The whitetail I shot last November was a victory, but it was also a defeat. The victory came in learning enough about deer patterns to know where to go, and enough patience to be still enough that the deer walked right up within range. It was a failure because I had started out the season planning to shoot a big game species within the Bob Marshall complex and pack it out under human power.
Thus, the pressure was on last week when rifle season opened in the two zones which form the remote heart of the Bob. I’ve known all year that of all my outdoor goals for 2014 this is the one to which I’d become most attached.
Thanks to a list of things more important than hunting, it was early afternoon by the time I finished the drive south, put on my pack, and started walking. It was hot, not only hot for September, but hot by any standard this far north, and the 3000′ climb with less than continuous shade was taxing. I crested the ridge and entered the juridical Bob (and thus legal hunting territory) out of water and feeling a few steps from done. Tasty water was had a bit lower at a small cold lake, but the battle was now on to get rehydrated quick enough to climb back up towards the ridge and be situated and still for prime glassing light. Tired, still dryish, and weighed down with a gallon of water to last me into tomorrow, this modest climb took longer than it should have. I glassed two basins for the last hours of the afternoon and evening. Aside from the swirling and inconstant wind, conditions were perfect, but I saw nothing more than the endless parade of happy chickadees and juncos (taken together the vivacious Pikas of the bird world).
Juncos have been a personal favorite since childhood in the midwest, and I love that you can find them year round in the chillier meadows of Montana. My perch was a particularly gorgeous one, nestled amongst larch trees midway through their transition from green to yellow. I could recall skiing the drainage 6 miles in front of me years before, following black bear tracks through the forest. I could trace the stream to my left down into the main canyon, where it cuts a spectacular and unexpected waterfall. I could look into the distance, 15 miles away, and recall four years of packrafting trips across the seasons. But I hadn’t seen a deer yet, which tinged everything else with a bit of bitterness. Hunting teaches patience very well, because the only alternative is giving up.
I set up the Solomid on a barely big enough patch of flat alpine grass, and cooked dinner 100 feet away by a big snag. Plenty of fresh bear scat around, so caution was advised. Hot food, tea, and plenty of extra snacks and water went down the hatch to ensure I’d be ready to go come morning.
I was. I laid down with the doors open and watched the milky way develop, horizon to horizon, before I fell asleep for 10 straight hours. Coffee, poptart, and walking up the hill with a headlamp only just not needed. I had decided over dinner to focus on the back basin, a large expanse of open grass and forest patches between upper and lower lakes, with no trail closer than a mile.
Settling between larches next to a talus field, I glassed, and glassed, and glassed, and glassed with my binoculars on a tripod while the Pikas woke up and began an animated conversation. A couple hours passed in what amounts to active meditation until I saw a group of three deer moving down the slope. My hypothesis: they had spent the night feeding in the upper basin and had a good drink the early morning before heading downhill to one of a few dark, cool patches to bed. They were moving without caution, chasing each other and frolicking as they moved down the hill. They were far enough away and never still long enough for my 30x spotting scope to get a definitive read, but I thought the largest bodied deer was a spike or very small forkie. They disappeared into a northish facing side of a small gully, thick with dark timber. I watched for a further ten minutes and when I didn’t see them come out, assumed they had bedded there. Game on.
The wind was blowing down-slope, less then ideal, but not unworkable. I tried to move quietly and maximize cover as I lost elevation across towards the trees. I’d need to come back up through the trees, hoping to see the deer before they saw me. Steep wet grass on the steeper slopes and a massive profusion of dead standing beargrass stalks on the gentler slopes (which sound like muted maracas when you touch them) made this process nerve wracking.
Then, when I had over the course of 45 minutes gone 3/4 of a mile to a point right below the correct timber patch, and sun got just high enough and the wind suddenly switched 180 degrees.
You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.
I hadn’t been feeling very good about my prospects before, and the wind felt like the last nail in my coffin. I moved up into the trees anyway, what else could I do (?), glassing and trying to not make too much noise (impossible). Halfway up, I assumed the deer had moved off and, with the sun rapidly making things very hot indeed, the day was over. I heard a trickle in the rocks and moved over to collect water. I’d refill my supplies, have a snack, and move back through the top of the basin for one last glance before heading home. Glassing and expecting anything to move on a day hot as this seemed foolish.
After a 15 minute break I went back uphill, but deviated in my plan when I came across a good game trail moving horizontally back through the trees. Fresh deer tracks, and, as I entered the pleasant shade, freshly used beds. If I were a deer this was were I’d want to spend a hot last day of summer, and I silently begged forgiveness for disturbing them. 30 seconds later, I took two steps beyond the last trees and saw deer, two of them, well out across the grass slope. The biggest one, which did indeed have small antlers, was in the rear, looking at me.
