A Successful and Rewarding Season of Hunting

My grandfather hunted deer before I was old enough to fully grasp the concept but it was not an activity that my family practiced into my childhood.   My father would take my brother and I to the sandpit to target practice with the family .22 so shooting at pop cans was about the extent of my hunting career until this fall.

 

My wife and I are now homeowners and in our backyard we’ve created a nice series of vegetable gardens. We participate in a community supported agriculture (CSA) program, and make a concerted effort to put healthy, local, and responsible eating choices at the forefront of our life.  My wife is far more a green thumb than I so I felt that being able to bring locally harvested meat to our table would be a worthy addition to our food needs.

 

 

I began my research early in the year, focusing first on educating myself about hunting rifles, ammunition, and hunting-specific gear.  I opted for a .308 caliber Tikka T3 rifle mounted with a Leupold Vx-2 3-9×40 scope on Warne rings.  For the rifle I fashioned a DIY sling and set out on multiple camping trips and a visit to the local range to sight it in at 100 yards.  I purchased a few hundred rounds of high quality surplus ammo and put a few dozen rounds down range in order to become proficient in it’s use and familiarize myself to it so using it would not be strange to me when it came time to get serious.

 

 

With new gear choices complete I set out to modify my North Face MG55 backpacking pack (a staple of my GNP trail crew days when 50lb. loads were not uncommon). It has a comfortable hip belt and shoulder straps, two aluminum stays, and with only a few hours of work I was able to cut off the pack bag, add a load shelf and a series of 1″ straps and buckles to accommodate both camping gear (inside drybags) as well as upwards a large amount of animal weight (I tested the pack up to 90 lbs).  On the front I employed a Hill People Gear Kit Bag which provides quick access to my binocular, energy bars, and other sundries.

 

The general rifle season isn’t until late Fall in Montana but I began spending weekends in possible hunting locations a month early trying to get a feel for where the deer live and possible spots I could get goods shots. I obviously love camping so these scouting trips were fun backpacking trips in gorgeous country that could hardly be considered work. On the side I was watching online videos teaching myself about field dressing animals, and reading up on advice from backcountry and frontcountry hunters alike.

 

 

The season opener finally arrived and I headed to a section of woods very close to my home in hopes that I would be able to harvest a truly local animal. I hiked the five miles to my selected spot after dark and upon arrival laid out my bivy, set my alarm for a pre-dawn wake-up and went to sleep. I was awake and in position 45 minutes prior to sunrise (the season officially opens 30 minutes prior to sunup). I spent the entire morning and early afternoon posted in a single location which I thought would be a good pass-through area for critters moving from one drainage to another. Unfortunately I saw only one creature that day and it was a fellow orange and camo-clad hunter. I moved down into one of the drainages late in the afternoon, found a very prominent game trail and a watering hole and posted myself up to sit for a few hours until sunset. Once again, I saw nothing. The story repeated itself the next morning as I sat at the same spot from the previous evening and then hunted my way down this trail-less valley slowly and quietly back toward my truck.

 

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The following weekend I decided to head about 35 miles from town to another zone I had thoroughly researched through aerial photography. This location would allow me to drive my truck to within a mile of the creek and its surrounding hillside that I wished to hunt. This location allowed me to use my truck camping setup which is very comfortable but still required a couple miles walking to the zone, up the creek, and then back to the vehicle. Once again I was skunked for the whole weekend not even seeing a single animal.

 

I went out four weekends in a row only taking an evening or morning off here and there. Camping out most nights and trying to hunt as many of the dawn and dusk sessions as I could. Over the course of the entire season I consumed around 25 gallons of gasoline in traveling to various zones and I was beginning to feel like that kind of consumption didn’t add up to my goal for this activity to represent sustainable eating.

 

 

I had decided to return my focus to the zone close to my home for the remaining weekend of the season I didn’t already have scheduled with holiday commitments and begin heading there for evening and dawn sessions, returning home overnight. By this time of year sunset and sunrise are so far apart that camping requires you sit in the dark from five in the afternoon until nearly eight in the morning so I decided to my time was better spent at home.

 

I decided to hit the zone for a dusk session on a Friday after work. I had cut out a couple hours early and by 3:30pm I was in the woods, on my knee, rifle up to my eye with a spike whitetail buck in my sights at well under a 100 yards out. He was small-ish and although this was the first legal buck I’d seen in all my hunting so far I hesitated very shortly.   Short enough to give pause think about what it meant to kill him, but long enough for him to get behind enough trees and begin walking away from me out of sight and out of range. I spent the next 24 hours pondering this decision and whether I had made the right choice.

