Tuesday, November 22, 2011

No Elk, Just Happiness

Authors note:  this hunt took place in 2005, in the Scapegoat Wilderness of Montana.  This is my submission for the Sportsman Channel Writing Contest for Hunters hosted by the Outdoor Blogger Network.

"Ride close" says Neil "we're coming up on Grizzly-On-Meadow."

A grizzly had killed a cow elk here during the summer, and the Forest Service had put up a sign saying as much, and thus the name.

Great.  We've ridden  nearly twenty miles today in a circuitous route from camp, up and over the mountains, and this morning the claw marks in the poplar trees, high overhead even from horseback attest to the presence of grizzlies in this area.  Now it's pitch dark, and my mule deer buck, cut in half to  fit the pannier bags, is spooking the mule we've strapped it to.  We're traveling without lights in the pitch dark due to the first incident that happened when we got here- the horses and mules are deathly scared of the shadows thrown by our headlamps.  We must trust Neil's knowledge of this wilderness, and rely on our horses night vision and sure-footedness to get us back safely.  We will ride for two and a half hours in the darkness.

That first incident I mention above spooked me a little.  When Larry and I first arrived at the homestead of Neil and Babette Eustance on the outskirts of Lincoln Montana (former home of Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber.) late in the afternoon after a two day drive from Michigan, Neil was out at his main camp breaking it down for the season.  Babette had just fed us a hearty dinner when the radio crackled to life.  Neil asked if Larry and I could bring him some coffee and help him unload his horses and mules.  It was dark, and getting late, and he had a long string of animals to care for.  We drove out to the trailhead to find pandemonium.  Mules and horses were everywhere, some dragging their loads, others had kicked them off entirely and ran for the corral.  Come to find out the whole pack string had been charged in the darkness by two moose, and the pack string, already unsettled by the presence of bears, had scattered in the darkness.  We loaded gear into the back of Larry's truck, and I led two frightened, twitchy mules back to the corral to unload.

I'm no horseman.  We had ponies when I was a kid, but they were so mean I never did get comfortable riding.  During the time I lived in Ohio I rode a little with friends who owned some spirited Appaloosas and Quarter horses.  Riding horseback into the mountains was perhaps the part about this trip I looked forward to the most.  But right now, standing in the dark holding two of 15 or so terrified pack animals, I wasn't so sure.  Neil's five year old daughter, named Dew, who went with him that day to help, sees me fumbling with the harness on the mule I have, and so she comes and takes over.  She has curly strawberry hair, and intense blue eyes like her dad's.  She has been riding since before she could walk, and knows more about horses and riding than I ever will.  I have to suppress my laughter as she marvels at the fact that I don't know how to remove tack from a mule.  It's a great intro to my Montana adventure.

I don't recall why, but Neil sent us in ahead of him the next morning with their son Brandon.  Brandon is 14, but helps with all aspects of the operation.  I've been assigned Neil's oldest, most experienced horse named Rusty.  This also means that he's slow.  He seems to creak.  He mutters and moans when you saddle him, and then mutters and grumbles for the first twenty minutes any time I mount after I've been off of him for long.  He's old, and pale, kind of ratty looking, and seems to have one speed.  We set off for Short Camp that morning with Brandon, our horses, and two mules carrying our gear.  Short Camp, called that because it is only about five miles from the trailhead versus the 11 mile ride to the main camp, hasn't been used so far this year, and so we're headed in to fix the corral and do what we can to set up camp.  My horse, being old and slow, quickly lags behind.  Larry and Brandon are soon out of sight.  Just as quickly I ride up on Larry, holding his horse and Brandon's pack string.  They had spotted a black bear and Brandon, who has a tag, has gone in chase.  We hear no shots, and after a few minutes Brandon returns, out of breath and smiling.  How many fourteen year old kids do you know that would go running after a bear by themselves?

After not too long we arrived at Short Camp.  It is set on the far side of a boggy meadow, the kind that moose like.  As a matter of fact, there's a moose in the meadow when we arrive, and we wait at the edge of the trees for it to leave, as these moose tend to be aggressive.  After it leaves we entered camp, tied up the stock, and took stock of things.  The corral needs a lot of work and is the first priority.  After two days of driving, it feels good to be in this high mountain air working hard.  The corral takes a couple of hours to build, then we set up the tents while Brandon digs a  latrine.  Being outside the electrified bear fence that surrounds the camp, those night time visits will be one of the least fun parts of the trip.