I watched him through my binoculars for 10 seconds, confirming he was indeed a he, and that he was more curious than alarmed. I dropped my trekking poles, pulled my rifle from the gunbearer, and took off my pack. Sitting with the pack as rest didn’t feel right, so I dropped the pack to the ground and went prone, racked a round, and as the deer looked quite a ways away held a bit high and slowly touched off the trigger: a large concussion and no sign of the deer being hit. The shot felt good, so I must have missed high. The deer did a 180 and was stilling looking my direction, now quartering towards. I held right on, just in front of the near shoulder, took 4 deliberate breathes, and while trying to detach it from the rest of me, moved my right index finger slowly.
The deer falls over into the beargrass, like a puppet cut by the string.
I watch through binoculars, distant, as he kicks in gentle spasms for thirty seconds and goes still.
I can only believe it because I was there.
I throw my pack on, check the motionless deer one last time, and with rifle in one hand and poles in the other hurry over.
There’s a dead deer in the grass. I put my pack and poles down and, round chambered, edge closer and poke the deer repeatedly in a left eye which will never close again. Dead, no matter what so much of me wants to believe.
Happiness is more complex a thing than we’re usually inclined to admit, and at that moment my joy is tied up with completing the task and getting the parts I want off the mountain and home without spoiling, which given the ever more intense sun is not a task to be taken lightly. I setup my tripod, balance my camera on top, and take photos as fast as I can manage, then get to work. I don’t worry about keeping hair or grass off the meat, just getting the hide rolled back and the quarters off, into bags, and into the shade as fast as safety permits. 45 minutes after I start all four quarters, backstraps, and tenderloins are in two muslin bags, tightly knotted against the flies, which now swarm thick, and in the coolest spot I can find. Thankfully the night up here at 7300′ was very cold, and in shade that still lingers late into the morning. I take another, more clumsy 45 minutes to skin the skull, remove it from the neck, and cut away the lower jaw. Last year, even in the comfort of the garage all the connective tissue made this take forever, but soon enough I’m ready.
Camp gear and spare clothing, in drybags to keep it clean, goes in the bottom on the Unaweep. Snacks and everything else I’ll need and that can fit goes in the two pockets of the compression panel. The two thankfully quite cool but very heavy bags of meat, bones still in, go on top of the camp gear. Rifle and sleeping mat go under the compression panel, which I cinch as tight as I can several times over. Skull is wrapped in a game bag and tied on top.
The pack is really, really heavy. I know 40-50 pound packs well, from packbiking last year and the Grand Canyon this spring, among other places, and this is a lot more than that. 75, at least, and with 8 miles to go, the first two off trail though talus and steep grass and sidehilling, the walk out is intimidating. Only one way to do it, which is step after step after step. Carefully now, as getting the least bit out of balance with such a pack is unacceptable. Thankfully the Unaweep balances in perfect stability and the hour of concentration it takes to climb 1000′ and contour back to the trail goes by in a fast blaze of focus.
The six miles of trail, almost all of it a rather large descent, is far worse, with nothing to think about but how damn heavy the pack is. I take two breaks while walking the trail out, my hips and the bottoms of my feet suffering the most. I didn’t train for this, other than backpacking all year, and get back to the car in a hair under four hours feeling beat but not destroyed. With some more specific conditioning it’s easy to see such efforts being reasonably routine. Not that I want to do it again next weekend or anything. Instead, at the car my first priority is shoes off and sandals on, followed by gear in the car and meat wrapped in two blankets in the trunk. 25 minutes down the road to the nearest store, where ice and soda and cold tea can be had.
All the meat made it back home in perfect shape, and as of this writing half is cut up, cleaned, wrapped, and in the chest freezer downstairs. I’ll have rare backstrap for the third consecutive dinner tonight, after I finish processing the last two quarters. The skull is sitting, antlers deep, in a bleach solution waiting for the final cleaning before it goes up on the wall. Maybe I’ll change my mind in a few years, but today I’m happier with my little forkie than I could be with any corn-fed, valley-dwelling monster. On the hike in I thought back to Lewis and Clark, and how the closest they came to starvation of their journey was the only time they really went through the mountains proper, passing from Montana into Idaho. This contrasting with the moveable feast they found on the plains of what is now the Dakotas and eastern Montana. One assumes, in pre-Columbian times, no one went up to alpine basins to hunt deer. There’s not much for them to eat, and thus not that many deer. Today those fertile valleys are artificially sewn into miles of deer buffets, and in spite of rifles and roads their are more deer than ever, and very few places left to hunt deer (or elk or bear) where their habits have not been altered, generations ago, by human-provided food.
In the Bob you still can, if you can find them. Or, to be more maudlin, if you try hard enough and long enough dreams do come true.