This is a perfect hunting story because it ends with a dead bull elk, the apotheosis of my five year quest to hunt an elk in the Bob Marshall and get it out all on my own. It is also a perfect hunting story because the actual practice of hunting occupies but little time within it. Maybe the best hunting story is one where almost no hunting takes place.
Elk are THE western American big game animal. Unlike sheep, mountain goats, moose, and bison they’re common enough that anyone (with a modicum of motivation and planning) can hunt them every year, and unlike deer they’re not (generally regarded as) prosaic backyard louts. Elk are as likely as deer to spend as much of their lives as circumstance permits lurking in cornfields, but unlike both whitetails and mulies elk require big chunks of openness. While they don’t require it, the notion that they’re tied to wilderness is not incorrect.
Elk are also hard to hunt. They don’t permeate the landscape like deer, and unlike the similarly peripatetic bear elk usually travel in groups, and thus have multiple sets of eyes and noses put to use noticing you before you see them. Hunting anything first requires finding it, and next requires seeing it quickly and well enough to get within range. Elk make both of these quite difficult, and hunting them is a pursuit properly regarded as indicative of ones skill. The ubiquitous Montana tailgate and water cooler question “you get your elk yet?” probably started from concern for the well being of your family and freezer, but in the 21st century is as direct a facsimile for “how good a hunter are you?” as politesse will permit.
Four years ago I set myself a goal that my first elk would be from within the boundaries of the Bob Marshall complex. I’ve learned a lot since then, getting at least decent at deer hunting (by my own standards), but having yet to shoot an elk lingered like a burr within the breeches of my ego. I had a few dalliances with other areas, and two years ago would have likely erred had a bull jumped a fence into private land a minute or two later. More relevant, the number of genuine elk trips I’ve made into the Bob have of both necessity and temerity been limited. Targeting deer, or at least shooting one before you’ve given the elk a full chance to appear, is a lot easier to live with, and an option I’ve happily let end trips year after year.
This year it seemed that things were lining up nicely. The huge storm which rained on me while sheep hunting put a good first load of snow into the high country, and the early November storm that put 8 inches into our yard here at 4100′ coated the Bob well, peaks to valleys. Elk moving, and down into their winter range, seemed probable. I’ve spent a lot of time along the North Fork of the Sun river; it is one of my favorite places in the Bob and thus on earth, but that time has always been between March and May. I’ve seen more elk on these trips than I have anywhere else, save Yellowstone, but whether they’d appear in the fall was an open question. Elk seem to follow the rules, but we’re not always privy to that full list.
Things started well. First, the quota for district 442 had been filled five days before I walked in. 100 cow elk can come out of the North Fork of the Sun before the district reverts to brow-tined bulls only. In years past the staff at the Augusta check station had all but laughed at me when I called to inquire about this, on years when snow had not come so early and so deeply. Second, a mile in I passed a couple carrying out an elk head. In three days they’d be the only folks I saw unaccompanied by horses.
My original, years-old plan for this hunt had been to bring a packraft and avoid the final six miles of walking by floating the reservoir. This notion ended quickly; the bottom of Gibson was frozen solid, and the reservoir itself ended barely 1/3 of the way upstream. In later March I’ve seen the upper few miles of the Sun reemerge in the gravel flats, and I’ve seen the same stretch be 100 feet under water six weeks of snowmelt later. The cliffs and bays of this part of the Sun bend the wind and the mind towards imagining what must have been pre-dam and pre-irrigation, and with the lake down so much I could almost mentally map cottonwoods and aspen thickets on to the 4-5 miles of meanders and riffles on display. During the packout I thought about it plenty, and among other things concluded that while there was plenty of current there just was not enough water for a loaded boat.
The trail miles were familiar and went fast. I’ve spent the least amount of time and walked the least number of miles in the Bob this year than any year since 2008, which along with the improbability of elk being seen in daylight below the North Fork proper let me zone and just walk. An off trail encursion to scout some promising draws and hillsides ate more time than I intended. The snow was deep and the thick crust the perfect consistency for tough going. This being the Sun River animals and sign were everywhere, including Bighorn sheep (above) and plenty of big grizz tracks. One particularly demonstrative specimen had forded the river close to where I wanted to camp, and did so again between when I crossed to set up camp and came back to get water after shooting and cutting up the bull. As I held on to a willow and reached beyond the foot of skim ice along the bank I could all but hear the water which had dripped off his (imagination assumes) fur freezing to a glaze in the darkness.
