Tales of Imnaha Canyon: Festival-goers celebrate what may be the last Bear and Rattlesnake Feed in historic Imnaha

The Wallowa County 4-H Court dons prospector disguises for the parade. Photo by Dave Hassler

"No matter how hard you try, you can't baptize a cat." Anonymous

They start arriving late Thursday night and trickle in on Friday. These are the elite. These hardy souls have earned their right to be counted. They started years ago when The Bear and Rattlesnake Feed was a fledging celebration. Some I had never seen before. But they were met with hugs and handshakes similar to those exchanged by war buddies. They don't look any different, but there is a certain air about them and they walk sort of tall. They travel from Washington, California, the Oregon Coast, and closer: Enterprise, Joseph and Elgin. They are walking historians.

Our Imnaha participation includes donated potato salads, (by the ton), cucumbers and tomatoes from our gardens and willing hands to do the before-work. The coffee guys are adept at slapping garlic butter on bread. The line is organized and very fast. Everyone leaves smelling like garlic. This is Thursday morning. Cucumbers are peeled and sliced today also.

Friday the snake cleaning group meet at the "house" and 114 snakes were skinned, gutted and cut in small pieces. Stories about hunting, old buddies and former feeds keep the work light. Oh, yes, some beer may have been consumed ...

The threat of rain

Early Saturday morning we were horrified to awaken to rain coming down in buckets. It is lucky that a lot of us said real fervent rain-ceasing prayers. And they worked. The skies became overcast. This whole Feed is organized and yet sort of casual. Years of experience have covered most of the things that could go wrong.

Everyone has a personal calamity they remember and take pains not to repeat. Like trying to serve food without the right tool. The area in the back of the store has to be made into an assembly line for dishing up food. Freezers moved, counters changed, tablecloths put down and plates and silverware put out.

Dave and Sally Tanzey's kitchen in the Store and Tavern becomes very busy. Some volunteers are cutting tomatoes into sections, some are getting the assembly line ready to cook the snake.

The snake pieces have to be dried, then dipped in flour, salt, pepper and garlic powder. Outside one of the guys has a huge skillet heating over a gas burner and inside two electric skillets are heating up.

Then the cooking begins. Such pains they take, you'd think they were going to be judged. They really take pride in the results.

The bear meat is delivered to the basement in roast-size packages. The coverings on the roasts are black because they have been cooked in the coals. Each has been wrapped with wire so it can be retrieved from the cooking pit.

Each package of meat is sort of squishy because of the trapped juices. This meat can be cut with a fork. My Hero would help get the roasts and then have to wash the black off his hands before he could serve the bear.

Costs little to 'donate'

I was outraged to hear that some people who come through the line choose not to "donate." The people who eat aren't charged for the food. They are asked to "donate." It plainly says on the coffee can that this money all goes to the school scholarship fund. We have all donated food and time... Who the heck do these cheapskates think they are to come freeload? See, I'm getting mad all over again.

But Sally Tanzey has hard and fast rules. These freeloaders are not to be singled out. The servers are not to be told who they are. Everyone gets the same amount of food. Well, next year they will just have to find another free place to eat.

Like I promised, the parade was a hoot and the prize ribbons were handmade. Each adorned with a tanned rattlesnake hide. Aren't you sorry you didn't enter?

This is Jackie, signing off from the Imnaha.

Jackie Peart's e-mail address is jpeart@eoni.com.

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