Oh, the comfort of familiarity. Like the feeling of slipping into a favourite pair of boots, the smell of a familiar old bar or the feeling of settling into the worn out seat of an old pickup truck. In this case, the familiarity of one particular high mountain drainage in the heart of elk country is what I’m speaking of. I’m not sure of the number of days I’ve spent in this place, but I’m guessing I could elk hunt it blindfolded if I had to. I always smile when I stumble upon the old remains of past elk kills and reminisce about that particular hunt, never forgetting the pack out on our backs. Or walking past the same twisted up pine with a chest high knot on its trunk. Day after day, on our way back and forth to camp, we would rub that big knot for good luck. Or the times when it seemed like there were a thousand elk scattered up and down the drainage and, conversely, the times when not a single elk was seen, smelled or heard. Familiarity, and the sheer beauty of the place, guarantees my return every year.
Most of my adventures into this corner of the world have been spent with the same friend and hunting partner over the past 15 or so years. Together we’ve worn plenty of boot leather exploring this drainage, nearly escaped death when a 2 a.m. wind toppled tree came crashing through the center of our tent, chased plenty of bugling bulls and even shared my first bow kill bull in this alpine paradise. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of creek drainages and canyons similar to this one scattered throughout the Northern US Rockies, but none hold such intimacy for me as this one.
My most recent adventure into this paradise was a solo endeavor to bow hunt for elk during the opening week of Montana’s archery season. Temperatures forecasted to reach the mid-70s during the day were ideal for my planned ultra-light five-day solo hunt. This meant bringing minimal gear and leaving anything resembling comfort at home. Usually, this lack of comfort rears its head midway through a clear night after the cold finds its way into my “summer rated” sleeping bag. Although day time temps were warm, the nights were downright cold. This is typical for early September and, when a backcountry hunt is successful, it is always a race to get the deboned meat out of the field and into ice filled coolers waiting at the trailhead. Those cold nighttime temperatures could prove to be a crucial part of my solo hunt success, knowing that my partner was not there to help.
This adventure started the frosty morning before opening day. My plans were to leisurely head up the canyon using my mountain bike to tow a trailer, then strapping on my pack and hiking to a predetermined camp. A four hour trek would put me at a camp a half mile from where I would be hunting the next day, opening day. With my bow on my pack and my trailer full of food and gear, I headed down the trail with the sun on my back and a smile on my face. After five miles of single track I set my bike aside and continued on foot for a few more off trail miles, not forgetting to rub the lucky tree on my way by. It felt so good to be in this place again, especially seeing that the only prints left in the dust of the old pack trail were left by elk.
This canyon is not unlike many others that were carved and formed by receding glaciers thousands of years ago. There is a slow, medium sized creek that snakes its way down through the meadows and is periodically damned by beavers. Patches of overhanging willows throughout its course seem to bother only a handful of fly fishermen that make the trek to catch the small brook trout hiding under the cut banks. These glacier carved canyons tend to have a gradual climb from the valley floor to a headwall at the furthest upstream end, usually with a lake or two. This gradual incline on a pack trail is perfect when backpacking, especially with heavy loads. The drainages are typically U shaped with benches and hidden valleys on one or both sides. These benches seem to hold elk with plenty of feed, cover and a sense of security up and above the main creek drainage. I love to hunt these hidden benches and valleys. My predetermined camp sits on a small, flat spot just downslope from my favourite hidden meadow, in my favourite familiar drainage.
After bushwhacking my way uphill and up canyon, I finally arrived at a suitable, tent-sized, level piece of ground. I set up my small one man palace, relaxed and planned a short scouting mission for the evening. I knew exactly what my plan for the next morning was, so I chose to keep my intrusions to a minimum and glass a different area from a location I knew would not disrupt any potential “target” elk for the next day. After a short hike, I settled in for my sunset scout on a large boulder at the top of a scree field. The canyon was very still, but I could easily make out through my binoculars that there was indeed some recent elk activity. The scattered benches and meadows were all dotted with wallows and smeared with mud holes. It was obvious to me that, even from a half mile away, they had been battered and used recently by elk. As I made my way back to camp I was surprised by two young bulls feeding their way down the bench toward my camp. They noticed me a few seconds later and, judging by their exit, were also surprised by what was mostly likely the first two legged critter they had seen all summer. After a good, hot meal in camp, I crawled into my sleeping bag, excited knowing there were at least two bulls in the area. Even though I knew the place so well and had studied it so often, I looked over the stained and creased topographic map of my favourite little canyon by the light of my headlamp until I fell asleep.
There are many advantages to hunting the backcountry with a partner, like the ability to have a caller and a shooter and the extra manpower to breakdown and pack out a bull elk, to name a few. In my situation I could have used a second alarm clock or a boot to the ribs to wake me from my opening day cocoon. I frantically awoke to the shock of sunrise outside of my tent. My plan to be glassing the hidden meadow at first light was spoiled by the ineffectual silent alarm of my cheap $15 T.J. Maxx wristwatch. I dressed as fast as I could and added my morning ritual of instant coffee and oatmeal to my daypack before quickly heading toward the meadow. The morning was very still and frosty, but my hike was short and stealthy. I glassed the meadow as best as I could from inside the timber and could tell by the heavy frost that elk had not fed in that particular meadow the previous night. I decided to slowly stalk through the timber up canyon on the bench in the hopes of catching a bull still feeding on the many small, grassy meadows that dot this area. The sign was there and I caught the whiff of elk numerous times while sneaking in the shadows. It felt like déjà vu, but I had actually made this familiar loop many times and, on one particular morning fifteen years earlier, I arrowed my first bull on it.
