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.

 

 

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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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.


 

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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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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.


 

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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.


 

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

 


 

 

August Overnight into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness

It’s been a summer of weddings on the weekends and work on the weekdays. My fiance, our friends, and I have managed to get out for a fair number of car camping overnighters with some good mountain biking and hiking during the days but the backpacking has been a bit sparse so far this summer. We penciled in a weekend trip to the Bitterroot valley to visit my long time friend Casey at the farm she’s been living and working on and to spend a night a short distance into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Complex – a land I’ve not yet explored but have wanted to.


Peterson Lake


Casey and I have been friends since the late 90s having met in Fargo, ND during college. Luck would have it that we both found employement in Glacier National Park in 2004 without knowing the other was doing the same and since then we’ve managed to stay in touch every year or so when our paths could cross. It was serendipitous hearing Casey would be only a few hours away this summer so a meetup was definitely in order.


Sam, Torie, Casey, and Gus


We toured the small, farm that is being worked by the sweat (and tears) of just two gals who put in long, hot hours in the SW Montana sun to bring fresh, organic vegetables to the tables of people in the Bitterroot Valley. It’s about as honest of work as one can find.


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Living in tents and teepees, and cooking at an outdoor cook shanty is about all the camping most people would need but Casey still enjoys getting away from it all and was amped to join us on a short trek up to Peterson Lake in the Sweeney Creek drainage of the Bitterroots.


Cook Shanty


Peterson Lake, Sweeney Creek, Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness


We arrived at the lake about an hour before dark and Torie picked a spectacular zone on the East shore of the lake. The former marshy end of the lake had dried up in the past decades leaving a flat, soft, dry, and grassy acreage perfect for our tents.


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We dined on couscous and fresh, organic veggies (of course) and shared whiskey and hard cider after. Fire danger has reached it’s height in SW Montana and with restrictions and a high wind we opted to enjoy the light of the nearly full moon as opposed to some good ol’ “Ranger TV”. The noobs at the other end of the lake must have been blissfully unaware of the fire restrictions for we could see their “TV” blazing from the tree’d zone to the West.


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Morning was relaxed, the hike was mostly cool and breezy, and we had time in the late afternoon to swing through Missoula for a late lunch with yet another friend. A weekend full of good times for sure.


The Best Laid Plans and Trips to the Vet

The route was picked last week, the meals were planned, and the gear lists were dialed. Friday night would be devoted to car shuttling and then a gentle valley approach of about four miles to a late night camp. The next day would be an aggressive mountain pass probably requiring multiple miles of over snow travel and then day three would entail a long exit valley out to the awaiting car.


Car shuttling


The car shuttle worked out great. It was a beautiful Friday night in SW Montana for a drive down long dirt roads with million dollar views of snow-capped mountains in the distance. We hit the trail at 19:30 knowing darkness would fall about two hours later so we hightailed it down the trail to walk as far as we could until dusk, then make camp.


The East Fork Mill Creek trail



Scared up a couple bears


Hiking at dusk means a higher chance at seeing wildlife while they’re foraging for dinner. We scared up two bears and two elk on our hike in.


Snow-capped mountains at dusk


My buddy Mike noticed a small trickle of water running across the trail and a good looking game trail that exited off to the side so we followed it to see if it would lead to a good camping spot – and it did. Complete with a little spring, very soft patches of earth to lay our bivies and tarps, and some stout trees to hang our bear rope were to be had.


This ain’t our first rodeo. Cooking after dark.


The sun rose at 05:00 and I leaned over to see if my dog was getting cold and wrap some of my sleeping quilt around him. My watch read 30 deg F and I could see frost on the grass all ’round my tarp. Times like this, lying under your tarp, wrapped in your cocoon of a quilt are some of those that just make you feel alive.


Sunrise


Mike was still sleeping so Gus (my dog) and I awoke, gathered some kindling, and got hot water going on the Bushbuddy. The frost was slowly melting in the sun which was also warming Gus and I and felt great.


Bushbuddy Ultra



Camp cookery


After breakfast we hit the trail hoping to get as much of an early start onto the snowfields we had to cross that hung a few thousand feet above us. We made great time and reached snow as we approached 8,000 ft elevation. All was going great, the trail wasn’t too hard to find, and everything around us was beautiful.

The dogs were exploring every which way as we proceeded uphill until something caught Jax dog’s eye. Many a wilderness trip has been shut down by a necessary trip to the veterinarian and unfortunately ours would be no different as Jax decided to pick a fight with a porcupine.


