On Spooking Elk and Stalking Mule Deer

Montana rifle hunters willing to put in the extra work it takes to get deep into the backcountry have early gates to begin hunting over a month prior to the general season opener so my buddy Justin and I set about planning a trip into one of these four districts.  Three of the four are located up in the Bob Marshall and the other is located down in our neck of the woods in the Absaroka Beartooth.  We picked an access point that we felt would offer up a good chance at finding big game, was close enough to a trailhead that hiking out a heap of meat wouldn’t wreck us (too much), but was still far enough from a trailhead or road to make the riff raff want to avoid it.

After some highway driving and a long, bumpy FS road we arrived at the trailhead to find fourteen other vehicles – more than ten of which were big ol’ diesel ranch rigs complete with full sized horse trailers.  We knew we’d be sharing the mountains with horse packers and hunting guides but we hoped they were going to stick to the main trail and that we were going to have the less visited drainage adjacent to ourselves.  It was close to seven miles from the car just to get to the boundary of the hunting district and the point where we’d see if the horse packers continued downhill or if they turned off along the ridgeline to the next bowl.  Much to our delight the scratch in the grass that was the only sign of our trail was a great sign that the next drainage would be potentially void of other people.

With a smile on our face knowing we’d probably be leaving the more popular zone we carefully picked our way along the 10k+ ridgeline to the next drainage being careful as we approached not to skyline any critters that might be lingering as one drainage rolled over the small pass into the next.  The wind was howling and a light snow had started to fall as we low crawled up to the crest and began glassing the beautiful country below.  The cold was quickly getting the best of us as we were both still wearing just lightweight baselayers from the long uphill hike.  We carefully albeit hurriedly made our way over the saddle to a small row of stumpy conifers to get out of the wind.  Justin set about brewing up some coffee and I quickly donned a jacket and began glassing.  We had only been within the boundaries of the huntable district for less than an hour at this point and mere minutes later we both looked to the North and saw a young bull elk and three cows standing in full view not more than 500 yards away just checking us out.  They watched us for but a few seconds and took off at a trot down valley.  Busted.  What a great way to start a four day hunting trip!

We kicked ourselves for not being supremely patient in glassing better prior to entering the drainage but the cold had caught up to us and we had never once thought we’d get into elk immediately upon arriving.  Lessons – hard lessons – learned.  I watched the elk effortlessly cover a couple miles of terrain and a thousand or more feet of elevation drop and gain in around 15 minutes.  What immense, powerful animals.  We made note of where they traveled and where they disappeared – back pocket information for our remaining time in this zone.

We made a plan to begin hunting down the valley slowly and cautiously.  We covered quite a bit of miles walking a few hundred meters apart from each other down the essentially trail-less valley (a fire had torched nearly all the timber and the lack of use of the trail made it only a scratch).  We had hoped that if one of us scared something up it would allow the other to get in a shot.  As the magic light of the evening cast alpenglow on the high peaks above us and dark became imminent we picked a spot, set up the tent, hung the bear rope, and got our grub on.

Hunting is a sport of mornings and evenings so an early rise is essential.  We woke at 0600, coffee’ed, ate, broke camp, and headed up the opposite wall of the drainage than we’d come down the previous day.  We had formulated a plan the night before and began the arduous climb up the burned hillside chock full of fallen timber.  Careful, micro route finding is essential in these situations to save yourself from a twisted ankle and fatigue but also to avoid making a racket that would undoubtedly spook up your prey.

After six hours of careful maneuvering interspersed with a few hour-long sessions of just sitting and glassing we came to an open meadow nestled between two heights of land and backed by the steep, North-facing canyon wall.  A small seep of water came up from the ground in the middle of the meadow, and distinct game trails and many animal tracks clearly denoted the presence of game in the area.  This area was exactly where the elk that we spooked the previous day had headed down into after I’d lost site of them as I watched from the high country.

The plan we had made while glassing lower down the hillside was to find a spot we thought might be a “honey hole” e.g. the potential hangout spot for game and to simply post up in comfortable positions with stellar firing angles for the remainder of the day and then set camp just before dark.  We each took up a position atop one of these heights of land, Justin covering one of the game trails and I covering one of the meadows, an side access game trail, and a steep downhill approach that showed lots of sign of elk and deer travel.  The next six hours were very zen-like as we could not see each other, nor talk to each other.  It was just each of us with our binocular, rifle, and our thoughts.  We both glassed the area adjacent to us as well as the cliffs and hillsides many, many miles distant.  Although no animals came into range we were both treated to our own delightful views of mountain goats on far away cliffs.  The two that I spotted I was able to watch on and off for over two hours as they made their way along a high cliff a few miles distant from me.

