Wednesday, December 12, 2018

SPENDING A NIGHT ON THE MOUNTAIN


(OR) Why I Always Carry Survival Gear

(Or-Or) What we do for public land bulls...




I always carry a lot of crap, and thus a lot of weight, even when I’m just day hunting in the mountains, just in case. You have to respect our mountains and the weather that goes with them. In just over a quarter century of hunting Montana, I’ve only had to spend an unexpected night on the mountain twice, but both times made me very thankful I carry all that survival gear.
A head-on collision with a drunk driver some years back buggered up my neck pretty good so I can’t carry a conventional backpack anymore. Eventually, I wound up with an old set of military LBE (Load Bearing Equipment), a belt-and-suspenders kind of deal that allows me to carry most of the weight on my hips. I have a buttpack on the rear of the belt with survival gear, a canteen on either hip (one with the nesting canteen cup), and two magazine pouches in front for items I want to keep ready and handy; range-finder, camera, journal. Since I often hunt alone, for a worst-case scenario I also have a satellite beacon “panic button”.
          A few weeks ago, schlepping all that weight paid off. I still had about 40 minutes of shooting light left when I dropped the hammer on a decent 6x6 bull. At just over 400 yards, it was one the longest hunting shots I’ve ever taken, but I’d been playing around with seating depths that summer while reloading my .30-’06 with 180-grain Sierra GameKings. I’d found the magic recipe that put them solidly over 2,700 fps even in the cold and into one ragged hole at 100 yards. Just prior to season while verifying the BDC hold-overs on my Leupold Rifleman I’d gotten a 3-inch group at 400 yards. Not bad for a World War Two vintage Czech ’98 Mauser, although I’m sure the pristine Belgian Fabrique Nationale .30-’06 barrel I’d found is a big part of that accuracy.
          I had a rock solid hillside shooting position with both elbows well supported in addition to a pair of shooting sticks embedded firmly in the snow, and the shot felt just right. As I worked the bolt I could hear the wet meaty slap of a solid hit echoing back across the canyon. Later, I would find out the 180-grain Sierra had entered just behind the shoulder and double-lunged him, but with only the small entrance wound there was virtually no blood on the trail. The bull went behind a big open-grown Doug fir on the hillside where he’d been feeding beneath some cows and a couple of 5-point bulls. When he re-emerged from behind the tree he was obviously hard hit but he still started hobbling away, head down and lurching his front legs forward in short, jerky steps. I learned a long time ago an elk isn’t down until you’ve got the tag hung on him, so I gave him another 180-grain .30-’06 behind the near shoulder as he quartered away. He went down in a small hollow full of skeletal snowberry bushes and all I could see was his rack sticking up. After watching for less than a minute, the antlers slowly sank down out of sight.
          Of course he was on the opposite side of a large, steep draw which took me at least fifteen minutes to negotiate, dropping down a couple hundred feet in elevation, hopping a little stream, and then climbing back up 300 feet. When I got there, the elk was gone. As the light rapidly faded and it began to snow, I followed his trail. The rest of the herd had milled through, but I could stick to my elk’s tracks in yesterday’s snow because he was stumbling a bit and kicking specks of black dirt up on top of the snow with almost every step. I was concerned that I only saw one or two drops of blood but soon found out that was simply because there were no big exit wounds. Twice he went down and at both of these places there were large splatters of crimson. I had to get the headlamp out to continue tracking. He’d gone not quite a quarter mile before diving off the ridgetop into the steepest, darkest, nastiest timber on the mountain and expiring upside down, wedged between a tree trunk and the ground by the steepness of the slope.
          By the time I was done field dressing him, it was pitch black with a full blown blizzard coming down and temperatures dropping fast. Up until then, I had been enjoying my new GPS with OnX; it had allowed me to determine that the elk had indeed been on public land in the first place, since they were feeding close to an unfenced section line. Shooting an azimuth from my position to the elk confirmed they were on the right side of that invisible but important line.
As I started following the little arrow back to Waypoint 1, aka “the truck”, I had to weave around or bust through all kinds of brush and thorn thickets and occasional blowdowns, all on steep inclines covered with a few inches of snow. In the middle of all that, the cold killed the batteries that I had put in fresh that morning. Digging through my ammo pouch, I was not happy to discover that the spare batteries I had were Triple As for the headlamp and not the Double-As I needed for the GPS.
          So I pulled out my trusty Silva compass and navigated with that for awhile. When I reached the creek, though, I knew I had missed the brushy and poorly maintained USFS trail in the dark and snow. I probably could have kept hiking and eventually found it, and I was within a mile or so of the truck, but it’s impossible to find recognizable landmarks under such conditions, the snow was really coming down, and I was wet and tired to the point I was starting to slip and occasionally fall on the steep slopes.
          I decided it would be best to bite the bullet and spend the night. I found a nice thick stand of Doug fir that blocked a lot of the falling snow. Beneath one there was also a thick clump of juniper. I knocked all the snow off the branches, then cut out the lowest ones to make myself a little hollow. I roofed it over with the branches I’d removed and my brightly colored VS17 Signal Panel Marker. Then I cleared the ground below it down to bare dirt and moss.
