|July - August 2003
Volume 1, Number
Elk photo by Gary Leppart
Experienced elk hunters in my native Montana
do not camp where they intend to hunt. Conversation, firewood-splitting and horses
neighing drive off nearby elk. Within a couple days, mountain winds circulate the various
camp stinks even farther. Soon youre camping in an elkless canyon.
Nearby elk were one of many things that made
the camp at the head of the Prophet River so different. Camp is perhaps not
the right word for a small Canadian village. Log and frame buildings were scattered across
the clearing for perhaps 300 yards, beside a corral capable of holding 20-odd horses.
Below camp lay an airstrip that averaged a plane a day. Half a dozen men, two women and a
big dog talked, barked, rang bells and shouted at horses all day long. We had electrical
generators, a hot shower, propane cook stoves and a radio-phone. It was a
wilderness camp only because it would take an experienced wilderness wanderer
several days to walk to any other particle of civilization.
Yet we were surrounded by elk. We often saw
herds traveling the ridge behind camp, and as September progressed these included mature
bulls. The bulls usually showed when guides and hunters hunted elsewhere. The cook would
glass the elk and that evening report on how many legal 6-points shed seen during
This might have been discouraging, except we
also saw elk every day, often several mature bulls. A week into my 10-day hunt, Donny
Davis and I rode up the steep, thick-timbered hill behind camp, our horses hooves
cutting through the fresh prints of the camp grizzly, the bear the German
shepherd barked at every night when the bruin tried to steal moose quarters from the meat
house. The prints indicated a bear squaring more than 7 feet. Toward the ridge top we rode
over the tracks of the wolf pack that had howled from the airstrip just before dawn.
When the trail leveled, we dismounted and
started glassing the south-facing slopes. Soon I heard a bull bugle, and then Donny found
them, way the heck up in the goat rocks above the grass-line. Through my 8x42s I saw the
pale tan of the herd bull and a vague impression of long antlers and then the darker cows
and calves, bedded on slide-rock like Stone sheep. As I looked the bull tilted his head
back, and a few heartbeats later another faint bugle floated down to us. Donny
couldnt hear it, but I caught the high notes, though not the growls and grunts that
normally flank a mature bulls whistle.
Six for sure on one side, maybe seven on
the other, Donny said, looking through his spotting scope. He looked at me, black
eyes amused in his walnut-brown face. Think you can hit him from here?
I smiled. Early on Id told him I
wouldnt shoot at a bull more than 300 yards away with my .300 Winchester Magnum, and
only then if everything was absolutely perfect: the bull broadside, the angle not too
steep and only the slightest of breezes. Donny had been fine with this until we got close
to our first legal bull, about 24 hours before.
Wed been riding down the south slope of
a main ridge when we heard a bugle. We followed the elk-music to a spruce-topped knob
above a cliff, then tied the horses and eased through the trees. Below us a huge chunk of
limestone had sloughed off the mountain several centuries ago, forming the cliff. The
limestone slid half a mile, becoming another low ridge, parallel to the valley far below
us. In the half-mile groove between our cliff and the limestone ridge were a pond and
scattered stands of spruce and aspen. Soon the bull bugled again.
There he is, Donny said. Six
point! Coming through the trees on the other side of the pond. Soon I saw him too, a
big, heavy-antlered bull. He stopped on the shore of the pond and bugled, then grunted
several times, muddy belly heaving like a miniature earthquake. Donny got out his
range-finder. Its 285 to the far side of the pond.
It looked farther than that. I raised the .300
and compared the bull to the reticle of the 6x Leupold. The math came out to 400 yards.
Let me see that thing, I said. Donny handed me the magic laser machine, and I
took a reading off the bull. Four-oh-five, I said, handing it back. You
must have ranged one of the treetops in between.
Donny looked through his binocular again.
Big bull, he said, hopefully. Evidently other hunters had been willing to
shoot at distant elk. I shook my head. Least among my reasons was the fact that this was a
draw-blood hunt. If a wounded animal got away, it counted as a kill. More
North American outfitters use this system every year, which cuts down tremendously on
long-range barrages. Id paid for a two-animal hunt and had already taken a moose. If
this elk got away wounded, my hunt was over.
But, again, this was the least of my reasons.
I simply dont shoot at game Im not sure of killing with the first shot. Due to
a random universe, sometimes it doesnt work that way, but I always try to hold up my
end of the deal: to kill cleanly and not take chances because of antler-lust or eager
companions. The sun had already disappeared behind the western ridges, there was no time
to find a way down the cliff, and an erratic wind curled through the knobs and ridges. On
a level shooting range I could guarantee putting every bullet into an elk-heart target at
400 yards with this rifle, even in a steady breeze. But not here, not now - so the rifle
stayed in my lap.
