Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Remy: Hallelujah (SNL Parody)

Right after the election, Saturday Night Live decided to not be funny and instead did a cold opening with comedian Kate McKinnon, portraying Hillary Clinton, playing the piano and singing the recently departed Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." It was a sappy spectacle that had Democrats around the country dabbing their little eyes. Thankfully our friend Remy is here to parody those who are supposed to be parodists with some spot-on political satire.


Friday, October 21, 2016

THE REAL FIREPOWER OF THE RIFLE



We frequently discuss here the power and performance of the rifle in a variety of esoteric ways that can be measured precisely with concrete numbers and in technical terms; caliber in hundredths of an inch, bullet weight in grains, velocity in feet per second, energy in foot-pounds, trajectory and deflection in inches, and accuracy in Minutes-of-Angle.
 The ultimate book on the subject; The Art of the Rifle by Jeff Cooper

However, a good rifle…in good hands…also represents a different sort of power, difficult if not impossible to quantify or measure technically. Properly handled, the rifle empowers the individual with such things as confidence, courage, and strength. The rifle in skilled hands can make a man master of all he surveys, man or beast, at least out to “the rifleman’s quarter mile” or the “hale half kilometer.” As Colonel Jeff Cooper put it in To Ride, Shoot Straight, and Speak the Truth, “The basic attribute of the rifle is reach. A powerful rifle enables a man to reach ‘way out past Fort Mudge’ and strike a blow that will stop not only a man but a truck or a horse dead in its tracks.” The combination of a good rifle and rifleman need not fear the teeth and claws of the natural predator nor the evil intentions of lesser men.
 Skill with the rifle brings with it deep obligations and responsibility, for the power of the rifle, as with any form of power, can and has been abused. “The only real power comes out of a long rifle,” said no less authority on the subject than Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, and he was echoed by Chairman Mao’s adage that, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”
Fortunately, a good rifleman tends to possesses the inner strength and fortitude to negate the temptation of abusing the rifle’s power. As President Theodore Roosevelt saw it, "A good shot must necessarily be a good man since the essence of good marksmanship is self-control and self-control is the essential quality of a good man." British small arms expert W. W. Greener concurred: "Rifle-shooting, in any and every form of competition, calls for the exercise of all the qualities that most ennoble a man--determination, self-possession, faith, self-confidence, admiration for the achievements of others." Neither sheep nor wolf, the ideal rifleman serves by his very presence to stand guard over his own and his nation’s liberties.
From the very beginning of the United States of America, the Founding Fathers understood the unique influence the gun can have upon the individual who can skillfully yield it. When Thomas Jefferson advised a young college student as to the importance of daily exercise, he wrote, “As to the species of exercise, I advise the gun. While this gives a moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise, and independence to the mind.”
In Colonial New England at the time of the American Revolution, it was the smoothbore musket that was found in every home and the rifle remained virtually unknown. When the companies of volunteer riflemen led by men such as Michael Cresap and Daniel Morgan arrived from the distant frontiers the capabilities of the rifles and the men who wielded them made a big impression.
The creation of German and Swiss gunsmiths who emigrated primarily to what is now Lancaster County, the weapons in question were then known as Pennsylvania Rifles and would eventually be called Kentucky Rifles. Both names fall under the catch-all term of American Long Rifle. Author John Dillon called it, “…a rifle which changed the whole course of world history; made possible the settlement of a continent; and ultimately freed our country of foreign domination.”
 The American Long Rifle

