Wednesday, February 22, 2017
SKIING FOR WAPITI
The type of country I hunted near White Sulphur Springs.
We had some unusual weather this year that made for pretty poor elk hunting during general season. First, fall rains saturated the back-country two-tracks and generated a second growth of grass that had the high country as green as spring. Then we didn’t get any real snowfall or cold temperatures during rifle season. So, there was really no reason for the elk to come down out of the high country and a great many tags went unfilled.
Fortunately, Fish, Wildlife and Parks had an extended “shoulder season” for cow elk on private land in the hunting districts up around White Sulphur Springs that ran until February 15th. Some private land not ordinarily huntable was opened up on a limited reserve basis as well. Even so, it was no easy hunt. FWP was receiving 600 calls per day about the hunt at the start of the shoulder season! I suspect many of those interested were hoping for something like a damage control hunt where they could just park at a hay stackyard and shoot one out the window of the pickup; when they found out real hunting was involved a good percentage suddenly cooled their jets. Nevertheless, I usually encountered multiple other die-hards out hunting even when I went up there in the middle of the week.
We got a few real blizzards and considerable snowfalls, always attended by drifting, in January and early February. Many of the seasonal local gravel roads accessing much of the country were of little use to hunters. Due to our winter winds they were often interspersed with deep, impassable snow drifts in low and sheltered areas while they were blown clean down to bare gravel in exposed open areas, making it impossible to use either wheeled vehicles or snow machines.
Of course, mere walking starts to become quite a chore when the snow gets over eight or ten inches deep on the flats and the drifts in the draws and on the lee slopes leave you “post-holing” up to your crotch with every step.
Two ways to beat such conditions are snowshoes and skis. You can learn to use snowshoes quickly and easily and they are handier in thick timber and brush, but they are slow and still require considerable physical effort just to move around on them. As I once explained to my wife, “Cross-country skiing is a sport; snowshoeing is merely an ordeal.”
Take it from me, if you do decide to try cross-country skiing, do yourself a huge favor and go take a couple of lessons from a real instructor right off the bat. I spent two long, hard winters teaching myself before I got to the point where I ceased to crash and burn on every downhill. Later, my wife and I did a 5-day winter trip to Yellowstone National Park. One afternoon we took cross-country ski lessons and it was well worth the effort. Even though I am reaching curmudgeon status and our instructor was a “kid” barely over 20, he was a pretty good teacher and I learned quite a few tips and techniques that were of great benefit to me in my back-country ski adventures.
I ski as much for fitness and pleasure as anything. Once upon a time I was actually a marathon-level runner, but then a guy earning his 4th DUI hit me head-on at 70+ mph and now the vertebrae in my neck are so, to use a technical medical term, “buggered up” that I just can’t take the pounding of a run. Cross-country skiing became my low-impact substitute to running, at least for part of the year.
When I finally got decent at it, I combined x-country skiing with hunting, mostly for coyote but sometimes for deer and elk if we got some decent snow during general season. I regularly skied some old logging roads and skid trails in the Crazy Mountains that were off-limits to snow mobiles for two years and every single time I saw pine marten tracks. The next year I spent two weeks running a trapline up there and never cut a single track; just like all the old books say, marten can simply vanish from an area entirely for no discernable reason. But I still enjoyed the experience and got plenty of exercise out it.
If the snow is not very deep and/or there are two-tracks or snow machine trails to run on I take my modern lightweight “skinny skis”, waxless Karhu Widetraks that are slightly wider than straight cross-country trail skis and have steel edges. Breaking trail in deep snow with them, however, is exhausting and in the sagebrush, which always includes drifting, I often find myself having to stop and kick the ski tips back up and above the snow and brush every few strides. Lastly, even on a packed trail, I don’t get much glide at all on the moderate downhills with these waxless skinny skis.
When it comes to deep powder, unbroken routes, drifts, and sagebrush, I revert to my big clunky old school Swiss Army surplus skis. They are fiberglass with steel edges, ridiculously heavy, and built solid enough that you could probably construct an emergency bridge sufficient to carry the weight of a duce-and-a-half out of them. Despite their weight, their 3-1/8 inch width distributes my own weight much better and I can slog through a couple of feet of powder without sinking all the way down in. Negotiating sagebrush and its ever-present associated snowdrifts, the Swiss monsters keep me afloat better, often riding atop a crust rather than crashing through it, and I don’t have much issue with the tips getting bogged under either. Plus you can get a little rest while coasting down even moderate slopes.