After pitching camp I was tired, somewhat dismayed at just how much snow was on even the south facing slopes, and annoyed at myself for taking the detour and getting to the valley proper hours later than planned. Dropping most of the weight from my pack didn’t do much to blunt how slow my legs felt breaking trail through the windbuff along a slough. Memory lightened my feet better. Just behind me I had seen wolves hunting elk through the aspen groves. I had first floated the river during the first Bob Open, and been deeply frozen and wet by the time I made it this far down. Sally and I camped in the dark forest over the other side of the hill, and in this very spot years ago I had head-shot a snowshoe hair down below, in what at the time seemed like a monumental feat of marksmanship.
And hey, there’s an elk. Hey it has brow tines. Hey, you better shoot that.
It’s been rare in my hunting life so far that I’ve had time and luxury to hang out after the kill, take pictures, have a snack, and generally let myself slow down enough to revel in the moment. Fall weather, and daylight, has a lot to do with that. In New Zealand we had oodles of spare time to flesh a cape and luxuriate in the view, but we were there in February, the height of summer. In Montana after the time change it is dark-dark by 520pm, and I didn’t put hands on the elk until nearly 5. My shooting has not been confidence inspiring this season; all three deer have required a second shot, in two cases because I missed the first one, so slowing myself enough to get prone in the snow on my pack was necessary. Even so I hit the trigger before I expected too. The bull bucked and stood still, before lurching off with the stilted gait that generally means hit, and hit well. But the sheep back in September had death rolled out of sight and still got up to run a few hundred yards, so I was not taking anything for granted.
Tracking in deep, soft, freshly wind driven snow is easy, and it was a matter of second from seeing the first tracks crossing the small slough and the first spangle of bright lung blood. It was fewer seconds still before I looked into the willows and saw tan, seated, with brow tines upright and facing right at me. I haven’t heard any stories of elk gorings outside Yellowstone, but faced with an animal many times my weight, holding multiple foot long prongs right at my eyes did nothing to blunt the urgency. Several point blank shots went astray, deflected by the miasma of willow and spruce branches. The elk got up and staggered three steps before laying back down. Now he was obviously dead on his feet, and my concern shifted from not getting trampled and keeping it from running off to finishing things quickly. It took nearly 180 degrees of side stepping at 10 yards through the willows before I found a gap and shot the elk directly in the spine, after which it died quickly. Ancestral prudence still had me throwing a bunch of snow chunks and my trekking pole at it before I finally got close enough for the traditional rifle barrel to the eye poke test.
The elk was dead.
The size of the animal, and it’s magnificence, had not been undersold by the literature of elk hunting. I tried, and failed, to move it from under the spruce, dead and stolid like a grotesque Christmas present. That is why adults still hunt and spend time outside doing outwardly too-difficult things; to recapture that fleeting wonderment from childhood and ascertain if memory has as expected too far warped and burnished joy. In this case it had not, and the size and look of the antlers and hair on the back of the neck, which was almost too dense to thread a knife through to the skin below, took me out of my usual head in a fashion which hadn’t happened in years. Though I lamented it at the time the way in which responsibility and experience brought me back to the task at hand was a good thing, else I would have wandered so far that my body would have been left behind, to sit amongst the willows and freeze its feet off.
The literature of elk hunting had undersold how damn tough the skin was, and how thoroughly my knife would be dulled. I resharpened until my little swatch of 2000 grit sandpaper was in shreds, and I still had a rear quarter to debone and the head to remove. My folder was pressed into service, and I had only to move my winnings up somewhere the bears would not find them. I drug the head out to the edge of the water, where I could see it from above, and loaded both meat bags into the load sling of my pack. I sat down strapped in to the frame, rolled over on all fours, and was almost flattened. I used a trekking pole and willow to haul myself upright, and followed my footprints along the cone of my headlamp back up the hill.
Spending three paragraphs on so fleeting a time, and three sentences on the following two days of packing, seems both perverse and appropriate. I was prepared enough for the shooting and butchering, and more than prepared for the 36 miles of walking. Just one foot in front of the other, for a long time, with a few breaks and plenty of drinking and eating sprinkled in. The rack just didn’t fit inside our little hatchback, any way I tried it, so I had the luxury of odd looks all the way home, as hunting with a car is in Montana apparently just as odd as being 12 miles back without horses.
