Joe Cosley: Outlaw legend etched into Glacier's history

2010-08-08T22:00:00Z 2010-08-09T06:54:11Z Joe Cosley: Outlaw legend etched into Glacier's historyBy MICHAEL JAMISON of the Missoulian missoulian.com
August 08, 2010 10:00 pm  • 

COLUMBIA FALLS - Joe Cosley stood stock still, just inside the shadow of trees, his .22-caliber rifle held lightly at his side.

Silent, he watched the park ranger move unaware through the meadow below, watched him saddle his horse and ride away from the patrol cabin. It was time.

With a swift turn, Cosley moved farther into the forest, to the place where his own horse was picketed, and quickly gathered his gear - bedroll, blanket, a jangling tangle of metal traps.

He set off at once, making a beeline for beaver dams high in the headwaters of Glacier National Park's Belly River country, the direct opposite direction the ranger had headed.

The ranger, he knew, wouldn't be back for several days. He'd gone to Waterton, across the Canadian line, to pick up supplies, and would be three nights out at least.

Cosley knew the ranger's schedule because it had once been his. He'd been a trapper in these mountain wilds long before Glacier Park was a park, and he'd remained a trapper after the land was protected in 1910. He hadn't changed his ways when he was hired as one of Glacier's first rangers, nor when he was fired four years later, in 1914, under suspicion of trapping the game he was paid to protect.

Cosley shunned the trails, sticking to forest shadows because he was a wanted man in two countries, by two national park administrations. And year after year after year he eluded them, made fools of them, packed out the finest pelts from Glacier and Waterton national parks - martin, mink and beaver.

The reality was that Joe Cosley lived trap to trap, always on the run, always looking over one shoulder or the other. But the myth, well, that was something else.

The myth placed Joe Cosley in the company of Robin Hood, a romantic everyman stealing the king's deer. In the myth he was ladies man and man of the world, mountain man and man's man, fancy shooter, fancy dancer, poet and painter, ranger, soldier, Indian fighter.

And, of course, poacher.

Now, with the park ranger gone for a while, Cosley set his traps with impunity.

***

The myth of Joe Cosley has survived the century and still looms large in his old haunt of Columbia Falls. There, in a building called Discovery Square, is Cosley's old saddle, his pearl-handled pistol, his traps and his sketches.

"He was an enigma," said Dave Renfrow, an organizer behind the yearlong exhibit. "But people relate, because every one of us has some less-than-polished facets."

On the walls, Cosley looks out from old black-and-whites, his deep, dark eyes surprisingly soft. Even his mustache and goatee don't quite erase the delicate and almost effeminate features. In fact, he looks the bit of a dandy in his hip sash, gold earrings and broad necker-scarf, hat tipped back above a broad, smooth forehead, the under-brim painted with a fancy rose.

Born to an Indian mother and French Canadian trapper in 1869, Cosley had his father's long, lineal nose and his mother's russet skin and high cheekbones. He was handsome, well-educated and charming, and he knew it.

Cosley was known to carve his name into backcountry trees, with hearts and Cupid arrows and the initials of lady friends, and to write those ladies gushing poetry from the woods.

"There is love and beauty sublime

In thy form of grace divine;

A haven of eternal rest

In thy companionship so blest."

In a fit of romantic angst he once secreted a spurned engagement ring inside a Glacier Park poplar. Some imagine it's still there, but others agree he later retrieved it to pay for new clothes and supplies.

Yet Cosley was no lovesick dandy. He was a decorated World War I sniper, a dead shot, a man who could disappear into the wilderness for months at a time, could pack horses across mountain passes in the icy howl of winter, could snowshoe 70 miles in a day, every day, and kill his food on the run.

"He is the champion trapper of the Rocky Mountain region," the Whitefish Pilot newspaper reported in 1924. "Even all the members of the Blackfeet, Kootenai, Blood and Flathead Tribes acknowledge his title."

They called him the "Panther-on-Snowshoes," and "he must've been harder than nails," Renfrow said. "The life he led is just beyond our understanding."

It helps, of course, that Cosley left so many letters, so many poems, so many stories.

It also helps that the new exhibit allows you to touch that Frazier saddle, to smell its century-old leather. You might not understand Cosley's world, but you can begin to imagine that saddle creaking under your seat, can envision it sailing over the cliffs of deadly Ahern Pass, the day Cosley lost his pack horse in a famous wreck.

The leather is hard, the wooden stirrups stiffened with strips of steel, the whole unforgiving.

"In his time, Cosley was a great modern-day adventurer," Renfrow said. Bold, extravagant, capable, eccentric, at once a shameless self-promoter and a soft-spoken man of modesty.

"And," Renfrow said, "he was a larger-than-life outlaw."

***

Park ranger Joe Heimes stood stock still, just inside the shadow of trees, his rifle gripped tightly in cold hands.

He'd stumbled across this poacher's camp by accident, and because it was in Belly River country - a wild park expanse labeled on some maps simply as "Joe Cosley" - he figured he knew whose camp it was.

Sure enough, as night snuffed the last light of May 6, 1929, "here comes a great big guy moving swiftly, taking big strides," Heimes told writer Brian McClung. Cosley entered camp, set down his gun and stirred his still-warm fire.

"I slowly started toward the camp. Cosley was stooping down scratching up more grass and twigs. I was about 15 feet away from him when he heard me step on a twig."

