When I die I would like to be sky-buried, cut into pieces and scattered in a propitious location for the consumption of scavengers. For over a decade my first choice location has been a particular piece of blackbrush-and-sand desert just where the BlueJohn drainage dips over into the Robbers Roost system. For about a half mile one has perfect views of both the Henrys and La Sals, and it seems like a congenial environment for coyotes, ravens, jackrabbits, and other vital but often unrespected creatures. Exactly the sort whom I’d like to be karmically recycled through.
More recently a second candidate has taken root in my daydreams; the extensive parks, bottoms, gravel flats, and abandoned channels which run downstream for the miles after the White River dumps into the South Fork of the Flathead. The logjams along the water shelter cutthroat and bull trout, and the cottonwoods, aspens, and the stately ponderosa and larch groves play host to elk in the winter and spring, to whitetail deer year round, and to black and grizzly bears whenever they feel like sauntering through. The cobbled flats offer a low-impact place to build a bonfire, and the grassy floodplains make for delightful camping. It’s a good place for a respectfully quiet backcountry wake.
Heading in I was glad that I had dropped my ambitions to only the White River parks. Hunting trips with Little Bear at home carry extra weight, of time away which needs to be well used. Add to this a face still swimming with the upteenth minor cold since LB began daycare and the miles in did not pass quickly. The 3500 foot haul up to the ridges was this week not possible.
Expectation and ambition became more tangled still an hour before dark. I had finally made it to the tunnel like opening in the lodgepoles where the west side trail twitches off the upper bench and falls down to the flats, with the White River valley in the distance, and 15 minutes of glassing had as to plan turned up some deer. Two I followed for a while suddenly became three, one of whom was a buck, albeit the smallest spike imaginable. But legal, and right there 400 yards away, and probably extremely tasty. The many populations of whitetails in Montana who go generations without tasting a crop or even seeing a road have taken my fancy recently, as something which might be nearly unique in a 21st century American that is contemplating lifting the ban on market hunting in order to better manage suburban deer.
The last two years running I’ve filled my general deer tag on the first buck I’ve seen on September rifle hunts in the Bob Marshall. On both occasions these deer have been far and away the best meat harvested all fall, and in both cases I’ve seen better (read: bigger antlered) deer in November during the rut. This year I told myself I’d practice restraint in the name of protracted opportunity, but I was down in deer country with a legal deer in sight, the possibility of coming home days early, and other objectives to fulfill on this trip, which would be the only one of its kind for possibly years to come. So right when I decided to get off my ass and go shoot that deer the trio reversed course and headed off in a direction where they seemed certain to bust me as I descended the hill. So I packed up and loaded my tired feet in the direction of camp and dinner.
Decades prior the floodplain had been occupied by two solitary, enormous ponderosa pines, their bark ages into corrugated blondness, their limbs extended horizontally in a gnarled, casual quest for sunlight. The southern tree had been felled by lightning, or a storm, and cracked off forty feet from the ground. The upper two-thirds lay where they fell, still pointing northeast, imperceptibly rotting into the dirt. The lowest, and only remaining, limb had taken up the flat and grown wildly and abundantly upward at an angle, puffs of vibrant, wispy green needles still waving proud in early autumn.
I was admiring the trees, having set my pack down under the still-whole one, when I saw motion. I’ve learned to obey my gut whenever it says “deer!”, and deer there were. The three had doubled back and cut along under the cutbank out of sight along the willows, or perhaps over by the river. It was getting dark, light enough to shoot, but foggy enough to shield me a bit from animals which had not yet seen me, despite my standing in plain sight 150 yards away. As they fed off, backs turned, I bent double and scurried at an angle, a subtle hump and the two-foot grass hiding me just well enough. They noticed me as I finally got a clear view of the group and sat down to settle into a good rest, and I had to incongruous experience of watching them walk towards me, visibly quizzical, in the scope. 10 more seconds and they were all three spread out, so I positively ID’d the tiny spike and pulled the trigger. A flash stole my eyesight for half a second, and when it came back I saw two deer running away to my left, and a single one headed down the bank to my right and audibly crashing away into the willows and the darkness.