In many ways the walk was a blessing; I had no shortage of time to do what I hadn’t been able to the night of the shot, appreciate all the feelings that come with a 5 year quest having finally come to pass.
I end with specifics, for my own future use and that of others. Solo elk hunting truly far from the trailhead is much discussed but, seemingly, little done. At least without horses. I saw more hunters on this trip than during the entire rest of the 2017 season, the whole of the 2016 season, and probably most of the 2015 season all added together. All but two were on horseback, and while plenty were psyched and encouraging, most regarded me with a mix of bemusement and contempt. Whether these were outfitter staff lamenting one less elk for their clients or just guys who didn’t see the need or possibility of walking that far carrying an elk, I will not know.
A few specifics on time: I had the elk dead for certain by 5pm. I had the meat bagged and 6 feet up tied to stout spruce limbs by 7pm, in a tree 200 yards up from the carcass, and out of the flood plain and thus hopefully scent path. This was two hours of focused, intensely physical effort only possible due to plenty of practice. I specifically deboned, while still on the animal, all four quarters of a small mule deer only one week earlier with a future elk hunt in mind. I had the antler complex separated from the head and it and all my gear up to the first meat tree by 830am the next morning. I was back at that tree for the second load, having carried the first six miles and set up camp and dropped all my gear nearby, by 1pm. I was back at my new camp with the second load by 330pm, and took a coffee break before bumping that second load a further mile down the trail, and getting the very secure hang you see me de-rigging in the video. I would have been content leaving the meat and antlers hanging here for several days if necessary. The next morning I was again on the trail by 830am after sleeping for 13 hours, and had everything at the car by 245pm. Total packing miles were 36, 24 under load, total packing time (approximately) 14 hours.
I took the minimum amount of meat required by law (loin, tenderloin, all four quarters above the hock). Boned and in a few cases trimmed (major tendons in the rear quarters) this filled two pillow case size bags and weighed a lot, though less than many people probably suppose. I lost some backstrap on both sides and a good chunk of one rear quarter due to shot placement. I packed one bag a bit fuller than the other. Load one was the smaller meat bag and all my gear, load two the bigger meat bag, antlers, and a minimum of dayhiking stuff (rain gear, emergency kit, snacks, rifle). Both felt about the same on my back, load one was probably a hair lighter but carried heavier due to size and leverage. Both loads were right at the limit of the pack weight I can’t put on without sitting into the harness and turtling upright via all fours, which is around 100 pounds. Having a small hatchet to separate the antlers from the skull, via 15 minutes of vigorous and inartful chopping, saved a ton of weight.
Hanging the meat well and away from camp gave confidence. Temperatures were cold enough for a solid freeze both nights which made meat care a non-issue, and blood seepage while packing non-existent. I used standard paracord, bringing 180 feet of it in total for hanging both meat and food. P-cord is cheap, strong enough, readily available, not too heavy, easy enough to grasp, and most importantly does not groove limbs too quickly. Aside from the big cottonwoods and ponderosas along the South Fork of the Flathead you won’t find too many better trees for hanging 80 pound bags than the big spruce along the forks of the Sun. Up in higher areas you’d have a much harder time finding good trees, and careful planning would be necessary.
I was quite tired at the end of the first day, with very tired legs and chest, and noticeable point soreness at the front of both hips. I recovered decently overnight, and was no more or less tired the second day. Hiking speed loaded was a consistent 2.7ish mph, all but the first couple hundred yards are decent trail with negligible elevation change but a variably yet consistently crappy surface (ice to mud and back again). Two days later my calves are still quite tight and my general energy level commensurate with a major multi-day endurance effort. Upper body muscle recovery was virtually immediate, and most significantly I had no blisters or foot issues of any kind. Specifics of my footwear (LaSportiva Trango TRKs) and pack (Seek Outside Revo with modifications and a homemade packbag) will be discussed in separate, future posts here. Neither were faultless but I’m obviously more than pleased with each.
In short, the whole solo packing affair was protracted and consistently hard, but not especially complicated and in retrospect daunting. Meat care in hot conditions would lend a sense of urgency which could make such a project untenable, or would at least curtail hiking times and hanging locations such that things would take far longer. I was also fortunate that virtually the entire packout was on well established trail. All that said I would have no hesitation in taking on another such hunt, provided I could have enough time to not feel rushed and weather which wasn’t too egregiously hot. Though waiting 10 months to do it again sounds about right.