We set our camp, had our dinner and were asleep before 2100.  The previous night had dipped to 25 degrees F but tonight seemed to be off to a better start.  Justin was traveling alpine-style with only the backpanel of his pack for a sleeping mat and was looking forward to a slightly better night’s sleep.  I had the extra weight of a torso-sized inflatable mat on my back the entire weekend but it made up for any cold sleeping – – my least favorite thing to experience while backpacking.

Another six a.m. wake-up, coffee, and breakfast found us climbing to the top of a steep bench where we were treated to astounding views of essentially the entire basin we’d now been hunting for 36+ hours.  We posted up in two positions, me to glass the entire upper country of the basin and Justin to guard the area we’d just approached from in the event an animal came ambling up the hillside to the tasty browse on top of the bench.  I formulated a plan and ran it past Justin for how to spend the afternoon.  He concurred and suggested a few alternatives which jived well for both of us.  We would continue hunting the side of the canyon we were on until mid afternoon and then if nothing had transpired, head back over to the main canyon where the horse camps were to make a camp and then hunt for the morning prior to needing to head back out to civilization.

We very carefully picked our way down off the bench bumping from one patch of trees to another, glassing the next ahead as we went and always glassing the distance as far in any direction as we could see.  We spotted a very solid game trail in the distance which clearly marked the route from the high country down to the honey hole we’d camped at for any animals coming from the high country downvalley along this side of the canyon.  We jumped onto it and slowly made our way up canyon.  Midday was fast approaching and we’d not yet seen any critters so we moved with a bit more speed and stopped to glass less.  We did however maintain an attitude of stalking and did not give ourselves away any more than necessary.

After a glorious stop for lunch along a fresh, clear stream of water below a steep cliff I spotted two white rumps in a meadow ahead.  I put my hand up to motion to Justin behind me and carefully glassed around a conifer.  Two mule deer does were a hundred or so yards ahead of us.  These does were off limits in this district at this time so we didn’t bother with them and made our position known to them before continuing our creep uphill.  Moments later I put my binocular up to my eyes to glass the distant hillsides as I’d done hundreds of times previous and in my slow sweep my eyes landed on what I instantly thought were six elk and I immediately told Justin so.  I then lifted the binocular again and retracted my statement, clarifying that they were not elk, but muleys.  The animals were over a half mile away so identifying their sex took some very patient viewing through both the binocular and rifle scope.  After ten or so minutes I felt confident that at least three of them were male and we talked over the feasibility of a stalk from so far away on these animals known for being extremely attentive and jumpy.

I made one potential suggestion but it involved coming in from above the animals including a couple hundred yards of completely exposed terrain.  I had little to no confidence that this approach would work but I was very interested in making an attempt on these animals.  Taking a mule deer buck was an acceptable option for me as I planned for this trip.  Justin joined me on this trip with the intent to focus on hunting elk and wasn’t as interested in taking a mule deer. When I told him I would rather spend the remainder of the day making an attempt on one of these bucks than I would just moving over to the next canyon to find camp he wholeheartedly offered up a suggested approach to the stalk that I completely got behind.

We worked out a series of hand signals so that he could remain behind in a good position to glass the animals as I set off to cover the 1/2 mile and try to get within the range I feel comfortable shooting at, which is 200 yards.  My method was to use spotty vegetation and the topography of the land to keep myself as hidden from these incredibly attuned animals as I could.  This entire stalk was going to rely on the fact that it was approximately 1400 hours and it was highly likely that these animals were about to bed down in a thicket for an afternoon rest prior to their evening feeding session later.  If they did in fact bed, and I could spend the time while they were doing so getting into position I could then wait them out until they appeared from the scrub and into my sights.

I covered the 1/2 mile stealthily, dropped my pack in a thicket and began bear crawling with just the essentials.  I had put on an extra layer and drank some water in case I was in for a long wait, but otherwise only had my rifle, gloves, and earplugs along with me.  Continuing to try and keep either vegetation or small undulations of earth between me and the animals I was able to successfully get to the last remaining thicket of trees before an open space and the thicket that the animals had bedded down in before I set off to stalk.  I was now operating blind because I had not been able to keep an eye on them as I walked.  I carefully brought my binocular up to my eyes and almost as if on cue a buck stepped out, completely broadside to me and stared down canyon directly toward me.  I was well hidden and I was pretty certain he couldn’t see me but there was a wicked wind blowing across me and up and slightly to my right that was undoubtedly wafting my odors across his nose.  I had only just arrived at this spot and I had not yet had a chance to position my rife into a comfortable and stable shooting position so I was not yet ready to take a shot.  Once again, almost as if on cue as I lay there on my stomach cursing his timing he stepped back behind the thicket.