The Swiss skis require waxing, which isn’t as big a pain in the ass as I thought it was going to be. When I prepare them ahead of time at home, I scrape the surface down bare and clean it with a little rubbing alcohol on a rag. Then I apply the wax, melt it on with an old electric iron I bought at a thrift store for just this purpose, and cork it smooth. This base layer of wax is the cold temperature stuff. If you need to you can throw softer wax on top of it. The Swiss ski poles are also old school, the metal ring of the basket attached with leather straps. If I’m expecting heavy, wet snow conditions I spray these with unscented Pam cooking oil to keep the snow from clumping up on them. The same treatment can also help on the bottom of a sled.
In the field, I carry two or three different cans of Swix wax rated for different temperatures. If I start slipping and back-sliding, I just take my skis off and smear on some of the appropriate wax and then keep going, allowing the snow and travel to smooth it out. Sometimes under difficult snow conditions or a particularly steep uphill, I’ll throw on a fast, temporary smear of hot wax just on the “kick pockets” of the skis under the bindings to get better footing.
I’m sure there are now nice lightweight modern Telemark skis on the market that would work better, but I’m too set in my ways to do the research and too cheap to buy new. Even with the Swiss slabs I can cover eight or even ten miles in a hunt now. The nicest part is that since the return trip is usually downhill and often in my own ski tracks, it generally requires less than half the time it took to go in to come back out.
Skis are still just a means of transportation to get where I want to hunt. When I actually begin a stalk, I remove my skis and go afoot. For this reason, and for safety, I don’t feel the need to carry my rifle cocked and locked and ready to rock. I don’t even chamber a round until the time comes to stalk. I simply carry it on a conventional sling, slung over one shoulder and carried diagonally across my back. Although I always put a small piece of black electrical tape over the muzzle of my rifles in the field, especially in the snow, I also carry mine in a Rapid Rifle Cover. This is a Montana-made product consisting of a neoprene sleeve with elastic lining around the open end. It stretches from the muzzle of the rifle to the rear bell of the scope, protecting both quite well even if you take a spill in the snow.
Years ago at the Bozeman gun show I "discovered" the Montana-made Rapid Rifle Cover. I highly recommend one for protecting your muzzle and optics when hunting in the snow.
Of course, as hard as it was to find elk on huntable ground and finally put one down this year, the real work starts once you fill the tag; getting it back to the truck is the real trick. For that, I use a cargo sled. On a morning hunt, unless the snow conditions make it too noisy, I just pull the empty sled along behind me. At other times, I have to return to the truck to retrieve it, but the extra trip on skis is nowhere near as exhausting as post-holing and in the process you break and pack a decent trail for the sled to ride in.
All sleds, of course, are not created equal. The thin plastic children’s toy sleds from Wally World are cheap, brittle in extreme cold, and quickly disintegrate under the load of a dead elk. There are a number of different of cargo, utility or multi-purpose sleds on the market which are made of heavy duty plastic or fiberglass and are advertised for use in ice fishing, winter camping, etc., some designed to be pulled by ATVs or snowmobiles. Look for one with a fairly large surface area to better float on soft snow, fairly high sides to keep it from taking on snow, plenty of attachment points for straps, webbing or cordage, and molded ribs or runners on the bottom to allow the sled to “track” in your ski trail. On one hunt, my wife and I even ran into one hunter who had inexpensively procured a beat-up old plastic kayak from a river guide service that he was using as a sled to haul out game.
Developed in the Scandinavian countries, the boat-shaped cargo sled known as an ahkio or pulk was designed to carry heavy loads in deep snow. The fiberglass US Army surplus ahkios are fairly inexpensive these days; I’ve seen them advertised between $150 and $200. Such ahkios are rated for a 200-pound load and are built like a tank; they’re almost indestructible and will last a lifetime. This durability, however, comes at the price of weight. An empty one still weighs 36 pounds by itself, which was more weight than I wanted to drag behind me all day.
Ahkio cargo sleds are built like tanks just in case, like these Finnish Winter War troops, you need to tote your 100-pound Lathi 20-mm anti-tank rifle around.
When loading your sled, be sure to keep the heaviest weight on the very bottom, to keep the sled from becoming top-heavy and prone to tipping, and slightly to the rear of center to keep the nose from digging in when it is pulled forward. An antelope or deer can be easily enough pulled out whole, but even a cow elk is a damn big animal, so I quarter mine up.