Jax has bad judgement when he comes to picking fights


We reflected on the situation, pulled as many quills as we could and considered our options. Continue hiking over and out to the end (15+ miles) or turn around and go back the way we’d come (8 miles plus backtracking the 2 we’d already done that morning for 10 total miles) and opted for the latter. Back the way we’d come.

Mike and I have been in the Mill Creek drainage three times and two of those times we’ve been thwarted in a larger goal. Once by raging whitewater and the second by a damn porcupine.

We hiked out pretty fast – or at least as fast as Old Gus dog would allow. It was a beautiful day and felt good to be hiking even if it was in the “wrong” direction.


Hiking out to the vet



Gus


We got back to the car and hightailed it back to town to get Jax to the vet for some quill removal. All went smoothly and we then had time for another beautiful drive to go and retrieve the car awaiting at the end of our intended destination. We made the most of the night by grilling some spectacular burgers and drinking beer.


Montana backroads


We’ll get up and over that pass someday. I’ve been at it from three angles and there’s lots of micro-country to be explored around the Boulder Mountain area. Just leaves me an excuse to go back!


Shoulder Season Ski Camping 2012/2013 – Part Two

As mentioned in yesterday’s post I had to keep my snowboarding exploits to a minimum this season due to an out-of-whack sacroiliac joint. The trip highlighted yesterday was in November and was pre-injury and being able to dwell upon how great it was to get out ski camping with a good friend did a lot to keep me in a positive attitude the rest of the winter. I did get out on a few day trips with friends and my fiance which helped as well – but were certainly hard on my back and required some downtime afterward to rest.

Last weekend I was feeling the need to get out for some snow camping and hopefully get to ski some Spring corn snow. The snow line is continually receding higher and higher so I garnered sign-ons from Jon and Kyle to pack up overnight gear and skis/splitboards for a journey into the Northern Gallatin Range of SW Montana.

Kyle had an engagement until Friday evening so we opted to do a nighttime start, hitting the trailhead around 20:00. Darkness doesn’t fall in these parts until 21:15 or so and we were able to get a good chunk of the hike under our belts before the headlamps had to come out. Snowline was somewhere around 8,000 ft (2440 m) at which time we were able to transition from trailrunners to ski/snowboard boots and skis for much easier travel. Having the extra weight of skis and boots on your back when hiking is an absolute nightmare for those of us who practice ultralight backpacking!

The next morning we awoke about an hour after dawn and once coffee and calories were in our bellies we set off for the summit of Mount Blackmore. It was hard to tell whether the snowpack had frozen overnight but I expect it didn’t. If it had we would have needed to wait for it to melt out a bit before we could ski it so not summiting until approximately 9:00 was what we aimed for. Everything was perfectly soft on our approach, our snowpit yielded excellent results, and other than being wary of sloughing snow we presumed we were in for some great riding.

The turns were superb with a few inches of soft, sloughy corn atop a breakable crust and bomber base. We lapped the East face of the peak twice, grabbed our camping gear from our base camp, and were back in town with the whole afternoon to take care of those pesky domestic chores and backyard relaxing.

Shoulder Season Ski Camping 2012/2013 – Part One

I injured my back in early winter and was unable to get out splitboarding as much as I’d like this winter but was able to get out on two meaningful overnight trips (second TR to follow soon).  One of my go-to ski partners, Jon W. is pretty much always up for an adventure no matter how marginal the snow so back in mid-November he and I grabbed touring and overnight gear and headed into the Deep Creek drainage of the Northern Absaroka range.  This drainage had burned almost completely black during the wildfires that raned in the NW U.S. during the summer of 2012 and hiking through this darkened landscape blanketed with white snow was both eerie and beautiful.

Our destination was an offtrail draw which is the headwaters of Deep Creek and located below the menacing NW face of Mt. Mcknight. A trail runs up the E/W length of Deep Creek but we planned to exit the trail at a natural departure point and hopefully find enough snow to ski into the headwaters. We knew snow levels would be low and opted for edged and shaped nordic skis (XCD) as opposed to splitboards which are our usual weapons for powdery descent.

Jon and I both have pretty good attitudes towards getting into the woods and regardless of the purpose of our destination (powder snow, quality singletrack, good whitewater) we don’t let the lack of action intended from that destination get us down. This trip didn’t provide as much snow as we’d like but we still had a great campfire and got to spend a night out under the stars in a pristine wilderness absolutely soaked in beauty.