As for the men behind the rifles, Charles Lee, a major general in the Continental Army, wrote enthusiastically, “The frontier riflemen will make fine soldiers…their amazing hardihood, their methods of living so long in the woods without carrying provisions with them, the exceeding quickness with which they can march to distant parts, and, above all, the dexterity to which they have arrived in the use of the rifle gun. There is not one of these men who wish a distance less than 200 yards or greater object than an orange. Every shot is fatal.”
After observing a demonstration of the frontiersmen’s rifle shooting prowess, a correspondent for the Pennsylvania Packet opined, “With their rifles in their hands they assume a kind of omnipotence over their enemies.”
          The Gunner’s Guru, the late, great Colonel Jeff Cooper understood the magic and the power of the rifle better than most, noting that, “The rifle is the queen of weapons and its effective use is one of the greatest satisfactions available to man.”
          “A really good rifleman, with a really good rifle in his hands, is a man of stout heart. He knows what he can do and he looks down upon those who cannot do the same.”
Theodore Roosevelt also understood and frequently commented on this. “To my mind there is no comparison between sport with the rifle and sport with the shotgun. The rifle is the freeman’s weapon. The man who uses it well in the chase shows that he can at need use it also in war with human foes.”
“Shooting well with the rifle is the highest kind of skill, for the rifle is the queen of weapons; and it is a difficult art to learn.”
Mister Rifleman himself, Colonel Townsend Whelen, observed in 1932 that, “A good rifleman, plus a good rifle, will shoot straight, see straight, think straight and will run our country straight.”
Early outdoorsman Horace Kephart called the rifle a “noble weapon” which he credited with a mystique that, “entices its bearer into primeval forests, into mountains and deserts untenanted by man.”
Jack O’Connor, in The Rifle Book, said, “To me the rifle has always been the most romantic of all weapons, and of all rifles the one I love most is the rifle for big game… Because I love rifles and because I love wilderness country I have carried my rifles all over the North American continent, from the hot, dry, barren sheep mountains of northwest Sonora to the glaciers of the Yukon.”
In 1920, Charles Winthrop Sawyer wrote, "Rifles are the average man's Alladin's lamp; they bring elating thoughts of out-of-doors, by their appearance suggesting sunshine and cloud-shadows, wooded hills against the sky and watered verdant valleys, wind against tanned cheek and leaping blood and eager chase in wilderness adventure."
"A rifle is a stimulator, a companion that brings a sense of safety, and a magician that confers wonderful and unlimited power."
Although primarily associated with the British Royal Navy from his Horatio Hornblower series of books, author C.S. Forester also understood the rifle, the rifleman and their combined capabilities, espousing upon the theme in excellent novels like Rifleman Dodd and Brown on Resolution.
“But Brown was only powerful in consequence of his rifle; the handiest, neatest, most efficient piece of machinery ever devised by man. Not for the first time was the rifle altering the course of history. Brown was not a marvelously good shot…but he could handle his weapon in good workmanlike fashion; and the rifle asks no more.”
Military historian John Keegan also understood the importance of the rifle and its influence upon the individual rifleman as well. “The musket, like the uniform livery of the dynastic armies that used it, was a mark of servitude. So short was its range that its effect could be harnessed to battle-winning purposes only by massing the musketeers in dense rank, and keeping them ‘closed up’ at pike-point. The rifle, by contrast, was a weapon of individual skill… as Thomas Carlyle put it, ‘the rifle made all men tall. A rifleman was as good as any man.’”
Militarily, the United States Marine Corps has understood this tenant since prior to the First World War. In that conflict, the prowess of U.S. Marines with their Model 1903 Springfield rifles shattered German attacks at long range and led the American Expeditionary Force’s commander, General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing to state, “The deadliest weapon in the world is a Marine and his rifle.”

"The deadliest weapon in the world is a Marine and his rifle."


Institutionally, every Marine, no matter his or her technical position, is a rifleman first. Early in the Second World War, this doctrine was enhanced when Major General William H. Rupertus penned the Rifleman’s Creed, which is to this day memorized by all US Marines during recruit training.

“This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine.
          My rifle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life.
Without me, my rifle is useless. Without my rifle, I am useless. I must
fire my rifle true. I must shoot straighter than my enemy who is trying to kill me. I must shoot him before he shoots me. I will...
          My rifle and I know that what counts in war is not the rounds we fire, the noise of our burst, nor the smoke we make. We know that it is the hits that count. We will hit...
          My rifle is human, even as I, because it is my life. Thus, I will learn it as a brother. I will learn its weaknesses, its strength, its parts, its accessories, its sights and its barrel. I will keep my rifle clean and ready, even as I am clean and ready. We will become part of each other. We will...
Before God, I swear this creed. My rifle and I are the defenders of my
country. We are the masters of our enemy. We are the saviors of my life.
So be it, until victory is America's and there is no enemy, but peace!”