I eventually made my way to a small, dried up pothole of a lake set against a cliff band at the very head end of this bench. The dried mud was torn up with multiple sets of tracks and all of them seemed to be from bulls that had most likely spent their summer here. I decided to sit against the cliff wall and settle in for a much needed breakfast and coffee. By 10 o’clock opening day I had not heard a single bugle, nor had I produced one myself. I’d been hesitant about breaking the peaceful silence with a squeal through a plastic tube, but after getting a quick response I was smiling from ear to ear.
I seem to have more patience when bow hunting for elk alone. I make the decisions, I own my mistakes and, most of all, the success is all mine. I could flip a coin and hunt with a partner or solo, but I definitely feel more patient hunting alone. So, after hearing this one lone bull responding to my call, I slowly packed up my belated breakfast and headed toward the bull. I figured he was 300 plus yards away and I cut that distance in half before I bugled again. He was apparently feeling the same, as his quick reply was closer than I had expected. I saw his big 6 x 6 silhouette above me a moment later and he was moving on a path to an opening that was out of my range. As he angled downhill and behind a large snag, I quickly moved toward the opening I had hoped he would cross. I stopped short of my goal when he reappeared from behind the snag, leaving me pinned behind a small clump of waist high brush. He kept coming though and, as he walked around another snag, I came to full draw expecting a broadside 30 yard opportunity. Instead, he hit the brakes, locked up by the movement of my mid-morning shadow cast upon my downhill side. After a short standoff, he turned tail in an explosion. I glanced downhill to my right and noticed the perfect shadow of a bow hunter at full draw.
Instead of feeling discouragement, I was ecstatic. Opening day, miles from any road and in the middle of elk country, it doesn’t get much better for an elk hunter, especially after a heart pounding close encounter with a bugling bull elk. It was near noon when I sat down to have a snack and have a chance to replay the encounter with the “shadow bull” in my mind. I thought about how lucky I was to be able to experience these September adventures in such a beautiful place. Sitting there crossed legged, with my pack off and an arrow nocked, I gave another half-hearted squeal from my bugle tube, hoping to try my luck again at another unsuspecting bull. I must have decided to have a snack and daydream extremely close to a bedded bull, judging by the closeness of his reply. I barely had enough time to stand up and draw before he was within range. The surprise of not only how close he was, but by the downwind approach he made toward me, put doubts of success in my mind. His nose did not fail him, however, as he turned broadside and downwind to me, muscles tensed for a quick exit. I was already a step ahead of him, as my arrow already won the race against the wind. The bull collapsed as the arrow broke his spine and severed the artery just below it.
I sat down to gather myself before I approached the fallen 5 x 6. The intensity of the close encounter coupled with my intentions to take his life is hard to put into words, especially to a non-hunter. Watching the last breaths of life from an animal that has beaten the odds year after year, surviving hard winters and predators leaves me with a sense of joy mixed with sadness. From the first bull I took in this canyon, to my current bull, I seem to always feel these same familiar emotions as the dust settles after success. Happiness for simply the experience, thankfulness for the opportunity to hunt such an awesome animal and relief for a quick and, relatively, painless death, when compared to nature’s other options. My thoughts, however, slowly changed to the next phase and, after a few quick, photos the work of dismantling the bull began.
After breaking down the bull and hanging the deboned meat in trees, I stood back in the shade for a short rest. As I rested I thought to myself that I might have patience while solo hunting, but there was nothing patient about taking apart a bull elk by myself. With the 75 degree midday sun beating down and being six plus miles from the truck, sometimes it’s easier to split the “patience” up between two elk hunters. However, I alone owed it to the elk and felt the responsibility to move that bull’s meat off of the mountain and onto ice, as quickly as possible. The relaxing part of my solo backcountry hunt was over, but I never dread the final push of a successful elk hunt.
Two hours before dark, I finally had two big loads of deboned meat cooling in the shade over the creek near my mountain bike. After refilling my water bottles I headed a couple miles back up to my camp for one more night on the mountain. Once again, I rubbed the lucky tree as I walked by, this time more as a thank you, than for luck. I could have floated my way up to that camp I was so happy. I knew it was to be a clear cold night and I daydreamed of the sleep that awaited me after my long day.
I awoke to another beautiful September morning and fully charged for the last leg of the journey. One last bit of meat, my camping gear, antlers and my bow was the last load on my back and after a steep downhill hike I was soon back on the old pack trail and past the lucky tree one last time. Another quick refill of water and a load of meat well placed on my trailer and I was off. The first two bike trips towing a loaded trailer were fast, but difficult, with only one mechanical mishap. As I flew back up the trail with an empty trailer I grinded up a steep section totally unaware of the three horsemen at the top. By the look on their faces, I knew they were wondering who this face painted, sweaty, elk blood soaked guy in the biking shorts was. We exchanged greetings and after explaining to them why I resembled a homeless Lance Armstrong, they congratulated me and I was back on the pedals. The last load was much lighter and distributed properly upon my trailer. The ride was fast, as I tried to get to my coolers filled with ice in record time. I did stop and pause at the end of the last big beautiful meadow before the trail took me into the timber. When heading into, and up, the drainage the view at this particular spot is the first real view of the dramatic canyon and its craggy peaks that tower both sides. I stood there straddling my bike, breathing hard and heavy with the sweat of the day’s work on my skin. I gave a quick thanks to my familiar mountain playground and then returned back to finish the final push home.