Originally published January, 2001 issue of SKI Magazine
Where Ernest came from, I never really knew. He was on the ski patrol when I was living in the parking lot in Sun Valley, Idaho, during the winter of 1947. Ernest stood about 5 feet, 10 inches, and was very husky and good looking, with a thick head of straight, coal black hair and a dark complexion. And he was very, very quiet.
He moved with the calculated, simple grace of a mountain lion, and at parties he never drank or womanized-even though half of the female employees in Sun Valley were chasing after him. There were all kinds of rumors about his background, and when you were talking to him and looking into his dark brown, almost black, piercing eyes, you knew there was something very powerful lurking behind them, but there was no way you could read what it was. I don’t think anyone in Sun Valley knew for sure what his real background was, but the oft-told story of his life unfolded like this:
Ernest was rumored to have a full-blooded Sioux father and a mother who was French Canadian. He had served well in World War II as a scout in the famed Tenth Mountain Division ski troops. When people talked about him in almost reverent whispers, various adjectives were used to describe his extraordinary war exploits.
It was said that he carried no rifle with him to fight the war in Europe. He was uncanny with a bow and arrow: It was whispered that his skills had been passed down from his father, who learned them from his grandfather, Chief Flying Hawk, nephew of Sitting Bull and brother of Kicking Bear.
It was said, “With his bow and arrow, Ernest could shoot and kill small game from the back of a galloping horse-or while gliding through the trees in unpacked powder snow on his cross-country skis on a moonlit night.”
Some even said, “Ernest could hit a bird in flight with his unwavering arrows.”
Everyone in Sun Valley believed the stories, and maybe they were even embellished as word spread, because you later heard that, “Ernest had stolen behind enemy lines and killed more than a dozen enemy soldiers with his silent bow and deadly arrows.”
Sometimes, in the Sun Valley employee cafeteria, when Ernest was sitting off in a corner by himself nursing a cup of black coffee, it was easy to imagine him at war, silently stealing through the trees and across the new fallen snow. At exactly the right moment in the black of night, with the almost noiseless twang of his bowstring, an unsuspecting sentry would topple over dead, one of Ernest’s silent arrows sticking out of his chest just below the left collarbone-right through the heart.
Then, just as silently, he would continue to map the perimeter defenses of the enemy lines, sneaking back across the lines before dawn and reporting to his sergeant, “It’s all clear in the eastern sector for the next assault.”
The first time I saw Ernest in action was going straight down the Ridge at about 45 mph while skiing upright between the handles of a 100-pound patrol toboggan with a seriously injured skier in it. When the patrol lined up in the early dawn to ski pack the Canyon, Ernest usually took twice as many sidesteps as the other patrollers and his line packed out a little better. Ernest always did a little more than he was asked-or paid-to do.
Only once did I ever witness Ernest’s bow-and-arrow skills. The ducks and geese that wintered at the head of Dollar Lake, near the bridge that ran over Trail Creek, were almost too fat to fly. They spent the winter living on large handouts of leftover food from the Sun Valley Lodge dining room. On occasions, however, a stray dog or guest would scare them up into flight and they would laboriously circle the Challenger Inn, all the while honking loudly enough to wake us up in our small trailer in the parking lot.
More than once during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, Ward Baker, who lived with me in the trailer, and I were awakened by the loud honking of the obese geese. It always took them about three or four laps around thee village to gain much altitude. Then, as though it were too much work to fly any longer, they would splash back down in the same small, unfrozen water where Trail Creek flowed into Dollar Lake and wait for their next handout.
In the gray dawn of the below-zero morning of Dec. 31, we were awakened by all six of the Trail Creek geese in flight. One of them, however, sounded very different. His honking was high pitched and labored, almost wheezing. I didn’t think too much about it, except that I had never heard them fly this low over the parking lot before. I did know, however, that no one would go down to Trail Creek that early in the morning just to scare the geese and ducks so they could watch them fly over the village.
The second time the flock flew honking over our campground, I stuck my head out of the trailer door in time to catch another glimpse. Something was very wrong with one of them. Another goose was flying unusually close and his neck was at a very weird angle for the normal, graceful flight of a goose. Hoping they would circle once again, I climbed out of bed for a better look.
I didn’t actually get out of my mummy sleeping bag; I just stood up in it in the snowbank outside the trailer and watched for them as they flew on their next round-trip over the village. The goose with the peculiar sound and the strange bend in his neck had an arrow sticking through him. His breast was covered with blood, and it was obvious that he was going to crash somewhere soon.
It was later said that, “Ernest had already poached a deer and an elk with his bow and arrow and had decided that a goose might add some variety to the menu of the annual Ski Patrol New Year’s Eve big game dinner.”
In the Ski Patrol barracks, at about the same time the wounded goose crash-landed in front of the Opera House, Ernest was silently packing his clothes, his skis, his bow and his quiver with one arrow missing. He wasn’t at the New Year’s Eve party that night, but was last seen walking south out of Ketchum with a very substantial load on his shoulders, wondering what his New Year’s resolution should be.