A Spotted Bear elk hunt
I’ve gotten bored with backpacking. Not with the act of backpacking, but with the learning. The point of diminishing returns with reference to reading and the practice of trial and error has been passed. Time to find something else.
Which is why elk and deer hunting this fall has been the number one priority all year. I’ve hunted both in the past, but in 2013 I started shooting regularly and educating myself over a year ago. This fall I would dedicate completely.
My stepfather, Dick, has hunted all over the world and is a font of information on just about anything related to hunting and firearms. For me it’s important to bump along in the dark learning as I go, but select guidance accelerates learning and makes everything more enjoyable. Montana has three wilderness zones where elk rifle season opens mid-September, making them the only places in the US you can hunt the rut with a long gun and an over-the-counter tag. I invite Dick to come along back in the spring. It was just left to me to formulate a good plan.
He and my mom flew in Friday night. Saturday we woke up, finalized plans over a hearty breakfast, packed, and got on the road. Shortly after noon we three were on the trail, and by six we had a nice camp by a creek along the Spotted Bear River in the heart of the Bob. The next morning was opening day for wilderness rifle. My mom would hike out, and Dick and I would continue a few more miles before heading off trail, wading the river, and ascending up a steep, trailless side canyon. A weeks previous I had come across abundant sign just not far enough back. If it had been any further, or the sign any less profligate, I would have dismissed it. Instead, we were all in.
Saturday and Sunday were hot, as most of the summer had been. This was a cornerstone of my strategy. Creeks and rivers were running very low, and I figured watering options for elk would be limited. Reports from the first week of bow season indicated that things were quiet across the state, limiting tactics further.
There aren’t huge number of elk in this part of Montana, and what animals do exist have many steep, dark, timbered hillsides for hiding. Still hunting for big game is a waste of time here, as only the rarest of conditions will allow a human to sneak up on anything. If the elk were no bugling, our only option would be to stake out water sources, sit, be quiet, and hope luck and the wind favored us.
There are plenty of places for the most limber and experienced of backpackers to break an ankle on the deadfall, brush, steep dirt hillsides, and slick limestone creekbeds, but by noon we had climbed far enough up the drainage to start looking for a camp. Close enough to the water source for easy in-the-dark access, but not close enough to spook anything, was the name of the game.
Near the base of an avalanche chute we found a flat area amongst the weeds, one of the few we’d seen, and stomped out a tent sight. Temperatures were up near 80. We hung the food, ate lunch, drank the scintillatingly cold creek water, and took a nap.
Arranging a good food hang in the land of spruce requires advanced tactics. We were surrounded by old growth over 200 feet tall, but none of the limbs within throwing reach were thicker than an inch or more than 10 feet long, and all tilted groundward. We had a lot of stout cord for hanging meat, and managed to wrap each end around limbs 25 feet up on trees 60 feet apart. Lots of tension got our food just high enough (Dick, above, is 6’4″).
Around 1500 we headed up to investigate the seep and game trails I’d been counting on.
The next avalanche chute came down to the creek 1/3 of a mile above our camp. This late in the dry year, the creek only started flowing 1/2 a mile above. Game trails as obvious as any I’d seen outside Alaska and Yellowstone came down from both sides; the brush-choked burn to the east and high, steep, cliff-capped meadows out of sight to the west. Up in the forest on the west side, a steady seep had been trodden into oblivion by elk and mule deer. Fresh tracks were everywhere.
We set up behind some small pines on the far side of the chute, with good views across to the east side and up into the forest. And we waited. The sun set slowly, the air stayed warm, and everyone on earth aside from the squirrels and chickadees seemed to be in suspended animation. We saw nothing and heard nothing, waited until dark, went back to camp, ate a quick dinner, and went quickly to sleep.
Around 0430 a lone elk bugling behind camp woke us both. We were back in a slightly different spot at first light. After five hours we went back to camp, made coffee, and ate brunch. The day was much cooler, still clear, and still very still. We pocketed snacks, headed back up to yet a subtly different spot, and waited all afternoon and evening. In the last minutes of shooting light a doe mule deer appeared silently from between the trees, but no buck (for whom we had a tag, along with a bull elk) followed. 16 hours of waiting in 29 of being there, and nothing else. Either the subtle swirling winds were giving us away, or the few elk and deer which kept leaving fresh tracks each night were only drinking in the dark. Frustrating, but I was content that my plan had been good and we had executed it as well as could be asked.
