Buckskinners celebrate 25 years at Fort Henry Rendezvous

Sonny “Two Step” Capek takes a break from carving a pipe stem at his trading tent Wednesday morning. Capek, from Dillon, Mont., has been attending rendezvous for 28 years. He makes every item in his trading tent by hand. Monte LaOrange / mlaorange@postregister.com

REXBURG — The mountain man known as “Black Ketle” is as authentic as they come.

Dressed head-to-toe in handcrafted leather, beads and feathers, the grizzled trader has spent every spring and summer for the last 33 years on the mountain man rendezvous circuit. In his prime, he lived as a vagabond, visiting more than 30 events a year and selling handcrafted knives and leather work, as well as necklaces made with European and African beads.

He’s slowed down a bit, now that age has caught up with him.

“In the old days I had to trade because that was my only income, but today I’m just here because I want to be,” Ketle said. “But these are beads that most people haven’t seen, so I display them, and if someone wants to buy them, they can.”

The gray-bearded Ketle has set up shop through Sunday at the Fort Henry Rendezvous in Fremont County. It’s the 25th annual mountain man rendezvous held by eastern Idaho’s Fort Henry Buckskinners club. This year, the camp is at a new location northeast of Rexburg.

Ketle is a staple at Fort Henry. He’s known for weaving a fine tale about the origins of his wares. He’s also quick to offer a fur-covered chair and a portion of his food in exchange for a bit of talk, and maybe a story or two.

But he doesn’t volunteer much beyond his honed persona. He’s originally from Burley, but claims to have been born when “there were only three stars in the sky,” and “when the Dead Sea wasn’t even sick yet.”

“I used to be in character all-the-time,” he said. “As I’d run from one rendezvous to the next, this was the way I was and seldom ever would I have to get dressed.”

After three decades living as a mountain man, he admits that “Black Ketle” (purposely misspelled for authenticity) is as real a name as the one he was given at birth.

And Ketle isn’t the only one at Fort Henry that lives and breathes the mountain man lifestyle. Artisans and traders come from across the West to peddle handcrafted wares at the five-day campout. The site also is filled with campers who pay a $40 registration fee to live the primitive life of a pre-1840s fur trader.

By day, the rendezvous is filled with visitors such as Shellie Woolstenhulme, of St. Anthony, who spent Wednesday shopping and enjoying the historical reenactment.

Others come for the fry bread and buffalo burgers, as well as the free recreation — hiking trails, beading, archery contests, historic rifle and pistol shooting, tomahawk and knife-throwing contests and a variety of children’s games.

“This is our heritage, our history that so many people don’t care about anymore,” Woolstenhulme said. “But Idaho is where the mountain men came … and I’m thrilled that these guys keep that spirit alive.”

After 6 p.m., the visitors leave and the rendezvous becomes just about the reenactment.

Every effort is taken to maintain the illusion of a historic trading camp reminiscent of the first people to populate the region that would become Idaho. Period-dress is required and campers only use pseudonyms such as Little Buck, Moon Woman or Grandma Grizzly.

Mike Hogle, also known as “Iron Horse,” is the “booshway” or leader of the Fort Henry Buckskinners. Fort Henry, he said, always is a memorable event for everyone involved.

“The whole purpose is to get the public involved in recognizing the mountain men and the settlers that came into this valley and helped establish the communities we live in,” Hogle said. “And for members, this is a pleasure — all these people maintain a friendship so close we feel like family … telling stories around the campfire.”