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Finishing Strong
156 Buck-naked Miles to Bighorn

Saturday, June 9, 2012 at 6:00pm


One man failed to return because he got sick and died.

The other man failed to return because he was smitten. He had just seen the length and breadth of what would one day become the United States of America … from the Great Plains to the Rockies … to the Columbia Basin of Oregon … to the Pacific Ocean.  His young eyes drank in what no white man had ever seen, and the vast wonders of an unexplored continent had a grip on his soul.  So when Lewis and Clark set out for home, John Colter waved them good-bye.  He stayed on to explore the wide lands that were outside the scope of the expedition. He wanted to follow some of those trails and paddle some of those rivers he’d passed by on the way to the Pacific.  He was haunted by their wild beauty.

Colter trapped beaver in the virgin streams of the high country. He was the first white man to witness the Geysers of Yellowstone. The young man’s love affair with uncharted lands kept him in constant danger.  Close encounters with monster grizzlies, churning white-water rapids, and always dangerous Indians tested his courage, pluck, and reflexes.  As years went by, he gained a legendary status among his fellow trappers and mountain men … men not easily impressed.

But the accomplishment that sealed Colter’s reputation as a living legend wasn’t a battle with a grizzly, shooting rapids in a fragile canoe, or scaling an unknown mountain range.

John Colter was best known for a single footrace.

It was a race that would be told and retold around campfires from the Columbia to the Missouri. John Colter had run like no man in history had ever run before.

It may have been because he was running for his life.

Colter had been trapping a particular stream with John Potts, an old friend from the Lewis and Clark expedition. As they were canoeing down a stretch of river not far from what today is Bozeman, Montana, they heard some rustling in the brush on both sides of the riverbank. In the next instant, they were surrounded by Blackfeet Indians with drawn bows.

There was no time for escape downstream. Colter did the only thing he could have done; he headed for the bank. As they were getting out of the canoe, a huge Indian ran forward and snatched Potts’s rifle out of his hands. Colter, a man of great physical strength and courage, knew that any sign of fear would only ensure their tortuous death at the hands of these Blackfeet. The desperate trapper grabbed the rifle and wrestled it away from the Indian, throwing him to the ground in the process. He tossed the weapon back to Potts and turned to confront the startled warriors. Potts had seen enough and jumped into the canoe to make a getaway.

“No!” shouted Colter, knowing there was no escape in that direction.  Arrows rained into the canoe killing Potts. The current swept the canoe and the body of Colter’s friend downstream. Colter himself stood on the bank, unarmed and alone. The Blackfeet swarmed around him, stripped him naked, and then tied him down as they held a powwow trying to determine what they should do with him.

“Skin him alive!”

“No, let’s whip him to death!”

“Let’s burn him alive!”

Then one of the Blackfeet came up with a creative idea. The Chief approached Colter and asked him if he could run like a deer. Colter indicated that he was not as fast as a deer but was slow as the turtle. This was a lie, for Colter was a remarkably fast runner. The chief, however, took the bait with a grin and quickly led everyone to a nearby sandy plain. He made a mark, and his warriors toed the line. He then took Colter and gave him a three-hundred-yard head start.

The buck-naked Colter took off like a shot. Except for moccasins and loin cloths, the pursuing Blackfeet were as naked as Colter. But each warrior carried his favorite weapon … and yearned for the honor of finishing off the white trapper.

The plain stretched ahead of Colter for six miles, dotted only by sagebrush and prickly pear. But shimmering on the horizon, Colter could see a line of trees on what must have been a bend of the river. He focused on those trees and began the run of his life.

Colter’s bare feet were soon cut to bloody ribbons by the sharp stones and prickly pear, but in this race there was no stopping. One mile sped by. Two miles. At approximately three miles, Colter looked back over his shoulder, for he could no longer hear the yelling of his pursuers or the slap of their moccasins in the dust. Only a handful were still in the hunt, and they were a good distance away. One solitary brave had closed to within two hundred yards. Colter’s body was so stressed from the exertion of the chase that blood trickled from his mouth and nose.

At four miles Colter looked again. The Indian, with protective moccasins on his feet, had gained a lot of ground, and was less than fifty yards away. Colter knew his broad, naked back was in range of the Indians sharp lance. Without warning, the hunted man suddenly whirled and stopped, facing the onrushing Indian and throwing his hands straight up in the air as if to surrender. The shocked Indian immediately threw his lance, and as it left his hand, he stumbled and fell head over heels.

The lance fell short. Colter grabbed it and plunged it into his pursuer before the exhausted Indian could regain his footing. Colter drove the lance into the Indian with such force that the brave was pinned to the ground to die by his own weapon.

Summoning every ounce of strength he had left, Colter ran the remaining mile or so to the river and the stand of timber. Out in the middle of the stream was a sandbar, and at the head of this little island was a large raft of driftwood which had come down with the spring floods. Colter swan out to the raft, dove beneath it and came up where several of the tangled logs formed a roof above his head. Here he waited for the pursuing Blackfeet, up to his neck in the icy waters under his makeshift shelter.

He soon heard the approaching Blackfeet, who swarmed the river, onto the sandbar, and even stood upon the logs that covered Colter’s head. But they couldn’t find him.

That terrible day, however, was still young, and the Blackfeet were wild to avenge the death of their comrade. They kept up the hunt until late afternoon before finally withdrawing. Under cover of darkness, John Colter swam downstream until he found a tiny stretch of bank concealed by trees and brush. Naked, half-frozen, and nearly delirious from exposure and loss of blood, Colter pulled himself out of the stream and lay gasping on the bank. He had no rifle, no food, no fire, no horse, no shoes, and no clothing. He had been stripped of everything. Everything but his will to live.

John Colter was half-dead and 150 miles away from the trading post at Bighorn. Yet seven days later he walked naked, bleeding, and hungry into the Bighorn compound. In that moment, he became a living legend.

Stripped of everything and against the worst odds imaginable, John Colter outran and outsmarted the pursuing Blackfeet for 156 miles. In spite of everything, he managed to finish strong.

Source: Excerpted from Steve Farrar’s book “Finishing Strong”, Chapter 9


Pete, Sr.


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