Backpacking for Elk

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I parked at the end of the logging road, donned my backpack, grabbed my old rifle, and locked the doors. I’d be back in a few days, hopefully with a heavy load of fresh elk on my back.

It was Halloween weekend, just a couple of weeks ago, and while my wife put the finishing touches on her costume (she dressed as one of the cousins with the crazy hats from the royal wedding), I studied maps of the Gallatin Mountains and tried to think like an elk.

(Note: this is the first article in the history of the world to mention both elk-hunting and the royal wedding.)

I was looking for those spots on the map where I thought elk would be seeking refuge from hunters one week into rifle season. From my reading on elk, one fact was evident: if you want to find them, you have to get away from people and roads.

I employed that theory last fall the best I could on day hunts, and it worked. Early in the season I stumbled into some cows at first light that were only 100 or so yards away, but I tried to get a little too close and scared them off.

And then on the final day of the season, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, I tracked and killed a bull elk in the snow. It was my first elk, and a day I’ll never forget.

(I am well aware that blind luck was primarily responsible for my elk encounters last fall, but it’s fun to pretend I employed theories that worked. Just go with it.)

I hiked south and followed a marked trail in the grainy dawn light. But I soon left the trail and started bushwhacking towards my target drainage. No trail runs up the drainage, which is why I went there. No trail should mean no people, which should lead to lots of elk.

After leaving the trail, I quickly cut some fresh mountain lion tracks in the snow and followed them for a few hundred yards. They reminded me that I wasn’t the only hunter in these mountains.

The hiking was tough, as there was snow everywhere, but not enough to make for solid hiking. Once I got up high, hiking across open slopes without trees to hold onto or lean against was slippery and difficult.

I hiked and hiked and hiked, but I saw no elk sign. While looking at maps and Google Earth in my warm kitchen, I decided the elk were supposed to appear as soon as I got into the drainage and away from the trail. Where the hell were they?

A few hours later, I was nearing the top of the drainage and still had seen no real fresh elk sign. The snow was also deepening. And I was thirsty and out of water. My master plan appeared to have a few cracks in it.

I collected myself, found a hole in the ice over the creek where I could pump water, and then turned around and hiked back down the drainage towards the thick timber, which is where I figured the elk must be. (There were also no other viable options at that point.)

En route to the spot on the map where I planned to camp, I got turned around in the timber and found myself slightly lost. Another crack in my planning—I realized I'd forgotten my compass.

The sun was dropping, which created a sense of urgency to find a place to camp quickly, but it also helped me orient myself in the timber. I hustled toward the sun and the creek.

I arrived at the creek hot, sweating, and dehydrated. I grabbed my filter and headed to quench my thirst, but I found the creek frozen solid. Not late-October-in-Bozeman solid, but deep-in-northern-Manitoba-in-late-January solid. I tried smashing through the ice with a sharp rock, but that proved completely worthless. My pulse quickened a bit.

I hiked upstream until I heard running water under the ice. I again tried breaking through the ice with a rock. Fortunately, this time I was able to create a little holding reservoir in the ice a few inches wide and a couple of inches deep – just enough to cover the intake of my filter with ridiculously cold water.

I chugged some water, set up my tent, ate a cold dinner, and then stood next to a small fire in the dark for a long time. It was a hard first day, and I went to sleep early.

As for elk, the next day was not much better. I checked out some open slopes early in the morning, but they were empty. I then came across some moderately fresh tracks and beds in the timber, so I decided to hunt the timber hard that afternoon. Nothing.

I ate some buffalo sticks for dinner while not seeing elk in a small meadow at dusk. I returned to my tent and built a fire. Two long days, no elk seen. After I warmed up, I put out the fire, watched the stars in the dark and the cold for a while, and then went to sleep.

I awoke the next day, Halloween, ready to hunt hard on my hike back to the logging road. I did a short sit in a clearing at first light. Seeing nothing (like I even need to tell you at this point), I returned to camp to make myself a cup of hot coffee and pack up.

On the hike out, I finally cut some fresh elk tracks. I followed them through the timber and then up, up, and up some more. The terrain was getting steep and gnarly, and I was slipping and falling. The tracks then turned up-mountain once more, and I bid them farewell. They’re elk. I’m human. They win.

I hiked back to the truck and bumped into a father and his son at the logging road. They had been hunting that morning, and I asked them if they had seen anything. To my complete shock and awe, they excitedly told me about some elk they saw just off the main trail 10 minutes away.

I nodded in disbelief, trying not to think about the number of elk I saw in the past few days.

The dad then turned to me, looked me up and down, and said, “Looks like you’ve been out there a while.”

I peered back at him, paused, smiled, and then replied, “Yeah . . . I have.”


(This story originally appeared in The Bozeman Magpie.)