 

 

It began to snow on my hike out of the woods that evening and I wondered whether my season would end that week without a critter in our freezer. I came back at dawn the following morning and posted myself in a position where I expected the little guy I had seen the night before would come back up and out of the lowlands. Sure enough, about 15 minutes after sun-up he appeared 300 yards across the logging clear cut I was stationed at. He was outside the distance I was comfortable successfully targeting and shooting so I just watched him follow a game trail up and over a ridge and then I set out to stalk him just for the thrill of it – not really expecting to find him.

 

“Because I choose to eat meat, I assume responsibility for acquiring it, rather than entrusting it to proxy executioners, processors, packagers, and distributors.” – Steven Rinella

 

I had followed his trail for a ways before losing it and then followed some new game trails I’d not seen before – not one to miss out on an opportunity for a new place to explore. I slowly hunted my way down these trails, back along the logging roads and then the final trail to my truck. The weekend was over and the following weekend was Thanksgiving. With friends from out of town arriving Wednesday night my days off from work were over and I braced myself that my first hunting season was about to close and I without a successful harvest.

 

 

I simply couldn’t give up just yet and I phoned my boss on Monday night requesting if he’d mind if I came in a few hours late on Tuesday. He agreed and I hit what I’d decided was the sweet spot to intersect one last time with the Whitetail Spike I’d now seen twice. I took what I’d learned in seeing him the first two times and posted myself up at sunrise in a clearing that I hoped was his exact route of travel for that morning.

 

At 8:15am I was glassing a clearcut when out of the corner of my eye I spotted movement. I quietly backed off the rifle safety, reminded myself to slow my breathing, brought the weapon and scope to my eye and began to follow him in my sights keeping target on the zone just behind his left shoulder. I was sitting atop a small knoll and he walked into the draw below me, out of sight for a few minutes. I worried he would walk up the hill toward me – scare, and run off. Instead, thankfully, he took to the opposite bank. The wind was in my favor and I sat still – scope affixed at the correct level – but he was facing away from me and not broadside – no good for a successful shot. He next turned to his left but at the same time put his shoulders behind a tree while he nibbled at brush. My heart was pounding but I was practicing a controlled breath and the scope was not shaking. I knew the time was imminent, that I would kill this animal and that he would provide my family a bounty for the coming year.

 

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He took one step forward, exposing his sides from behind the tree and I did not hesitate. I waited only an instant for my brain to register that where my scope was aimed on his body was in fact the kill zone and I gently squeezed the trigger. His reaction was instantaneous as the bullet connected with him. He spun 180 degrees and bolted very quickly. I chambered another round just in case as I carefully watched where he went until I could no longer see his tail as it disappeared over a slight rise into some trees. Gathering my pack I put the rifle back on safe and proceeded to the point where the bullet had connected with him to begin tracking.  I fretfully hoped I had fired a killing shot that would end his life quickly and with little pain.

 

 

His tracks were easy to spot where he had been standing a few minutes previous. I followed them only a short distance and then began to spot blood. Following these spots and his tracks for only ten or 15 minutes I came upon him in a shrubby area about 200 meters from where I’d shot him.

 

I stood looking at him for a minute, in awe of the awesome power behind taking a life. But at the same time, I stood without guilt. I had thought over this subject for many months, what it means to kill and that as a meat eater it is not only a perfectly acceptable thing to do but also one of the few ways to be able to do so in good conscience.

 

To hunt and butcher an animal is to recognize that meat is not some abstract form of protein that springs into existence tightly wrapped in cellophane and styrofoam. – Lily Raff McCaulou

 

I laid my hand on his chest, thanked him for what he had done for me, his hide still warm under my un-gloved palm. A slight rain has started to fall and it shook me from my awe and I put on my game face. I gathered my equipment, reviewed in my head the steps I would now need to perform the gutless method on my harvest and set to work.

 

It took me significantly longer than I expected for the overall process. I had fired my rifle at approximately 8:15am, had him on the ground and tracked by 8:30, but did not have my game bags full and my bounty loaded onto my backpack until 11:45am. I began the two mile hike out of the woods. My best estimation is that the meat, bones, head, plus my gear, pack, and rifle weighed between 60 and 70 lbs.  The going was slow on the icy and snowy ground and the two miles took me around a hour to cover.

 

 

The hunt complete there was still much work to be done. I packed the meat bags into my fridge at home and got to my job to finish out the work day. Afterwards, I hurried home and prepared our kitchen for more work. That night, as well as the next, and then one more afternoon a few days later my wife and I, as well as a friend helped prepare and clean both steak meat and the rest of the meat we’d grind into burger. The second night after the hunt I grilled four small bacon-wrapped backstrap steaks and my wife prepared roast broccoli and baked sweet potato. It was one of the most powerful meals of my life and I savored every bite of it.

