True story… September, 2002
There were four of us: myself, my guide partner (Tony), my buddy (Chip), and his good friend (Kelly).
We arose at dawn on the 19th still full of excitement from the night before – old and new friends telling lies and sipping whisky.
Eyes still weary; we headed to the pastures and caught the horses in the cool morning air. Without hesitation, they knew it was time to go to work. We loaded them one after another in the trailer, shutting them in for a short haul to our starting point. We then had to sort duffle and food supplies in preparation for packing in. The excitement was stirring among all of us as we finished the tedious chores of getting all the gear ready. It’s funny how some things you do quite frequently seem to take an eternity to complete when you’re anxious to set out on the trail. We were finally off to the trailhead of Table Mountain/Washakie Wilderness area.
Once at the trailhead, we packed several of the horses and saddled up our trail horses. We set forth on a five-day adventure of a lifetime; my partner, my old friend and my new one.
Once we were about 50 minutes from the trailhead, it started to sink in to my friends that we were going to places few men go. Places where a man can discover himself and his place in life. We traveled through deep canyons, vast draws, open meadows and crystal clear mountain streams where our horses had to avoid stepping on the wild native trout that inhabit the area. About an hour into our journey, we passed over a narrow cliff trail and Mother Nature began to unveil her glory. At 9,000 feet and climbing, the horizon was a jagged one – endless mountain ranges as far as the eye could see.
I looked back to see a tear fall from my buddy’s cheek. He explained, “My Dad is here with me. I can feel him.” His father, an avid outdoorsman like Chip, had just passed away a few months ago. It had always been their dream to do something like this together. Sadly, he died before they ever had the chance. I agreed with him, “I know Chip, I can feel him too…”
About an hour and a half later we made our final push to 10,000 feet and topped out into the Washakie Wilderness area. Finally breaking the timber, our pack string poured out into a huge mountain meadow. The signs of elk were immediately abundant as the “camp robbers” (Mountain Grey Jay) bid us hello. You could see the snow-capped mountains of Yellowstone to the west, and the unforgiving Beartooth Mountains of southern Montana to the north. Only ten minutes from camp, another patch of timber just ahead indicated we would soon be in the place we’d call home for the next five days. Looking back again, I could see expressions of humble amazement on Chip and Kelly’s faces. I could see they were slowly beginning to feel what no man can really put into words. It’s a look and a feeling that comes over you, deep within your soul. A feeling you are in a place you belong, where the calmness makes you feel like you’re finally home.
We set up camp and made our supper. Around a blazing camp fire, we toasted the spirits of the mountain and the new friendships between us…
The next morning we were up at 3 a.m. Chip and Kelly were wide awake, never really reaching deep sleep, and had been restless all night with anticipation. After a quick breakfast we caught the horses and saddled up. We headed southeast to the big meadows and timber to catch first light. As the fiery orange glow gave way to a new day, we spotted some elk coming off a distant meadow, retreating into the timber for the day. The hunt was on.
After a short ride, we tied off and started our sneak into the blackest of timber, dark timber that scares children and some men. We put on the best sneak we could and got set up…
Tony bugled, breaking the silence. A moment later the mountain erupted with a terrifying scream from the herd bull, setting the hairs on our necks at end. I whispered to Tony, “Game on!” I answered this bull with a cow call to try to pinpoint him. He answered back but was moving away. We hotfooted it to the first watering hole and set up again. Tony bugled again. He answered back 200 yards east of us now. Tony looked at me with an expression I knew well; dig in for battle.
I hand signaled Chip and Kelly, they knew, here we go…
Tony whispered, “We’re gonna bring him in hot – be ready.” With that, Tony let loose on the sexiest cow call this side of the Continental Divide. I answered with a bugle that said, “She’s mine, and I own this mountain!” The forest exploded with two different bulls!! To the west was the bull we were chasing and to the southeast a satellite bull was calling back. I looked at Chip and Kelly. The whites of their eyes said it all. The next two minutes were filled with the dreams of elk hunters everywhere.
The herd bull saw the satellite bull and he heard us cow calling. The two elk covered 300 yards in a matter of seconds. The satellite bull (5X6) charged at Tony, stopping only 15 feet from him and 27 feet from Chip. Chip then went to full draw. His dreams of a trophy elk were soon to be a reality. But just then the wind switched and we were busted. The bull spun around and swiftly melted into the timber. With the crashing sounds of the escaping satellite bull, the herd bull snorted at us. We jumped in fear as he was only 40 feet behind us. He came in silent to catch us on an ambush. Acknowledging the situation, he quickly gathered his cows and broke for the top. No man or horse could catch him now.
Wow, what a morning. Chip and Kelly were shaking with a mixture of fear, adrenalin and excitement.
That evening the full moon made its presence and for the next two days, the hunting was tough. The mountains were dead quiet as if the elk had vanished. Sunday, Chip and I made plans for a long hard day of riding hoping to implement a special technique I learned a while back (mountain secret – can’t divulge it). Tony and Kelly decided to go to the timber lines to see if the herd bull was still in the area.