Donny cow-called but the bull wasnt
interested. He probably had some real cows in the timber. Soon he wandered across the
ridge on the far side of the pond, and we mounted our horses and rode to camp, in darkness
for the last hour, thoughts of grizzlies keeping us quite alert even though the days
hunt was definitely over.
A day later Donny made his joke about shooting
a bull at close to a mile, and I smiled. We decided to see what the elk would do as the
sun headed down. Soon a cow stood, evidently a little stiff from sleeping on rocks, and
then the rest rose too. They wandered downhill to grass and started feeding, the bull
following. After a few minutes the bull started pushing them across the face of the
mountain above us. Six by seven, Donny whispered, and looked at me. I shook my
head again. Too far.
Many hunters believe that killing a September
bull with a rifle is easy. Before this hunt Id only done it with a bow, because few
American states allow rifle hunting during the peak of the rut. Yet here we were,
surrounded by elk, and after a week I had yet to load the chamber of the .300.
Part of this was because of British
Columbias regulations: six tines on one antler. This was fine with me, for I
didnt travel to the northern wilderness to shoot the typical raghorn often taken on
public land in Montana, even on horseback hunts. But I hadnt yet had the opportunity
to shoot even an illegal bull. Most elk ranged above timberline, often far beyond the last
particle of stalking cover, and by now most of the 6-points had cows, so werent
tempted by a cow-call, much less a phony bugle.
The only thing to do was keep hunting. Hunting
rutting 6-point elk is a game of patience. You keep playing the game, betting that
eventually chance will bend your way. Luckily Id taken my moose on the second day of
the hunt, so we had some time, though a week and a half passes astonishingly fast in good
The next day was our soft deadline, the last
day allowing enough time to easily pack the meat to camp. We rode down the Prophet before
dawn, Donny on Apple the Appaloosa and me on O.J., the black horse. (During the past
decade, black horses named O.J. have turned up in almost every hunting camp in the
Rockies, exactly why I dont know.) We rode over the glacial hillocks of the big
moraine just below camp, then switchbacked down the face of the moraine for nearly a mile.
Here the river flowed pale green over a cobble bottom, so clear it seemed shallow, but the
waves almost touched our stirrups as we rode across. Then we entered a big stand of spruce
on the flat river bottom, emerging on a mile-long meadow just as the sun came over the
mountains. The frost broke the light into tiny multicolored stars, and I had to squint
against their brilliance.
Halfway across the meadow, Donny reined in,
pointing to the binocular around his neck. I nodded and dismounted. We spread our rain
gear on the frosty ground and glassed the suddenly sunlit mountain to the north. Soon I
heard a faint bugle. There, I whispered, pointing.
Donny nodded, too deaf to hear. The bull
bugled again, and he nodded even harder. I heard that one, he said.
There, below that burn.
I looked and found the bull, almost as pale as
September grass. I see cows, to the right.
Donny nodded. The bull paused in the yellow
light between aspens. Five on one side, Donny said. I cant see the
other. We waited, crouched like two gnomes in the cold meadow, half-listening to our
horses chomping grass as we watched the bull. He raised his head and bugled again, and I
plainly saw five tines on both antlers. So did Donny. Shoot, he said, and we
mounted up again.
Below the meadow the trail turned into a long
draw that paralleled the river, full of the gray trunks of burned aspen and spruce. Some
blocked the trail, and we often had to steer the horses carefully past gray spears. The
draw met the river again where the water cut through high limestone cliffs. We rode
across, then followed game trails along the broad cobble field on the other side, the
river-canyon too narrow for any sandy bank. The horses walked slowly on the rocky trail. I
didnt blame them.
The canyon opened into a broad willow-meadow.
This looked like moose cover, and was, a good bull trotting away from us into the timber.
After an hour we reached a log cabin, door torn off and Plexiglass windows punched out.
Another grizzly, Donny said, sighing. This is where Gordon had to kill
that sow two weeks ago, when she was stalking him.
I nodded. The cabin roof was decorated with
horned and antlered skulls. The interior was decorated with bear crap. Donny sighed again.
We cleaned up the interior some, then went outside and sat in the sunshine and ate lunch.
By now it was too warm for game to move, so we took a nap, both rifles with chambers
loaded, one at my hand and the other at Donnys. The odds of two human-hungry
grizzlies showing up at the same cabin were slim, but grizzlies do like cabins.
After an unrestful nap, we mounted up and rode
toward the river again. Well check out the hot springs, Donny said.