 

 

A friend of a friend has a heavy-duty 220 amp meat grinder and I reserved a slot yesterday afternoon to grind up the majority of the meat into burger. The process took just shy of two hours from arrival to having everything wrapped and taped in butcher paper. Tonight I will invite the friends who helped with the cleaning over for dinner and we will savor plates of venison tacos.

 

The consumable costs:
$8 conservation license
$16 deer license
$87 gasoline

The rewards:
8 lbs. steak meat
25.25 lbs. burger meat

Cost/benefit analysis:
$111.00 / 33.25 lbs. meat = $3.33/lb

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The Onset of Winter in the Mountains

Hiking into the mountains can be compared to going forward in time.  As you gain elevation into the hills it is like moving forward in the season.  Lower pressures and colder temperatures bring an earlier onset of each season and in mid-October it is not uncommon to fall asleep in autumn and wake up in winter.  Such was the case this past weekend at a high alpine camp I made on the East side of the Gallatin Range.

 

 

I am prepping for the upcoming deer hunting season and in keeping with due diligence I have been scouting possible zones where I hope to be successful in my hunt. I opted to gain a high alpine ridge via a trail, then make my way off the trail along the ridgeline to provide me a view to glass into multiple adjacent basins. I camped on a narrow, flat section of this ridgeline below a beautiful rocky peak. Although windy, if I had not researched the weather forecast the onslaught of snow that was to come could have been a near total surprise.

 

 

 

I arrived in the late afternoon, draped myself in my woobie and poncho atop my foam sit pad with snacks, water, and binocular to glass the basins below. Unfortunately into the lens appeared two other groups of hunters and no wildlife. The wind picked up so excessively that I quit glassing as the light faded and set about cutting enough firewood to warm me until darkness and a reasonable bedtime.

 

 

Mashed potatoes and a few slugs of bourbon in my belly, the dying embers of the fire, and the first flakes of falling snow pushed me into the warmth of my sleeping quilt inside my shelter. I had brought a snow-load worthy shelter but little did I know what kind of pummeling my ridgetop camp was to bring that night. The snow came in hard and the wind maintained itself until well into the night. I awoke many times to re-adjust a blown out tent stake and the trekking poles which hold up the shelters roof. The snow was still falling when I awoke before dawn with the intent to continue glassing for wildlife. The shelter walls sagged and caved but the roof remained strong.

 

 

When dawn broke the visibility outside was such that glassing from the ridge was not going to provide results so I struck camp and decided to hike out via an offtrail route following the ridge I was on to see what sign of animal I could find while making my way back to the truck.

 

 

The country I traveled through exquisite. The fresh blanket of nearly a foot of snow hung heavy on the flora and the quietness that comes with such a blanket was silence that is music to my ears. I walked, tripped, slipped, and gracefully glissaded my way downhill keeping a keen eye out for critters.

 

 

Although my goal was to spot deer on this journey I did not come across any of the species and I may cross it off my list of places to consider coming for a hunt. I did have the glorious treat of coming across a large cow moose standing in a boggy section of the lowlands as I reached the valley bottom off the ridge. She turned and looked at me for a few seconds and nonchalantly walked away behind some trees and then up and off trail into the woods. I am always in awe when I have the chance to view these magnificent creatures.

 

The hunt continues.

 

 

GORUCK Selection 2014

* Warning, video contains some cursing.

 

As some of my readers are aware I am employed by the American gear manufacturer, GORUCK.  We are a multi-faceted company that both builds extremely durable and high quality gear in America as well as the operators of an array of endurance and team building events that last from four hours up to 48+ hours and take place every weekend all over the world.  I have personally participated in our GORUCK Challenge and GORUCK Light events which I can rightly say put ones body to the test.  During our Challenge our team traveled nearly 20 miles over the course of 14 hours.

 

Not all of our events are about team building.  Our hardest – GORUCK Selection – is all about 100% selfish perseverance in the face of punishing beat down.  Participants will move in excess of 80 miles under great physical duress, with very limited caloric intake, and rest.  The event will last a minimum of 48 hours and the for nearly the entirety of that, the GORUCK Cadre (all former or active Special Forces operators) will make it their goal to force you to quit.  The event was designed by operators and is based on the standards of Special Forces Assessment and Selection course in the armed forces.

