Sometimes I can actually act spontaneously, not usually, but this time I did. A good friend from Bozeman, RS called me up about a week prior to what would be our departure. An excited phone call with tentative plans was what I needed to get the wheels and logistics started. With very rough plans we both started printing maps and Google Earth images of the area. We would plan on traveling backpacker style, freeze dried meals, very small tents and some whiskey to warm us. RS had been into the area 10 years ago and had a few friends that had been in more recently.
With the very understanding and the most loving wife behind my plans, we rendezvoused at the trailhead. Donning a pack weighing close to 45 pounds was not as pleasant as I had remembered. My backpacking experiences had dropped off the charts in recent years, save a great trip into the Hellroaring Basin last year. PK (pre-kids), Tracy and I could be found regularly backpacking the areas around Bozeman, now it was a huge treat. I was quite sad to be leaving the home, especially with 2 sad little toddlers asking about my plans.
The parking lot was nearly at capacity but we eeked out a spot and gathered our gear. Sauntering through the burn up the trail we both relished in the possibilities of actually getting an elk. The country was thick, I mean thick with lodgepole, spruce and various underbrush. We set up camp near a body of water with no other camps in sight. The weather forecast seemed favorable upon our arrival, even bordering on a little too warm, 70 degrees the first day.
We gained a large ridge and began our search for elk. The top of the mountain turned up some old elk sign, which was somewhat disappointing. After sitting on point with a few cow calls we dropped into a saddle with dark timber. Minutes later, I was nudging my partner to stop! as I spotted a 5x5 bull creeping up towards us. At 40 yards we played with the bull and got him into 30. As I sat behind RS with the call, I expected his 300 Win. Mag to bark and drop the elk. He did not and we watched as the elk disappeared into the darkness.
The next two days the drizzle was almost a constant factor, soaking our gear as we busted through the understory. The only saving grace was it never rained when we were waking or going to bed. Freeze dried meals, a kick ass chili dinner (which produced non-satisfactory off gassing later) and some Jim Beam kept our spirits high. We covered 5+ miles a day and saw some great elky country. Rubs everywhere in the top of the parks.
As we descended back to camp from the opposite side of the valley we had been hunting, RS set out to see if he could locate the bull we had seen a few times earlier in the hunt. I posted up at the fire, content to sit in my slippers watching the nearby hillside. As the light faded, the radio crackled with RS on the other end, "I've got a bull down." I replied with a smart ass comment, calling his claim bullshit. Only to have another call 5 minutes later with a plead to hurry up and bring the headlamp he had forgot in camp. Confirmed bull. And a lonely hunter sitting in bear country with 700 pounds of meat. Dinner bell?
I hustled up the ridge and with some hoots&hollers we were able to meet in the crotch of a dark basin. RS was happy as hell, his first bull and a great one at that. He had heard the bull thrashing a nearby tree and was able to sneak to within 40 yards as it tortured another small sapling. The bull had dropped almost immediately. We began the but puckering process of quartering an elk in grizzly country. While one cut, the other posted up shining the light into the darkness, scanning for watching eyes. Calls into the dark would hopefully scare off any would be intruders on our game. Can you say puckered?
A couple hours later we each had 100+ pounds on our back and were headed downhill into the pitch black tripping over everything possible. The rack/head proved to be just one too many 50 pounds and we hung the head from a tree, planning to come back in the morning. At camp we used puny p-cord to hang the 250lbs of quarter from a log that someone had graciously strung up between to trees. Narrowly avoiding entrapment and amputation with the p-cord, we stubbled towards camp. With dinner at 1230am and some whiskey it was all I could do to crawl into my tent. I smelled something fierce of elk musk as I lay in my fart sack. As I closed my eyes I thought about being eaten by a griz. Whatever, I was too tired.
We awoke early and started putting our heads together on how to get this elk back to the truck, a mere 7 miles from our present location. The thought of having to take one trip with 85 lbs of meat a piece (170lbs boned out) and them coming back 7 miles to get the gear, then 7 miles back with the gear made my already swollen knee, ache even more. As luck would have it, there was a camp a few hundred yards away. They had pulled in late the night before with numerous pack animals. We propositioned making some money for them to pack the meat out. With some reluctance, they agreed to take it out once their people got back from the morning hunt. As we sat around the camp with the classic backcountry horsemen, we drank coffee and generally kissed their ass, big time. Don't laugh, you would too.
A while later, a horse and mule rolled up with one the nicest guys I've ever met. Ed from Great Falls then offered to take the load, he was headed back that way after he had a few cigs. Quickly breaking our camp down, we helped load the 170lbs into the panniers. He led the way and we pulled up the rear. Unfortunately, the mule would not take the rack/head so RS carried the 50+lb rack and his 40lbs of gear all the way out. The trail was one continuous slop-muck&mud fest interspersed with massive puddles ofmule shit. But you know what? I didn't care, we were on our way out and my Danner Pronghorns boots stayed absolutely dry the entire trip.
We had covered over 30 miles in 4 days but had the best time doing it. Doublehaul IPA at the trailhead and some sloppy-joes courtesy of "Great Falls Ed". Damnit, them thar were some good times. Thanks buddy.