USMC Raider Brigadier General Merritt Edson explained, “It is the rifle that ultimately takes ground, and it is rifle fire that holds it after it’s taken, by throwing back enemy counter-attack. The man with the rifle is the man who wins wars; and accurate rifle fire from individual riflemen is the most effective factor on any battlefield.”
Another WWII leader, General Joseph “Lightning Joe” Collins, while serving as US Army Chief of Staff, also understood this. "The primary job of the rifleman is not to gain fire superiority over the enemy, but to kill with accurate, aimed fire."
Beginning during the Korean War and escalating through Vietnam and Desert Storm, the US Army at times lost its way when it came to individual rifle marksmanship, a hard-won skill requiring much practice, so the powers that be sought to replace it with technology and sheer volume of fire. Jeff Cooper termed the effort, “If you can’t shoot well, shoot a lot.” The practice of swatting flies with a sledgehammer, and the inevitable collateral damage that goes with such a concept, became the norm and for a distressingly long time individual small arms were treated as little more than an afterthought. The Global War on Terror soon showed that leveling an entire apartment block to silence a single sniper did more harm than good in the long run and brought back the importance of the individual soldier’s skill with his rifle, which can be wielded with the precision of the surgeon’s scalpel against individual enemies, as noted by 11B Captain Daniel Morgan in Infantry Magazine.
"Marksmanship is the core of excellence for an infantry soldier. Their proficiency in killing wins the battle. The more you suppress a target without killing or wounding the enemy, the bolder he becomes in attacking you. You need to train your soldiers to aim, fire, and kill."
            Beyond its military, hunting and sporting attributes, the rifle also carries with it a certain moral authority in that it stands as the last line of defense when it comes to insuring freedom and democracy against the clutches of tyranny.
Understanding only too well the value of liberty as an escaped slave, the brilliant abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass noted, "A man's rights rest in three boxes: the ballot box, the jury box, and the cartridge box."
The great Lakota Sioux warrior and holy man Sitting Bull said, “I wish it to be remembered that I was the last man of my tribe to surrender my rifle.”
Mahatma Gandhi went so far as to say, “Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look upon the act of depriving a whole nation of arms, as the blackest.”
Famous for penning tales of bleak, dystopian futures that would come to by synonymous with his name, novelist George Orwell wrote, "That rifle on the wall of the labourer's cottage or working class flat is the symbol of democracy. It is our job to see that it stays there."
Edward Abbey of The Monkey Wrench Gang fame once wrote, “The rifle is the weapon of democracy. If guns are outlawed, only the government will have guns. Only the police, the secret police, the military. The hired servants of our rulers. Only the government—and a few outlaws. I intend to be among the outlaws.”
John Steinbeck explained, in The Grapes of Wrath, “And the rifle? Wouldn’t go out naked of a rifle. When shoes and clothes and food, when even hope is gone, we’ll have the rifle. When Grampa came here—did I tell you?—he had pepper and salt and a rifle. Nothing else. That goes.” 

Once again, Jeff Cooper espoused this ideal most succinctly. “Pick up a rifle and you change instantly from a subject to a citizen.”

Sunday, October 02, 2016

ODE TO THE OUGHT SIX



“But there ain't many troubles that a man caint fix
With seven hundred dollars and a thirty ought six."
Lindy Cooper Wisdom



          Brought rather arbitrarily to life by US Army Ordnance officers who were seeking a nice round number, the Caliber .30, U.S., Model of 1906 cartridge, more commonly known as the .30-06 Springfield, came into being over 110 years ago. During all that time it has remained one of the most popular hunting calibers in the world even long after its demise as a military round and few people have had anything bad to say about the venerable old “ought six.”

 Townsend Whelen
         
 Colonel Townsend Whelen, of course, told us, “The .30-06 is never a mistake.” He also wrote, “A properly constructed .30-caliber bullet of 180 grains at M.V. 2,700 f.s. is adequate for any American big game if properly directed at the chest cavity.” Jeff Cooper made similar observations.
          Even Jack O’Connor, who adored the .270 Winchester for deer, antelope, and sheep, admitted that he owned three .270s and three .30-06s and gave the nod to the ought six when it came to larger game.
          “I doubt that anything that can be put through a .270 would be quite as effective on the heavier stuff as a good 180-grain bullet in the .30/06. And when a man is hunting really heavy and potentially dangerous game I don’t think any .270 load is as effective as a good 220-grain bullet in the .30/06, as these babies play for keeps and the bullet must drive into the vitals at all costs.”
          Only Elmer Keith, with his affinity for “punkin’ chunkin’” big hunks of lead so heavy that gravity alone would render them lethal, felt the .30-06 was a bit of a pipsqueak and inadequate for elk.
          Militarily, the Caliber .30 U.S. gave yeoman service through two World Wars, the Korean Conflict, and even soldiered on in the early days of the Vietnam War. It was fired from some of the most famous US military small arms; the Model 1903 Springfield, the Model 1917 Enfield, the Browning Automatic Rifle, the Browning water and air-cooled medium machine guns, and George Patton’s “finest battle implement ever devised”, the M1 Garand. 