 

GORUCK Selection 2014 takes place in Jacksonville Beach, Florida and begins Thursday, Oct. 9 at 13:00 EST and will include live updates via the GORUCK news blog, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

After Work Scouting Mission

Embarked on a quick scouting mission to a potential hunting zone last evening after work.  Took the Land Cruiser to the trailhead, rode the fatbike to the end of the trail, and then hiked an off-trail ridge to within 15 minutes of sunset.  Glassed for game until sunset (spotted three elk) and then hightailed it back downhill arriving at my truck in the last minutes of twilight.

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Canoeing the Smith River, a Montana Gem

If you ask a random American what their stereotypical perspective of a Minnesotan is it may very likely include hotdish, hockey, and canoeing.  As a youngster, being a Minnesota native I ate a lot of hotdish but I didn’t play much hockey and I didn’t do a lot of canoeing.  In the last decade or so I’ve grown very fond of river camping and have done a handful of trips via canoe, packraft, and standard raft.  Two of these trips are firmly rooted near the top of my all time favorite camping experiences, including the one I’m about to tell you of.

 

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The idea was spawned this past winter to get a group together to put into the lottery for a permit on Montana’s Smith River.  A few of us got together for dinner and drinks, discussed strategy and entered for three different put-in dates ranging from a prime mid-June slot to riskier (low water) slots in early June and early July.  The odds of the lottery aren’t terrible but they’re also not certain.  In 2013 there were 6,662 applicants with only 1062 permits awarded.  One of our group was lucky though and a slot to put-in on Saturday, July 12th was ours.  The ’13/’14 winter hammered SW Montana with near-record snowfalls so our fingers were crossed that the 165% snowpack in the Smith watershed would hold out and provide the needed 240+ cfs flows to get all of our crafts down the river without too much hassle.

 

The word spread that we had a permit.  The original group of six or seven participants quickly swelled to 13, dropped, swelled again – right up until the last day before we put in when one last member backed out leaving us with an even 10.  We had planned extensively both via group email as well as a thorough planning spreadsheet.  And in late June as many of the participants as were available went on an overnight trip to shakedown gear and group dynamics (that was a gorgeous trip in and of itself).  The logistics of shuttling ten people’s bodies, gear, and boats was solved, group cooking gear was selected, and paddling/rowing teams were set.

 

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We had participants coming from all over the U.S. – Bozeman, Minneapolis, and Seattle – but all successfully converged at the Camp Baker put-in Friday evening for our Saturday morning departure.  We arrived after dark but shelters were pitched, a fire lit, and beers were in hand in under 30 minutes.  Stoke level was high and we sat around the fire chatting ’til around 11pm.  Smith River policy requires a meeting with a ranger to pay permitting fees, select campsites, and hear a brief safety/regulations talk the morning of your put-in and we were up at 7am and ready with bacon, pancakes, and coffee flying off the Coleman Dual Fuel.

 

The ranger informed us there had been 8,000 applicants for the lottery this season and that on average there were 135 people putting in per day throughout the summer.  Our July 12th put in is considered near the end of the season but there were still dozens of boats and a few dozen people milling about Camp Baker getting ready.  The nice thing about the permitting and controlled access of the Smith is that it spaces river users out in such a way that although you’re sharing 50 miles of river with hundreds of people you may only see a couple other boats all day.  Some choose to float in a five day window, others choose to fit it into four days. This also helps to limit how many you see as well.  We played hop scotch with one other party who shared a similar itinerary to ours the entire time but only saw a small handful of other groups on days one and four.

 

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The Smith is everything from a well managed, natural habitat for flora and fauna, to a fishing paradise, to a relaxed and generally worry-free booze cruise.  Our group appreciated each and every one of those aspects day in and day out.  We had folks along who were into fishing, folks who have graduate degrees that are into science, and folks who enjoy cracking a river beer a little after ten in the morning.

 

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The river proved a very worthy adventure for our group.  We were spaced out in four canoe teams consisting of two paddlers and one raft team with one at the oars and one on a fishin’ rod.  The raft carried a little bit of extra gear but for the most part everyone had their own gear in their own canoes.  We spent a fair amount of time planning group gear (stoves, tables, shelters, et al) so that we had little to no unnecessary redundancy.  Food was also very well thought out and we devoted certain coolers to dry-ice laden deep freeze machines and others to open-as-much-as-needed cold beer dispensing machines.

 

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Our scheduled permit which came toward the end of the heavy float season meant we’d have whole campsites to ourselves.  The Smith is laid out in such a way that areas containing designated campsites usually have an upper, middle, and lower site.  The sites are pretty well spaced so even on the last night when we had neighbors to the upper and lower sites below us it wasn’t particularly annoying (at least not to us – not sure whether they liked us or not!?!).

