Sam came back over the sage at a slow run, white mustache twitching with moisture in the bright noon air. “I like to think I’m a good judge of character,” he begins, then tells me how when he walked to the other side of the pass to get service he looked up after dialing his wife and saw two Bighorns on the steep slope above me. Probably 200 yards away, but hidden by thick pines and the roll of the land. “We’ll go up there together. If it’s a ram and a ewe, I’ll shoot first. If they’re only ewes, you shoot.”
The ridge flattened out after almost two thousand vertical of intense, slow plodding. Games trails, replete with fresh scat and tracks, had been almost too abundant. It was hard to pick just one option to lead me to the crest of the ridge, where I’d be able to walk north, play the subtle, inconsistent wind, and ideally find some bedded animals. Another fresh game trail led just along the east edge, high enough to be easy going, far enough off the crest so that you wouldn’t be skylined, no matter the angle of the viewer. The forest was thick, but open underneath, light filtered by a tight green canopy of needles, ground almost devoid of greenery. Off-grey scaly pine trucks, six to twelve inches in diameter, made the intermediary between air a dirt a multivaried cathedral library of monochromatism, where I could see everything and nothing within 200 yards. Including a patch of static texture down the hill which engendered suspicion.
I was quite sick of hunting as I contoured back along the hill into the wind, intentionally taking the path of poor visibility to stay out of the 40 mph gusts which had deafened and almost knocked me over on the ridge above. Aside from a black sow grizzly and her two fat, sleek, dark cubs on the other side of the ridge I had seen nothing bigger than squirrels, hawks, and ravens all day. I had glassed multiple basins for hours, hiked across the tallest mountain in the Bob Marshall complex, and eeked enough water to keep me up there by melting snow inside my black hydration bladder. It was getting into late afternoon, prime hunting time and in a good location, and I was struggling against fatigue and repetition to pull my eyes and head into scanning every meadow when I saw the bear. Big, dark, and 30 yards uphill and upwind. It stared at me.
I went uphill tight on Sam’s shoulder. From his description the sheep could be right there, so we went slow and glassed every succeeding roll of the ridge above for tell tale ears and horns. Footing in the sage was delicate, and there were enough pines growing in groups of 3 and 4 to provide hiding places for animals without giving us much meaningful cover. The wind swirled, unpreditable. 40 yards from the top, we heard a mute rifle crack.
Stopping and retreating 10 feet, I dropped my trekking pole, rifle, and pack, and pulled out my tripod and spotting scope. The animal was close, and aside from one excitement-stabbing flash of antler and the persistent, almost invisible patch of grey I could see nothing. Paranoia against getting busted wrestled with the need to know for certain as I set things up and slowly zoomed all the way to 33x.
Instinct took over as I yelled “Hey Bear!”, and as every backpacker would wish the big fuzzy lump of fat sprang forward in a sudden flashing roll of fat and was in full flight through the 8 foot spruce trees. Front legs tucked back revealed a white flash of neck patch, and legs forward in full stride showed me the long straight back and tall rounded butt of a black bear. I remembered that I was not just a backpacker in that moment, rather a hunter, and had just yelled away an opportunity at a close shot on a gorgeous big bear in a spectacular location which would have promised exactly the horrid, multi-day packout I wanted.
After cresting the ridge Sam and I split up and explored the varied and crenulated sub-ridges which ran at angles to the main complex. No sheep to be seen as we crept along with chambered rounds. Curiously, down on the plain to the south I saw a figure in orange moving fast, then stop and distinctly throw a hat to the ground. Sam went down to check the trees, while I went further along the ridge. It was 15 minutes later, when the tension of the moment had drained out and I had unchambered that round, when I turned around and made my way back towards the saddle, and saw a flash of safety orange down the rise. The hunter attached to it was engrossed in cutting up a ram.
The deer was feeding amongst the trees, and every 30 seconds when his head came up antlers flashed into visibility. His back, which was sleek and fat and in plain sight the whole time, gave me a visual checkpoint. And then, in one moment of inattention away from my spotting scope, the deer was gone.
This particular bear incident is the third in as many years when due to choice or silly circumstance I let a bear go which should have got shot, though this last will remains by far the most memorable. Two years ago I passed on a 30 yard headshot on a black bear almost on the trail above the beginnings of Meadow Creek gorge because I was convinced he would step out into full visibility, which he did not. Last spring I went for an evening stroll with a .410 rather than a rifle, and had to just admire a big bear eating grass in the forest above town. And now this. I do not have bloodlust, or any particular anger against bears, but due to their mystique I very much want to kill one. The old tale has a skinned bear so closely resembling a human that many bear hunters have only killed one before giving up the practice. Bears are long-lived compared to anything else hunted in North America, and their curiosity and unpredictable, omnivorous ways make us rightfully see them as close to humans. How I will react when I eat one I’ve killed is a question that can only be answered one way.
J was from West Yellowstone, and had killed a gorgeous, flaring, 1/2+ curl ram in the 5th hour of rifle season. I congratulated him and offered to help pack out the meat. I retrieved the gear I had dropped on the other side of the ridge and loaded a heavy ball of Bighorn into the top of my pack. The ram would make for a heavy load in his pack, and he could give me water at his truck, and it seemed like the right thing to do. The particulars of the stalk and shot are not mine to tell, but online reading reveals that when the sheep emerged from the trees and up high into ready visibility at least four hunters were converging from different points, and J got there first. The ram was an extraordinary animal, with horns heavier than I ever would have thought.