          After getting a good fire going in front of my cave, I went around gathering firewood and fir boughs. The latter I knocked the snow off of, then waved over the fire a bit to dry them before building a browse bed to insulate me from the ground. In addition to a skinning knife, I also carry a compact Gerber survival hatchet I use on an animal’s ribs and pelvis when field dressing. Of course it came in handy getting wood. Breaking off the bone-dry dead lower Doug fir limbs I gathered a good pile of wood where I could reach it from my “bed” and was lucky enough to find a couple of down logs I could move, ten or twelve feet long and eight or ten inches in diameter. I put them both in the fire right in the middle of their lengths and built the blaze back up over them. Once they burned through, I could just push the ends back into the fire.
          Only when all that was done did I wiggle into my shelter. I stripped off my upper body clothing, an Under Armor long sleeve base layer and a white snow cammo parka, both soaked through from either snow or perspiration. On went the spare, dry base layer from the fanny pack, a wool sweater, a fleece vest and finally a wind and waterproof lightweight Gore-Tex outer layer, as well as a balaclava to replace my hat.
          With double-walled leather mountain troop boots that I had freshly Sno-Sealed the previous day worn beneath knee-high wool gaiters, my feet were cold and damp simply from my own perspiration. I took off my gaiters, noticing a few minutes later that they were frozen flat and stiff like cardboard. My boots came off and were laid on their sides with the open mouths facing the fire, but not too close. Then I put on two fresh dry pairs of wool socks and tucked my feet into a trash bag. I huddled there cross-legged for awhile soaking in the heat of the fire, surrounded by sticks propped up at all angles to hang shirts and socks from. My legs stayed warm enough thanks to a thick pair of wool pants even though they were wet enough to give off steam when I got close to the flames.
          I had hot tea in a Thermos-like double-walled Arctic canteen, but it was hardly lukewarm by then so I poured a folding handle USGI canteen cup fairly full and put it on the coals to heat up. The hot liquid really helped me warm up my core. After the tea, I took water from my other canteen and fixed myself an instant soup packet in the canteen cup.
          Due to the cold it seemed like I had to go pee every ten minutes. I tried putting my boots on as loosely as possible, just kind of wrapping the laces out of the way, but even with dry socks my feet got cold immediately.
          Finally, I broke down, waddled down to the creek, and gathered a bunch of smaller smooth stones in the canteen cup and a sock. Back at “camp”, I’d get the rocks dry and piping hot in the fire in the canteen cup, then clumsily pour as many as I could into a sock, then insert the sock into a boot to let it steam. When it cooled, I’d pour the rocks back into the canteen cup, heat them up again, and have a go at the other boot. It took three treatments per boot before I could finally slip them on without my feet becoming instantly cold and clammy. I probably should have done it a couple more times but I wanted to at least try to get a little sleep.
          When I tried to snooze, however, the emergency Mylar space blanket proved to be a big no-go. It was only about three feet wide. You could either lie on top of it or drape it over top of your body, but you couldn’t in any way wrap it around yourself, so there was always plenty of cold air leaking in at multiple points. It did me virtually no good. The next day when I got home I ordered a compact Mylar survival sleeping bag to carry in my pack instead.
          It didn’t quite get down into the single digits that night, but it came pretty close I think and was certainly cold enough for me. Eventually the snow finally tapered off and somewhere around two or three the skies cleared completely and the stars came out. I didn’t miss the wet falling snow but with the clear sky I could actually feel the temperature dropping even more.
          I sure didn’t get much sleep that night. I’d build up the fire and curl up in a ball near it on my browse bed. Soon I’d be warm and comfortable enough to catch a short cat nap before the fire died down and I woke up shivering. Then I would repeat the whole process over again. Once I just couldn’t seem to warm back up even with the fire blazing so I heated up the other half of my quart of tea and that seemed to do the trick.
          As soon as there was the first bit of pale light to the east I was getting packed up. When it was light enough to see, I found I was much further west than I had thought I was, so I decided to hike out on a different USFS trail that followed a tributary creek back to the parking lot. That didn’t go so well. There had been a pretty significant wind event sometime in the past year and the trail obviously hadn’t been cleared since. There were all kinds of hillside Doug fir and creek bottom spruce all piled up on each other in impenetrable jackstraws.
          After fighting this for awhile and making really poor progress, I finally climbed up out of the mess. I wanted to go south, but I had to go a half a mile east first, climbing up a long and steep linear ridge that was at least clear of timber on top. Then the going was finally good again as the top of the main ridge is open and grassy and I eventually came to an old two-track jeep trail I could follow back to the truck.
          You guessed it. This was all the easy part. It took me two very long and hard days to get my elk out. The first day I bagged meat and boned out the quarters, packing it in a cargo sled with the head on top, initially all well secured with p-cord. It took me better than two hours to drag and yank and lift that sled one mile down the bottom of a timbered draw littered with blowdown, boulders, and brush, with several live springs along the way so the footing could vary from snow to ice to open water to deep muck. By the time I got to the trail, I had all I could do to just walk back to the truck and go home for a hot bath and a fistful of Tylenol.
          Day Two went much better. A friend came along with me to help, as did my four pack goats. I balanced loads of meat in plastic bags between the pairs of panniers, the biggest goat carrying 52 pounds total and the rest taking 48 pounds or less. My buddy walked ahead, the goats plodded along behind him, and I brought up the rear with the sled hauling the head and a couple more bags of meat. Even so, we’d hit the trail at ten and didn’t get back to the truck until nearly five.  