Cosley reached for his rifle, but Heimes had him covered. The poacher was poached.

The men spent a wakeful night, Heimes trying to keep track of his wily prisoner, Cosley alternately spinning yarns of his wilderness exploits and baiting Heimes to let him go.

"Sometimes I tuned Cosley out," Heimes said, "and just let him talk and talk. I wondered to myself how any person had so much to say."

Cosley told about his life, and his loves, how he'd named all those lakes up in Belly River country - Helen, Elizabeth, Sue and Margaret.

"Sue was the coldest," Heimes recalled. "Elizabeth the best. He wasn't talking about the temperature of the lakes."

At daybreak they set off down trail and Cosley immediately broke and ran. Heimes tackled him. They started again, and Cosley bolted. Heimes tackled him and sat on the poacher.

Cosley promised not to run, feigned sickness, but Heimes tied his feet.

They negotiated, Heimes untied Cosley, and the pair started off again. Cosley stopped, turned, and delivered a haymaker to Heimes' chin. Heimes thunked Cosley's head against a tree and sat down on him again.

About that time, another Glacier Park ranger and a Canadian warden turned up, and with Cosley in tow the three lawmen marched their prisoner out to Belly Ranger Station and from there, to town.

***

Town, today, is Columbia Falls, a fading industrial hub of lost timber and aluminum jobs, a place trying to sort out its future as the "Gateway to Glacier."

"We want to reconnect the community with its early history," Renfrow said, and so they've built the Discovery Square center as a sort of one-stop shop for Glacier Park information. When they opened their first exhibit, in a remodeled bank vault, Cosley seemed the perfect choice.

"Culturally, he just seems to fit the town's personality," Renfrow said.

Cosley's the little guy against the giant, the free man against the government, the exemption to too many rules. And Columbia Falls has always prided itself as a rough and tumble outsider, not as polished as neighboring Whitefish or Kalispell but romantic in a quiet, capable, down-home sort of way.

The town is capitalizing on Glacier's centennial year, and what better way than with an ode to Cosley, who often came to this town to spin yarns for the ladies - and for a free lunch - at the old Gaylord Hotel.

This is where adventurers set out from and returned to, Renfrow said, and it's where Cosley played cards with the likes of Charlie Russell and railroader Louis Hill.

"Cosley was his own man," Renfrow said. "This town loves him."

Turns out, not much has changed in that regard.

Heimes trooped Cosley out of the wilds on foot, then by car, then by train to a courtroom at Belton (today's West Glacier.) He was 24, Cosley 58, and yet his prisoner outpaced him the whole way.

"I don't think there was any man in the country who could catch Joe Cosley on snowshoes," Heimes declared. The poacher had been known to snowshoe 70 miles, just to attend a dance with his gal.

The men reached Belton on Friday, May 10, and with Heimes' testimony and evidence - traps, rifle and pelts - Cosley was immediately found guilty. They slapped him with a $125 fine and 90 days in jail.

Cosley, for his part, said the traps weren't his, said the hides were found along the trail, said he'd thought he was camped in Canada, said he was old and feeble and dying of a terrible illness, said he'd die in jail in a matter of days.

"His sentence was shortened to 30 days and that was suspended because he was so ill, old and dying," Heimes said. "I was upset. I was mad."

A couple friends - quite upstanding citizens, in fact - put together Cosley's $100 bond and before Heimes knew it his prisoner was gone. The owner of the local store set Cosley up with lunch and trail food, gave him a pair of snowshoes, even drove him as far into the park as the road would allow.

And then Cosley ran.

The trial had started at 10 a.m. and by 2 p.m. Cosley was on foot from Lake McDonald, heading cross-country toward Belly River country where he'd left a big cache of furs. Heimes raced to chase by train, car and horse, but Cosley was far faster on snowshoes.

When Heimes arrived at Cosley's trapping camp, "everything was gone. All tracks had been completely erased. Everything had just disappeared."

Cosley sold his furs - at least 55 beaver, 21 martin and 22 mink - in Lethbridge, Alberta, for about $4,100 Canadian, enough to make a comfortable move into the untrapped country of Canada's northern wilds.

"He was good," an old trapping partner wrote, despite their falling out over illegal park hunting. "He was the best I have ever seen or heard about. I could never keep up with him.

"Part of me wishes Joe well up north. He is the last of a kind."

***

Cosley continued to trap Canada's boreal forests into his 70s, and according to biographer Julia Nelson "it must have never occurred to him that he was old. He did get to the point, though, of thinking there might be a circumstance up there that he wouldn't be able to handle alone, for at 73, when he set out on what was to be his last trip, he said what he'd never said before:

"If I'm not back in May, send someone to look for me."

Cosley's body was found

Oct. 12, 1944, in a trapper's cabin 400 miles north of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. He had apparently died of scurvy the winter before.

"It wasn't a sad and regrettable ending," Nelson wrote. "Anyone who ever knew Joe would tell you he wanted it that way."

Just as he would have wanted to know that his stories are still being told, his mysterious life still on display, his pistol and saddle still a part of Glacier Park's Belly River history, a full century gone.

"He was one of us," Renfrow said, "and he was extraordinary."

Michael Jamison covers Glacier National Park and the Flathead Valley for the Missoulian. He can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or by e-mail at mjamison@missoulian.com.

 

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