we slaughtered some of that California slow elk," Price joked.
Price will be in the bull boat with minimal gear, maybe just his bedroll to sit on while Balliet will carry their period-accurate luggage in a canoe nearby.
They will start in Cache Valley and try to be as close to the rendezvous site that sprung up for mountain men in 1826. Balliet said they'll have to stop before the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Box Elder County north of the lake, since that is as far as the state will allow them to travel the river.
Price said they'll have to portage some parts to circumvent a dam, fallen trees that are common after the winter and sweepers, low-hanging branches across the surface of the river blocking travel.
"Bridger nor nobody else in that time period could do anything but know how to navigate whatever conditions came along. That's part of our challenges," Price said. "You can't do that reading a book."
The men are ready for that challenge, come rain or shine in May.
"We know we can rely on each other and ourselves, nothing else. So if we go in prepared, realizing that, then we won't be sadly disappointed," said Price.