This article originally appeared in the Daily Inter Lake in 2004. View published clip (PDF).
It’s been a few years since Jack Whitney has wielded a bow — many more since he last used one to bring down a cougar with a handmade arrow — but three bows, made by hand about 50 years ago, stand in the corner near his back door.
Each stands handily, like a broom or a shovel, but it’s unlikely Whitney will grasp one anytime soon. Since having both knees replaced a few years ago, he no longer spends much time in the woods he has known for most of his 87 years.
Elmer Sprunger, a lifelong friend and fellow explorer, figures Whitney got more mileage out of his old knees than most people would in 10 lifetimes.
Whitney looks east to evergreen slopes from his Bigfork home along the Swan River.
“You go up in the Swan Range, and you can’t throw a rock over someplace I haven’t stood,” he says.
Whitney first entered the woods before the age of five, when he would follow his maternal grandfather as he checked his traps.
He credits that grandfather with casting the die of a life preferred outside.
“I’d get up in the morning and never tell anyone where I was going,” Whitney says.
And off he would go.
People would ask his mother whether she worried about her young son alone in the woods, but she would shrug, saying she always found him safe in bed at night.
“But I suffer now,” Whitney says quietly. “I have friends who want me to hike with them and I can’t.”
He misses the forests that he considers sacred sanctuary.
“There are chapels, temples and cathedrals, and I’d think I was in all of them when I was out in the woods.”
Jack is a woodsman if there ever was one. He has fished, hunted (always with a bow, never a rifle), camped, photographed and hiked. He has studied birds, plants, animals, mushrooms and, most recently, butterflies. He has transformed wood into birdhouses, whistles, bows, arrows, frames, baskets and more.
After such a life, and after Whitney placed almost 260 acres of his land above the Swan River in Bigfork under a conservation easement, Leo Keane, past president of Flathead Audubon Society, thought it time to recognize an old friend.
Flathead Audubon presented Whitney with its Conservation Achievement Recognition Award early in March.
“We just felt it was time to do something for Jack,” Keane says. “He’s such a great outdoorsman and an accomplished naturalist.”
A modest Whitney accepted a coffee mug, a jackknife (“For whittling his signature dogwood whistles,” Keane says), and a card signed by fellow members: “You have been such a wonderful mentor for all of us”; “Jack, thanks for your years of dedication to all things wild.”
Though his knees may be weaker and his steps slower, Whitney still stands strong and tall, as if he himself were formed from hardwood. His face appears etched by the blade of a master carver, his eyes a clear and sharp blue-gray and his eyebrows still dark.
He sits down on his sofa and leans forward. Stories tumble out, in no particular order, as if they happened yesterday.
He recalls childhood milestones: first fish caught at 5, first fly rod given to him at 7, first bow carved at 10.
A copy of a 1936 newspaper clipping recounts a high school track meet in which he placed first in no fewer than five categories.
He says he didn’t have a coach and never practiced.
“I never saw a discus until I went to the track meet,” he says.
And the javelin?
“I just picked it up and threw it.”
“The older he gets, the better he was,” Sprunger says. “Trouble is, he’s mostly right.”
He says Whitney “was one of those people who always had to see if he could do” something.
Whitney says being outdoors conditioned him.
“I was kind of a physical specimen,” he says. “I did a lot of axing and sawing and everything. It built up my body. I did things I really don’t know how I did.”
Whitney knows animals, especially birds, like they’re his closest friends, and he watches them come and go as each year cycles by.
He knows, for example, that every spring the first hummingbirds to appear at his feeders will be the calliope and the rufous — and only the females at first, he says. And every fall, the same male calliope passes through, Whitney guesses, on its way south from British Columbia to warmer climes.
Red-breasted and white-breasted nuthatches, black-capped and mountain chickadees, pine siskins and more flock to Whitney’s homemade bird feeders. Others nest in some of the “hundreds” of birdhouses that he has built over the years.
His favorite feathered friends?
“The pileated woodpecker and the black-capped chickadee,” he says. “I’ve known both of them most my life.”
Whitney and his wife, Ursula, an avid birder herself, were in fact the first members of what eventually became the Flathead Audubon Society.
He brings out photos taken in the 1960s in which he poses with an elk or cougar, a colorful knit beret atop his head.
Whitney eventually gave up hunting.
“I’m physically capable,” he says. “But I wouldn’t kill anything anymore.”
What changed his mind?
“I think a person has a certain amount of ego, and I lost all my ego.”
He was an avid fisherman, too — so much so that he once kept chickens just to use their hackles for tying flies.
“I had 27 of ’em,” he says. “I never ate an egg or a chicken.” Their weathered triangular pens still sit among the trees in his backyard.
Whitney lives alone these days, ever since Ursula moved into a nearby assisted care center four years ago. He visits her every day.
Back in the house, he is surrounded by memories. Paintings by Sprunger, hand-framed in wood by Whitney, hang everywhere. There are nature books and magazines, woven baskets, an occasional arrowhead.
Sometimes, though, it can get pretty quiet. Some nights he rises, restless, and watches flying squirrels outside the sliding door off the living room.
There are times when Whitney may sound like he is bragging about one accomplishment or another, but his stories are more statements of fact, told with a sense of humility — and longing.
“People think I’m outspoken, but I’m a loner,” Whitney says. “I like the woods and I’m happiest when I’m out there alone.
“But whenever you’re out there, you always have to come back to reality.”