In WWI, doughboys like Sergeant Alvin  York and Captain Samuel Woodfill showed that a single expert rifleman with a .30-06 could change the tide of battle. Likewise, the US Marines stunned and staggered the Germans with accurate long-range rifle fire when they arrived “Over There.” My favorite description of this comes from the book Fix Bayonets! “The Boche wanted Hill 142; he came, and the rifles broke him, and he came again. All his batteries were in action, and always his machine guns scourged the place, but he could not make head against the rifle. Guns he could understand; he knew all about bombs and auto-rifles and machine guns and trench-mortars, but aimed, sustained rifle fire, that comes from nowhere in particular and picks off men—it brought the war home to the individual and demoralized him.”
The ought six could indeed reach way out there “past Fort Mudge” and still deliver a decisive blow; at 600 yards the 150-grain ball round fired from a Springfield or Garand still retains considerably more foot-pounds of striking energy than the M16A1 rifle of my day could deliver at the muzzle!
The Caliber .30, U.S. would serve as the American military’s standard cartridge from 1906 until 1957. This lengthy military service also led to some pretty cool ammunition being developed for the .30-06, such as the black-tipped Armor Piercing, the silver-tipped Armor Piercing Incendiary and the orange-tipped tracer bullets. GIs in WWII found the M2 AP sufficiently powerful to penetrate the side armor of German halftracks, and even the ball (FMJ) projectile was able to turn good-sized tree trunks an enemy might shelter behind from cover into mere concealment. When John Moses Browning was designing the world’s best heavy machine gun, the Browning .50-caliber Ma Deuce, he simply multiplied the dimensions of the standard .30-06 cartridge to create the .50 BMG round. From the standpoint of a United States Marine Corps officer in WWII, the late, great Colonel Jeff Cooper noted, “Bushido is all very well in its way, but it is no match for a .30-06.”
          In the hunting field, the .30-06 went to Africa with Theodore Roosevelt in 1909. Ernest Hemingway used a .30-06 on safari in 1934 and Robert Ruark pronounced it “enough gun” in 1952. The lever-action Winchester in calibers like the venerable .30-30 had reigned supreme in America for decades, but returning veterans of the First World War brought the .30-06 cartridge and the bolt-action rifle into the hunting mainstream to stay. In Alaska, against their giant brown bears, one study conducted in the 1980’s concluded that the .30-06 with 220-grain bullets was the minimum acceptable defensible caliber, and the same load works well for moose, North America’s largest game animal. As Jeff Cooper succinctly put it, “I have satisfied myself completely over the years that the .30-06 will do anything that needs doing in North America.”
          The .30-06 has also been touted at one time or another for its sheer versatility; it can be used for anything from “mouse to moose.” Factory ammunition has run the gamut from 100-grain to 220-grain bullets, and reloaders have taken things all the way up to 250 grains.
          Back in the old days, wilderness hunting trips could last for weeks or even months and “pothunting” for wild game helped to keep the larders full hundreds of miles from the nearest store. For more than forty years, Townsend Whelen used his .30-06 with a light load consisting of a 150-grain FMJ military bullet propelled by only 18 grains of 4759 powder to harvest small game and upland birds without blowing them to bits.
          Decades later, Remington made an attempt to turn the .30-06 into a varmint rifle with the introduction of their special Accelerator ammunition. This fired a 55-grain .224-caliber Pointed Soft Point bullet encased in a plastic sabot to fit a .30-caliber bore at an impressive muzzle velocity of 4,080 feet per second. Expense and, in some rifles, indifferent-at-best accuracy kept the idea from becoming very successful.
But when push comes to shove the .30-06 is really a big game cartridge and at that job it is superb. In the old days, the standard recipe called for 150-grain bullets with a muzzle velocity of 2,900 fps for deer, 180-grain bullets at 2,700 fps for elk, and the big 220-grain round nose slugs for dangerous game like grizzly and Alaskan brown bear. Today, the choices can be narrowed down if desired. For many, the 165-grain bullet seems the best all-round compromise when it comes to hunting since it shoots flatter than the 180-grain yet packs more punch than the 150s. While none of the numbers produced by these loads are very sexy or spectacular when compared to the various .30-caliber Magnums, they have still been simply getting the job done for more than a century.