Most sleds come equipped with a tow rope of some kind. When used with skis, you also need tow boars. My “tow bars” are in fact a pair of broom handles with holes drilled in each end. I use parachute cord (plastic zip ties get brittle in extreme cold) to attach one end to the tow fittings on the front of the sled. The other end has a loop of p-cord with a carabineer which in turn snaps into another loop of cord attached to my pistol belt.
My cargo sled bears no markings of any kind. It was an Army surplus bargain I picked up many years ago. Unlike an ahkio, it weighs only 7 pounds so I don't mind dragging it around empty.
Since my neck injury also prevents me for carrying a conventional backpack, I’ve taken to wearing an old Army-surplus ALICE-type LBE (Load Bearing Equipment). In addition to a fanny pack with some survival gear I carry two canteens, one of which is a double-walled Thermos-like Arctic canteen. In the morning I pre-heat it with hot water, then fill it with boiling tea, and it stays warm for most of the day. Hydration is every bit as important in the winter as it is in the summer, but sometimes when you’re chilly you just don’t want a big gulp of ice-cold water so hot tea encourages one to drink.
The real trick to pulling a sled is that once you get it in motion you never give up any of that momentum, even when moving at a literal snail’s pace. Keeping the sled going, even slowly, is much easier than getting a stationary sled started again. And again and again.
With proper technique and/or good waxing, on moderate terrain I have little trouble pulling a loaded sled while on skis. It is still a real work-out in the long run, but remains a great deal more pleasant than post-holing slowly forward one step and tug at a time afoot. Frequently I find post-holing even takes an extra step, i.e. wallow and stagger a little to get your foot up enough to take a step, take that step forward, put weight on foot, punch through the surface crust and sink in to your thigh, yank the sled forward a few inches, then repeat with the other foot.
Instead equipped with skis, I gave the late season shoulder hunt no less than six tries. Four times I hunted standard Block Management Areas. Once I was lucky enough to get in on a private ranch that allowed two parties per day in to hunt the late season. Each and every time I went, I saw elk, on that particular occasion nearly five hundred of them. But, although some of them were within ten yards of one, every last elk I saw was on the wrong side of a section fence for me to be able to hunt them. There was plenty of fresh sign indicating they had indeed traveled through and fed in the areas I did hunt, but I always managed to be a day late and a dollar short on the deal.
Still, when we had another nice dump of snow in early February, I decided to go out and give it one last hurrah. I was pleasantly surprised to actually glass elk from the road and, although three parties of guys were hunting the limited-access private ground across the highway, no one else was hunting the regular BMA on my side.
The elk were in low, rolling hill country with no handy terrain features to hide behind and no cover taller than a sagebrush. To get within range, I had to ski a zig-zagging three mile course along the very bottoms of the dry draws and water courses. Near the end, less than a half a mile from the elk, I ran out of cover entirely. I put the hood up on my snow cammo parka, bent over as much as I could, and skied the lowest point across the open area. I was able to get behind a flat-topped hill without them spooking.
Ascending through snow drifted two or more feet deep amidst the sagebrush, I cached my skis and sled near the top of the reverse slope. With just my rifle and ski poles, which still come in handy when walking in deep snow, I headed to the top of the hill where the wind had blown away most of the snow and only an inch or two remained. I wound up crawling on hands and knees using individual sagebrush for cover to close the range.
By then, of course, the weather had turned quickly and decisively to shit. The skiing and post-holing had left me sweating so hard that I could not keep my glasses from fogging up. A wet snow had also begun to fall and it was growing in severity with each passing minute, making it difficult to keep my optics clear, even though I have a lens cloth attached to the binos. The falling snow also kept me from getting a reading with the range-finder. The bulls had not lost their antlers yet and there were raghorns and spikes in the bunch I was sneaking up on so I had to make sure I zeroed in on a bald-headed one.
I kept closing the range. Finally, two cow elk emerged atop the small ridgeline I was following to feed where the snow had been blown clear of the grass and I was able to get a direct reading on them of 325 yards. On a hillside in a comfortable sitting position, with at least one elbow braced by a knee, I drove the tips of my ski pole bipod into the snow firmly and rested the synthetic forearm of my sporterized large-ring 98 Mauser across the leather straps.
By looping the wrist straps across the handle of the opposite pole you can make a pretty steady bipod out of your ski poles.
