The Ritual

Hunting for most is typified by the classic experiences we seek out: bugling bulls, fresh tracks, finding that big buck in your crosshairs or finally putting your hands on the animal you have been chasing all day, week or season. These are those vivid punctuations that dot our stories while we are out in the wild, and those that get the most attention. But I find that many times, it is the more subtle moments during a hunt that stand out and endure along with that perfect shot, a short bloodtrail or a notched tag.

One of these “in between moments” that I always look forward to is a small ritual I do in antelope country. Sage is a very common type of flora in these areas, and its smell is so unique and linked to antelope hunting for me that I would feel lost if there were none. My custom is to pluck a small bunch of sage leaves and crush it, and smell deeply from my cupped hands. The earthy, herbaceous smell is powerful, and is part of my self-imposed good luck trick. Without it, I don’t think I would have as much luck on my side; at least that is my take on it. It is my version of a rabbit’s foot. It is completely ridiculous, but for me it completes the experience.

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Weighing The Odds

The text message from a friend asks the anticipated question “Did you draw any tags?”

Nervously checking the Montana FWP website, I click on the tab and see what I more or less knew I would: UNSUCCESSFUL.

Reading that did let the air out of my tires a bit, especially considering their choice of words: unsuccessful. Synonymous with failed, botched or bungled. Moose, Goat, Sheep – zero, zip, nada. I am going on 13 years of striking out on drawing one of the “Big Three”, and oddly this year it didn’t disappoint me quite as much as it has in prior years. I think it has to do with two things: one, life has become exponentially busier for me with more priorities to juggle and balance at home and the pressures growing at work. My head-space for something as involved as a big hunt for a premier species is just not there. More important things are taking up the real estate needed to properly plan and execute.

Not to say that I have lost the spark for hunting; far from it. I now comfortably know that my focus will be on tags for elk, deer and antelope, all of which provide more adventure, excitement and frustration than one could ever need during a season.

Knowing that a ‘dream tag’ and the low odds of getting one are transferred to next year is fine with me. I have several months in front of me to focus, train, shoot and scour maps for hidden canyons and creeks, then head out and put boot leather on those same contour lines and three-dimensional topography, and see what they hold in real life. The satisfaction of planning will still be the same. The confidence will be there from nearly 30 years of seasons behind me chasing big game across Montana, knowing I will be tested and challenged as much as the year before, maybe more. The camaraderie from hunting partners will be a welcome reprieve. And I know my ‘challenges’ in life will not seem quite as intimidating when I return from the wilderness, where I readily trade running water and the luxury of a good bed and deliciously prepared meal for bugles at sunset, wind in the pines and living and hunting with only what I carry in my pack.

I also return to the real world eager to push through the front door and see my four year old son, his eyes widening as I rush towards him, scoop him up and hug him. I am happy beyond words, regardless of if I have punched a tag or not, as I hear him yell “DAD!”

Quotes to Ponder

It’s always further than it looks.
It’s always taller than it looks.
And it’s always harder than it looks.  – The Three Rules of Mountaineering.

But risks must be taken because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing. The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing.
He may avoid suffering and sorrow, but he cannot learn, feel, change, grow or live. Chained by his servitude he is a slave who has forfeited all freedom. Only a person who risks is free.
The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; and the realist adjusts the sails.”
William Arthur Ward.

2013 whitetail buck BW_

Start Early: Good Weather Gifts

Winter in Bozeman this year has not really lived up to that seasonal title, with a long stretch of February days with temps hovering around 45° and sunny. Every inch of snow in town disappeared, and most of the foothills on south facing slopes were bone dry. Nowhere in sight were the piles of snow and subzero temperatures we are used to this time of year.

With the gift of great weather present, my urge to get outside and hike the hills took over and kick off an early training session, getting ready for September, steep mountains, bugling elk and high ranging mule deer.

The first outing is always the most painful, with legs and lungs not ready to tackle the steep way up our local hiking area, the “M”. My preferred route that mixes the best of steep hills, loose gravel and finally moderate rolling trails through the timber takes about 60-70 minutes round-trip, and gains roughly 2,000 vertical feet on the way to the turning around point. Patches of ice remain in the timber, reminding one to pay attention to the trail and footing.

I was able to squeeze in about six or seven good hikes, the last two with my pack on for a bit of extra weight, and get back into the groove of covering a lot of moderate terrain with moderate output, for long stretches before the snow and single digit temperatures returned, reminding all of us that we are in fact still in winter. I have not found any gym work or treadmill time that can better that kind of activity, at least in preparation for fall and the rigors of backcountry hunts.