          The 180/2,700 mentioned by Whelen is still a very viable and fairly long range load perfect for deer and elk. With a 270 yard zero, you’re still shooting flat to 330 yards before you even need to start worrying about trajectory. The vast majority of hunters really don’t possess the marksmanship skills to take game much beyond 300 yards anyway, but the .30-06 is certainly capable of reaching out there to make 400 and even 500 yards shots in really good hands.
          My wife “adopted” my Model 1903A3 Springfield. It was originally a WWII-vintage Remington-made 03A3 that had been sporterized long before I bought it. I turned it into a Cooper-style Scout Rifle with a 19-inch barrel, lightweight synthetic Choate Mauser stock, and a home-made scout scope mount which now wears a Leatherwood Hi-Lux 2-7x32mm long eye relief scope. Most importantly, an old retired USMC gunnery sergeant turned gunsmith did an amazing trigger job on the Springfield. That alone was enough for my wife to choose that particular rifle as her own hunting arm.
          I’ve hunted a great deal with the .308 Winchester, sometimes for no better reason than to prove that a semi-automatic military-style “evil black rifle” does indeed have a “legitimate sporting purpose.” For pronghorn antelope and deer, I had a fling with the 6.5x55mm Swede for a couple of years. Yet I always wound up coming back to the .30-06 in the end. Now I generally hunt with an FN-made Model ’98 Mauser action with a 24-inch military contour barrel, Timney trigger, and Model 70-style wing safety wearing a Leupold Rifleman 3-9x40mm scope.
          Both of us also reload our own ammunition. After playing around with various loads, bullet weights and powders, we both settled on 180-grain bullets as standard. The older rifles just seemed to greatly prefer heavier as opposed to lighter bullets. Olivia’s Springfield, in particular, was basically indifferent to 150-grain loads and tossed 125-grain bullets all over the paper, but she found that a combination for the 180-grain that yields 3-shot groups that can be covered with a dime at 100 yards. My Mauser never shot quite so well but I was finally able to at least achieve the magical 1 MOA with 180-grain loads.
          More years ago than I care to recount, a friend of mine who was small of stature had hunted with the same .30-06 his entire life, but one year he decided to upgrade to a .300 Winchester Magnum in a lightweight “Mountain Rifle”. He came out to our place to sight it in at 100 yards. His first 3-shot group you could have covered with a dime. By the time he was “zeroed”, his fourth group had opened up to damn near as big as a dinner plate as he flinched in anticipation of the recoil. He hunted just one year with the .300 Win Mag and then went right back to the good old ought six ever since.
          I myself once fell prey to the siren’s song of the .300 Win Mag even though I knew deep in my heart that all it really did was push the exact same .308-inch bullets that the ought six spits out to higher velocities. That .300 on a P-17 Enfield action was the first rifle to ever give me a case of half moon disease as the rim of the scope cut a semi-circle into my eyebrow. I felt the most pain, however, at the reloading bench, where I had to use a scoop shovel instead of powder measure. To get the same 180-grain .308 Sierra GameKing moving 200 feet per second faster than the .30-06 required around 75 grains of powder versus the ought six’s more reasonable appetite of roughly 50 grains. I never did hunt with the .300, mainly because, despite the tonnage of powder devoted to finding the best “cherry” load, I never could get a 3-shot group to squeeze into even 2 inches at 100 yards. And all this to achieve a maximum point blank range 20 yards more than the .30-06 delivered.
As for the bullets themselves, we also experimented with not only different weights but various types to include the “new & improved” premium technology such as the Nosler Partition and Hornady InterBond. In the end, however, we worked our way right back to our starting point: the good old cup-and-core Sierra GameKing soft points. Like the .30-06 cartridge itself, they just plain get the job done.


