“Are you gentlemen ready for a late night?” The sun sat above the mountains but it wouldn’t be more than two hours before darkness descended upon us within the throes of the valley. Dave unslung his rifle from his pack and placed his pack along the trail. We answered his question with nods and smiles of affirmation as we excitedly began to discuss what lay in store. This moment had been long anticipated by each one of us, yet the certainty of it had remained in question just moments ago. As we talked, Dave moved down the trail and towards a stand of spruce trees. He wove his way through the open floor of the forest, entering the meadow no more than 80 yards from our hulking quarry, the 2,000 plus pound animal that would become the center of our lives for the next three days.
Bison are one of the most quintessential and storied animals in North American culture. For centuries, people lived off the great herds that once traveled throughout most of the country. Their hides were used for tents and clothing. Their bones were used to create weapons and tools. The large mass also produced plenty of meat and fat to sustain people throughout the year. The historic numbers have large variations ranging from as few as 3 million to as many as 100 million. It is thought that after Europeans first arrived in what is now the United States, buffalo numbers surged to great numbers (50 million) due to the death of many people infected by foreign bacteria. While the number likely was near the upper limit of the range for a short duration, there still were herds in sizes magnitudes beyond comprehension today. Valleys and fields would be littered with the species to the extent that it would lead some to remark that the plains were moving.
The expansion of the West brought the decline of the mighty herds. Railroads brought more people and allowed easier transport of goods. There were those that capitalized on this new means of transport, killing waves of buffalo for their hides. Buffalo declined to as low as 541 individual animals. Eventually, areas like Yellowstone National Park were put in place to conserve ecological regions and those animals within. With protection from the US Army from early years, the buffalo recovered from years of poaching and market hunting, rising up from the brink of extinction. Today, 300,000 bison are found within the United States. However, only 15,000 of those are non-domestic and classified as wild and free ranging. Yellowstone National Park is the only place in the Lower 48 states to have had a free ranging bison population throughout history. Many of these bison live within the Hayden and Lamar River valleys and can be seen in large numbers by visitors throughout the year.
Due to the near extirpation of the species within the US, there have been limited hunting opportunities over the past 100 years. The state of Montana and some Native Reservations within the state have offered the opportunity, however using the word hunt would be a generous term. These instances often involve heading to a spot along the road where the animals migrate, line up and wait for them to step beyond the park boundary. A practice that many from within and outside the state look down upon. However, starting in 2016 the state of Montana offered a new opportunity. The state would distribute 5 tags a year to individuals allowing them to hunt for outside the park’s boundary areas in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. As designated Wilderness, such a hunt would preclude the use of any motorized transportation, adding difficulty and an increased challenge.
Towards the end of June, I found myself excited by a new post on one of my favorite sites, Bedrock and Paradox. Dave had drawn one of the bison tags in Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and was looking for help. I found myself excitedly reading through the post and came upon his pitch in the closing paragraph:
“So, are you able to carry an at least moderately heavy pack for a good ways at highish altitude, camp out in potentially cold weather, and be cheerful in the face of discomfort and ambiguity? Do you want 100+ pounds of the best meat on earth to take home? Will you be available in late September this year?”
I thought that I could answer yes to each of those questions and quickly sent him an email requesting to be included. He responded in the affirmative and as summer wore on, final plans began to gel together. There would be 6 of us heading out in the last week of September in search of the largest land mammal in North America.
Dave, Tim (from Helena) and I got off to an early start and left Helena early Saturday morning. Mike (from Helena) and Craig (from LA) would meet us later on in Cooke City. Norm (from Missoula) wouldn’t meet us until the next day. We passed through large swaths of range land and grasslands. Elk, mule deer and pronghorn antelope were scattered throughout the region. 200 years ago, Lewis and Clark had traveled nearly the same route on their return to St. Louis. While much was the same, more was different. Strip malls from Bozeman, Livingston and other small towns spread out into the countryside. The mighty Missouri River, the second longest in the country, was dammed at multiple points along the route, creating large reservoirs that spread across large swaths of the valley. Absent were the brown dots that covered the valleys, the massive buffalo herds of old. The wild ones that remain are confined to a small corner of the state, blocked from travel by cattle guards and barbed wire, strung for thousands of miles.