Don’t over-think it on those first training days. Grab your pack, lace up your boots and log some miles. Remember what it is like to move over rough terrain, pace yourself, and get your feet, legs and lungs “mountain ready”. Slow and steady. There will be plenty of time to truly push yourself, target your training and be ready for opening day.

Archery antelope buck - last day of the season before rifle opener...
Archery antelope buck – last day of the season before rifle opener…

A Question of Intent

I stopped in an outdoor equipment store this fall and ended up in a conversation with the person behind the counter about the opening weekend of rifle season. Unable to get out myself on those first few days, I asked him if he had a chance to hunt. Opening morning found him on  some mountain, looking for elk, like most of us this time of year. Quickly, the topic turned to his new rifle — fully custom from end to end, complete with long range scope, turret, etc. which was able to “put 5 shots in a pie plate at 1000 yards — I did it at the range.” He went on to describe in great detail (and as excited as a kid at Christmas) about how if he were to range an elk at 700 yards, it would be “a chip shot”. I nodded and smiled, ready to get going, as I was losing steam on the subject. We had quickly deviated from the excitement of the hunt, the opening day, how it went, etc. right into full gun geek mode.

I am definitely a gearhead, but to be honest, this conversation left me a bit put off, and confused. The rifle was the focus. The scope and his ‘ability’ to lob shots downrange farther than I could even imagine was what mattered. Not the hunt. Not the elk. Not the fresh snow, the sunrise, or how many hard miles that were hiked, hopefully to find that elusive wapiti on a steep hillside. Then the hunt would begin….not dropping down in a prone rifleman’s position to break out a litany of gear, tripods, rangefinders and wind gauges, setting up for an impossibly long shot. I just didn’t “get it”.

Before I get too far into this, let me say that I have respect for a shooter’s ability at the range to put several shots on target at 500, 700 or 1,000 yards. That is an impressive skill, and not one that everyone can pull off with reliable frequency. But where it starts to deviate quickly is when this same distance comes into play during a hunt, on a real animal, under real-world conditions. There are too many variables, questions and changing conditions, all of which, for me, is what makes hunting truly something to be experienced deeply.

Let’s take 875 yards as the distance the above hunter spots a feeding bull. That is 0.497 miles (basically, one half of one mile) from the end of the barrel to the vitals of that elk. Half of a mile.  Through a spotting scope, that bull will look pretty good, with the antlers gleaming in the early morning light, the tan hide and tracks left in the snow easily visible. Zoom in, and the bull takes up the entire frame. Time to pull the trigger? I couldn’t do it. Not because I could not practice and develop the requisite skill necessary to drop a round into the chest of that elk, but because nothing about the spotting of the bull, the set up and the shot remotely resembles hunting.

While the above is a hypothetical scenario, I have heard and read too much to know it happens. Animals get taken down from those ranges, some with one well placed shot, others requiring more, or being lost. This happens with more “normal” ranges such as 200 or 300 yards as well but I cannot get behind the “why”; why that far? Why not use the terrain, the wind and your own skill to close the gap? What is the hunter’s intention? A recent Boone & Crockett article outlines this hot button topic very well.  It states “the term ‘long-range’ shooting is more defined by a hunter’s intent, than any specific distance at which a shot is taken.  If the intent of the individual is to test equipment and determine how far one can shoot to hit a live target and if there is no motivation to risk engagement with the animal being hunted, this practice is not hunting and should not be accorded the same status as hunting.

The position continues with “…hunting, at its most fundamental level, is defined by a tenuous and unpredictable relationship between predator and prey.  This is an intrinsic, irrefutable and intimate connection that cannot be compromised if the hunter is to maintain the sanctity of this relationship and any credible claim that hunting is challenging, rewarding, respectful of wild creatures, and in service to wildlife conservation.  This connection is built upon many complex components that differentiate hunting from simply shooting or killing.”

Intent. It all seems to boil down to intent. Many times the reasons become blurry, with skill being a primary one; ‘because my rifle can shoot that far’, or ‘I practice at that range’. Hunting versus shooting. The game we seek, not to mention the tradition of hunting, deserves so much more than that.

What’s In Your Pack…Redux

About a year ago, I jotted down a post about what is in my pack, and what I consider to be essential “kit” that goes with me every time I set foot in the wilderness. Having wrapped up a tough week in the elk woods in mid-September, and a few day hunts here and there, my overall list has stayed more or less the same, with a few tweaks. One, I added in another bag to my Sawyer water filter kit, more as a back up than anything else. I doubled up my headlamps, carrying a smaller spare; getting caught without a light 3 miles in is not a fun thing to do, especially when you are racing to get back, or have a heavy load of meat weighing you down.