If it ain't broke....30-06, '98 Mauser, Sierra GameKing.


 Another old Marine, Guns & Ammo’s Craig Boddington once wrote, “…if you are going to own just one centerfire hunting rifle, make it a .30-06.”
On the ought six’s 100th birthday, Outdoor Life’s Jim Carmichel noted, “In terms of popularity and widespread appreciation, no other caliber comes close…The .30/06 is the American hunter’s sweetheart, apple pie and first kiss all in one. It does it all.”

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

MY FIRST PEEK AT AN UNLIMITED BIGHORN SHEEP DISTRICT



For about a quarter of a century I have been attempting to draw a Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks “Special Tag” for hunting moose, mountain goat or bighorn sheep. Now I’ve added bison to the unobtainable list. Thus far, even with the “benefits” of the Bonus Point system, I haven’t drawn shit. As I tally up the years, mileage and injuries I’ve acquired, I’m getting a little nervous. I don’t know how many years I have left in which I will still be physically able to hunt the high country for sheep and goats.
          Montana does have some “Unlimited” bighorn sheep hunting districts where a person can simply buy an over-the-counter tag. These represent the only opportunity in the Lower 48 States for a hunter to actually purchase, a bighorn sheep tag, as opposed to attempt to draw one tag via a lottery system.
          The major reason why the state can have these five unlimited districts is that the country in question is steeper than a cow’s face and rougher than a cob; rocky, isolated, and hard to access. The units are in the National Forests and Wilderness areas just north of Yellowstone National Park. Some of this terrain, like the Boulder River and Beartooth Mountain units, consists almost entirely of loose rocks piled just a few degrees shy of vertical. It kicked my ass twenty-odd years ago when I was still in my prime. Now, I have to take a three ibuprofen just to look at a topo map of the area. Jack Atcheson, the premiere sheep hunting guide who used to work the unlimited districts around Yellowstone told Duncan Gilchrist, author of the Land of Giant Rams books, “Some hunters arrive, look at the immense size of the country, become depressed and leave immediately.”
          One must also factor mountain weather into the mix. It can and does snow every month of the year in the northern Rockies. I once found myself plodding through three inches of snow in a genuine blizzard atop a high, barren ridge in the Big Belt Mountains, and in Idaho I awoke one fine morning to find ice rattling around in my canteens…both these events occurred during the balmy old month of August.
  The areas in question are also very thick with grizzly bears which, after forty years of Federal protection, have come to believe that they are officially at the top of the food chain. Rather than fearing man, they have come to regard us as delightfully fat, slow and rather defenseless (no horns, claws, or teeth to speak of) sources of protein. A rifle shot is actually a “dinner bell” to some bears who’ve discovered the report means, at the very least, a yummy gut pile, if not an entire elk, that they can confiscate from the plump orange two-legged critters who waddle hastily out of the way.
          Merely traveling into these areas is hard; you can get horses and mules into the approaches to the mountains that hold sheep, but to hunt the high country itself you have to do a lot of arduous walking. Finding a legal ram is even harder. Due to the high elevation and tough winters, the unlimited district rams have a reputation for slow horn growth. From 2000 to 2013, only one ram measuring over 40 inches has been harvested from the Yellowstone area units. 
Since it appears that my odds of drawing a bighorn tag for a limited hunting district are significantly less than my odds of being elected president, I decided it’s time to hunt the unlimited districts while I still can. So I’ve been researching the two “easiest” to get to unlimited bighorn districts, Unit 300 (Gallatin-Yellowstone) and Unit 303 (South Absaroka). They’re in the same county that I reside in but, Montana counties being what they are, still require a 90-plus mile drive one-way for me to get there.
The Gallatin-Yellowstone has about the smallest geographic area, although it still covers a wide swath of tough country, and an early ten-day season starting September 1st. Mountain weather being what it is, I like the idea of the early September hunt. Despite the fact that 40-odd hunters scoured the place each season, for the past two years Unit 300’s two-ram quota has gone unfilled, and many years only one ram is bagged.
South Absaroka covers a much larger area, but has a little “easy” access in the southwest corner, where you can drive to pretty high elevations above Gardiner and Jardine. There are pockets of resident sheep throughout the area, if you can find their haunts, but many people gamble on waiting for the really big rams to migrate out of Yellowstone Park to their winter range on the National Forest in mid to late October. There’s always a chance that the quota will be filled and season closed before the big boys leave the park. The 303 quota usually gets filled and, if you hunt above Gardiner, there’s the very nice benefit of being able to camp in a vehicle or camper, always a plus in grizzly country.
          Since I haven’t hunted the country around Gardiner for almost two decades and need to do a lot of scouting, the timing seemed fortuitous when my neighbor down the road, whom I’ll call “Uncle Si”, asked if I wanted to go with him on a sheep hunt in Unit 300. I agreed to tag along because he’s in his late 60’s and missing half a lung. He wanted me to go along because, as an artilleryman in Vietnam, he’s deaf as a post and worries that a grizzly could walk right up to him without him ever knowing it. Having served in armor, I’m only half deaf and I wore my hearing aids.
          For reasons I’ll detail in a post of is own, neither one of us carries pepper spray. Since I didn’t have a sheep tag and no other big game seasons were open, it was my intention to just pack my 4-inch Smith & Wesson Model 629 .44 Magnum in case we ran into a bear. Uncle Si, who was hunting with a single-shot Thompson-Center rifle in 7mm Remington Magnum, wanted me to bring a rifle too. This didn’t quite seem right to me, so I phoned the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks office to ask about this. It isn’t technically illegal to carry a rifle for protection under such circumstances, but they really preferred I didn’t.
I compromised between the two by bringing my smoothbore slug-barreled Model 870 Remington 12-gauge pump shotgun, with a single one-ounce deer slug in the tube and the extended magazine filled with double-ought buckshot. Plenty of firepower but decidedly short-ranged and defensive in nature, nothing a normal human would be able to poach a sheep with. In hind sight it was simply a whole lot of extra, unnecessary weight to carry. Thankfully, I had at least installed a sling some time back, which made it much easier to tote around.
          Uncle Si had supposedly hunted the country in question his whole life, bagged plenty of nice elk up in Tom Miner Basin, and knew the area like the back of his hand. So, I foolishly left my topo map folded up in my belt pouch and trustingly fell in behind ye olde mountain man, assuming he knew right where he was going. I completely forget about another mountain man maxim expressed by Brian Keith as Henry Frapp in the old 1980 movie The Mountain Men. “Naw, I ain’t never been lost. Powerful confused for a month or two, but I ain’t never been lost.”