I took a deep breath and dug deep into my well of patience and told myself that good things can come to those who wait so I immediately set about positioning a small log in front of me and testing the steadiness of my rifle, adjusting my scope and going over the shooting regimen in my head as I waited.  I had arrived in position at 1500, only about one hour after first spotting the critters.  I could see three animals, all with between three and four points on one half their antlers milling about behind the thicket but not even remotely with enough clarity that I would consider taking a shot.  I simply had to wait and be patient.  I was blessed with this not taking too long however as only 15 or 30 minutes passed when the first animal’s head popped out from the trees.  And then just beyond him, another.  Neither had exposed their front shoulders – the aspect of the creatures needed to be visible to make a clean kill.  Then a third head appeared and I carefully examined each critter and decided on which I would take aim upon should they finally decide to walk out.  The first two came out into the complete open and began feeding and it was everything I could do to remain calm, breathing slowly, attempting to control my heart rate.  These minutes stretched on for what seemed like much longer until the buck I had my rifle leveled on stepped out.  He made one step, two steps, three steps, as I carefully tracked him in the crosshairs of my scope.  I took a slow, controlled, deep breath, exhaled, and triggered.

Commotion of course immediately ensued.  I was successful in following the buck as he jumped forward five or ten feet but then all five of the animals in the immediate vicinity became impossible for me to tell apart as they grouped up.  A rifle is incredibly loud and I am sure they were a bit stunned by whatever it was, but did not scatter, but rather simply all began walking away.  I had no way of knowing whether I had successfully hit the animal nor, if so, which of them it might be as they were now all walking away slowly.  I became overcome with doubt as I watched six animals all walking away.  One appeared to possibly be limping but I could not be certain whether this might have been from a bad shot by me or something altogether different.  I did not dare take a shot at this animal in case I had in fact dropped the one I was aiming at and that may be lying dead in the tall grass out of sight.  I took a few deep breaths and felt the adrenaline surging in my veins reminding me of the power contained in the act of taking another animal’s life.

My brain was on overdrive as I collected my rifle and quickly moved downhill to get my pack.  Justin had made double time up the hill upon hearing my rifle report and he appeared within minutes as I was beginning my journey to see if I hit or missed my mark.  Doubt weighed heavily on my mind as I knew I had seen six animals walk away and up toward the ridgeline but I was still incredibly amped regarding the entire stalk, wait, and ultimately the shot.  Justin later told me my eyes were very wide and I was talking a mile a minute.

We arrived at the location a few minutes later and as I had suspected, did not find an animal crumpled up in the dirt.  The shot I had taken was at the end of my comfortable shooting range of 200 yards, was along a steeply sloping uphill trajectory, and had a very strong cross breeze blowing left to right.  I told Justin of the deer that had the slight limp and that if in the event I had caused this injury I needed to be certain I could attempt to justify the situation so we set about tracking to look for blood.  We were successful in following the group of animals fresh tracks in the dirt for well over a quarter mile and we found not a single drop of blood so we both felt comfortable in putting a period at the end of the sentence that was a very powerful stalk on a beautiful group of mule deer bucks.

It was approaching 1700 at this point so as I began to come down off the high I was on from such an exhilarating although ultimately fruitless hunt we got back on track to make our way out of the drainage we had now completely hunted down and back up over 48 hours.  We made our way along the knife ridge to the popular, horse packer, ridden drainage to find the main trail we’d hiked in on with the tracks of around six horses to now be completely obliterated by what must have been many more strings of animals.  As we looked down valley I asked Justin how serious he was about making a camp and spending three hours the next morning hunting the upper end of a zone that had seen multiple groups of pack animals blasting through it.  We thoroughly talked it over and decided that if we had the whole next day it would be worth a try but since we didn’t we might as well make just start in on the seven mile hike out and three hour drive back home so that we could spend Sunday with loved ones.  We made half of the hike in the pitch black, deep in grizzly country so we turned on Justin’s iPhone and shared Alice’s Restaurant and a few other Arlo Guthrie tunes with any adjacent wildlife to let them know we meant no harm.  Boots to dirt and tires to the road we arrived home at 1230 am, sans meat, but chock full of spectacular scenery, company, and experience.

Boulder Pass Loop – Glacier National Park – 2004

In September 2004 I was living in West Glacier, Montana and invited a group of college buddies out to meet up for our semi-annual backpacking trip.  On this go-round we opted for the exceptional Boulder Pass loop in the northwest corner of Glacier National Park.

Eric, Mark, Mike and I acquired permits for Bowman Lake, Hole-in-the-Wall, Boulder Pass and Kintla Lake in the North Fork region of the park for the opportunity to show some flatlanders just why that part of the country is called the Crown of the Continent presented itself excellently.

Below are a sampling of the photos from the trip.  The full gallery can be viewed here.



















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.




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.




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.




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.




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.




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!?!).







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.







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.







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.