          LESSONS LEARNED:
          1. Always carry survival gear and have the means to build a fire in the mountains.
2. Where you shoot it ain’t necessarily where it’s gonna go down.
3. Always make sure you have spare batteries.
4. Carry a compass for back-up just in case.
5. Make sure your survival blanket is a blanket and not just a beach towel.
6. A little hot liquid and/or food goes a long way on a cold night.
7. Next year concentrate on shooting a cow close to the road.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

MONTANA UNLIMITED BIGHORN DISTRICT 300 SOLO




 Up where the billy goats screw the eagles.



After more than a quarter century of unsuccessfully attempting to draw a Montana Special Tag (moose, goat, sheep) and acquiring the accompanying collection of apparently useless “Bonus Points”, I broke down and did an unlimited bighorn sheep hunt this year just so I could say I at least got to hunt one.



Montana’s five “unlimited” bighorn sheep districts represent the only chance in the Continental US to simply purchase rather than draw a sheep tag. This opportunity exists only because the districts in question are in some of the roughest, steepest and most isolated grizzly-infested wilderness areas in the nation outside of Alaska. Outdoor Life once called this the toughest hunt in the country.  



I solo scouted and hunted District #300 up Tom Miner Basin which, unlike the other unlimited districts, has an early hunting season running the first ten days of September. I went northwest of the main drainage to avoid what I found out in 2016 was a bit of a circus further south along the Yellowstone National Park boundary line. I did come down out of the hills twice to take a day off, rejuvenate and eat like a starving bear. I took in a food cache with my pack goats on my last scouting trip and while hunting packed as light as humanly possible. It would have been too light if it had been colder but we were blessed with good weather that allowed me to just sleep out under the stars. I managed to waddle around up in the high country pretty well for a fat guy over fifty with a long list of injuries, but the furthest distance I went in one day was only four miles and even then the goats had to schlep all the weight. Normally I didn’t cover more than a mile or two when I did move camp. I had tried to get in condition with mountain hikes all summer but should have tried much harder. Some of the slopes kicked my butt physically but I still had a ball.



Quite a few years, pounds and miles have passed since I last spent much time above timberline. With the cool, clear air, high viewpoints and seemingly endless vistas it’s kind of magical up there. Even crusty old Elmer Keith felt it and waxed poetic about the high country.



“Have you ever seen a mature bighorn ram silhouetted on the sky line of his rugged domain? If so, then you know that no word picture can ever quite do him justice. Ranging at or above timberline, no other animal so typifies, or is so symbolic of, the rugged grandeur of the lofty snow-covered peaks, beautiful glacier-fed lakes and alpine meadows of the Rocky Mountain chain. Some of the wildest, roughest and most beautiful country that God ever made.”



I put in many hours of glassing with high quality Swarovski binos and spotting scope but still only saw four other hunters off in the distance the entire trip. I actually glassed sheep every morning and/or evening, spotting them anywhere from the thick timber way down below the cliffs to the very tops of the peaks and ridges. Of course, every last one of them was a ewe, lamb or juvenile. I never did see a mature ram the whole time despite all the intense glassing.



 Mostly below me there were tons of wapiti full in the rut everywhere I went, including a 5-point and his harem way the hell up on South Twin Peak (10,181 feet) just below the communication site one morning. One night with a good moon I slept atop a knife ridge and had bulls bugling away on either side of me most of the night. I saw some mountain goats most days as well, from loners up to one bunch of nine, but I only saw one or two stray mulies per day up that high. The only grizzly I saw was better than two miles away and at least 2,000 feet below me on Rock Creek. I never even saw any fresh grizzly sign up high; they all seemed to be down low in the main creek bottoms going after the berries and chokecherries. Other than learning some of the country much better and finding out where the rams were not, I did recall some old and/or re-learn a few new mountain hunting lessons.