 Our goal, Sheep Mountain, as seen from Specimen Ridge, the closest we got to it.



          We started hiking through the timber, which featured plenty of blow-down, at first light. Around noon, we emerged some 2,500 feet higher atop a nameless 9,321-foot peak that turned out to be two drainages and well over four air miles, and about twice that in trail distance, from our intended target of Sheep Mountain. We were too far away to even glass for sheep with the spotting scope.
          So we wound up spending the rest of the day hiking as well, taking the most direct route possible back down to the truck. The most direct route possible turned out to be Specimen Ridge. It was not a route I would have chosen considering the age and shakiness of our knees at the moment, but we just took it nice and slow with the aid of our walking sticks. In places, the ridge narrows down to a few yards or even feet in width, with craggy vertical cliffs dropping dizzily away on either side. Footsore, soaked with sweat, and dog-tired, we stumbled back down an old logging road to the truck as darkness was falling. We’d covered somewhere around seven plus miles, of which distance approximately six inches consisted of flat ground.
 We hiked back down Specimen Ridge for about 2 miles to get past the cliffs to descend to our starting point.



Of course, it wasn’t all bad. As they say, the worst day of hunting still trumps the best day of work. A couple of brief morning rain showers greeted us and these had cleared out the thick gray pall of drift smoke from a big forest fire near West Yellowstone that had been obscuring the valleys. This opened up the achingly beautiful long distance vistas of the mountains in all directions.
          Twenty miles to the west we could see the barren reddish rock of isolated, flat-topped Sphinx Mountain in the Madison Range rising 10,840 feet against the silver blue sky and through the binos we could make out the ski runs around Big Sky. To the northwest, beyond a series of smooth, yellow grass covered ridges and darkly timbered draws, were prominent features of the Gallatin Range like Ramshorn Peak and Fortress and Steamboat Mountain. To the northeast, across the flat patchwork of irrigated alfalfa fields in Paradise Valley, the peaks of the Absarokas pushed against the sky, the northern-most some forty odd miles away near Livingston. To the south, we could see far into to heart of Yellowstone National Park, Quadrant Mountain and Antler Peak dropping away through stands of timber to the open green grasslands of Swan Lake Flats where the sun occasionally glinted on steel and glass as vehicles passed along the silver thread of the park road.
          And, of course, to the east we could see our currently unobtainable goal, 10,095-foot Sheep Mountain, the communication site on the east summit gleaming white in the sunshine. Long, smooth grassy ridges stretched out towards us like fingers, the draws between them dark green with thick stands of timber. Between us lay a helluva lot of steep, rocky, tough ground.
          Of the last nine rams harvested in Unit 300, five were taken on Sheep Mountain, so it got hit pretty hard. We saw five other sheep hunters and/or their partners, two pairs like use and one lone-wolf. We also ran into two mounted YNP Rangers patrolling the pack trail that roughly parallels the park boundary.
In many places, on the way in, the dwarf huckleberry was turning scarlet and the tiny leaves of the grouse whortleberry were golden. There weren’t many berries on the more open hillsides, where the leaves were already beginning to get dry and crunchy, but where there was a little more moisture at the bottoms of the draws we found a nice crop. We paused briefly a few times to pick sweet juicy fat purple huckleberries, glossy black wild currants that made our faces pucker, and some coarse red thimbleberries whose broad leaves were also turning yellow.
          Although the area is in the heart of grizzly bear country, and in spite of the fact that a well-known local bullshitter claimed to have seen no less than thirteen grizzly bears up there the previous day, we saw very little sign. None of the berry bushes had been worked over by bears and we came across only one rather old pile of scat and a solitary lodgepole pine trunk that bore grizzly claw marks. There wasn’t much deer or elk sign, either, and the few moose doots we saw were very old and dry. It wasn’t until we got up atop the high ridges that we found any sheep tracks and droppings. 
We kicked up a couple of mountain grouse. The first was a long way from the ridge yet so, when he landed in a nearby tree, I slipped a #6 birdshot shell into the shotgun and nailed him. Such was the nature of the terrain that I had to follow a trail of feathers for twenty plus yards to find the grouse. He had fallen lifelessly from the tree, hit the ground, and bounced and rolled like a soccer ball down the steep slope for quite a ways before lodging against a fallen tree trunk.
The trees at the beginning of our journey were a mix of rough-barked Douglas fir and arrow-straight lodgepole pine stands. These gave way to smooth trunked subalpine or “piss” fir on the slopes and some dark spruce in the draws. Finally, getting closer to timberline, the tops of the ridges were decorated with gnarled, twisted, wind-battered whitebark pine. Occasional black-and-gray Clark’s nutcrackers flew from tree to tree giving metallic squawks; nutcracker and pine squirrel caches of whitebark pine cones and nuts are a favorite staple of the grizzly bear.  A great many of these pines were now only dead gray skeletons, the victims of white pine blister rust, a fungal disease introduced from Europe. The tiny spores are borne easily on the wind, so that even isolated “island” mountain ranges like the Crazies have been affected.
          The area is also part of the Gallatin Petrified Forest and we enjoyed seeing the petrified wood nearly everywhere we went. The trees were supposedly buried upright and standing 50 million years ago by lava, mud flows and volcanic ash, then petrified via silica and quartz seeping into their cells. In some places, the white petrified trees were embedded within the rock of the cliff faces, which are often composed of volcanic conglomerates. Water and wind have sculpted these conglomerates via erosion into strange shapes, pillars and balanced rocks. 