There may not have been tons of snow but Jon didn’t let that keep him from getting rad on his 3-pin gear.

Packrafting Overnighter – Beartrap Canyon

Bear Trap Canyon

Although many feet of new snow began to fall in the high country on Thursday evening last week and friends were planning bids on a local peak I’ve wanted to ride for sometime I couldn’t get the idea of either bicycle touring or packrafting out of my brain.  The ski trip group was leaving on Friday night and since I had a prior commitment it solidified my plans to head out into the woods on Saturday afternoon.  Rain fell steadily most of the day Saturday and it was cold but my excitement level was high as I drove my trusty Toyota 40 miles to the West to a little chunk of Wilderness called Bear Trap Canyon.


In tow was my workhorse pack, eVent bivy, PFD, rain gear, cooking supplies, and a vintage Alpacka packraft (sans spray skirt).  I left the trailhead at approximately 16:30 planning to hike either until 18:00 or until I reached the base of a class IV / V rapid that would mark my put-in the next morning.  I reached the rapid a few minutes before six and opted to inflate the boat, pack it with my gear and ferry across the river to a level area that looked prime for camping.  I hadn’t been in a raft in a couple seasons so it felt good to handle the paddle and feel the current as it swept me out of the river-side eddy.  My pulse quickened as I paddled at a 30 degree angle toward the opposite shore, then spun halfway ’round to back ferry to a good take-out.

Packing a raft

After about fifteen or twenty minutes of hunting for the perfect flat spot to lay my bivy I was delighted to stumble upon a small chunk of flat ground with a beautiful sandy beach just below it.  One nicety of camping on the opposite side of the river from the trail and practicing Leave No Trace camping techniques is that a pristine and beautiful campsite can be found that puts the typical dirty, packed-out USFS social sites that appear along popular trails to shame.

Alpacka raft and gear along Madison River.

Integral Designs South Col bivy

The beach made for a nice cooking spot located 10 or 12 meters from my sleeping spot.  A bit too close for typical grizzly bear country but I opted to not worry too much and just went with it.  The sand on the beach also allowed me to dig a small pit in which I built a campfire starting at nightfall.  There was plenty of dry driftwood and I was able to remove almost all trace of the fire the next morning leaving my camp very pristine.

I awoke at 6:30 to temperatures around 37 deg F (3 deg C) having zipped my bivy completely closed over my face around 4am to keep warm.  I had chosen my 180gsm synthetic quilt paired with a 240gsm hoody.  For sleeping mats I had a 3/8″ foamy atop a torso-length inflatable.  The foam backpanel from my pack also pulls out and I supplemented my underfoot insulation with this


Around 7am I climbed forth from my cocoon, pulled down my bear hang, lit up my Caldera Cone and brewed up a cup of Nescafe along with some warm water for my granola.  It was early and I savored the time outdoors listening to the river flowing along at 2,700 CFS.  I hadn’t been packrafting in quite a long time so I had feelings of trepidation but was also excited to float this fun few miles of water.

After breakfast I quickly packed up my gear and strapped my back to the bow of the boat after being sure to temper and re-inflate everything so the tubes were as full of air as possible.  The section of river I was about to float had plenty of class II and III rapids and I wanted as much maneuverability as possible.


The boat I’m using is pretty ancient and has no seat nor spray skirt so I folded my inflatable sleeping mat to use as a seat and tucked my rain pants and gaiters in as much as possible to help with the inevitable wave over the front of the boat and pushed off.  The walk into camp the previous day paralleled the river so I was able to make mental notes of the majority of the flow except for the very first section I was to encounter which was hidden below a cliff.  I opted to ferry immediately across the river, exit my boat and scout the upcoming section.  I determined it was too difficult for me to attempt given that I was both out of practice in packrafting and also paddling solo.  I portaged 50 or so meters around the rapid and re-entered the river this time floating the remaining 3 +/- miles continuously except for one break in which I stopped to empty water from the boat and another in which I held onto a rock giving myself a moment to scope an upcoming section of waves.

It felt really good to get out on my first post-winter season trip.  It was short but provided the opportunity to make use of both my backpacking gear as well as the packrafting equipment.  I look forward to continuing using the raft on some upcoming trips this summer as well as sharing some words and photos.