The road in was much rougher than any of us anticipated. Large boulders and a seemingly endless stretch of cobbles up a steep grade marked the first two miles of the route. It wasn’t long before we determined that we took a much more difficult route up than was necessary. After reaching a more manageable road, we made good time traveling the 8 additional miles back to the trail head. The only other people in the region were horse packers who were forced to park a few miles back from the trail head due to the rough nature of the road. With gear sorted and packs on, we took off just before 4 PM, uncertain as to what lay ahead.
From the parking lot, the trail descended slightly over 2000 feet to a larger valley 9 miles away. There were a handful of spots where there could be buffalo but we weren’t expecting much before reaching the meadow complex in the valley below. The group began to mold as we made conversation and began to learn more about each other. The trail was hard packed and required almost no thought in terms of navigation or travel, allowing us to chat, scan for bison in any openings and take in the beauty of the country. Mountains rose sharply from either side of the valley while remnant trees stood a midst fallen trees from a fire decades ago. The good weather and pretty sights made for jovial moods for all as we continued towards the meadows below.
We were about 6 miles in when we passed an opening that caused Dave to stop and say something. I was towards the front of the line with Mike and Tim lost in conversation. “There’s a buffalo,” Dave repeated. Sure enough, no more than 120 yards off the trail was a lone animal, head down grazing among the grasses in the open meadow. After affirming that we were all up for the task ahead, Dave snuck away, moving into the trees further down trail in hopes of narrowing the distance.
While Dave moved forward, the rest of us remained on the trail, excitedly talking about what lay in store for us this evening. We watched Dave move slowly out of the trees and among the grasses. The distance was narrowed to 80 yards, 70, 60…without the slightest indication of care from the old bull. The first shot rang throughout the valley, echoing off the walls of the mountains high above. It was well placed, right through the lungs causing the bison to buck like a bronco and take off at a sprint. Dave reloaded and fired once more. BOOM. Another echo. But fall he did not. The animal was still on four legs and moving at a healthy pace. A pace that made one question if we had enough power to take this giant down. BOOM. Another hit. The bison runs head first into a large spruce tree. Continuing past, only to fall over beyond with his legs kicking in the air. It has surely ended. But with a large guttural, groan the bison fights its way to its feet again, moving forward. BOOM. A final shot knocks the bison down. This time there is no further movement.
Wary of being gored, we approached as a group with caution. Dave lobbed a stick at its head from a few yards away, no movement. A trekking pole was thrown with the same result. Only then did he feel confident enough to approach at a closer distance, using the full length of the rifle to reach out and poke its eye. Without movement, we realize our search is complete. Giddy with excitement, we walk around looking at the almost gargantuan size of this bull. Dave appears to more than relieved as he talks about the hunt with the others. Months of planning, preparation, and anticipation had yielded to great luck and success.
After a few pictures, we dive right into the task ahead of us. Dave and Mike dive right into dressing out the buffalo, making the first cuts along the belly through its thick hide. While they are working on the animal, the rest of us fulfill essential secondary tasks. Craig heads to the nearby stream to gather water. Tim and I gather a load of wood to burn and search for trees where we would be able to hang the meat. As the quarters come off, I grab a knife and begin the deboning process, taking the meat off the bone in order to further reduce our weight for the pack out. The quarter is smaller in length to that of a moose, but wider and with much more muscle. Mike and I are able to take off blocks almost beyond comprehension. 40 lb slab there, a 30 lb chunk here. We joke about starting a butcher shop, “Big Meat Butchers.” We only cut it big, but business is booming.
The last remaining daylight gives way, causing us to work under the din of headlamps. Craig and Tim start a fire a few yards away and it is not long until it is roaring. As a nearly full moon rises above the mountains, the scene seems somewhat primeval. We are doing something that humans have done for most of history. Working in a small group, we took down a large mammal, providing us with food for the winter season to come. In the moment, there aren’t many differences, with the exception of our modern clothing. The group gels as we work together, joke and tell stories, cut meat, and scan for grizzlies.
