Return of the Lieutenant, By Ian Baird

For some people, the intersection of obsession and passion is a mountain top in Southern, BC, while chasing mule deer. I am one of those people. Since my first experience hunting alpine Mule Deer in 2011, I have been hooked, and most of my offseason training and scouting is spent with the sole focus of harvesting a mature buck. I have found a few favourite locations over the years but there is one spot I keep going back to that epitomizes mountain beauty and is remote enough so very few people venture there. An alpine hunter has to be motivated to bushwhack for many kilometres to first access the alpine and then furthermore, to shoot and carry out a full-size buck for many kilometres still…yet the excitement and challenge that comes with this pursuit is something I crave to experience over and over. 

This particular season, scouting started earlier than usual when I managed to get away on a solo trip the first week of June. Most of the snow had melted away on the south slopes but since the access to the trailhead was north-facing, there remained two feet of snow in some areas and mistakenly, I left my snowshoes at home. After several hours trudging through the snow pockets I broke out into the alpine and the sunshine instantly rejuvenated me. As I followed along the ridgeback and peered down into the south-facing basins everything was green and lush, and it just felt like it was going to be a good year for antler growth. When I arrived at my camp, I had a few hours before sunset so I quickly set up my tent and pushed off to one of my three key glassing spots. It wasn’t long before I spotted a few deer and a couple smaller bears. Just before dark, a big-bodied buck appeared out of the trees a short distance away.  His antlers had heavy bases and had already branched out and upwards. I had an inkling he was one of the bucks we had been chasing for the past couple of years, but it was too early to be certain of this and only time would tell. Over the next few days, I observed over 15 bucks, with three of them as potential mature targets for the fall. I set up three game cameras on my way out in their prime travel corridors and prayed with anticipation that when I returned, they would be replete with pictures of big bucks.

Over the next two months my hunting partner, Terry, and I scouted together two more times and I also did one additional solo trip back up to this spot to check on the bucks and the trail cameras. We were seeing considerable antler growth but had only seen one of our target bucks regularly. One previous target buck (nicknamed El Capitan) whom we hadn’t seen for a couple of years, had shown himself on one of the game cameras and he looked bigger than ever! But alas, that was the only sighting we had of him all scouting season. This was probably because each of our game cameras was capturing multiple wolf pictures on them and one camera even picked up a group of 4 wolves travelling together! We believed that the old bucks were still around but probably had gone into hiding as a result of this predator pressure. 

On my last solo scouting trip, the third weekend in July, I checked the game camera furthest from camp at the back end of the ridge. There was more wolf footage on the game camera from just two days previously. I reset the camera and then pushed on to the last glassing point at the end of the ridge. I had just dropped into a small valley between two peaks when suddenly, I spotted a dark wolf running towards me. I started yelling at it while reaching into my pack to grab my bear bangers. I had no firearm since I don’t typically bring a rifle with me during scouting season, but this experience would change that practice. The wolf stopped at 30 yards and was followed by three other wolves who surrounded me. My heart was racing but I knew I needed to stay calm if I was going to make it out of this situation. I frantically wrapped my left arm in my jacket and got my knife ready in my right hand: I wasn’t going down without a fight. I said a quick prayer then set off a bear banger over the apparent leader of the pack. The noise startled them, and they retreated about 100 yards. I promptly reloaded and discharged another banger which caused three of them to retreat over the hill, but the leader remained still and watched me. Quickly, I scrambled to put my pack back on and cautiously retreated from the wolves, never losing sight of the wolf who was intently watching me. As I edged to the other side of the mountain, and into the trees, my pace changed to a sprint once they were out of sight. I nervously made my way back to camp, constantly checking my backtrail to make sure they weren’t following me. I narrowly had averted a potentially disastrous encounter! That night was a tenuous one sleeping alone in my tent and when I left the next day, every step home I counted my blessings and thanked the Lord for keeping me safe! 