Neil arrived late in the evening as the light was failing.  He puts us all to work immediately, and fixes the wall tents that we've done a poor job of erecting.  By the way, Larry has been friends with Neil for a long time, and we've gotten a considerable discount on the hunt, and so we don't mind helping with whatever we can.  We are both tradesmen and do it yourself hunters and are happy to work around camp.  Normally Neil's clients are catered to in every way by Neil and his guides.

Larry and I are here for elk and mule deer.  They've been having a tough year so far, with only a couple of bulls being taken.  We've come late in the season, because the previous year snow in the high country had put the elk on the move, and Neil had taken three bulls in two days.  This year (2005) it has remained warm, and the hunting has been tough.  Still, we have high hopes.  Neil has business to take care of the first two days of the hunt and so he leaves us in the very capable hands of his wife Babette.

Babette turns out to be one of the best hunter's I will ever meet.  She moves silently and has hearing that is almost uncanny.  I've never met anyone since who can stalk through wilderness like she can.  We set off on foot the first day, and she hikes us more than a dozen miles up and over the mountains.  By the end of that day I can barely lift my feet over logs.  At one point Babette holds up a hand and stops us.  She's heard something.  We stand for ten minutes, and right when Larry and I are starting to wonder, four deer take off from where they were hiding on the edge of a meadow.  At the beginning of the day, on a forested saddle on the mountain, we hear the clear mewing of elk ahead of us, but we're behind them and we never do catch up.

On day two we saddle up the horses and head out from camp.  We're stopped immediately outside camp by two bull moose in the trail.  They are far bigger than our horses, and don't seem to be intimidated at all.  They actually start to back us down the trail, and so we clap our hands and whistle, which seems to change their minds.  Even when they leave the trail they don't go far, and we skirt around them, watching our backs as they continue to face us.  Our horses are clearly frightened.  We ride all day, stopping from time to time to hike into meadows or circle over ridge lines.  The highlight of the day was a late afternoon break on a lake filled with giant cutthroat trout.  When I filter some water it quickly clogs with mysis shrimp.  We take a stand on a meadow that evening, but the only thing we see is a rather large whitetail buck that we pass on.  We're focused on elk.

I don't remember the details of every day.  The most memorable was the day we rode up Red Mountain with Neil.  It was the middle of a seven day hunt, and Neil started the day with a horsemanship lesson.  He was tired of us dragging behind; he said we were being too easy on our animals.  He told us that the mountains and plains were these animals natural habitat, that they could go almost anywhere with ease.  To demonstrate, he spurred his horse directly into a pile of fallen snags on pitched ground.  Limbs and bark flew everywhere, but the horse, a large bay mare, negotiated it all with ease.  Neil got his start breaking and training horses and mules, then worked as a contract mule skinner for the government, packing strings of 30 or more mules into the back country for the Forest Service, scientists, and other government business in the wilderness.  He worked off and on as a guide for other outfitters until he bought the current concession he has in the Scapegoat Wilderness.
We rode straight up the mountain this day, through junipers and pines, past high hidden lakes of incandescent aquamarine.  We rode up into an old burn and glassed ridge after ridge, seeing nothing.  When we got up into the scree fields above the tree line we found huge excavations in the stones, as if a back hoe had been helicoptered in.  I was surprised that Neil didn't know what they were.  These holes, some ten or more feet across, and almost as deep, were the work of grizzly bears after ground squirrels and moths.  They were an odd sight, and a reminder of who we shared the mountain with.