I’m a firm believer in the late, great Colonel Jeff Cooper’s two KISS simple rules for making a hunting shot. “If you can get closer, get closer. If you can get steadier, get steadier.” Although the ballistic reticle on my scope has hold-overs out to 500 yards and I actually do practice out to that range from field firing positions every year, in a lifetime of big game hunting I can count the times I’ve actually taken a shot over 300 yards on the fingers of one hand. Excluding a few occasional what-the-hell Hail Mary shots at coyotes now and then, of course.
I dialed the variable power Leupold Rifleman scope up to 9x. The two cows looked to be identical in size, so I singled out the nearest one which also presented the best shot. I took a breath and examined the steadiness of the crosshairs on the target. I was satisfied I was steady enough and there was no wind to contend with. So I settled in, let out half a breath, and squeezed one off. The shot certainly “felt” good and I was immediately rewarded with the sound of the kugelschlag; leave it to the Germans to actually have a word for the wet, meaty slap of a bullet striking solidly home. Working the bolt, I got back on target and thought I saw the cow’s ears and head go down rather unnaturally just over the top of the ridge.
Although I had glassed the place intensively from every possible vantage point on my way in, I had not seen more than fifty elk total. At the sound of my shot, however, they started to swarm out of every draw and coulee until there were well over two hundred of them. Within five minutes, every last one of them had jumped the section fence into “out of bounds” private land where they herded up and watched me.
Other than checking the nearest departing group of elk with the binos looking for a wounded one, just in case, I didn’t pay the rest of them much attention. I was pretty convinced my hit had been a solid one. Sure enough, just below the crest of the hill where I couldn’t see her until I was right on her, there was my elk. As usual, my trusty 180-grain Sierra GameKing had done its job well; she lay sprawled on her side perhaps 12 yards from where she had stood when I shot her.
I'm a firm believer in heavier bullets for elk, and the .308-dia 180-grain Sierra GameKing has never failed me.
I tagged her and took a couple of quick photos; with the growing storm darkness was descending fast and the snowfall was rapidly intensifying. As I started field dressing the cow, I was surprised to still find several fat, swollen wood ticks in the thin belly hair around her udder. Although the cow hadn’t looked that big through the scope, she was considerably larger in the body than the nice fat 4-point mulie buck my wife had shot during general season. Even with the small Gerber survival hatchet I carry to cut quickly through the ribs and pelvis, field dressing still look a bit longer than a deer would have.
By the time I was done, it was full dark and snowing hard. Before leaving home, I had zoomed in on a point forecast for the exact area I was going to hunt on the National Weather Service site. It had called for a 40% chance of snow with accumulation of less than a half an inch.
As much as I hated to, I knew I would have to finish the job first thing in the morning. I stuffed snow in the body cavity, then put the sled over the elk and shoveled more snow over top of everything with my skis, hoping that would be enough to keep the coyotes from finding her during the next few hours. Although I felt I had the position marked well in my mind, I hung a piece of flagging from the tallest sagebrush available.
Even though the skiing was good and I picked up my trail less than halfway back, it still took me over an hour to make it back to the truck. For almost half an hour I was within sight of Highway 89 and only a single vehicle passed that whole time. At the parking area, there was already a good two inches of fresh snow and it was coming down harder than ever. I kept the truck in 4x4 and limped towards home at only 45 mph; the snow was coming down so heavily that I could not use my high beams.
The next morning at 0900, not wanting to chase off the elk and ruin somebody else’s hunt by going in at first light, I clipped on my skis and headed for my elk. An old ranch two-track free of sagebrush gave me quick, easy and direct access to a dry reservoir bed. From there I simply skied up the draws in my own partially covered tracks from the previous evening.
I had no trouble finding the elk. Overnight we had gone from blizzard to Chinook and the snow was melting fast everywhere with surprising speed. A couple of ravens and some magpies had found the gut pile, but fortunately the local coyote population hadn’t. As I was quartering up the cow, however, two different packs showed up and started giving me hell from the far sides of the draws, safely out of range as usual, the little bastards. The backstraps, tenderloins, rib and neck meat went into a garbage bag, then it and the four quarters were strapped down securely into the sled.
Pulling the elk out wasn’t bad at all at first. The snow was still pretty firm in the draws, I had a packed ski trail that the sled tracked well in, and the course was generally down gentle slopes.
Then the sun came out and temps rose even more. The snow got very wet and sticky and tacky, clinging to the sled and even to the baskets on the ski poles, and not even a treatment of red klister wax gained me much traction on the skis. The last half mile was clear running on the two-track down a moderate slope and I still had to pull for each foot.
Still, I was back to the truck by about 1300. I got ‘er done. Now I just have to kill six and a half months until next bow season.