Undeterred by the wolf encounter, I remained focused on the task at hand: working towards harvesting that target buck. Typically, I would return in mid-August to check on the deer one more time before the season opened in September, but due to the extreme forest fire danger that year the area was closed for access into the backcountry. Terry and I were hopeful that the fires wouldn’t push into our area and that the fire ban would be lifted in time for the archery/youth opener. This year I was going to be away for the opener on a caribou hunt, but Terry agreed to head in with my daughter Sadie and her friend Matt in hopes of harvesting a mature buck, as it was her last year as a youth hunter. September 1st came with warm temperatures and fires continuing to burn throughout the province which meant there was a ban on off-road vehicles in the backcountry. They decided to still do the alpine trip which meant they had to hike significantly further than normal, as the 9km quad ride to the trailhead was now on foot as well. The visibility was poor due to smoke drifting from the north. They did see a couple bucks but nothing Sadie wanted to put her tag on. The good news was that they didn’t see any recent wolf sign and the game cameras didn’t show any wolf pics within August. Maybe the smoke had moved them out of the area.

Just as I returned from my Caribou trip, Terry was off up the Muskwa for his annual Elk/Moose/Sheep/Goat trip. Terry wasn’t going to be back until the end of September and then I was off for an Elk hunt with my wife and younger daughter up north for the first week of October. I was hopeful that weather would permit a solo trip back up there in the last week of September but unfortunately, work got in the way of this plan. Either way, Terry and I agreed that when I came back from my elk trip the following weekend, we would head back up to the alpine for one last kick at the can. This would be the latest in the season that we had been up to our spot which is over 2100m in elevation. Conditions would be challenging. 

October 13th had finally come, and we had already been blessed with some animals for the freezer (caribou and two elk) so this trip we were going to focus on a mature muley buck, no meat bucks for us. We loaded up the quad and backpacks and hit the highway. If the road conditions were favourable we should be unloading the quad around 10pm. It looked like we should get some decent weather to hike in on Friday night, but it was likely that conditions would seriously deteriorate on Saturday and Sunday. As we started climbing up the forest service road the temperature really started to drop, and the snow depth started to increase. When we got to our unload spot, the temperature reading on the truck showed -12°C and the snow was 8-10” deep. It was going to be a couple of cold nights on the mountain. We were delayed 2h to reach the start of our hike as we struggled in the dark with a stuck tailgate on my truck. Finally, it released and we could continue on our way. At the trailhead, the snow was quite deep which meant our hike in was going to take longer than normal. We pushed through the crisp clean air by the light of our headlamps and arrived at our camp just after 2am. We quickly set up our tents, climbed into our sleeping bags and settled for the night, knowing our alarm would go off in only a few hours. I don’t think we got any sleep as the wind was howling outside and the anticipation of finding one of our target bucks was consuming our thoughts.

When the alarm went off the thought of getting out of our sleeping bag and into the -20°C darkness didn’t appeal to either of us. I opened the flap of the tent and was met with a strong gust of wind and virtually zero visibility due to blowing snow. I tried to raise Terry and when he insisted on “just a few more minutes”, I crawled back into my sleeping bag and went back to sleep. When I awoke again it was light outside! We must have been exhausted as we had slept till 9am! You could still hear the wind blasting down the valley along the open slopes, but we weren’t going to shoot a buck sitting in the tent, so we suited up and ventured out. The open alpine slopes and valleys in which we typically see the deer were a complete whiteout with the blowing snow, so we decided to split up and still hunt the timber on the lee side of the mountain. There were tracks, rubs and scrapes all over but the snow was iced over and quite noisy. We kept jumping deer throughout the morning but never got a chance to see much more than a quick glimpse of them bounding through the trees. We each hunted a loop, out and back to camp, which took us 3-4 hours each. Terry had seen considerably more deer and tracks further down the ridge towards the area we had seen most of our sign during our scouting sessions. After a break for a hot cup of soup, some jerky and a granola bar, we set off again for the evening hunt. 