 "Uncle Si" and the petrified tree.



Traipsing down Specimen Ridge, we came across the still-standing petrified trunk of a giant old tree that must have been ten or twelve feet across at the base. Its sheer size made us wonder how high the actual tree must have reached when living. The Eocene Age when these trees were alive must have been much warmer, for such species as sycamores, magnolias, chestnuts and oaks have been identified in the petrified forest.
          On our initial way down Specimen Ridge, we also surprised a nice mountain goat billy who was bedded down in the shade of the stunted piss firs that adorned the top of the ridge. Having domestic goats of my own, I could just about read the comically distraught expression on his bearded face and in his coal black eyes. Of course he was long gone by the time I got my camera out. The sleek-haired, snow white goat trotted past us within 25 yards or so and then disappeared over the edge of the nearest cliff. For the rest of the hike, whenever we could look back and see the east-facing aspects of the ridge we glassed for him, but it was as if he had disappeared into thin air.
          By the time we hiked all the way down Specimen Ridge to where the slope moderated enough for us to dive off the west side, I was weary, footsore, and getting dehydrated even though I’d packed in three quarts…or six pounds…of water. Thankfully, we had a cooler with Gatorade and bottled water in the back of the truck. As I sat on the tailgate and guzzled my first Gatorade, I checked my watch and noted that it took three full minutes for my ass to come dragging in behind us.
          Driving back down Tom Miner Road, within a mile of the aptly named Grizzly Creek, there were a couple of vehicles stopped along the side of the road so we stopped to take a gander as well. About 300 yards off the road, two grizzly bears were making their way across a wide open yellow grassy meadow against a backdrop of brilliant green white-barked quaking aspen. 

 Da Bears...viewed from a nice, safe distance.

          They looked like they had been eating well, and their sleek brown pelts were obviously frosted with the traditional “grizzled” white-tipped guard hairs. Their shoulder humps were clearly apparent and despite the fat they carried on their well-rounded rumps you could still plainly see the grace and power of their massive muscles rippling beneath their hides as they walked, dug at the ground, briefly tussled together a couple of times, and occasionally ran a short distance. One stood up on its hind legs a time or two to survey the terrain around them, revealing a white patch on its chest.
          Going by their nearly identical appearance and size, maybe 300 pounds or so, and their familiar behavior towards each other, we speculated that they were siblings and probably three-year-olds who’d been given the boot by Mama Bear so she could have more cubs.
          So, after all was said and done, it was a pretty good day even though we didn’t even get to see a bighorn. The only thing that really upset us was seeing a billboard advertising camel rides along Highway 89 in Paradise Valley. If the quota remains unfilled, we plan to go back for the last 2-3 days of season.