Tag Archive for: wilderness

Words by Anthony VonRuden

Last light was fading as I left our viewpoint and made my way over to the heavy pack that I had become all too familiar with over the course of this six day hunt.  Another day had passed and we still were in search of another black bear.  Our Idaho backcountry hunt had us located twelve miles back in a basin full of thick brush, broken up by small grassy meadows and a half dozen creeks. This hunt was very special to me because I had roots in the region, my dad was a logger back in the 80’s and worked in the very same area that we would be hunting.  Zack and Travis Boughton, the co-founders of Montana-Wild, were alongside on the hunt.  Travis would be hunting with myself and Zack was manning the camera during our week long adventure.  These two spend as much time in the woods as anyone I know and with the combined expertise of the three of us the expectations were running high.  We all had a role to play on this trip and I was in charge of research and logistics.  We all wanted to do something that would test our limits both physically and mentally and our destination would do exactly that.  After countless hours scouting Google Earth, checking outfitter websites, and talking to fellow hunters, I had scouted a basin that looked like a black bear haven, the only catch was that it was over 8 miles from the trailhead.  We knew it wouldn’t be easy, but the reward if we pulled it off would be more than worth the effort.

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After a five hour drive from Missoula we finally were close to the trailhead and ready to hit the trail.  As we drove along the river upstream we actually spotted a bear from the road.  Unfortunately he was inaccessible and we just watched him feed for a while before continuing on our way as planned.  We rolled into the trailhead and began making final adjustments to our packs before leaving the truck for seven days.  After a short time we we’re ready.  Our packs were far from light as they were loaded down multiple cameras and lenses on top of our basic gear such as tents, food, and other backcountry necessities.  We weighed the packs prior to leaving the house and the lightest pack weighted in at 60.4 pounds.  Not exactly lightweight.

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We made good time and were soon eight miles back and at the base of the hill that we would have to ascend to reach our campsite. The brush was unbelievably thick and far from what we had expected after looking at Google Earth.  It was nasty and steep and home to a few moose looking to evade the local wolves.  The 1600′ of vertical climb took us two hours of solid climbing to complete.  The hike made us all want to quit but we pushed through and finally emerged on the top to a wonderful view and a chance to finally rest.

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Once at camp we were treated to a king’s view of the basin and it quickly became evident that we would see plenty of bears throughout the trip.  We threw up camp and hurried over to a rock outcropping that would give us a commanding view of the drainage.  After five minutes of glassing we had turned up four bears out feeding.  Light was fading as we all exchanged high fives.  We began to strategize a game plan for the following day as we cooked up our meals in the soft light of an awesome Idaho sunset.

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The glow of the morning light was just becoming visible as we crawled out of our sleeping bags and began gathering our gear for the mornings hunt.  The plan was to work our way down the ridge that would take us to the head of the basin and into some clearings that looked promising the night before.  The brush was over our heads and the going was tough, but it seemed that every time we broke out into a clearing we would glass a bear feeding miles away on the other side of the drainage.  We just had to get closer to some open areas and hope we could locate a bear in a stalkable location.

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Seeing those bears gave us the motivation to keep pushing forward until midday when we finally reached our destination and set up to glass.  Almost instantly Zack spotted a beautiful cinnamon bear about 800 yards below us.  Zack and Travis were gathering themselves for a stalk when I saw a little cub zip out of the brush to its mother’s side.  We just sighed and went back to glassing, hoping to turn up another bruin.  Hours passed and nothing showed itself, so we moved locations to get a better view of the area.  As we did, a spring storm blew in forcing us to take shelter under an old pine tree and wait for a break in the weather.