With the meat cut up and in game bags, we transport it about two hundred yards to a set of trees with larger branches. The heavy weight and thin cord made it a three person job to get the bags high enough, so that they were beyond the swipe of a standing grizzly. The last bag was hoisted and Mike, Dave and I set about to move the hide away from the kill site. Mike took the head and Dave and I took the rear. Grabbing the tail and a portion of the leg, we heaved and hoed away. The effort took all our might, enough that we were forced to stop and break multiple times within the 80 yard drag. Craig eventually came to help as well and we managed to wrangle the 250+ lb hide off the trail and onto a log to dry. All tasks were now complete, we gathered our gear and set off a few hundred yards to set up camp. Worn and weary, tents were erected and meals were had before we slipped into our sleeping bags before the clock struck 12.
There was no sign of disturbance as we returned to the kill site the next morning. The buffalo had looked like it had deflated more overnight, but grizzlies or other predators were nowhere to be seen. Gray Jays flitted from branch to branch, dropping down onto the carcass before snatching a piece of meat to take to their cache elsewhere. Our hung meat remained undisturbed. We lowered 5 bags, distributing them by weight and fitting them into our packs. With the game bag lashed secure to my frame, I sat down, buckled in and rolled to my hands and knees in order to stand up with the ~80 lbs on my back. Loaded down, we plodded forward. One step in front of the other, for the 1,600 ft ascent. Only 6 miles to go…
By the time we returned to camp, it was too late in the day to consider another full trip to the car without ending even later than the night we had before. We moved camp up the trail another few hundred yards and decided to shuttle the meat to a halfway point that had sturdy enough trees. We went through the process again of taking the meat down, distributing it, hiking 3 miles and hanging it back up. We returned back to camp in the dark, the light of our headlamps illuminating a few yards of trail ahead of us. Back in camp, the group gathered to have dinner, only to be sent scurrying to our tents by the onset of a thunderstorm.
We woke to calm winds and ice on the tents. Dave and I went back down the trail to grab as much of the hide as we could while the rest packed up camp and began the first trip out to the car. If all went to plan, we would hike our camp gear out first, before returning back to the halfway point and grabbing the final load of meat. More than 36 hours later, the carcass still remained relatively undisturbed. The hide had soaked up much of the water from the rain the previous night, now weighing easily over 300 lbs. Taking out the whole hide would not be feasible given our circumstances. Dave took out his knife, splitting the hide in two. The head was simply too heavy and would have to go, leaving us with a third of the hide plus the tail.
At the halfway point, we found the others loading some of the remaining meat bags into their packs. They had made the decision to go heavy, saving at least two of us an additional trip back. While we sat and snacked, singing was heard further up the valley. Someone else was making their way down the trail. With no sight of Norm the previous day, we had joked about him coming in to relieve us. A figure larger than life who could throw 6 game bags over his shoulder and take off on a trot off the trail. Sure enough, Norm walked up a few moments later, proving to be the very savior we had envisioned. He took another bag off the tree, leaving one to dangle above. Craig and I decided to take on some more weight, distributing the meat between our packs. With nothing else remaining and no return trips planned, we set off on the final stretch. 3 miles to go.
I hadn’t found issue with the first load, but the likely weight of 100+lbs dug into my shoulders and caused my hip belt to slide. We had a number of short steep ascents that took all our effort to keep moving forward. A mile in, graupel began to fall, pelting us and covering the trail and surrounding area with a layer of white. Yet, with each step forward we made our way closer to the vehicles and it wasn’t long before we dropped packs and collapsed. We drank in celebration, thinking back on the whirlwind that was the past 48 hours. A period well worth remembering, full of action but without any unwanted drama.
Three weeks later, it is still difficult for me to comprehend the magnitude of what we accomplished. The experience is unlike any other hunting trip or back country excursion. We went into the mountains of the American West, successfully hunting one of the most storied animals in American history by our own means. After returning to Helena, Dave and I talked about the hunt being something similar to the Classic, a paradigm shift that recalibrates one’s individual mindset and what’s thought to be possible for the future to a level previously unknown or perceived as out of reach. I am more than grateful for being allowed to take part in this experience and can only hope that there will be more of such events in years to come.