hHere along the Continental Divide on wintry mornings, the horses accepted their saddles and chilled steel bits fatalistically. But canvas tents and wood stoves were all that separated us from the snow and single-digit cold, and when we stepped outside at 5:30 to begin the day in our long underwear and wool pants and jackets and caps, we moved purposefully toward the glowing cook tent and its gas lights and hot coffee.

We had come to hunt for elk, five of us: one from Atlanta, another from Milwaukee and two guys from the Seattle area. This was on public land in the high country not far below Glacier National Park. The guides were young, or younger, and fit, and their lungs well-acclimated to the elevation and its thinner air. The joke was that hunters not only volunteered for this duty; they paid for it.

A case could be made that gatherings like these keep America’s heart beating. Rugged country and overcoming it, or accommodating it, is a timeless allure. So, too, the challenge of finding animals that don’t want to be found. Ultimately, the repetitious climbing of rocky slopes and declinations into steep draws might represent the need, widely felt, to unshackle oneself from ordinariness. Also, the long days of toting high-powered rifles and wondering over many months of practice whether a shot taken will be a shot made distills responsibilities, and reward, to the individual in ways uncommon in an increasingly collectivist world.

So it was on the second day in camp after breakfast that snow fell and four of us rode out into the dark. Seven strands of electric fence, solar powered, surrounded the cook tent to discourage black bears and grizzlies, and another hot wire encircled the entire camp. Leading the way, Josh Carlbom dropped the perimeter wire and ambled ahead on his horse with his headlamp switched off.

Swirling, the mountain winds enveloped us as our horses followed a narrow path upslope. Soon we were in timber with branches occasionally swatting our faces, while Josh and his horse picked their way over deadfalls and wound along and far above Biggs Creek, which rumbled steeply below like the wildest river ever. We rode an hour and more, gaining higher and higher ground, and for long moments I thought creation’s doorstep might lie just ahead.

“We’ll tie ’em here,” Josh said finally, and we dismounted.

Thirty-six years old, wiry and light-footed, Josh has guided elk and deer hunters and also summer fishermen and pack trips in these mountains since he was 18. His parents had owned Sun Canyon Lodge, a gateway business to the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and now he and his wife, Niki, own it. Come November each year, Josh leads hunters some 20 miles by horseback from the lodge into his two wilderness tent camps, and he oversees there the guides and cooks and wranglers and other workers. But mostly he does what he is doing now: hiking with hunters. And glassing distant hillsides with binoculars, scanning for elk.

“I haven’t been up in this country for a while,” Josh whispered. “Because we didn’t find elk down below yesterday, I wanted to see if they were at this higher elevation.”

With Josh and me was guide Scott Langford of Great Falls, Mont., and the three of us, along with fellow hunter Peter Stanford of Milwaukee, lay on our backs on a snowy slope, peering across a steep canyon at a mountainside of Douglas fir, spruce and larch. We were hoping to spot through our binoculars the dusky hides of elk lying in snow or perhaps beneath the long warming tree branches. Seeing a good bull, we would hike to it, aware always of wind direction and if possible approaching the animal from above.

“This time of year, a bull will bed down most of the day,” Josh said. “Even if it takes hours to get to him, he’ll often still be there.”

Assuming in those imagined circumstances a successful shot, the animal’s field-dressing and quartering would follow, with evening inevitably approaching. The return hike to the horses would be made, and then the darkened ride back to camp for pack mules, and the ride back again to the elk. Or, conversely, the elk carcass could be left until the next day. But by then, wolves or grizzlies or black bears or mountain lions might have shredded it.

Spotting no elk, the four of us continued along a side-sloping game trail that led us farther still from the tied horses. Maybe it was 8 in the morning or 9 or whatever. No one checked. Regardless, we would spend until nightfall doing what we were doing: hiking and glassing, sometimes toward these more open hillsides and mountain sides, other times into miles of dark timber that over time alternates between green and majestic and charred and black, devastated by fire, a wilderness transition.

As we hiked on, I recalled a time some years back when I leased horses in Colorado and hunted elk at 10,000 feet. I did this alone and was in good stead, I thought, to kill a bull. But ultimately I was surprised by an early deep snow, and a week later rode into the lower country with my tag unfilled.

Now as Josh, Scott, Peter and I scrambled up the side of a canyon, my legs felt good and more or less I had guessed correctly regarding my clothing, wearing stiff boots with lugged soles and synthetics top and bottom, and light wool pants. My jacket was fleece and also I carried a down coat in my waist pack, along with matches, fire starters, extra .270 cartridges and my lunch.

