A Bison Hunt

A Bison Hunt

“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.

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Meadow within the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness

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.

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Mike moves towards Dave following the final shot

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Craig and Dave excitedly recount the details

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.

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Picture time

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.

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The group readies for the task ahead

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.

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Attempting the near impossible task of removing the horns, working by the light of fire, headlamp and moon

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…

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Walking down the trail

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The setting was more than picturesque. Recovering from a burn from fires in 1988

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.

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Dave works to separate the hide

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At the neck, the skin was well over an inch thick

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.

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While we had rain, the high peaks had snow during the storm the night before and throughout the day

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.

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Dave rests back at the cars after the final load

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.

Craig’s Summary

Dave’s Summary 1

Dave’s Summary 2

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The meat sort at Dave’s.  All the meat minus Norm’s share. Well over 600 lbs total..

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Indian Summer

Indian Summer

The wind whipped along the ridgeline, gusting across and ferrying the few loose flakes into the valley below. Up high among the tors, the light and the terrain made one think of winter. The soft pastels lit up the horizon beyond the mountains as the sun shone its last light for the day. Snow covered the ridgeline, while the brisk temperatures and strong breeze forced us to pile on layers to forestall the entrance of the cold. Atop the ridge, we had no choice but to continue, with hope of descending the bowl beyond and finding a campsite free of snow and out of the wind. After descending the icy slope with care, we set up camp an hour later in the dark. Strong gusts and frozen hands created an added challenge in establishing our home for the night. The frozen ground bent stakes while the wind haphazardly flung any that weren’t secure. After seemingly endless fussing around, the tent appeared to be stable. After miles of walking, three humans and a dog crowded inside, protected from the wind, trying to catch some sleep as the tent swayed back and forth, threatening to collapse.

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October in Alaska can be an odd time. In certain years, like this one, it is almost like it is another season. Leaves fell long ago and colors have changed, leaving a muted and bare landscape. Yet, snow has not fallen in most areas and temperatures remain mild during the day. It is easy to forget what lies ahead. Looming on the near horizon are months of darkness and an area completely blanketed by a layer of snow. For now, the cool night temperatures and dry days yield great hiking over firm ground. Cold nights serve as a reminder of seasons past. A reminder to bring heavier gloves, a pair of fleece pants, and to sleep with water bottles. In this transition season, the price is small. A little thirst or numb hands. Months from now, inaction can lead to frostbite or worse. Not too far north, snow covers the valley floors across the Arctic and rivers are nearly closed. Winter is knocking on the doorstep and sure to arrive soon. For now, I try to enjoy this uncertain season and the joys that come with it.

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Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic 2018

Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic 2018

After scratching during last year’s Ski Classic, I made it my mission to return and finish.  This year I would be attempting to ski the route through the Arctic Refuge, from Atigun Gorge to Wiseman, via a checkpoint on the Wind River. In 2017, the going had proved to be slow for those on the east side, with the first participants finishing in 6 days.  All signs seemed to suggest more of the same. Northern Alaska had experienced heavy snowfall throughout the winter, blanketing the Interior and Brooks Range in a thick layer of snow.  At the pre-event dinner, we were told that most of the passes along the divide had hardly been affected by wind.  Furthermore, there were some river valleys south of the divide that were said to have nearly three feet of bottomless, sugar like snow. In my final preparations, I tossed a few ounces of extra food into my pack, in hopes of being prepared for the likely slog ahead.

On our way to the start, clouds hovered low above the road near the Continental Divide, reducing visibility and obscuring our view of the mountains around us.  High winds brought blowing snow and drifts across the road, slowing our progress. It was the worst conditions I’d seen along this stretch of road during my time in the area. By the time we reached our starting point at Atigun Gorge, it was enough to make two participants reconsider their decision and back out of the race.

We set off with a bang.  The ceremonial firing of the potato gun shooed us off the gravel pad and beneath the bridge spanning the river.  In the spring of most years, Atigun Gorge serves as a popular location for dog mushers and skiers who wish to travel in the refuge for recreational or hunting purposes.  For whatever reason, there were no travelers this year so we were forced to make our own trail.  A line developed and we alternated back and forth between leaders, busting through the snow until we were overheated or desired a break, steadily advancing the whole time.  The pace was slower than preferred, but within 3 hours, the walls faded away, signifying the Gorge’s end and the valley beyond. Our entrance into the Sagavanirktok Valley was marked by a small herd of caribou darting across the river and continuing up valley.

The clouds thinned and blue sky shone above as we made our way up the Sag.  As night fell, the clouds behind us burst out into streaks of crimson and orange, illuminated by the setting sun.  All of us had decided to take a pass dubbed as “the shortcut,” a creek from the Sag into another along Accomplishment Creek that cut miles off the suggested route.  Attaching skins at the base, we wove our way through the narrow creek bed, up towards the top. Distance and darkness would prevent us from crossing that day, and we dropped off one by one, stopping to camp at various points along the way.

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Nikolai nearing the top of the shortcut

The next morning found us making our way up and over the pass, into Accomplishment Creek.  In most years, it is rare for large groups to travel together during the event.  There comes to be a point where the leaders are able to break away and everyone’s pace differs enough to provide for random spacing.  That process was delayed with the deeper snows but began to develop as we continued.  Tobi, Chuck and Josh led the charge out front. I did my best to keep up and found myself a few minutes behind them. As we neared an icefall near the headwaters of the valley, I caught up and shuffled behind.  The ice was bare and too steep to allow passage, forcing us to pick our way among the slopes on the side.  A combination of skinning and boot packing led us past this obstacle.  A few miles later, we repeated the process again, navigating a headwall before a lake atop a pass.