 

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The trip was absolutely spectacular.  The fishing didn’t prove to be very fruitful because none of us consider ourselves pros with a fly and the lateness of the season meant the water was extremely warm.  Not to worry though, just getting to cast a fly into the water under a few hundred foot tall canyon wall is a relaxing and rewarding activity in and of itself and worth it without a trout reward.

 

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Any amount of fishing that may have not proved fruitful was easily made up for in exquisite swimming opportunities.  We made it a point to stop a couple times a day for an hour or more at at time when we’d come to a good swimming hole.  We even found a couple decent “deep water” soloing opportunities with some fun little cliff jumps.

 

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Get your friends together and apply for your permit if you want to float the Smith.  If awarded, do yourself a favor and do some pre-trip planning (or a ton of planning as we did).  Dial in your food plan so you can eat gourmet grub three meals a day and figure out which campsites are awesome and which are just so-so.  Find a couple good friends who don’t complain about the sun or the lack of good fishing and hit the river.  The Smith is an absolute treasure and worth sharing.  If you feel the same, consider researching the current plans to attempt to build a mine at the headwaters and write a note to your government reps or consider a donation to at saveoursmith.com.  Let’s keep Montana beautiful as both a natural resource and a recreational playground.

 

Bridger Ridge Traverse – August 24th, 2008

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*Note – this was originally posted as a trip report on Summit Post in 2008, and subsequently as a post to previous version of my website.  I am re-posting it here for posterity and search-ability.   For all trip photos view the  Bridger Ridge Traverse album on Flickr.

 

Jeff and Sam started at Fairy Lake USFS campground at 07:30 on 2008-08-24 with light packs, lots of food, water, maps and legs ready to be destroyed. We finished, eleven and a half hours later having ascended 5,170 ft and descended 7,460 ft over nineteen miles.

 

 

Preparation

Jeff has lived in Bozeman for two years and has had his eye on the route followed during the Bridger Ridge Run just about ever since. Sam has lived in Bozeman for about a month and a half but has had his eye on a Bridger Traverse since the first time he skiied Bridger Bowl in 2005.

 

In a passing conversation the week prior to the trip Jeff mentioned his 30th birthday was coming up and that he had a desire to do something meaningful, worthwhile and challenging before his twenties passed. Knowing that Sam was someone who thoroughly enjoyed backpacking, hiking and alpine scrambling he put forth the idea to him as well as some other Bozeman locals. Sam responded with a whole-hearted, hell yes I’d like to join you and the response from others was a bit milder.

 

Sam and Jeff both did some independent research of the traverse using such tools as the excellent Bozeman Area topographic map, Google Earth and the Ridge Run maps located at the Big Sky Wind Drinkers Web site.

 

The Hike
Waking at 05:30 on Sunday morning a quick breakfast was consumed and the packs finally loaded. Sam brought Clif bars, salami, cheese, baguette, chocolate and four liters of water. Jeff brought sandwiches, M&Ms and nine and a half liters of water (having miscalculated thinking he was only bringing seven and a half). Driving Sam’s Subaru to the Fairy Lake trailhead they quickly hit the trail opting to change the Bridger Run route to their own liking by tacking on a summit of Hardscrabble Peak to the already big day of travel planned.

 

 

Descending from Hardscrabble the meat of the journey began with a climb of Sacagawea Peak, the high point of the trip at 9,665ft of elevation. A use trail exists along the entirety of the Bridge Range as described in this report but side-steps some of the summits in the range. Opting to bag most of these Sam and Jeff next climbed the few dozen extra feet to the summit of Naya Nuki wherein author Kenneth Thomasma has left a few copies of his novel, Naya Nuki, Shoshone Girl Who Ran, the story of the peak’s namesake.

 

 

The use trail is excellent for 95% of the route and is the majority of what is traveled in the traverse. The route called for in the Bridger Ridge Run skips a beefy section near Ross Peak which would call for a higher class of scrambling that most are prepared for in a running race. At this point the suggested route is to drop a thousand some odd feet to the National Scenic hiking trail which parallels the Bridger Ridge on the West side. A beautiful trail with excellent tread takes traversers to Ross Pass and then at a well-marked junction (large cairn and two blazes, one paint and one cut) hikers should turn left, head straight uphill on a well-worn use trail back to the summit of the ridge.

 

The rest of the day was spent hopping rocks, photographing amazing views and calculating mileages and hours. Along the way are great views of many mountain ranges, including the Crazy Mountains, Madison Range, Absaroka Range, Beartooth Range, Gallatin Range, and the Tobacco Root Mountains.

