Wednesday, December 12, 2018


(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.  

          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.