 

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Eben skiing up Accomplishment Creek

Advancing up the headwall had required skiing across a steep wind blasted slope. This necessitated the use of the metal edges along my skis and I dug into the side with each step forward.  The situation was less than ideal, with no way to self-arrest and a few large rocks dotting the slope below.  After falling back once more prior to ascending, I had caught up to the group ahead, but was quickly left behind.  They strode confidently across the face, took off their skis halfway across, and scrambled to the top.  I moved slowly, hesitant to make any error that would lead to sliding a few hundred feet to the base.

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Frozen lake atop a pass before the headwaters of the Ribdon

 

I had made a large change in gear selection from the prior year, switching my boots from Dynafit with Intuition liners to a pair of 3 pins.  While the 3 pin boots were great for avoiding blisters, they weren’t the best for travelling downhill.  Keeping them very loose prevented blisters from developing, but it also prevented a sense of control when descending.  Combined with my less than stellar downhill skiing skillset, this made for a handful of crashes along the way.  Descending from this pass into the headwaters of the Ribdon Valley was no different.  The trio out front had rocketed ahead. The snow offered a great surface for travelling, firm from being blasted by wind.  It was exciting if you wanted to move quickly, nerve-wracking if you were worried about crashing. Nevertheless, I eased my way down.  On one of the smaller slopes, there was a set of large cracks adjacent to the others’ ski tracks.  My first thought was crevasses, but we weren’t anywhere near a glacier, meaning that they were signs of snow fracturing and possible avalanches.  I stayed to the side, following tracks off the slope and down rocks to a safer spot below.

Not long after, the trail from those ahead wound its way down through the gully and up a small slope on the other side, continuing across a larger face above.  I descended into the gully, shot across and lost my balance, crashing into the uphill portion of the slope.  As I crashed, the slope above me let loose, a small avalanche descending down towards where I lay.  I tried to move away, but struggled to get up from my position in the snow.  Within seconds of the first one, a loud boom rang from above.  I looked up to see the large face above break out, about 300 yards wide, and come crashing down.  I floundered around in the snow but was unable to make any headway. Helpless, I turned to the lip above, waiting for a wall of snow to come rushing over the top. Seconds passed, the wall of snow never came.  50 yards below, the entire gully had been filled with snow. Where I sat in the snow, it had stopped above the gully rim.  A matter of pure luck and chance that likely prevented the loss of my life.

I moved out of the small debris that was around my lower legs and skied over to the opposite side.  I was shaken and wanted nothing to do with being up high, desiring to get down as soon as possible.  But my confidence had dropped, reducing my movement to a crawl, as I sidestepped down the slope.  As I descended, I wondered about the others. They were much faster, but their track had gone directly across the face. Had they been caught in the slide? My fears were soon alleviated as I saw the three of them racing up to meet me from the valley below.

After waiting for the rest of the group to arrive, we all decided to camp together nearby.  However, the evening’s excitement wasn’t yet over. After the sun had set, the sound of thudding rotors sounded off in the distance.  Within minutes a massive helicopter landed with personnel rushing out.  A known design flaw in an InReach device among our group had allowed for the SOS button to be depressed in the locked position, unbeknownst to the user.  After assuring the responders that the person was in the area and was OK, they took off and the silence of the valley took hold once more.

Most of us decided that the avalanche was enough of a signal to keep us from moving on.  There were more slopes ahead, with much higher risks and probabilities of going than the one I had just encountered.  Only six would continue on, making an attempt at crossing the Continental Divide (They would successfully cross and end up going to Arctic Village). A group of five would backtrack and follow our trail back to the start. I wanted nothing to do with avalanche terrain and set off with seven others down the Ribdon Valley and out to the road.

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Ribdon River Valley

The Ribdon turned out to be spectacular, leaving us all fulfilled and satisfied with the trip.  The path was straightforward but there were enough obstacles to keep us on our toes and provide for a challenge. Hot springs made for abundant sections of open water, causing us to search for snow bridges and safe passage around without getting our feet wet.  Temperatures of -10 F during the day and -30 F at night prevented us from taking too many breaks, as we bundled up and tried to stay ahead of the cold.  Along the way we were left to marvel at the mountains, moose, a herd of muskoxen and the many tracks that were spread throughout the landscape.  We reached the road just before 10 PM on the second night after heading back, weary and worn, yet satisfied with our “North Slope Classic.”

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A rough approximation of the route

Late last fall, I interviewed the event sponsor and director, Dave Cramer, for my podcast. In our conversation we talked about the Ski Classic and what brings people back each year.  While each person may have the desire to win, Dave said that it is the sense of community and place that ties everyone together.  Participating in the Ski Classic is no walk in the park and requires significant mental and physical preparation if one is to finish. With such effort and time involved, it is easy to be disappointed upon being forced to turn back.  But unlike last year, I found myself satisfied with the end result.  I didn’t get to finish the Ski Classic, but I did get to ski through a magnificent landscape with people that were inspiring and a pleasure to be around.  The event leaves the Brooks Range and will return to the Wrangells next year.  I’ll return for the first time to the place where I initially fell in love with Alaska.   I’ll return to see familiar faces and the community I have come to cherish. And I’ll return with the intention to finally finish the damn thing.