‘Mountain Man’ History on Full Display With Puget Sound Free Trappers Exhibition at Oregon Trail Days

Contest: Gib Isaakson Memorial Black Powder Shoot Enters its 43rd Year


It’s no secret that folks back in the day led a tenacious, hardier kind of life. Take it this way: There weren’t any highways back in the mid 19th century.

Before the era of Uncle Sam, the “highway” of the time was almost always something geographic: a river stream, brush of trail, valley or plateau. And, perhaps if you were lucky, a mountain man would serve as your Google Maps.

If you’re looking to learn more about “mountain men” — the various fur trappers, explorers and vagrants that meandered the lonesome West — then you won’t need to go too far. The history of the mountain man will be on full display during Oregon Trail Days as the Puget Sound Free Trappers camp out and host the 43rd annual Gib Isaakson Memorial Black Powder Shootout competition.

The group will set up their camp — a historic, living museum of sorts — at the Tenino City Park from Friday, July 23, to Sunday, July 25.

The Puget Sound Free Trappers (PSFT) are a group of at least a dozen historical reenactors who sport canvas tents and rifles faithful to the era. For more than three decades, the Littlerock-based group has hosted the Oregon Trail Days staple competition, which will take place predominantly on Saturday and Sunday.

Tyler Whitworth, Oregon Trail Days organizer and past Tenino Area Chamber of Commerce president, said it’s a great chance for families to examine the ruggedness of life prior to modern conveniences. It’s pioneer history as it would be shown back in those days.

“When you see all of them in action, it really gives you a taste of what it was like to be a pioneer,” he said, adding later: “You get a lot of respect for the pioneers because it took real skill back then. You had to load (rifles) just right, follow a certain process for each round.”

Tom Brown, a member of the Puget Sound Free Trappers, is serving as this year’s booshway. A booshway is the event organizer, or as Brown likes to affectionately describe his work, he’s the event’s “glorified kitten herder.”

But there’s nothing really catty about it. Brown said his favorite part about being associated with the PSFT is the friendships that develop between all the trappers.

“The biggest thing is the comradery that we have. We’ll sit around the fire at night and talk and laugh and pick on each other,” he said. “To me, it’s the people I’ve known. The friends that I’ve made, the friends that I’ve lost over the years. That’s probably the biggest thing for me.”

While the group’s history is rather shrouded in mystery, Brown said the PSFT’s founding goes back to the 1970s. The primary purpose was, and still remains to this day, to reenact the life of the mountain man during the height of the fur trading era, which involves plenty of “primitive camping.” That means canvas tents, campfire dinners and a whole lot of fresh air.

“We try to be as authentic as we can to the time period, especially when we go into a setting like Oregon Trail Days when the public is allowed to come around camp, visit with us,” Brown said, encouraging everyone who’s interested to approach them and ask questions.

The black powder shooting competition will feature traditional side lock arms, open iron sights, with loose black powder and use of patched round balls. No inline rifles will be permitted.

Traders and mountain men will start showing up at 8 a.m. Thursday. Donation of a $25 value prize for the competition is required for traders to set up their wares. The row will formally open Friday.

Registration for the black powder shootoff begins at 7 a.m. on Saturday, with first relays starting at 9 a.m.

From noon to 1:45 p.m., the PSFT will host a “public shoot” event for any Oregon Trail Days attendee looking to get their fingers ashy. Shoot a musket loader rifle for $1 a shot at a gong 25 yards away.

The “peewee shoot” will run alongside the public shoot and will be free to kids younger than 12. For kids age 12 to 16, an entry fee of $6 is required. This event will involve prizes, including penny whistles and bandanas.

“There’s all sorts of trinkets that are laid out for the kids,” Brown said. “They’re just happy as little clams to be out there and shoot an actual muzzleloader. … It’s quite an experience.”

During the public and peewee shoots, organizers load up a “reduced shot” with less powder. It’s safe fun for pioneers young and old alike.

“Muzzleloaders don’t really kick as hard to begin with. It’s more like a gentle shove to your shoulder. … The rapport isn’t as sharp and recoil isn’t as sharp as compared to a modern firearm,” he said.

The competition will resume at 2 p.m. Saturday. Brown said the culminating rounds, easily the most interesting part of the showcase, will be held at 9 a.m. Sunday, with a “candy cannon” being fired at noon. Winners and prizes will be announced at 2 p.m.