The wind had died down enough that I could hike along the ridge just outside of the trees and Terry would parallel me about 300 yards below in the timber. The visibility was still limited but I knew there were a couple of nice bowls on the lee side of the mountain that the deer might have retreated to get shelter from the wind. It took me almost three hours of plodding through the deep snow but when I got to my glassing point above the back bowl, I immediately spotted a huge deer feeding along the timber line. One more quick look and I verified this was El Capitan. I backed off from the cliff edge out of sight and took off my pack and unhitched my rifle. I was thankful to have my Solo Hunter rifle cover as it had protected my scope/action from the blowing snow. I quickly chambered a round, put the safety on and snuck down the cliff to a better shooting position. I peered around the edge of the rock and where I expected the buck to be, he was not. I glassed further along the timber edge and spotted the buck bedded in the snow. He was looking up the ridge my way, but I don’t think he knew I was there. I ranged him at 297 yards after angle compensation and dialled my Leica ER scope to 300 yards. I used my hiking poles to aid as a shooting rest, took my time to slow my heart rate down and then calmly placed the crosshairs on his front shoulder. I touched off the shot and as the scope settled back on the deer from the recoil, I realized he was laying head down on the snow, his back-right leg was straightened and quivering but there was no other movement. When I drew up my binoculars, I noticed two other deer, including one very large buck, running down the slope and into the timber. This had me questioning if I shot the right buck. Nonetheless, I didn’t care as I had just taken a very nice mature buck! I paused in reflection, thanking the Lord for giving me this amazing opportunity to harvest such a wonderful animal in such a wonderful place.

I tried to contact Terry on the radio, but he must have been out of range as there was no answer. I figured he must have heard my shot and at some point, he would make his way back to where I was. He was not going to be happy with this pack out! I proceeded to pack up my gun, don my backpack and make the steep descent down into the bowl to retrieve my beautiful buck. As I approached the buck, I figured for sure it was El Capitan but when I put my pack down and pulled his antlers out of the snow I realized it wasn’t him, but actually another buck I hadn’t seen in four years, a buck we had named the Lieutenant! This buck had been hanging around with another large buck I had taken back in 2013 that I had coined the General. I was certain this buck had died by this point so to now have taken him in the prime of his life was nothing short of amazing. I was hoping to get pictures of Terry and me with the buck but when I didn’t hear from him after half an hour and it was starting to get dark, I figured I better get to work. I took some quick pictures with my iPhone timer and then caped out the head, deboned all the meat and put it all into game bags. By the time I was done it was dark and I could see a headlamp coming up over the edge of the ridge. Terry had found me, and boy, was I thankful for that. 

I shared my story with Terry about how things had transpired. I actually believe the first deer I spotted was El Capitan but in the time it took me to drop my pack, get my gun ready and return over the ridge, that buck had moved into the timber. When I spotted the other deer bedded not too far away, I assumed it was the same buck. We didn’t care, we had managed to take a familiar face that we had known well four years ago. We reminisced to when we first found this buck and the amazing video footage we had of this buck in velvet when he was probably a four-year-old. All reminiscing aside, it was time to prepare for the pack out, and the clock was ticking on daylight and conditions were worsening. We gobbled a snack and some water and then loaded up our packs. Terry took a bit more of the meat and I took the rest of the meat and the head and cape. We were in for a gruelling challenge, with packs well over 100 lbs. each and a steep ascent out of this bowl. The wind was now starting to pick up again and the temperature was rapidly dropping as the sun went down. We slogged up through almost two feet of snow, then through the thick buck brush in the pitch dark. It took us almost forty minutes to make it to the top of the ridge but after that, we knew it was all downhill back to camp. Our legs, knees, back and shoulders were burning but we just put our heads down and methodically trudged through the night, one foot in front of the other. Another three hours later we arrived at camp completely exhausted but also elated from what we had accomplished in some pretty adverse conditions. 

Terry collected firewood and started to make a fire while I fired up the Jet Boil to make up some dinner. I cut up some tenderloin, sprinkled with some seasoning salt and garlic powder, and rendered a bit of the venison fat to fry up the meat. As the fire roared and started to warm up our bodies, the food warmed our core. Although the Mountain House tasted good, the fresh venison was to die for. We do this for the experience, we do this for the love of the outdoors, but equally importantly we do this for the amazing organic meat that we get to bring home to feed our families. We filled our bellies that night and satisfied our souls, recounting the events of the day. As the embers of the fire started to burn down and the exhaustion of the physical exertion set in it was time to turn into our sleeping bags for the night. However, this night we slept peacefully, content in the scope of our accomplishments. 

As hunters, what we do isn’t for everyone, but for us, our passion and obsession for alpine mule deer hunting defines a large part of who we are. It is a passion where the effort and exertion put forth is great, but the reward at the end is much greater.

Posted by Nolan Osborne