  1. A Forest Service road listed as a “Dirt Road Suitable For Passenger Cars” actually requires a high-clearance, armored and fully-tracked “passenger car” along the lines of an M113 Armored Personnel Carrier. I bottomed out my F-150’s work duty suspension and hit the frame on more than one occasion and I’m pretty sure I was throwing up a good bow wave with my bumper in one particular mudhole. I used the granny low side of the transmission both up and downhill just to keep my pace down to a slow enough crawl that I didn’t rattle the fillings out of my teeth. A saw and a tow chain came in handy on a couple of particularly big blow-downs.
  2. Good boots are priceless: They were rather heavy, since they say one pound on the foot equals four pounds in the pack, but I did good with some seemingly indestructible all-leather Austrian Army surplus mountain troop (Gebirgsjaeger) boots.

    All my wife got out of this picture was that I hadn't worn matching socks.


  3. Slow and Steady. I learned a long time ago to sidehill back and forth up steep slopes and to proceed slowly with short steps, just so long as you keep putting one foot in front of the other. And it’s often better to take the long way around the head of a drainage following the contour lines than lose and regain all that altitude dropping down to cross it. Once you gain the top of a ridge stay with it as long as you can.
  4. Walking stick(s)/Trekking Pole(s): I don’t know how I managed to ever get along without these for the first forty years. I think they reduce fatigue a great deal simply by helping you keep your balance. And my wife used hers as a dandy bipod when she filled her ewe tag over by Anaconda about ten years back.
  5. Never miss a chance to fill your water bottles whenever you come across any water source. They are few and far between up high and it can be a real balancing act when it comes to carrying enough water without adding too much weight. I wound up lugging a gallon in three canteens…that’s 8 pounds in case you were wondering. I carry an old folding handle USGI canteen cup, too; it comes in handy for dipping out of tiny rivulets too small to submerge a water bottle in. I brought powdered Gatorade mix and drank one quart of that for every two quarts of water. On one scouting trip I got water from a big snowbank tucked into a hollow high on a north-facing slope…ten days later while I was hunting it was all gone. On another scout I filled water bottles directly from a beautiful tiny spring in a small meadow at the edge of the whitebark pines; a week later, it was one big muddy reeking elk wallow that plugged my filter.


    Never miss a chance to fill up with water in the high country.

  6. It’s colder than you think. On average, you lose 3-5 degrees of air temperature for every thousand feet in elevation gain. In very dry air, and we often have extremely low humidity in August and September, the temperature can drop as much as one degree for every 150 feet of elevation gain. When you get up to elevations approaching 10,000 feet, on a bright, sunny day the air temperature in the sun versus the air temperature in the shade can vary by as much as forty degrees. The clear air up high undergoes both rapid heating and cooling; as soon as the sun dips down behind a peak to the west, one immediately feels the heat loss. Winds are common in the mountains as well, adding the effect of wind chill. I always carry a Gore-Tex jacket in my fanny pack. When you stop hiking and start glassing on some high point, the wind may get to you quickly. In such cases I don the Gore-Tex mainly as a windproof layer as well as a shell to hold in body heat. In some cases, if it’s warm and you’ve worked up a good sweat hiking in, it’s worth the effort to strip down and change into a fresh, dry base layer. I usually use Under Armor as a base layer. Despite the very good weather, on some exposed points in the evenings I had to add a vest, stocking cap and wool gloves.



     Pack light, freeze at night.




Sunscreen and chapstick are two other good items to have, and maybe a hat with a broad brim. I live at 5,500 feet and am out in the sun all summer and I still got some sunburn on my face and arms.







I have to put back in a drawing for a limited bighorn district next year or lose all those valuable bonus points which have yet to do me any good but I plan on doing the #300 unlimited again in 2020, the Good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise. I will, however, be doing many, many more pre-season conditioning hikes prior to the next go-round. The better shape you’re in, the more you’ll enjoy it. 


Friday, July 20, 2018

College Millennials on 80's Action Movies

Here at das blog we are always trying to advance the social sciences. To that end we recently used our huge budget to conduct an experiment. We screened several classic 1980's action movies for some millennials at a local liberal arts college not far from the blog's Eastern Command Bunker. We then asked these sheltered young commie snowflakes for their summaries of the movies. Here's a few of their answers:

Die Hard: "A white male cop engages in police brutality against a diverse group of immigrants seeking economic opportunity in America."



Predator: "A white male neo-Nazi type beats and bullies an undocumented immigrant until it eventually kills itself."

Lethal Weapon 2: "A white male... and black... cop violently harass a group of AFRICANS... who are white supremacists?!"  (Millennial's head suddenly explodes.)
It's alright kids. Go watch "The Social Network" and "High School Musical." You'll be okay.