After a while we came upon elk tracks.  Judging by the wet crumbling edges of each track, and some warm droppings we found, we were right behind a herd of about forty elk.  We soon reached a saddle below the peak of the mountain at about 9100 feet.  We could just barely hear movement ahead of us through the junipers. Our horses had come to attention, and their pricked ears pointed the way.  The herd couldn't be more than a couple of hundred yards ahead, and so we tied off the horses and proceeded on foot.  High on the mountain ahead of us we spotted two white specks on a very sheer face- mountain goats.  When we got to the point in the saddle where we thought the elk would be we saw nothing, and so we followed the tracks over the side down an incredibly steep slope that dropped several thousand feet.  From the valley floor rose a lone, faint bugle.  The elk had run down the side of the mountain.  It would take us three hours to do the same thing on horseback.  As we made our way back to the saddle, we noticed that the mountain goats were no longer on the exposed face below the peak.  As a matter of fact, they were now only a couple of hundred yards away heading straight for us, and so we hid behind a juniper and waited for the show.  At eighty yards out, the younger billy caught some movement and spooked.  But the wind was blowing so hard that the bigger goat, a mature billy who looked and moved like a gorilla, didn't realize the other goat had left. He walked up abreast of us, only forty yards away, and turned around casually as if to say something to his buddy, only to find him gone.  His eyes got big, and that big white goat looked even paler.  He looked around wildly, trying to figure out what had happened when Neil leaned out from the bush and shouted "hey buddy, we could have had ya".  Needless to say, he took off like a shot in the direction we were headed, and of course, when we got to where the horses should have been, they were gone, having torn loose from the shrubs they were tied to when the goat came tearing through, spooking them.  By the time we rounded the horses up and headed for the nearest trail back down the mountain it was nearly dark.  We rode three hours in the dark to get back to camp, and ate a hurried dinner before falling into our cots, exhausted.

Earlier in the day, a funny thing happened that went on to illustrate a lot of things to me about our relationships with animals.  Neil had a favorite mule to take on hunts.  I don't remember her name, but she was well trained and wasn't afraid of carcasses or blood.  She was also getting on in years, and Neil felt the need to train a younger mule in case anything ever happened to her.  So he brought a mule with us named Fancy.  Neil's mare, Sarah, didn't like Fancy, and the two bickered and nipped and kicked at each other all day.  Because Neil is an outfitter catering to a wide variety of people including families who want to experience the back country in summer, his animals are highly trained, and kicking a human is the ultimate sin.  On a break that day, Neil was checking the straps on Fancy's load.  When he walked around behind her, she kicked him in the leg.  That she thought she was kicking Sarah his horse was immediately obvious.  The blow was glancing, and the mule even pulled her punch so to speak, but her reaction was instant.  Fancy turned to face Neil, her ears back, head down and eyes rolling in fear.  She looked like she'd already been beaten.  "You know what you've done, don't you. You know what you've done" shouted Neil, making her cringe and back away even more.  It was a funny incident and needless to say she got a couple of good kicks to the ribs.  What was funny to me later was that when I told people about this they were offended that Neil had kicked the mule.  If they heard the drumming of hooves on ribs that I heard in the corral each night outside my tent as the stock settled scores from each days work, they'd know that these animals are far tougher on each other, and that a couple of kicks from Neil were nothing.  I wish you could have seen this animals reaction, like a boy who has just thrown a ball through a window.  It was priceless.

I don't recall the details of each days hunt, and I have limited pictures (I was still shooting film back then).  The weather had stayed far too warm, and the elk were staying high in the dark timber.  With only two days left, we made the decision to pack some things and ride into the main camp.  The area had been undisturbed for a couple of weeks, and there were some areas that held some monster mulie bucks- 30" plus.  We rode in, set up a rudimentary camp (we stretched a tarp over a lean-to) with our sights set on more remote country.

The next day we rose early, ate breakfast and headed out at daybreak.  We wound a circuitous route up and over mountains, stopping to glass as we went.  We got off of our horses and stalked through high juniper covered saddles where Neil had previously seen enormous mule deer bucks, but we still saw nothing.  We crept up to a cliff edge 1000 feet above a lake to glass its perimeter, only to have a golden eagle lift off immediately below us, floating on the updraft against the cliff as if riding some invisible elevator, mere yards from us.  Not long after noon, our horses spooked.  Just a little ways ahead we found out why.  Two bull elk had been feeding on the next saddle, and took off running at our approach.  The cold weather we were hoping for had finally arrived, and so we tracked them through six inches of snow, across scarily steep faces as our horses slipped and muttered to themselves.  The bulls were moving far too fast, we never did catch up to them, but they followed the same trail we were on.  After a couple of miles they veered off down a slope our horses could never follow, and shortly after that we jumped a large mule deer buck that similarly ran over a steep slope and disappeared.  For some reason that day, Larry had decided that I would be the first shooter if we got a chance, and after jumping that first buck I rode in front.  Not long after this, as we neared the bottom of a miles long descent, Neil came trotting after me, signalling for me to dismount and grab my gun.  There was a herd of mule deer immediately above us on the mountain.  I grabbed my gear, we handed off our horses to Larry, and made our way to where we could see the deer, hoping for a shot.  Another of Neil's clients had taken a 26" buck here weeks earlier, but there was a much bigger buck living on this mountain, one that Neil said might be 34" wide.