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After the storm had passed we pulled out the binos and Travis spotted a monster bear.  The large boar was on the move and never even slowed down to feed, finally making his way into the dark timber.  We were pretty dejected and decided to start working our way back towards camp.  We stopped at a small creek to fill our water bladders for the night.  As Travis was pumping water I looked up and something caught my eye.  The binos confirmed my suspicions and I excitedly whispered to Travis to get ready for a shot.  A beautiful blonde bear was feeding through a series of small clearings above us.  After a few tense minutes of scrambling to get Travis set up, fire up the cameras, and relocate the feeding bear, we we’re ready for the shot.  As the bear fed into a good clearing Travis settled the crosshairs and made a perfect heart shot at 388 yards.  A short blood trail led us to Travis’ first Idaho bear.  We all exchanged high fives, snapped a few photos before breaking the bear down for the pack back to camp.

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By the time we got the bear in the pack and started working back to camp it was pitch black and pouring rain.  We slowly followed a grown in horse trail back down the basin.  Our camp was located only a mile away, but with a 1200′ ascent in the wet jungle we decided that our best option would be to spend the night under a tree.  When your that far back safety takes a high priority and it was decided that we would find the best shelter available and tough it out.  After finding a group of large, old pines, we quickly scraped together a small area where we could all sleep around the fire.  We got a fire started and roasted some bear backstraps as we dried out our wet gear.

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I can honestly say that if we hadn’t invested in the the best gear available we could have been in serious trouble.  Fortunately we all had quality gear that mainly kept us dry and happy despite the poor conditions.  After fully drying out and filling our bellies, we began a long night huddled around the campfire.  Constant attention was required to keep the fire going through the night.

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The next morning it was decided that we would forgo returning to camp and instead try to get on another bear.  It was a smarter decision to hunt during the day rather then waste our energy just to bust back to camp.  We hunted new country all day in an attempt to double up but were unable to turn up any bears.  As the sun sank lower in the west it was decided that Travis would pack his bear back to the trailhead and sleep in the truck.  Zack and I would make our way up the mountain to our camp and in the morning we would pack up camp and relocate to the opposite side of the drainage where the majority of bear sightings had occurred.  Travis would meet up with us at the new camp after his twenty four mile mountain marathon.

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Tuesday and Wednesday passed slowly as we were forced to change tactics.  A lack of any good vantage points forced us to hunker down and wait out promising areas hoping that a bear would show up.  It was slow hunting but it was going to give us our best chance at a bear.

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Wednesday afternoon I spotted a bear across the drainage feeding in the highest clearing.  It was a large chocolate black bear and I was eager to burn some rubber off my boots.  To much sitting around will make you itch to climb a mountain.  Zack and I quickly assembled our gear and began the trek.  We hoped the bear would feed while we crossed the basin.  As we crossed the creek and began to climb we soon realized the apparent stupidity of the idea.  What had seemed simple enough turned into a grueling two hour journey.  As we neared the top we elected to circle around the ridge and glass a few adjacent meadows.  The country was beautiful but all we turned up were two large elk in velvet.  As we made our way back down the avalanche shoot I spotted a large black bear across the drainage.  We quickly hustled to close the distance.  Five minutes later we were five hundred yards away but the bear was no where to be seen.  We had missed him by a matter of minutes.  A long nasty hike took us back across the creek and back to our camp.

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Day 5  was much of the same.  Our morning turned up zero bears and the temperatures were reaching the high 70s.  We spent the day napping amongst the aspens and waiting for the high sun to fade to the west.

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The golden time had finally arrived and we were set up over a wide high alpine hillside.  Time passed and we continued to patiently wait.  All of a sudden the silence was broken as Travis exclaimed “Bear, bear, up on the far hillside.”  A large chocolate bear had worked out into a clearing on the far side of the basin.  It was too far of a shot where we were at and we quickly scrambled to close the distance.  Five minutes later and the .300 was resting over my pack and a bear was in my sights.  The shot was 602 yards and the bear was feeding on fresh green grass.  His head was down and facing directly towards us.  As I settled the crosshairs on him I felt that instinctual moment when you know your ready to pull the trigger.  The shot rang out and the bear ran off to the left.  The guys were yelling saying I missed him.  A disappointing few minutes ensued as we all sat in disbelief.  I had taken a shot that felt right but wasn’t.  I got lectured on taking a broadside shot at that distance and we quietly retreated down the mountain for the night.  With only two days left to hunt it was coming down to crunch time.  Food was running low and our bear sightings were slowly declining in number.  It was now or never to redeem myself and make the trip a success.

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Crunch time was upon us.  The vibes were refreshed that night in camp and we hoped that the following day would allow me an opportunity to redeem myself.

Read Part 2 here > Part 2.

Predator vs. Prey.  It’s a dynamic balancing act.  During most of the hunting season I am the dominant predator, or so I thought.  Seeking to find my prey, preferably elk or deer.  This is the time of year when I get the chance to harvest my own wild meat and enjoy all the amazing wild places found here in Montana.  I never realized how many other predators were out there until the past two years.  Wolf tags have been issued in Montana for a reason.  In 1995 & 1996 federal Fish and Wildlife Service transplanted 66 Canadian wolves to Yellowstone National Park and Idaho. By the year 2002, the Northern Rockies wolf population surpassed the federal recovery goal of 300 wolves in 30 packs. In the past decade, Fish and Wildlife has killed about 7% of wolves annually (1,200 wolves in total over the years).  The wolves have expanded into most mountain ranges now in Montana, and we are seeing a decrease in elk & deer populations in many areas.  As of now, the population has grown to over 1,700 and stronger measures were taken this year to help hunters reduce the population.  One thing is clear, hunting is conservation.  As a hunter I feel I should do my part.  That’s why I bought a wolf tag and if the opportunity arose, I would be glad to use it.

This past weekend we met up with our Dad for some time spent elk hunting.  He was looking for his first elk, and we were excited to help him try to achieve that goal.  Unfortunately the trip started out with a flat tire just a few short miles from camp.  We threw the spare tire on and got geared up at the trailhead.  That night and the next day we spent our time attempting to still-stalk elk through the dark timber.  A tough venture when there’s three guys and frozen, crunchy ground.  With a stormfront moving across western Montana, I made the decision to change locations for the night.  We navigated our way through the falling snow, often not able to see more than 50 yards in front of the truck.  We knew with the fresh snow in the morning we would have a great chance to get close to some elk.  The snow would allow us a huge advantage come morning.

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After my 6AM alarm, I opened truck topper door to a fresh 3 inches of snow covering our two-truck campground.   Zack and I gathered ourselves in time to eat a quick meal and move our Dad’s truck 1.75miles to where we planned on exiting the timber later that day.  We dropped the truck off and made it back to the trailhead for a 3/4 mile hike through the squeaky fresh snow.  I made sure not to tell my Dad exactly how far we were going to be hiking, for I wanted him to forget about miles hiked, and just focus on shooting a bull.  Fortunately we made it over halfway up the first ridge before shooting light was upon us.  Once making it to the top of the ridge, I saw my first set of animal tracks on an old logging road.  It looked like snowshoe prints from a distance, but upon further examination it was a fresh set of grizzly tracks!

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Of course the bruin was walking in the direction we were hunting, so I carefully followed the tracks, hoping he jumped off the game trail further ahead.  My Dad was getting antsy, always thinking the worse is going to happen.  I reassured him that the bear didn’t want anything to do with us.  Soon we came across two sets of elk tracks heading the opposite direction we were hiking.  They obviously had sought out lower ground during the night.  We pushed on, glad to see the grizzly tracks head off the trail a 1/4 mile later.  As we hiked we passed multiple sets of deer tracks, but never caught a glimpse of a single deer.  My Dad was in awe of the beautiful white landscape before him, helping to keep his mind off of his aching legs.  We finally got to the location where I shot my very first elk.  Unfortunately, the elk were not there feeding in that same spot.  We sat down and ate a quick bite, boosted our energy, and set out looking for fresh elk tracks.

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As we worked our way back over the steep ridge, we came across 4 sets of elk tracks.  I asked my Dad, “you have the energy to follow these tracks a ways?”  He replied he did, so we started following the tracks.  Soon enough we found some fresh beds, but no sign of elk.  We followed the tracks further, as they spread out in the same general direction but a good distance apart.  We positioned my Dad in the lead so he would get a shot if he caught view of a bull.  Zack was between us with the camera hoping to have enough time to film if we saw an elk.  After about a 1/4 mile of slowly creeping through the dark timber, my brother stops us dead in our tracks.  He mouths “bull”, pointing to the hillside 150yards away.  My Dad and myself look, unable to make out an elk.  The timber was blocking our view and before either of us could move he trotted off.  Zack was smiling, thinking it was funny that the cameraman could have just shot a nice 5×5 bull elk while the two hunters could see nothing.  I didn’t share the same feelings at the moment.  We continued following the set of tracks through the overgrown larch trees, hoping for the best.  After tracking another 1/4 mile, I see another bull looking at us through the trees!! As I raise my Vortex scope up to see the bulls rack, the bull takes off once again.Elk tracks, tracking elk in snow

The whole time we were tracking these elk we noticed that there was dirt kicked up along their tracks.  Almost as if they were trotting through the woods.  We knew it wasn’t us pushing them so we pushed on hoping to catch up to them if they slowed to feed for the morning.  There were 5-7 sets of tracks in the snow so we knew there were more elk to find than just the two bulls we had bumped.

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As we bypassed a small clump of thick brush I saw a dark figure moving through the timber to our left!  At first I thought bear, but I saw a long tail!  I instantly dropped to a knee and said “wolf” to Zack behind me.  I quickly aimed my rifle into the only clear gap I had in the trees.  The wolf finally trotted into my shooting lane.  I settled the crosshairs and let the 8mm Ultra Mag rip!  The wolf dropped instantly, my quartering away shot killing him instantaneously.  “I just shot a wolf!” I glanced back at my brother, with the camera on me.  “I just shot a black wolf!”  I was so amped up and couldn’t believe what had just taken place!  One second I’m following bulls, the next I’m seeing wolves hunting the same group of elk as we were!! This was my first real up close encounter with a wolf.  I’ve heard them howl, and seen fresh wolf kills, but have never had the chance to get this close undetected.  I approached the black mass of fur, completely in awe of the sheer beauty these animals behold.

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To see the size of these animals is quite amazing.  Upon further investigation of the area, we found multiple sets of wolf tracks, some being larger than this black male.  Obviously a pack of wolves had the same idea we did that day.  To be able to share this moment with my brother and Dad was priceless.  My Dad only gets time to hunt a couple times during the year and this was truly an eye opening experience for him.

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After knotching my tag and getting a handful of photos, I loaded the jet black wolf into my Mystery Ranch Long Bow and began arduously placing one foot in front of the other as we climbed the steep snow covered hill.  It would be a good 500 vertical foot climb to the ridgeline and then 2 miles downhill to the truck.

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After cresting over the small peak we came across the logging road which would take us back to our truck.  Before I stepped foot onto the road, I noticed once again a set of large tracks?  It honestly looked like bigfoot had ambled through.  Of course we knew better and upon further investigation it was another set of grizzly tracks, this time even larger!  Once again the tracks were going in the direction we were heading.  Another 1/4 mile down the logging road the tracks made their way back into the forest.

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We peacefully made it back to the truck, all things intact.  No we didn’t get a bull for my father, but we did have one heck of a hunting experience! I couldn’t believe it, I had just put down an elk killing machine, another predator.  The same predator that was hunting the same prey as I was.  Not to mention we saw grizzly tracks twice that day.  As humans we feel we are at the top of the food chain, when in reality, grizzlies and wolves rank very close seconds.  We all have the same motive, survive.  If it weren’t for grocery stores, humans would have to go out and harvest their own meat, which today is the healthiest meat in the world!  The wolves are taking a toll on elk here in Montana, and I have seen this first hand.  There out there, and we cross paths more and more often.  This time we crossed paths a little too close.  I may have just saved those elk I was pursuing today, and ya that feels good!  The balance between wolves and elk is off right now and it felt great to help do my part of the management that FWP sets out for hunters each year.

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-Travis