 

Other named peaks that are ticked off while hiking this traverse are Saddle Peak, Bridger Peak and Baldy Mountain.

 

 

Descending from Baldy Mountain to the Bozeman area “M” trail is a knee-pounding affair nearly straight down a few thousand some odd feet. After a grueling day in the sun, hiking on scree and rock it took it’s toll on Jeff and Sam’s knees. We met Jeff’s wife Shannon at the “M” and finshed at the “M” trailhead to shuttle back to Fairy Lake to fetch Sam’s vehicle.

 

 

Conclusions
Having hiked this partial section of the Bridger Range Traverse both Sam and Jeff would like to complete the remaining section from Flathead Pass southward to Hardscrabble.

 

Worthy of mention is the common thread on various Internet resources that the route is hard to follow and both Sam and Jeff agree that these statements are false. With minimal route-finding skills and keeping one’s eyes open anyone with the physical capabilities for big miles and big elevations should have little to no difficulty in completing this traverse.

 

Fifty Miles on the Pitchstone Plateau and along the Bechler River

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A trip in the Bechler region of Yellowstone National Park has been on my bucket list for years.  I secured a permit encompassing a vast chunk of the SW corner of the park.  My itinerary was to traverse the Pitchstone Plateau, then head westward to the Bechler River Valley, following it northward to my end point in the Old Faithful geyser basin.  This would allow me to experience three vastly different ecosystems, camping one night in each.

 

I experienced beautiful moonrises, glorious sunrises, sunny afternoons, a seemingly endless thirty-six hours of continuous rain, mile after mile of both grassy savannah walking as well as mud and bog walking, a spectacular soak in one of the best backcountry hotsprings known to humankind, and hours of solo introspection and enjoyment.  The journey through this section of YNP is well worth a visit for someone looking to walk an all-trail route that has just enough an element of navigation and route finding challenge to keep things interesting but is still moderate enough to allow your thoughts to wander without consequence.

 

The route crosses numerous springs, streams, and rivers so water consumption planning is simple.  I inquired locally and with respected and trusted individuals regarding the fishing potential and fly choices.  I cast my line into three separate stream/river systems, each containing different species and although my luck and skill (lack of?) didn’t pan out, the joy and meditative qualities of tenkara fishing made the extra six ounces of gear well worth it.

 

Logistically the trip worked out exceptionally.  I left my car at the Pitchstone trailhead, hiked the loop, and grabbed an instantaneous hitchhike with an off duty park employee all the way back to my car at trip’s end.  Bike shuttling along the busy park roads is an option as well but would require planning a morning start to allow for the extra hours needed.  Hitchhiking can be a gamble but in this instance paid off exceptionally.

 

I decided to photograph the journey through wide shots of the landscape, trying to capture the essence of the different spaces I visited.  From the wide open, grassy savannah of the Pitchstone Plateau, to the woody and wet valleys of Mountain Ash Creek, to the boggy, misty and steamy Bechler River Valley, all zones had a unique character that was constantly bringing a smile to my face.

 

 

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Morganzo 55: Double Nickels on the Grime – 2014

I participated in my second (of three) of our little local gravel bike ride/race the Morganzo 55: Double Nickles on the Grime last weekend.  It’s a beautiful fifty-five mile course all of which (minus the first 1/4 mile or so) is on gravel roads of quality varying from regularly graded to rutted farm two tracks.  There were around 15 participants this year who turned out for the ride under partly cloudy skies with temps pushing near 90 deg. F.

I aimed to finish in less than five hours and I pretty much managed that.  My GPS read 05:01 but that included a 1.5 mile out-and-back detour due to a bad route finding decision.  Oops.  As one of the race promoters you’d think I’d know the exact course.  Anyway, it was a great ride, with great participants, and I expect we’ll do it again next year.

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Gravelly Range Overland

The name of this blog is “Going Places Quietly” and it’s intent is to highlight my wilderness treks whether they be on foot, splitboard, bicycle, or skis.  That being said my wife, friends, and I do a lot of car camping and the mini-expedition we set out on over Independence Day was so exceptionally beautiful that I felt the need to write about it here even though car travel isn’t normally considered a “quiet sport”.


 

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My wife had told me a tale of a gravel road that traversed the spine of the Gravelly Mountain Range – a seldom visited range in SW Montana – and back in May I pinged a few folks to plan a long loop encompassing the entirety of the range with terrain varying from well-graded gravel to some slightly technical jeep trails.  With the Independence day holiday falling on a Friday the opportunity to hit the road Thursday night, grab a burger on the way and be into the Forest a bit after dark before the weekend really even began was a prime opportunity.