I have long been a critic of outdoor TV shows.  Too often they portray hunters as talking too loud, moving too much, taking too much time, and fiddling with too much gear.  Here in Michigan you would rarely get away with any of that.  We went on to do all of that.  These deer, living this far in the back country, apparently rarely see humans.  They were also about 600 feet above us and felt pretty secure.   We proceeded to lay there on our backs, glassing them. I ranged them several times with a range finder, got out my new shooting sticks and set up a secure rest, then it seemed to take forever for me to find them in the scope.  Neil was urging me to shoot, but I couldn't see horns.  I was aiming at an enormous doe.  Neil talked me through the landscape again, describing exactly where the buck was.  Ahh.  Now I had him.  An old hunter named Lou had come into camp a couple of days before.  He had been a army sharpshooter, and had given me advice about taking long shots, advice which now came to mind.  I had ranged this deer at 315 yards.  Lou had said to make sure that when you settle the gun in, that it is on the target, with only minor adjustments to make.  I did this, settling and resettling my sticks until the buck was in the cross hairs, with only minor adjustments needed by me. I felt unusually calm.  I let out a breath slowly, and squeezed.

What happened next was stunning.  The buck dropped immediately, and started sliding, then flipping down the mountain.  Neil and Larry shouted "You got him, but shoot him again before he runs away".  I refused.  Neil said "Shoot him, I don't want to track him."
"He's down" I said.
"He's running up the mountain, shoot him now!!"
"Can't you guys see him sliding down the mountain?" I asked.
I talked them through the landscape until they could see my buck, now propped against a log, and still kicking.
"Oh" said Neil, "I guess I didn't see that one".

None of us realized that there had been more than one buck.  Looking three hundred yards through a scope, all I saw was big body and horns.  It turned out I also had shot the smaller buck, a 20" wide five by five.  The bigger buck, a monster Neil said was at least 32" wide, put on quite the show for us, zig-zagging up and over the mountain for the next ten minutes before disappearing over the continental divide.  I guess I could have been disappointed.  But I had just ridden all day on horseback in the rocky mountains of Montana, past trees scarred by grizzly bears, had glassed high mountain lakes, seen a golden eagle, tracked mule deer and bull elk, and now taken my longest shot ever at a magnificent buck, making a clean kill.  I couldn't have been happier.

Since my father's untimely death in 2008, Larry and I have drifted apart as friends.  My fault.  I miss him and his wife Kim, they're good people.  Neil has offered to take us hunting free of charge several times since, but with the economic downturn and the increasingly obscene cost of Montana non-resident tags, I haven't been able to consider it.  Even without paying an outfitter, the trip would still cost several thousand dollars, and my salad days as a contractor are over.  Still, I want to go back.

In the end, we never even saw an elk.  Sure enough, within days of our leaving, continued snow in the high country forced the elk to move, and Neil and Babette got a bull for themselves.  I'll never forget their kindness and hospitality, their good cooking, their wild tales of a life that I had assumed no longer existed.  I won't forget seeing moose daily, or the does that walked right up to us and sniffed our boots as we sat on our horses.  I won't forget the bear sign, or the dead horse in the meadow outside camp that the bears had killed, and those long rides back to camp, in the dark.  I won't forget those goats, a highlight of my life.  I won't forget Dew, a little girl with big character and more horse sense than I'll ever have.  She must be about twelve or thirteen now, and her brother Brandon would be a young man.  Above all, I'll never forget the sense of freedom that comes while riding a horse, high in the mountains with a gun in the scabbard, and nothing on my mind.

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