We were up at 4 a.m. and packed for the day. After an hour of riding, Chip located two small rag horns. We decided that we were going for the boss or nothing at all. At noon we decide to take a break, eat some lunch and catch a cat nap. Little did we know what the afternoon would bring.
After we awoke, I decided we would head to a spring that I knew of. It was warmer today so I figured maybe they would be in need of some fresh water. We approached the area with caution and stealth, cow calling and bugling every now and again. The wind was switching and I wasn’t sure how far the sounds were carrying. I decided to bugle for all I was worth, then silence, no wait what was that… a faint bugle off to the west. We got our answer and the chase was on.
We rode hard for 300 yards. After two more cow calls we were screamed at by the boss. He was closing fast, 100 yards now. “Off! Bail off the horses and tie up,” I barked at Chip.
As quickly as we tied off the horses, the bull closed half the distance. Chip slithered in front of me 20 yards. I cow called, “mmeeeeeeeuuuuuwww meuw meuw” There he was. Chip about fell over when the herd bull revealed himself about 30 feet away from him behind a huge lodge pole pine that blew over. All I saw was the right side antler. “He’s enormous!!!” I said. “360 easy….” Chip was then at full draw, my heart pounded. Just then a horse whinnied and broke the silence. BUSTED …again!!! The bull slipped through the timber; we heard him gather his cows and head to the meadows.
“Chip….. Come on, we have to ride fast and hard,” I said. I had a feeling that he was going to a small meadow about 700 yards northwest.
We busted timber and made our own trails for the next 30 minutes. We got to the edge of the timber and tied the horses off again. Chip was in front of me – about 10 yards away. I bugled….then silence. All of a sudden, a new bull materialized from the timber, a heavy 5X6. In an instant, Chip’s arrow was in flight. The bull quickly turned to get the arrow deep into his chest head on. He then took a half step to the right and trotted about 20 yards, broadside now. Chip let go of another arrow and hit him dead on target, double lung and a clean pass through. Chip jogged into the meadow after him. “Chip, wait… stop! Let him go lay down,” I chuckled.
About 20 minutes later we picked up the blood trail, heavy and bright red. “He’s ours,” I thought. We tracked and tracked for what seemed to take longer than it should. “Chip, this trail is getting further apart, and this bull is on a dead run,” I said. “I don’t know what’s going on.”
We tracked the bull for 2 miles. “He should be dead by now, Chip,” I said. We then walked into a timber patch just in front of us. We were in about 250 yards when Chip barked, “There he is… No wait… it’s a bear… it’s a big grizzly!” “Chip, calm down, stand tall, wave your arms and yell.” I ordered. “Hey bear, hey bear, over here bear,” we bellowed. By the book that old grizzly rose to his hind feet, turned his head and growled. “Here he comes, Chip, get the spray!” I shouted. The bear seem to float over the timber, charging us from 150 yards. He covered the distance like an Olympic sprinter, baring his teeth, drool and spit flying. When he snapped his jaws, and got to 30 feet, I shouted, “Hit him, Chip!” A misty orange cloud engulfed the bear as he snorted and growled. The bear spun around, turning away. He then spun back toward us and I knew he was angry. He took another step toward us as my .44 roared into the deadfall in from of him. He snorted, jumped back and trotted away about 30 yards. He then spun around again, growled and charged right at us. As Chip hit him with the spray again, my .44 roared into the tree beside him. That seemed to be more than this bear wanted to mess with.
When he ran into the timber about 100 yards or so away, I said, “Get to the horses fast!” We backed out of the timber, eyes peeled and bodies alert like cops watchful for an armed thief. We finally made it back to the horses and quickly mounted up. We rode like the wind, whipping and spurring for at least 1/2 mile. When I felt we were safe, we dismounted and took a deep breath; glad to be alive. We hugged one another and smiled with relief. We then mounted back up and rode into camp.
We saw the blazing fire from a distance and a sense of home came over us. We were greeted by Tony and Kelly who took our horses and gear. “Fighting bears, huh?” Tony questioned. I just nodded. “There’s supper and whisky by the fire,” he continued. “Go rest buddies.” Understanding the situation and all that had transpired, Tony insisted that he and Kelly put away our horses and unpack our stuff. Handshakes and hugs were exchanged as we ate and sipped whisky and melted into the black darkness of night. Excitement and laughter and humbleness filled the camp as we recapped the day’s events. We all knew that our story could have had a very different ending.
The next day we all set out to locate the elk. We started by going back to the scene of the crime. After an hour we saw where the majestic bull had met nature’s fury and the bully of the timber. There wasn’t much left; the majority of the animal had been dragged off.
Chip and I settled for the fact that we gave him back to nature. It needs to happen every now and again. After all, we were lucky to be alive and we had memories that would last forever….
( The DNR Ranch at Rand Creek )