 

Burgers and beer at the Gravel Bar in Ennis followed by a necessary final fueling of the trucks and our intrepid group of leisure seekers left smooth asphalt for FS roads just as the sun was setting.  Headlights flipped on and our string of four rigs snaked along quality gravel through farmland and the slow climb up to our first camp high atop the gently sloping NE side of the range.  Our posse consisted of three Land Cruisers of various age and a custom Johnny Cash “One Piece at a Time” Jeep our friend Tom has been working on for years that combines a chassis from one year and a cab from another, along with a slew of other parts from other years.


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We crossed the forest boundary and began looking for an acceptable camping site for the evening.  I had done much prior research in Google Earth and had a zone generally selected so we followed our GPS track, headlight ablaze on the road and trees alongside.  The lights of the small hamlet of Ennis made for a quaint scene to the NE and the impressive Madison Range to the East loomed in shadow of the twilight.  A tunnel of trees engulfed the road and soon after a small acreage of meadow brimming with Glacier Lilly opened up and I immediately pulled my FJ62 off the road knowing we’d found the perfect first camp.  The rest of our party followed suit and as the hour of 11pm approached we set about making our first camp.  Some were to sleep in their rigs, others put up tents.  I had camp ready first and quickly set about getting a proper campfire going.  Rain sprinkled us once or twice over the course of the next hour but we sat ’round the Ranger TV sipping cold beer and reveling in how great a vacation we were already off to.


 

Our Friday itinerary was simple; follow the Gravelly Range Road South for about 20 miles to the impressive Black Butte massif, find a camp and then set out to climb the peak.  Coffee was made, a variety of pancakes, bacon, and fruit was consumed at a leisurely pace, and rigs were packed.  We set out on the road through what was to be the first of  three days of supreme scenery.  The north-facing ridges held slithering slices of snow, the meadows were a carpet of wildflowers in a vast array of colors, and the horizon in all directions was a sea of peaks both jagged and smooth.


 

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A friend was riding his dual sport motorcycle to meet us at Camp Two so we scouted around Black Butte to find our next home.  Nothing in the direct vicinity felt perfect so we left the main Gravelly Road and down Standard Creek Road a few miles until another lovely prairie of wildflowers revealed itself.  The Gravelly Range Road doesn’t see a large population of traffic but the Forest Service manages camping and requires motorized camping parties to stay at sites marked with a small sign.  The rules are loose regarding what you can do at the sites so we typically spread our rigs out across an area encompassing about an acre and all the sites we saw and stayed at were very nicely rehabbed and it was clear that those who visit the area respect it greatly.  Only one fire ring was at any of the sites and ruts and tire tracks were basically non existent.


 

gravelly-fj62-jeep


 

We all opted to simply loaf around most of the day, napping, taking the little Honda Trail 90 (carried on a hitch haul on the back of one of the Cruisers) for quick spins around, and target shooting pistols and rifles at a 50 yd target.  Rain came and went intermittently as is common when camped up near the high alpine so we opted to save a hike to the summit of Black Butte until the following morning.  Two of our party boiled up a massive vat of shrimp, potatoes, and corn on the cob which we ravenously devoured alongside copious cans of beer ’round the fire.


 

Day three dawned and the coffee flowed freely.  Our dual sport biker had arrived at the end of the previous day and he set out to thank us for carrying much of his gear in the trucks making his bike light and nimble by producing a feast of eggs and fresh veggies wrapped in tortillas.  After all were satiated with breakfast I put together a pound of hamburger patties for our Summit Cheeseburger attempt at Black Butte.  Camp packed up quickly and easily – the group of eight of us all working independently but efficiently at a remarkably similar pace – and we were on the road and to the base of the peak before 11am.


 

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Sunscreen was applied, the fixins for cheeseburgers, a cold can of beer, rain jacket, and water bottle were in my pack and we set out offtrail toward our mountain.  Surprisingly we ran into a few other hikers out to climb the peak as well but they were a decade or two older than us and moving a bit slower so we said hello and continued up.  The climb was simple and directions were aided by previous climber’s cairns.  Only a small amount of snow covered the route which was easily bypassed and the going was smooth on a well worn social path.  We summited in glorious sunshine with views that ranged for many dozens of miles.  A slight haze, probably from a far-off forest fire clouded the horizon but the peaks of the Madison Range, Snowcrest Range, Greenhorn Range, Pintlar Range, Belts, and Tobacco Roots were striking and awe-inspiring.  We nommed cheeseburgers, posed for a photo, and enjoyed a cold beer, relaxed at 10,542 feet before setting back down to the rigs.