But I’m older now, and this Montana air at 6,500 feet seemed somehow thinner than I recalled the Colorado air at 10,000. So intermittently while climbing, I stopped to catch my breath, not wanting to depart these mountains draped over the splintery sawbuck of a tired mule.

• • •

In camp that night, everyone’s reports were the same. Some elk had been spotted. But no bulls, particularly no big bulls — nothing like the record book animal taken near this camp a couple of years back that scored 412, a monster.

You want really in these circumstances to balance your interest in seeing an animal, and having a chance at it, with the knowledge that this is wild-land hunting, with its lack of guarantees. If you wanted your meal ticket punched more favorably, you could have signed on with one of the thousands of private land outfits available throughout the West in which more elk are available to more hunters under more hospitable circumstances, albeit for more money.

But instead you chose to hunt in “the Bob,” as it’s called hereabouts, and hunting in this formidable country means that along with the wolves and cats and grizzlies, you’re just another predator, and perhaps an insignificant one at that. So you rise early, lock and load, hike or ride until dark in country the likes of which you might never see again, and at least for these seven days you’re a hunter. A hunter.

“I saw a grizzly,” said guide Logan Sheets of Wausau, Wis.

This was over dinner while the bunch of us were crowded into the warm cook tent, brightly lit.

Logan had moved to Montana while in high school “because Wisconsin wasn’t working out for me,” and subsequently had paid $5,000 to a guide school to learn how to throw a diamond hitch and to understand generally how to stay out of trouble with livestock. Now in his free time, he reads Sigurd Olson and other writers and dreams someday of doing something else, though he’s unsure what.

“I’ve got time,” he said. “I like guiding. I’m only 21.”

Also in the cook tent were Rod Boyer, 67, and David Irons, 61, of the Seattle area, and TJ Arvas, 35, of Atlanta, all longtime big game and bird hunters. TJ, in fact, remains the youngest trap shooter ever to break 100 straight, which he did at age 10, and the youngest also to break 200 consecutively, a feat accomplished at 13.

Also on site was TJ’s father, Tom, an Albuquerque, N.M., optometrist who at age 76 had suffered with the rest of us the brutally cold and wind-whipped 20-mile, seven-hour ride into our mountain encampment, so he could be with his son.

Each day while TJ hunted, Tom hiked into the mountains with a book, sat beneath a tree and read.

“I’ve killed a record book elk and have no need to kill another,” said Tom, who serves on the New Mexico Game Commission and is an NRA national board member. “But I wanted to be with TJ on this hunt. When you’re my age, in the fourth quarter with no timeouts left, you want to stay in the game.”

The next morning, the morning after that and the morning after that, everyone arose thinking elk. Camp cook Lauren Bennett, 27, of Jackson, Wyo., fried eggs and French toast and sausage or bacon over a wood stove, and we ate heartedly. Then we climbed onto horses or just as often hiked directly from camp.

Nearby, the North Fork of the Sun River flowed gin-clear, separating the vast area we hunted from the equally vast, 200,000-acre Sun River Game Preserve.

Established in 1911 by the state of Montana, the preserve is off limits to hunters, and our suspicions were the region’s elk were sheltered there. But the preserve doesn’t have enough grass to support elk in winter, and any day now, we thought — any hour — most of its hundreds of elk should be migrating down valley 25 miles or so, periodically crossing the Sun River as they do and exposing themselves to our long guns.

Josh, Scott, Peter and I again returned to camp after dark on our final night, heavy snow falling, and soon thereafter I joined Tom and Peter in their tent to reminisce about the day’s events.

This was just before TJ returned from his hunt, parted the tent flaps and said:

“We found the bulls.”

• • •

The next morning, our last, while the mules were being packed in the dark for our long ride down valley, Peter, Rod, Logan, Scott and I hiked from camp, hoping one or more of the 16 bulls that TJ and Logan had spotted in the preserve had crossed the North Fork of the Sun into our country to feed during the night.

In this planned ambush, some people might rather root for the elk. That’s OK, we root for the elk, too. But equally so, we root for ourselves. This was after all what we had come for, and in the night’s long shadows as we tiptoed over deadfalls, amid the echoing howls of competing wolf packs, and as the mountain wind rushed down from peaks unseen, and scaled others, we positioned ourselves on an overlook a quarter-mile from one another.

Kneeling in the snow, then sitting against a fallen tree, I double-checked that I had a round chambered.

Then I pulled my warm coat from my pack to guard against the cold, uncased my range finder, made sure my scope was clean, and thought: I’m happy enough right here.

When the morning’s earliest light gathered, the bulls, we could see, had not crossed the river.

Perhaps they would the next day or the next, and we thought about that, each of us, as we saddled up for the trip into lower country, and to our more ordinary lives.


Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com