Thankfully I had been smart enough to stow my headlamp, flashlight, and spare rounds in my pockets. Rather than check where the deer had been standing, I went straight to the edge of the floodplain, where I could solidly guess it’s passage to within 20 feet. Forty feet of running gives a better blood trail anyway. Sure enough the cobbles and dust were spattered, not generously, but more than enough. I chambered another round and put my lights on full blast. There probably wasn’t a bear anywhere especially close, but I did not want to spend much time in the dark and head-high brush finding this deer, or put it off until the morning. Sand and slick bark proved an ill host for sign, and conclusively linking piece to piece took a while to get me to the rivers edge. Where the deer was obviously, thanks to luminescent eyes, bedded right on the bank. The opposite bank.
It’s illegal to shoot game with the aid of a light, but in Griz country it has always stuck me as a damn good idea to practice doing this, and I was glad I had because I knew exactly how to cock my headlamp up on my head to shine on the deer but not cause glare in my scope. Judging by motion I could tell which direction the deer was facing, so I extrapolated back to the shoulder and pulled the trigger. The usual crippled thrashing from a massive double-lung wound ensued, and after 45 seconds the deer lay still. I waited another minute before calling it dead, for sure.
I tried to stay attentive, but for that minute I couldn’t help but ponder the vicissitudes of deer and rifle bullets and the immense variation in results gained from seeming identical shots. Two years ago another small buck, in response to a similar quartering-towards one lunger at 70 yards fell instantly as if smote down from on high. This even smaller buck went 200 yards, the last 50 of which was wading a river which was waist deep on a 5’11” man. Bloody deer. Thankfully I’ve spent enough time wading slippery rocks to be able to do it in the dark while carrying a rifle and not fall, and to guess correctly that a diagonal upstream course across several foot deep channels would get me to the other side without having to ascertain how well recently killed deer float. The rest of the night was occupied by a hurried trip back to get my pack, empty it, hang a line from the truncated ponderosa, return with tag, knife, and game bags, and butcher the deer in the dark. I only cut myself once, had the deer hanging in the tree before 10pm, and was in bed with dinner eaten and a hot water bottle before 11.
I woke the next morning with a nagging dehydration headache, and sore muscles almost everywhere. The meat was hanging high and undisturbed, so I dragged my sleeping pad and bag out under a tree with a good view of the river and had a leisurely breakfast with two brews of coffee. When I felt alert enough, I retrieved the meat and spent some time boning out the front quarters and doing a bit of trimming before it all got repacked.
I was now thinking about getting home to M and LB that evening, which was not something to be taken for granted. Over twenty river miles and a three mile hike stood between me and the truck, and with the South Fork lower than I’d ever floated it (280 cfs, at a guess 100-150 cfs lower than this spring) I anticipated slow going. Which is exactly what I got. With most of my camp and backpacking gear inside the bow of the boat, and the sixty pound lump of meat in the stern, my Yukon Yak handled fantastically well. Bizarrely close to normal, in fact, save that it was drafting six inches lower, which posed a serious cobble catching problem. Packrafting was still the way to go for moving that load that distance in a day, but the miles passed slowly and in a blur of effort, attention, and frequent hops out to guide the raft through riffles. When I reached the takeout I had delightfully cool and dry venison, and just enough time to get home before LB went to sleep, which I just managed.
When hunting it is easy to let important moments pass without celebration, due to the work that needs to be done right then. This was my third attempt in four years to shoot and float something out on the South Fork, and while it wasn’t the mature critter or involved pursuit I had recently envisioned, it was the right deer at the right time to fulfill each goal. The meat is going into the pan and freezer, and the skull will be cleaned and hung on the wall, the trophy as evidence of an experience which gave me everything. And I know that floating meat, lots of meat, out inside a packraft is not only a viable but a desirable way to hunt, knowledge which should come in useful in the future.