Animals lick there.
We tied the horses to some spruce 100 yards
from the river, then sneaked through the trees to the bank. Across the river, in the
shadows under the steep mountain, a house-sized dome of sulphur and calcium rose from the
riverbank. On the breeze I could smell the familiar rotten-egg stink of a Yellowstone
geyser. On top of the dome stood a pair of ewe Stone sheep, a cow and calf elk, and a cow
and bull moose.
Pretty good bull, Donny whispered.
Too bad you shot a little one. He knew full well my moose had larger antlers.
I poked him in the ribs with an elbow. We sat there an hour, until all the animals
wandered away. Now we barely had time to hunt our way back to the main camp, and even then
would probably ride the last hour in darkness, hoping the camp grizzly came late to the
meat shack. We rode back past the cabin and into the willow-meadow. A small rain cloud
curled over the river-canyon beyond. As we dismounted and pulled on rain gear, a bull
bugled ahead of us, close enough for even Donny to hear. We tied the horses and pulled
rifles from scabbards and headed that way, stopping often between deadfall and willows to
glass. Theres a cow, I said, pointing to a ridge 600 yards ahead.
Donny nodded. Lets wait. So
we did, and soon another cow and a bull wandered among the willows. Sss! Another
five-point. Donny looked at me, finally feeling a little pressure. I shrugged.
The rain passed by the time we returned to the
horses, but we kept our rain gear on. The shower had dropped the temperature 20 degrees.
We rode slowly, not expecting much on this moose flat, and a bull elk suddenly screamed
from the nearby willows, toward the river. Donny turned and looked at me. Which
way? he whispered. I pointed. We sat there, smelling the pleasant perfume of wet
horses, and the bull bugled again.
Lets go, Donny said, and we
quickly dismounted, then eased through the willows for 100 yards. Donny cow-called. The
bull screamed back immediately. Donny waited, then called again, and the bull answered,
Find a place, Donny said, and I
nodded, knowing exactly what he meant. Downwind to our left was a triangle of big spruce
deadfalls, in the center of a 150-yard clearing. We could wait inside the triangle, and
the bull would have to show himself. Even if he didnt see a cow when he emerged from
the willows, hed have to check out the far side of our blind.
We crawled into the deadfall, and I placed my
day pack on one of the trunks, resting the .300 on the pack and then testing the setup,
aiming at the line of willows 75 yards away. I nodded at Donny and slid a round into the
chamber. He nodded back and cow-called again. The bull screamed, followed by three braying
grunts. A half-open lane allowed us to see perhaps 100 yards into the willows, and in a
moment I saw willow-tops jerking down there. Hes right there, I
whispered into Donnys ear, pointing.
He looked and nodded, then called again. Pale
tines rose into the shadowed air above the willows, and I could see the rearward V worn by
6-point bulls. I think hes a six, I whispered.
Donny nodded. Lets make
sure. He called again and the bull grunted most unmusically, then walked between two
willow patches, his side orange now in the fading dusk. Six, Donny said.
There are some moments in the hunt where your
heart feels as if its flopping in your chest like a beached salmon, yet everything
around you remains completely still: the instant when geese set their wings, or when the
white antlers of a whitetail buck float through the oaks as he comes to the dead
bucks antlers in your hands. But a bull elk magnifies all this, like an interior
lens that allows us to see far backward into our neurons and guts, yet at the same time
farther into the blue shadows all around us. And all you can do is wait, while the salmon
whacks your ribs.
We waited, catching erratic glimpses of the
bulls tines above the willows, or a touch of pale orange. He taught another willow a
hard antler-lesson, and then his head and neck emerged from the greenery, and he bugled
again, a miniature geyser of saliva visible through the scope of the .300.
Can you hit his neck? Donny
whispered.I shrugged. I wont shoot him in the neck.
He nodded, accepting, and waited. The bull
turned back into the willows and Donny cow-called softly again. We could see ivory tines
moving toward us now, and I leaned forward again into the rifle, finger on the front of
the trigger guard. The bull stepped into a notch along the edge of the willows, shoulder
fully exposed, and the .300 went off without any consciousness of moving finger to
The bull plowed through the willows to our
left while I tracked his antlers in the scope. The tines started to slow, and he walked
into another opening and stood there broadside, his shoulder bright red. I aimed for the
red and shot again, and the bull staggered backward, stiff-legged, and again all we could
see were antler tips, but now they slowly tilted into the willows. I heard a branch crack
and then the valley was as silent as its shadows.