With rifle and binoculars I moved a few feet off the ridge, trying to relocate the deer. After a few minutes I did; he had sauntered uphill, closer to me, and was still feeding. I kept an easy eye on him as moved down and away, bent double, trying to both not look like a person and find a good opening for a shot. He seemed to know something was over there as he kept both looking my way and eating undergrowth, but he was not spooked. At last, I rifle in my lapped crabbed crawled down under a fallen tree hung with spare strands of moss and had a clear window. The deer’s clean grey shoulder was visible in a 8-10 inch window between trees, with his head clearly visible in another window to my right. I settled my feet into solid divots of loose earth and old pine needles and my brain turned to auto-pilot: forearms on thighs, core solid and relaxed forward, safety off, sight picture steady breath, breath, breath, squeeze. The rifle went off the deer bucked, then gave one great movieesque leap and disappeared with a crash downhill.
Everything was fucked up that night. After a long sidehill on a great game trail, then 90 minutes of chest tensing still hunting through some very promising forest groves down to the creek, I made camp. I was not paying attention, and had to repitch after my first flat spot was in the falling path of two dead and creaking trees. Then my food hanging rope got stuck in the trees and after attempts to pull it down and shot the limb off failed, had to cut it. Plainly, it was one of those windy nights when it was best to just call everything off and go to sleep.
I did not see any more sheep that trip. I drank a beer with J and headed back into the hills with full water bags, and apple, and a large piece of backstrap. The later I ate that night, after running ridges glassing in the cold wind, rubbed with olive oil, salt, and cayenne pepper, pounded flatish and cooked directly on white-hot coals from the same huge sage plants the sheep had been making a living in. It snowed that night, which had me up at 1am to repitch my tiny orange tarp. Snow was good, as it would show tracks, and I spent the next day searching likely patches of timber for the at least two sheep which got away the day before. Without success. No fresh tracks of any kind, save one dusky grouse whom I decapitated with a 165 grain round at 20 yards.
I chambered another round and ran down the hill, worried that the deer would be gone. After the crash, I had neither heard nor seen anything. The forest floor was dry, strewn with pine needles, and carpeted in many places with a small shrub which often featured red patches on the leaves. I couldn’t determine where the deer had been when I shot, and could not find any blood.
It was hard to be motivated the next morning. The sky was intense and clear and the wind still shrieked far above, and my legs ached. A morning on the bench above revealed nothing promising; some older tracks and some fairly fresh rubs, but no recent sign and no animals. My mind kept wandering, no matter what I did.
With the woods preternaturally quiet and the strangeness of being two nights away from home sitting deep in my chest, I looked at my watch and decided to leave. I had enough time to take a rough route out, glassing a new basin in the process, hit the Patagonia Outlet in Dillon to get Little Bear some clothes, and still be home only a bit after dark, when he might still be awake.
After walking in a few circles I decided it would be better to not be a hasty idiot. I built a small cairn on a log to mark where I had been, then went back up the hill to grab my pack. I then tracked my stalk down to my shooting position, and held a glance at where the deer had been as I walked straight to it. I followed a few fresh tracks down the hill, keeping close the first-hand knowledge that deer tracks can be 15 feet apart when the animal was in full flight. Two bounds down I found blood. Bright, fresh, copious blood. Another big step, and more blood, then a massive puddle and smear on a barkless log, then nothing.
With the heat of a bright Septmber day building and no better plan I decided to walk down the creek bed for miles. It promised to be rough and entertaining, and maybe I cut a track or jump the odd creature seeking comfort. Not a compelling plan, but the best my mind could stomach.
Driving home made it quickly clear that I could live with my decision to go home a day early. It would have been gratifying to notch that particular tag, and I had a reasonable chance to do so thanks to the generosity of another, but the odds just did not work out. I had identified the most likely spot to find a sheep and been there first thing opening day, but weather had negated that early advantage, and with the increased pressure it seemed plain that finding more animals would be a low percentage game indeed. My remaining days were plainly better spent in pursuit of deer, elk, and bear in places where there would be far fewer hunters. That aspect of the worst prognostications for the Tendoy hunt plainly came true, but every one I met were courteous and generous, and I left the big sage valleys with the conviction that my time and money had been well used.
I went back up the hill to bloody log and started down on another tangent, under the assumption that a deer so wounded would have no reason to do otherwise. And there he was, lying in a pile against a big log just out of sight. The things which make a successful hunt, including the patience to place a good shot and track the animal properly, are simple and basic. But their reward is ineffable.
I saw no more creatures that hot day, save some very tired hunters going very slowly out on horseback, and an energetic grouse who got away. My deer meat, in the trunk in a cooler with two blocks of ice I had purchased two days before, was still cold. I switched shoes and got on the road, stopping for gas station pizza and iced tea to make my trip home the shortest it could be.
The question of effort in hunting is still an inscrutable one for me, with every choice open to questions of efficacy. You can do the same thing on a different day and it might work out well, or due to fate or your lack of care or attention might just not. Time in the woods plainly helps engender success, but the question of what best enhanced those odds is still one I do not clearly see.
I just know that when hunting goes well it is immensely rewarding. Five hours after I left the car that Saturday I was back with a heavy pack of meat, thanks to a good plan, decent execution, and some luck. Which is all that can be reasonably requested.