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FRONTIER REVIVAL: James and De Leah Eavenson of Cascade, Idaho, were among 85 participants in the annual Labor Day Weekend rendezvous at the La Grande Rifle and Pistol Club. DICK MASON / The Observer
Black powder enthusiasts put muzzleloader, tomahawk and knife throwing skills to test at annual gathering west of HilgardDon Smith of Baker City sometimes wonders if he was born 200 years too late.
But only for as long as it takes for the smoke to clear from his muzzleloader. Then he counts his blessings, reminding himself of the hardships people endured two centuries ago. Hardships he can’t imagine facing for a lifetime.
“It is incredible what they did every day to survive,’’ Smith said.
Smith is a black powder enthusiast, one who enjoys recreating life as it was in the 1700 to 1850 frontier era.
Smith had plenty of company Labor Day Weekend at the La Grande Rifle and Pistol Club, about five miles southwest of Hilgard State Park. He was joined by 84 other black powder enthusiasts at the 37th annual Grande Ronde Muzzleloader Black Powder Rendezvous. Many competed with muzzleloaders, tomahawks and knives they made themselves and in frontier era clothing they created.
Participants tested their muzzleloader firing and tomahawk and knife throwing talents in rendezvous events. Abilities which 200 years ago often determined who lived and died.
“We are reliving the old skills of our forefathers,’’ Smith said.
All those at the rendezvous went by frontier names they have as aliases. Smith is known as Chief Gray Hair, Gary Burch of La Grande as Bloody Hawk and Darrel Plank of La Grande, one of the Labor Day Weekend events chief organizers, as Mountain Man.
Such names are become so tightly tied to participants that some are known to many at rendezvous only by their frontier names. Their actual names are a mystery.
Still, the men and women share an uncommon camaraderie at rendezvous, ones meant to simulate the actual gatherings of fur trappers long ago.
Smith said the actual rendezvous in the 1700 and 1800s were much wilder, with men holding fighting and wrestling competitions. He said rendezvous were often conducted in late summer because this was when the fur of beavers and other animals the men sought was not in prime condition, making them less worth trapping.
Men traveled hundreds of miles on horseback and foot to attend rendezvous. Smith marvels at how trappers were able to make it to distant rendezvous sites annually with no navigation equipment or trail signs.
“They had a wonderful sense of direction,’’ he said.
Just as in the old days, many tall tales were shared at the Labor Day Weekend rendezvous.
“We swapped a lot of lies,’’ said Dave Bingner of La Grande, one of the rendezvous’ chief organizers along with Plank.
Trappers coming to rendezvous’s long ago also swapped lies but also shared tips on their craft. In fact some called rendezvous the Rocky Mountain College of Trapping, Smith said.
Frontiersmen were careful though not to reveal hot spots for trapping beavers and other fur bearers since they did not want competition.
“Trappers had a lot rivalry. They were very secretive,’’ Smith said.
Some at the Labor Day Weekend rendezvous, including Bruch, fired muzzleloader pistols in competition.
Smith said pioneers often carried pistols as a means of self defense. He explained they were handy when people were is in close quarters with an animal or person threatening them and their rifle was often too big to swing around.
It did not rain at the Labor Day Weekend rendezvous, which many participants were thankful for. Rain is a big nemesis of muzzleloader shooters because the exposed firing mechanisms of their weapons do not work when wet. Smith said rain was also major problem for frontiersmen with muzzleloaders. One effective tool they used to protect their rifles were the knee bones of cows. They fit easily over the firing mechanism of their weapon, said Smith, who had a cow knee at the Labor Day Weekend rendezvous.
The rendezvous ran from Friday through Monday. People came from as far as the Portland area; Boise; Cascade, Idaho and Benton City, Wash. It is one of many rendezvous conducted throughout the northwest every year. Plank said that from April to September a rendezvous is conducted in the Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana area almost every week.
In Northeast Oregon rendezvous are also conducted each April in Troy, in May in Seneca and every September in Burns. Information on upcoming rendezvous in the Northwest is available at the La Grande Rifle and Pistol Club’s web site, www.lgrpc.org .