Good shooting! Donny shouted, but
I had already jumped over the deadfall and was running to where the antlers had
disappeared. Rounding the last willow patch, I saw the bull lying with his back toward me,
red on his ribs. I approached from the rear, away from the big hooves, and touched his
obsidian eye with the .300's muzzle. The eye did not blink, and I slid the cartridge from
the chamber, then knelt down and touched the stiff, smooth hair of his side, only vaguely
hearing Donny walk up.
By the time we had him field-dressed the sun
was down, perhaps two hours of twilight left. The main camp was twice that far, the hot
springs cabin an hour behind us.
Donny looked at me. We could stay at the
cabin, but then wed have to ride back to main camp for packhorses, then tomorrow
ride back down here and pack him back. Wed still get in after dark.
I nodded and thought a little, though not
much. Lets head home.Well have to ride hard, Donny
said, looking at me. I nodded again. Id been in the saddle nine days.
We rode through the river canyon, then crossed
the river and started up the draw through the burned trees. By then the pale-gray trees
were the only things really visible. O.J. trotted eagerly, headed home. Ahead I saw a dead
spruce alongside the trail, its point aimed right at O.J.s chest. I reined him to
the left, and he turned - but not his rear legs. The spruce-point headed for his right
flank, and I shouted, NO! reining in hard. The spruce slid under the rear
cinch before he stopped, and I held on tight, expecting a real rodeo.
But O.J. only quivered for a few moments, then
backed up slowly. By then Donny was beside us on Apple. What happened?
He turned his front, but not his rear. And then I heard something that sounded
like a half-open water faucet.
Donny heard it too. He jumped off Apple and
looked under O.J. Hes bleeding bad, inside his leg. I dismounted and
held O.J.s reins while Donny got his big flashlight. The blood ran in a twisting
stream, pooling already on the trail.
We talked very earnestly for what seemed an
hour and may have been three minutes. With a bleeding horse we definitely couldnt
stay at the cabin amid grizzlies. In fact we couldnt stay anywhere except the main
camp, because a grizzly can smell fresh blood for miles. We decided to double-up on Apple
and lead O.J., hoping he hadnt punctured a femoral artery.
Donny rode behind me, holding O.J.s
reins, and we started off. Every 15 minutes wed stop and listen to O.J. bleeding.
The last twilight left us at the next river crossing, and when we started across O.J.
balked. Donny suddenly grabbed me hard around the waist with one arm, and I could feel him
jerking the reins with his other. I grabbed the saddle horn and held on, connected to O.J.
by the two arms of a Cree Indian guide. Finally O.J. started walking, and Donny dragged
himself forward onto Apples rump.
When we were on the path again on the far side
of the river I started giggling. Whats so funny? Donny said. I
wish I had a photo of you stretched out above the river between two horses. Donny
snorted, and then I could feel him bounce as he started laughing too. Yeah, that
would be a good one.
We rode through the big meadow and the trees
beyond, then started up the moraine, taking turns hiking ahead with the big flashlight,
leading O.J. I went first, stopping halfway up when my legs started to tire, and realized
I couldnt hear running blood. Donny got off Apple, and we looked under O.J. The
bleeding had stopped.
Good thing, Donny said, as I
mounted Apple. Were close to camp, and that damn grizzly might be out.
It was past 10 oclock now, the moon starting up. The moonlight wouldnt make
any difference to the horses, but it made us feel better. At least if we met the grizzly
we could see him.
At the top of the moraine, we doubled up
again, and started to tell each other our life stories, quite loudly, in case any nearby
grizzly was interested. Every spruce and willow-clump had a grizzly-shaped shadow
underneath, but none moved.
In an hour we saw the faint lights of camp,
and then the big floodlight near the corrals flared on and horses whickered. Soon we could
hear people shouting to us, and we called back. When we rode into the light and
dismounted, it felt as though wed crossed an angry lake in a small boat, my legs
unsteady off the horse. The folks in camp had guessed that wed stayed at the hot
springs cabin so werent terribly worried.
Late the next day, with my elk in camp and
O.J. healing, Gordon invited me on a hike up the hill behind camp, to get some exercise
and glass for wolves. This sounded good after so much riding, and we left an hour before
sunset, not seeing any wolves but feeling quite noble about the exercise.
It was early twilight when we started down,
and when within hearing distance of camp, I looked down to see fresh grizzly tracks over
our uphill tracks. I was about to mention this to Gordon when he shouted, There he
is, the son-of-a..., and a dark brown grizzly turned to look at us, perhaps 40 feet
away. We raised our rifles, but the bear ran off the trail and into the brush. Thank
you, I whispered, too low for Gordon to hear. Thank you for waiting a