Mystery photo

The old color photograph of the woman posing, rifle in hand, next to a log cabin with the massive dead grizzly bear stirred the imagination. What happened, when and where? And who is she?

Thanks to Ginny Waples, we no longer have to wonder, although the date is still uncertain, possibly the mid-1970s.

Waples was transcribing videotaped stories of her father-in-law, former Red Lodge-area game warden Vern Waples. Curious about his reference to the Silver Tip Ranch in a couple of his stories, she searched the Internet and came across the old photo. It had been posted on The Billings Gazette website in 2010 after Absarokee resident John Simmons sent it in, but he could only speculate about the photograph’s subject.

Vern Waples died in 2006 at the age of 84, but this edited version of his story below and the photo have once again been linked together, colorful threads woven into the fabric of local history.

Vern Waples was making his game warden rounds on horseback during the fall hunting season on the Gallatin National Forest when he stopped by the remote MacDonald cabin to spend the night.

The MacDonalds were year-round caretakers at the Silver Tip Ranch along Slough Creek. The ranch is located just north of the northern border of Yellowstone National Park. The closest access to the ranch is by hiking, horseback or wagon – a 14-mile trip down the creek and into the park.

Although she lived deep in the rugged Absaroka Mountains, Margaret was used to having unannounced visitors. Mountain etiquette required her to accommodate such people, even when her husband, Jock, had gone to town and she was all alone.

“And I was always more than welcome there, you know and I'd go and stay with them a couple of days when patrolling that particular area, then I'd ride on and then I might not see them again until a couple weeks later, and the last trip ... this was the last trip before snow … I wouldn't see them again until next summer,” Waples recounted. “So I was expecting Margaret to make an apple pie and Jock to bring out the Jack Daniel's and so forth, and we'd have an evening of it.”

But Waples got an unusually cool reception from Margaret when he knocked on the door. At first, he suspected maybe she’d run Jock off, but out of politeness he never said anything.

“Anyhow, I kept hinting and asking, round-about, where he was. I thought maybe he was out hunting and didn't have a license. They depended on moose for their meat, or elk ... each one of them would get an elk or moose every year. I thought maybe he didn't have a license or forgot to get his license and Margaret knew that, and here I was, the game warden, waiting for Jock to come all bloodied up from killing a moose or an elk, and I thought that's what the trouble was.

When Jock finally showed up with a wagonload of firewood, he too seemed out of sorts by Waples’ presence. After an awkward dinner, Waples excused himself, went to bed and took off in the morning at first light.

“Then I didn't see them until the next year. And when I first saw them that time they were a little concerned, not really like it was before, but they were a little bit concerned. And so I, well we ... we got along pretty good this time, and I saw them a couple more times that year, and things got back to normal.”

The rest of the story

“About two years after I retired, I went over to see them. They had come off from the place, they weren't working there anymore. Their daughter had a ranch down by Gardiner, and they'd gone there to live because they're getting kind of old and so forth ... in bad health.”

Joining them for dinner, Waples finally asked them why he had gotten such a cool reception all those years ago.

“Jock says, ‘What's the statute of limitations on Fish and Game violations?’ And I said, ‘Five years. Why? What're you going to tell me?’

“Well, he had been an old poacher, he trapped illegally down in the park and so forth. I knew about this, you see, that he'd done it in the past and hadn't been caught. But any rate, he said, ‘Well, since the statute of limitations have run out, I'll tell you.’ And there I got the story.”

On one fall day, while Jock was visiting the nearby burg of Gardiner to fetch their winter supplies, someone came knocking at Margaret’s door.

“She knew it wasn't Jock because she hadn't heard the team coming. And she hollered out, ‘Who is it?’ Nobody answered. She thought it was a hunter, probably, but nobody answered and she was spooked about that. Pretty soon she heard the noise again. Then she went over by the window. She looked out the window. She could look out the window but she couldn't really see. She was right there, being very quiet. Then she heard sniffing and so forth and knew it was a bear. Well, she hollered at the bear and banged on the window, I guess, and off he went.”

It being fall, though, the bear wasn’t discouraged for long. At that time of the year, they enter what’s known as hyperphagia, a period when they are trying to consume as many calories as possible to build up fat reserves before they hibernate.

Someone’s knocking

The bear came back.

“And so in this passageway out here she had a big washtub and she ran out there and she was banging on her washtub and scared the bear away and he left again. But he wasn't gone too long this time and came back and she went out and got the tub and brought it in the house and went over by the window and was banging on it. But this time it didn't bother the bear and he smashed that door and came down the passageway.”

With the bear only one door away from entering the cabin, Margaret got her lantern, a chair and her rifle and sat while awaiting the bear’s eventual entry as it pushed on the cabin door with all of its upright weight.

“And finally down it came and he came in. There was that bright light there and he was blinded by that bright light, and he was standing there in the doorway like this and so forth, and she shot him like this.

“She shot him, and he was a big bear. Well, he was right in the middle of that doorway. He tore down the outside door and that door was gone, too. And so she took a blanket and hung it up over the door and the bear to keep out some of the cold but it wouldn't keep out any more bears if any more bears decided to come in for the night. So she set there all night. She was quite concerned, and rightly so.

“I tell you, she was a tough woman. A nice big woman. She could wrestle that bear if she hadn't had a rifle.”

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Shocking homecoming

Jock didn’t show up until two days later.

“Well, it was going to be a long, cold winter, and I guess he figured he wasn't going to get back down to the pubs for a while and here she was another night with that bear in the doorway, and no door, and grizzly bears all over the place.

“Well, anyhow the following day, then, it was toward evening, it was getting dusk and here's the team coming and Jock pulls up in front of his cabin and it's got half a ton of grub in there in boxes, and they had to take it all in the house. They couldn't leave it outside there ... bear might get it.

“And so, he hollers to her, ‘Come on, hon! Give me a hand in getting the horses unharnessed and fed.’ So she goes out and helps him unharness the horses and so forth. By this time it's getting quite dark. They had enough light to get this stuff in. And so, he loads up an armload of grub and goes down the passageway, gets to the door, and falls across a bear.

“There he was laying on top of a big bear, hair in both hands ... and it was long hair, you know, it could only be a bear ... and he runs out and he says, ‘Margaret! Margaret! There's a bear in the house! Margaret, There's a bear in the house! He got in while we were down at the horses!’

“And she said, ‘Yeah, I know there's a bear in the house.’

“Now, Jock probably drank most of a quart of whiskey from the transfer point to getting on home and he's pretty happy and didn't understand everything that's going on. But she takes a pile of groceries in her arm and starts for the door.



Hidden hide

“But I was there about two or three days after it happened, and they thought I'd got word of it somehow, and I was in there to pinch them, investigating the kill, and they thought they'd had it. And boy, killing a grizzly bear is a big-time violation.”

Grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975. Depending on the circumstances, killing a grizzly bear in self-defense is not a criminal act, but the MacDonalds didn’t know that.

“And then I got to see the grizzly bear hide,” Waples said. “They had the grizzly bear hide in their room, and they'd had it tanned. It was big enough to cover the wall. It was a big bear! It was nine feet high. It was a big bear.”