I polled a few of my friends and hunting partners on what they consider key pieces of gear that go with them each time they head out. It was interesting to see the lists and where we match up, and the new things they pack that I would consider very useful or may become part of my own kit. Thanks to Josh Kuntz and Reed Watson for their info and gear lists. Here are a few of the more useful gear choices they provided:

JK:

  • 1 small Polycro tarp (for laying meat on to cool down)
  • Small square of K-tape (for blisters; this stuff is much more durable than Moleskin)
  • Piece of Paper w/ Patient Assessment Notes on one side & area to write SOAP notes on the other (Josh’s wife is a doctor, so if you are not sure what SOAP notes are, check it out here. It is a good thing to be familiar with in case of a serious injury and to keep key details in one place for responders or ER staff. )
  • Wool socks for stalking.  Cut off just above the ankle.
  • Kindle – in a Ziploc bag (Some may scoff at this, but being stuck in a tent riding out a storm gets boring very fast; being able to have an entire library in your hand which weighs about the same as a small paperback is a life-saver. Well, at least sanity saver.)

RW:

  • McMurdo FastFind (this is a PLB, or Personal Locator Beacon. As Reed is a new father – and responsible family man – this is something that can help out in case of a serious emergency. Reed is a very capable and fit hunter, so it would have to be one helluva “incident” for him to hit the button. But, as a father myself, it does get me thinking about PLBs such as the SPOT, etc.)
  • Bivi sack and down quilt – even on day trips when solo. (Another solid idea, especially during the colder days of rifle season. Both Reed and Josh prefer down quilts designed for lightweight backpacking, as they are versatile and very light for their warmth factor. Toss both in your pack, and you have a solid system to ride out an unforeseen night stuck in the woods.)

Gear selections are as unique and varied as the hunters carrying them, and it is always interesting to find ways to improve, lighten or modify my own list, refining it each season, so when a buck or bull goes down, or a freak snowstorm rolls in, I am prepared to come out smiling.

Quarters and Rack

T-Minus 8 Days…

In exactly eight days from now, I will be hiking in by headlamp to an area deep in the mountains to chase elk. I will be hunting with my good friend Josh Kuntz, and after a river crossing, climbing across steep side hills, bushwhacking and ascending one more matchstick tree-covered hill for good measure, we will arrive at a nondescript spot in the timber that edges out into a small clearing. Here is where camp will be for the next four days. Up go the tents, the bear bag is hung, we clear out an area for some gear, filter water for the day and prepare for life outside, away from the trappings of work, traffic, cell phones, computers and the general incessant buzz we call modern life.

That first day is tricky for me to settle, slow down and soak in my surroundings. I am still on the harried pace of the workweek, and while I feel “switched on”, I start to realize that my senses are not as tuned as they need to be out here. Where my ability to quickly dump my pack and sort gear may be dialed, I realize a bit too late I missed the flock of geese cruising by, or that the breeze from the west is a bit cooler than it was an hour ago, and the weather is likely to be changing soon…or that I need to sit down, let the mountain air rush by, and truly “see” where I am right this moment. This settling in time is key for the rest of the hunt. Don’t focus, be more aware. Try to see and hear everything around you.

These days for me in the wilderness are very clarifying, and allow me to switch over to a different mode of existence. I thoroughly enjoy the fact that I will not be under a roof (other than my tent) or lounging on a sofa, watching TV or mowing the lawn. Every minute of every day and night, cold, warm, rain or shine, will be outside. The days are long, tiring and I go to bed whipped, yet ultimately satisfied, and ready to go again the next day. I replay the hours, the miles, the animals spotted or close calls like a movie as I lay in my tent, tucked in my sleeping bag. Before long, I am out cold and the alarm is beeping at me, seemingly minutes later. As I ease out of my warm cocoon, the bracing cold air hits me. On go the frigid clothes and boots, my breath visible in the pale shaft of light from my headlamp. I want only for the small blue flame of the camp stove to spark to life, heating water for coffee and instant oatmeal out under the stars and perfect stillness. Something so basic never tasted so good. We eat quietly, talking in hushed tones about the day ahead, where we will go, if the weather will hold, predicting that this is the day we get into rut-crazed bulls.

The light starts to change imperceptibly from inky black to dark blue, and the faint, jagged silhouettes of pines towering around us come slowly into focus. Time to get moving. We pack away the food bag, and hoist it into the trees. Packs are shouldered, we grab the bows and descend down the ridge, walking into the wind and into some very elk-rich country. Today is the day.

 

black and white mountain