Superior Hiking Trail, Sunday, May 08, 2005

Sonju Lake, May 2005

From my Trail Journal, Sunday, 2005-05-08, Sonju Lake

The sun hangs in the sky, lazy. The choir of creatures surrounding me don’t mind me being here and have just struck up a tune. A choir with tens of thousands of players, no composer and no sheet music. A jazz combo of epic proportions. The first few mosquitos of the summer buzz solo parts in my ear. They are huge.

The Art of Glissading

Wikipedia defines glissading as the

“..voluntary act of descending a steep slope of snow in a controlled manner either for the sheer thrill of the ride or to bypass tedious scree.”

During the summer of 2009 I co-guided a course in ultralight backpacking for the Backpacking Light Wilderness Trekking School alongside Andrew Skurka and Glen Van Peski in the beautiful Wind River Range of Wyoming. One afternoon as we were descending along painfully slow scree fields (I believe off Wind River Peak) we opted to speed things up and glissade some perfectly pitched snowfields.

View the embedded video “Glissading in the Wind River Range” on Vimeo.

Backpacking the Spanish Peaks of the Madison Range

The crew I was part of in college refers to ourselves as Flavor Country and a small subset of this crew has been taking an annual backpacking trip since somewhere around 2002 or 2003.  I and my roomate (also a part of Flavor Country) have the fortune of living in a place where there is ample and awesome backpacking so a couple of the guys from the Midwest came out to visit last week and we hit the trail for four days and three nights.

There was some big ol’ glacial erratic along the trail.
We found ourselves way up in the high country singing “Misty Mountain Hop”.
Then it snowed.  Eric was so afraid he had to close his eyes.
Someone left a metal grill at the site so we steamed some beef sticks in a sardine can.
It was pretty much exquisitely beautiful. 
Eric constructed the best firepit ever.  ‘Twas a shame to practice LNT and tear it down in the morning.
At trip’s end we had to fight Jax dog for the last tall boy of Old Swill.  

Parcour de Wild 2009

Continental Divide TrailOn October 11th, 2009 Matt Lutz and Sam Haraldson drove to the Continental Divide along the desolate Montana Hwy 200.  Arriving at the 5,610 ft trailhead and finding just shy of a meter of snow paired with temperatures around 10 deg F the duo put on their hardmen game face, snowshoes, backpacks, and began climbing from Roger’s Pass to the Crown of the Continent – the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail.

SunriseFor the previous months Matt and Sam had been planning a route across parts of the Helena National Forest comprised primarily of the Bob Marshall with the expectation of traveling between 130 and 165 miles as part of the loosely-organized wilderness adventure race Parcour de Wild.  As the date for the trip grew nearer the snow began to fall in NW Montana and Sam and Matt’s chances of making 150 miles along the Continental Divide grew slim.  Much planning had gone into the route and little time was left to create a Plan B so when Matt arrived at Sam’s house in Bozeman after driving from Minnesota the two stuck with their plan. 

MattEven with the first steps from the highway, over the five foot embankment of plowed snow, up the switchbacks to the top of the first ridgeline Sam was doubtful of the teams ability to complete their route.  Being the perservering type he kept his mouth shut and mentally determined his mindset would be that of forward-progress with no particular end-goal intent.  Sam and Matt discussed their plans in ongoing dialog as they walked for the first and second day.  Sometime during the second day after having only made less than a dozen miles they knew the focus of the trip should change from fast and light adventure race mode to an enjoyable winter camping trip. 

MattAfter a decision to hike out-and-back rather than push on toward the finish was determined – a decision which did not negatively affect either hiker – the lightness of step that is found in any fun backcountry excursion continued with each snowshoe placed into the glistening white powder.  Matt and Sam hiked until a pre-determined time, had some lunch, melted some water, and then began back-tracking their steps toward the trailhead and waiting automobile. 

Golite Shangri-La 2Although we set out to do a light and fast adventure race both Matt and Sam decided to themselves and openly to each other that this sort of pursuit would be better suited to them in summer months.  Matt is an ultramarthon runner with multiple races under his belt and Sam is a thru-hiker with a couple long trails to his name.  They both enjoy hikes in the 20 to 30 mile range and if this race had taken place one or two weeks earlier the duo felt they would have been in contention. 

CDT cairnOnly two other racers opted to participate in the event and they were successful, completing their intended route with smashing success.  Dave Chenault and Kevin Sawchuk’s race report can be viewed with a subscription to BackpackingLight.com at Parcour de Wild 2009. It was rewarding to both Matt and Sam to hear the other two had participated and completed the route for it added a legitimacy to the event.  The four men who were out in the cold that snowy week in October may not have all finished but they could be certain they had planned, prepared, and set-out to do it.  There were eight other individuals who originally intended to race the Parcour de Wild that ultimately did not.  There is something to be said for at least giving it a go. 

Video Trip Report:

Trip Photos

The full set of photos for this trip can be seen at: