Sunday was opening day for big game season here in Montana. As it turns out, JB and I got the opportunity to participate, another opportunity that allowed us continue to build miles, experience and conditioning while getting to ride in some of the most beautiful country in the west, in my humble opinion. As a second bonus, since the freezer is looking grim these days, an opportunity to refill the freezer for the winter. Kill two birds ( no pun intended here) with one stone, if you will.
****If your not into hunting, I will give you the heads up, this post will feature a story about an elk that was harvested. Nothing gruesome but feel free to pass on reading if you must.
Normally, Tom travels many hundreds of miles out of the immediate area to go elk hunting and is gone for several days with wall tent, stove, two head of horses, panniers, pack saddles, the whole shebang… I rarely go since someone has to stay behind and manage the farm ! This year was different. This year, there was no week long hunting trip planned and Tom is staying close to home. Nonetheless, there is still hunting to be done. He made some plans with my dad and brother go huntingfor opening day and I got to say yes to the invite. (any excuse to ride and be in the outdoors with my horse!)
The alarm went off at 4:00 a.m. Sunday morning and I popped out of bed excited for the new adventure. (ok, maybe not popped but rolled would probably better describe it) We fed horses and packed a few last items for the day while sipping coffee and grabbing quick breakfast. We loaded the horses into the trailer and JB was on his way to his first elk hunting assignment. The weather was supposed to be beautiful but the morning was cold, 18 degrees! It was an hour or more drive to get to our destination, along some rather rough dirt roads. The goal was to be in the woods and have my dad and brother in their post before first light. Since Tom and I had the horses, our main job was “bird doggin” for the on foot hunters. Basically we would be putting on “drives” which involves traveling along in a wide birth with the goal to kick up some elk and drive it in the direction of my dad and brother. If we were fortunate enough to get an elk, then we would also have the added advantage of packing it out with the horse.
We were a little behind schedule but not terribly. My dad and brother set off while we finished saddling up. We would catch up shortly. JB was quiet as could be. I was fighting cold fingers as I tried to get the saddle cinched, gear secured, orange ribbon tied to JB’s mane and tail, and trying to hurry! Finally, everything was in place, now I just had to figure out how I was going to get on. I had so many layers on, it was difficult to have the flexibility to climb on. Tom held JB and my saddle while I crawled into place, all the while glad for a short horses!
We headed out and followed the arrows my Dad had so creatively made out of sticks showing us which way to go. We had to go a little slower than we had hoped because the ground was frozen underneath with a top layer of frosty grass. The horse were having a tough time keeping their footing. We slip-slided our way and finally found our hunters. We quickly headed out in a Northwesterly direction to begin our first drive. Luckily there were several nice wide logging roads to follow as we climbed up the mountain. The sun has started to come up and I was finally able to get feeling in my fingers once again, despite a good pair of gloves.
The frozen air nipped at my nose and bit at my cheeks. Frost particles in the air fell down upon us as we rode along and as the sun came up , they shined like little diamonds, falling gently, silently to their resting place on the ground. We rode along , lullabied by the muffled thumping of the horses hooves. There wasn’t another sound to be heard. The horses whiskers were frosted over and looked as thought they had dipped their muzzles in a bowl of milk.
As we rode along, the first rifle shot ripped through the air, bouncing off the surrounding mountains and jolting us a bit. The shot was not that far off from where we were. We carried on and made our way up to a clearing where we came across two other hunters, a man and his daughter. They asked if we saw the elk that was just taken down below. We must have ridden right past it. Apparently , an older man got a 7 x 8, which in hunting terms…..is a big elk. That means 7 points on one side and 8 on the other. Apparently the rifle shot we has just heard only a half hour before was this same elk. We rode around for a little while longer and eventually made our way back to see if we could get a glimpse of the man that was now the envy of every other hunter on the mountain.
When we back tracked, we realized that yes, in fact , we had ridden right by the first time without seeing him. We would have ridden right by again but this time, the wind was blowing just right and snapped our attention off to our right. Anyone who has ever been around elk knows that there is a distinct smell. This time, the strong odor of elk caught my attention and JB's as well. It dawned on me why JB and Cassidy went on high alert when we had passed through here earlier. They had picked up the smell that we were not previously able to. Our noses led us over a little knob in the landscape and sure enough there was the older man with his elk of a lifetime, just out of sight. He had already finished gutting the elk out and was getting ready to go get help. We talked to him for a bit and apparently, when he took his shot, there was a herd of about 20 elk that had come through here. This particular elk was a bit behind the rest of the herd. The lucky hunter told us that he estimated there were approximately 5-6 bulls as big or bigger than the one he took. He said they were moving so quickly, it was hard to really tell He was very humble about the whole thing. He said he was just in the right spot at the right time and was nearly run over by the herd. His hands still shook from the rush of adrenaline.
I rode over to the lying elk with JB as I wanted to see how he would respond to it. He looked at it, stepped closer to sniff it and lost interest quickly, not in the least bit concerned about the smell. Many times, horses will get very funny about the smell of blood or the sight of a dead deer or elk. JB acted as though he had seen a dead elk a thousand times before. The man asked if we could pack the elk out but Tom had not brought any of his packing gear along with. We offered to help him if he could find someone with pack saddles . The man said he had some friends camped below that had all the needed gear so he would just walk back out and get them. So, we parted ways and we headed back in the direction to where we would meet up with my dad and brother, wondering if we might happen upon that herd again. Doubtful, since the elk were probably well spooked by now, but hopeful nonetheless..
We made our way back to the meeting spot and told our “elk” story to my dad while we waited for my brother. Apparently news travels fast, even without cell phones and technology because every group of hunters that came by us asked if we heard about the big elk that was taken just above where we were sitting. It seemed everyone knew of the big elk in record time and everyone was trying to find this elusive “herd”. Good luck … Elk aren’t called the Ghosts of the Rockies for nothing….and with all the pressure from all the hunters, I was sure they were likely miles from here by now, being several hours later…
We made one more little drive and then called it a day. It was already after 3:00 p.m. We still had to ride back to the trailer, load up, help my brother fix the flat on his truck he got on the way in , and then the hour and half drive back home..
We had beautiful weather and got to ride in some beautiful country. JB proved to be a quiet calm hunting horse, even with gunshots and the sight and smell of a freshly harvested elk. As for the freezer, we’ll try our luck another day….