 

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gravelly-summit


 

The drive that day was to be a long one and would include finishing the first leg of our trip – the Gravelly Ridge, followed by a slightly higher speed section of wide gravel along the Ruby River – the second leg of the trip, and the start into the technical third leg of the trip – a climb up and over a high pass.  The day was hot, but the breeze from atop the remaining miles of the Gravelly Range Road were heavenly.  The wildflowers were so exquisite that every single twist and turn or up and down section of the road created a new micro ecosystem for a different variety to thrive.  The colors across the landscape were simply alive.


 

gravelly-wildflowers


 

Dropping steeply and quickly off the high ridge and into the dusty and dry Ruby River Valley was a bit shocking.  We sped up to keep the air moving and to get some miles under our tires as we needed to get North to our final camping destination.  We made good time and enjoyed the scenery of the Ruby River.  It provides exceptional Grayling fishing and there were many campsites set up alongside with dozens of fishers wading the cool waters.


 

We reached the Ruby Reservoir, drove a few miles of required asphalt before turning off the highway, crossing a telltale sign of good things to come – a cattle guard – and then turned our speed back down to more of a crawling pace as we made our way up Barton Gulch.  We had FRS walkie talkie radios with us and communication was back and forth as the rigs spread out aways down the canyon.  The group became separated when one of the rigs decided to overheat and another decided it’s lack of fuel injection on the steep slopes was problematic.  After some radio silence issues and not having the whole group together the leaders backtracked until we were all at the same spot giving the Land Cruiser some time to cool down.  Beers were popped, a box of cookies was passed around, and tunes were turned up for a little backwoods dance party session.  Regardless of some minimal mechanicals, the heat was subsiding as the afternoon turned into evening and everyone was in great spirits.


 

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The next few miles of road were to be the most technical of the trip and everyone dialed the techy parts excellently.  The bike was out ahead followed by the two mechanically-prone rigs and the rear was trailed up by the remaining rigs.  We maintained constant radio comms this time around just to be sure.  Hubs were locked, 4wd was on, and the driving was sublime.  An abandoned mine halfway up provided for a photo op along with a few other hulks of buildings long forgotten.  The highlight of it all came as we crested the top of the pass and were treated to what would be our campsite for the evening – a glorious open area at 8500 ft complete with views to both the East and West with just the right amount of shade for the morning, and enough firewood for myriad evenings of relaxing.


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The group fell into the routine of setting up camp.  Dinner and fire-making duties were performed without anyone asking anyone else.  A potluck of grub was laid out on the table and the dwindling beer supply went down can after can.  The alpenglow on the surrounding peaks was stunning and as we watched it fade away into night we were all beside ourselves with how gorgeous the place we live is.  We stayed up around the fire for awhile longer until tiredness overcame each of us at our own pace and then wandered off to our respective places to lay our head.


 

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The morning dawned crisp, clear, and just the right amount of chilly.  We breakfasted on great chow with coffee and orange juice and pondered our maps for the final leg of the journey.  A last minute decision to take a route different than the one I had planned prior to the trip (a decision we would later regret but also made us decide to come back someday) and we set off on a steep jeep trail down into a side canyon toward the main draw of Alder Gulch.  It was a relatively short drive the rest of the way out Alder Gulch to the historic town of Virginia City – home to history’s largest silver placer mining operation.  The town was abuzz with tourists as we pulled our dusty rigs off the dirt for the last time and onto the pavement.


 

 

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Our next destination was back to the town of Ennis and a visit to the local hamburger joint owned and operated by the area school teachers called the Sugar High.  We pulled in a couple minutes before they opened, got in line for cheeseburgers, fries, and malts which we leisurely ate in the shade alongside the restaurant.  The return trip back to Bozeman was leisurely and my wife and I even treated ourselves to the air conditioner in our FJ.  The drive is one we’ve made many times but is beautiful each and every and we thoroughly enjoyed it.  There was a bikini hatch happening on the Madison along the popular “booze cruise” stretch and in the heat of the afternoon a refreshing dip seemed pretty good but we kept on along and were hope at a reasonable hour to do some cleaning up and prepping for re-entry back into society on Monday.


 

gravelly-group


 

This region is very vast and I expect we’ll return to visit some of it’s nooks and crannies on foot and on bicycle someday but as a primer, driving this large, primarily gravel loop was a stunning way to see the country.  Very few others were out and about and the camping was exquisite and plentiful.  My recommendation to follow our route or one similar is very high.  Big sky country indeed.


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gravelly-map

The GPS route of this trip can be found on the everytrail.com page, Gravelly Range Backcountry Drive – Montana.