The next morning we woke at dawn, but had coffee and oatmeal in camp before heading back up on game trail we now knew well. We followed the most obvious one up beyond the top emergence of the seep, and quietly worked our way up the hillside. After 500 vertical feet the trail shrunk, and the scope of the terrain became apparent. The forest only grew steeper higher up, and if anything, more dense and dark anywhere but the subtle rib we found ourselves resting on. Dick joked about taking all my ammo, and I knew what he meant. Shooting something and packing it out from near our creek camp would have been horrendous hard work. Doing the same up here was simply unthinkable.
Slowly, with care for safety’s sake and a bit of stealth out of habit, we returned to camp, ate, packed up, and headed back to the trail.
Using our enhanced intimacy with the land, I thought that instead of gaining elevation steadily in and near the creek, we’d contour one of our game trails and see how far it took us. We climbed a few hundred feet above camp to the best one before starting the long traverse, and while the path got fainter a few fresh tracks took us all the way to the ridge where the side canyon in which we’d been for so many hyperbolically protracted gave way to the main river valley. We had to pay the piper with a steep drop through the steep and deep, but it was a better route overall.
Dick, with decades of football, hunting, and working as an alarm contractor in his joints, is missing cartilage in a few key spots (knees, right shoulder, right big toe), and trained hard for this trip.
He moved well and within himself through some nasty stuff in no-fall terrain (due to the absurdity of rescue). I was impressed. His knowledge and assurance that my plan had been a good one went a long way towards cultivating the profound sense of peace I had by the time we once again reached the cold river crossing.
Like all deep excursions into true backcountry (which, let us be frank, is by definition bereft of human-built paths), just stepping back onto the horse trail brought jarring relief. The 52 or so hours we had been away had without exception been full-bodied. It was pleasant to make easy miles without watching every step, but I couldn’t but dwell on how exceptional and ultimately peculiar such walking ought to be.
A few miles back to our first camp, and we retrieved the bag of food we had cached in a tree. Our snack supply now overflowed, as I had packed extra in case hauling meat caused complications. We had heard one distant rifle shot that morning, but otherwise the woods were still silent. Absent a better plan, we hiked another mile and did a short bushwack down to the river. This provided a suitably refined final camp, and an opportunity to stake out the confluence of two river channels and an abandoned meander for anything that might come take a drink. Nothing did. We went to bed happy anyway.
The stars were out so we left the doors open, and I warned Dick rain might not be enough to wake me up. The thunder which sounded a few hours later was, and after closing things up we went back to sleep to the duet of rushing river and pounding rain. We walked the final miles the next morning in a muddy drizzle, the temperature dropping all the while, and as autumn finally descended on the Bob started the drive back home.
I knew going in our odds would be long regardless. As much as I know that hunting will be my next major outdoor interest, I know that quality trips to inspiring destinations will always be first priority. Did the winds give us away? Would we have had better luck a week later once cool weather had set in? We can only speculate. I would rather have failed on this trip, in country I know and love, than succeeded in another place. With the whole season ahead of me it almost seems fitting that I didn’t have a shot on anything, much more work should be required.
A few gear notes are in order. The Paradox Packs Evolution frame was very impressive all trip. The belt is the best I’ve ever used, and this modern iteration of the external is as stable off-trail as any internal of comparable size. I also found my copy/revision of the Kifaru Gunbearer system, pictured poorly above, to be absolutely essential. I cannot imagine carrying a rifle any other way in such terrain. The gun was comfortable, out of the way, I could use trekking poles, and yet shoulder the gun in seconds. Lastly, I got thinking more seriously above weight-reduction than I have in a while. Modern gear makes lightweight backpacking, even with a packraft or winter gear, pretty trivial. Buy decent stuff and don’t overpack and you’ll have a light enough load. Hunting, and especially the possibility of having to carry out 150 pounds of meat, casts this question in a whole new light. Among other things, the 24″ barreled .30-06 will be replaced in the near future. Thankfully Dick is an exceptional gunsmith, and the hike out provided plenty of time to discuss the ultimate mountain rifle.
There are over 2.5 months of hunting season left, and I cannot wait for the weekend.