The perils of special permits
The permit application season is upon us, the time to enter lotteries for coveted big game permits in western U.S. states. The trouble is, even with a permit in hand not everything can go according to plan. Allow me to give you an example:
In 1991 I drew an either-sex elk permit in the Elkhorn Mountains southeast of Helena. I talked to a number of hunters, seeking advice, and one fellow who knew the area hiked with me into the North Crow Creek area on a scouting trip prior to the season.
The day before the season opened, I drove my pickup to the trailhead and donned my backpack. By this time I was in the midst of a raging snowstorm. The switchback trail drops down to North Crow Creek and snakes along on a rocky trail above the creek. After more than three miles you climb out and walk a quarter mile northeasterly to Spring Creek. That is where I set up my unheated backpack tent and crawled inside to spend the night.
A foot of snow was on the ground when I exited the tent on opening morning. After a Spartan breakfast I eased up the drainage and sneaked right into a herd of at least 40 elk, including a five-point bull and seven spike bulls. I passed on the shot, then spent the next two or three days hunting for a bigger bull but with no success.
I returned to the Elkhorns several times during the season, the job keeping me away more than I liked. Meanwhile Montana was having a cold, deep-snow winter and elk were pouring out of Yellowstone National Park. Guys who had never seen a live elk before were shooting mature bulls. But stubbornly I pursued the Elkhorn permit whenever I could. Finally, a week before the season ended, Laurie said, “Are you going to get serious about shooting an elk? We could use the meat.”
So my son Ben, who was 14 at the time, left the house in Bozeman with me at 3:30 a.m. We arrived at the trailhead at about 5 a.m. and with flashlights followed the rocky trail into Spring Creek. We emerged into the lower Spring Creek meadow at 7:30 a.m., and there I spotted a cow elk watching us from about 150 yards. I quickly dropped to kneeling position and killed the elk with one shot from my old 7mm Weatherby Magnum, shooting a handloaded 175-grain Nosler Partition bullet.
Then the work began. I field-dressed the elk, quartered it, and tied the four quarters onto a plastic sled Ben and I had brought in with us, confident we would make a kill. Everything went fine for the first few hundred yards, but when we began our descent from the meadow to the North Crow Creek trail we had a runaway sled, which “crashed” on the main trail and above the creek. What to do?
We unloaded the sled, repacked the hindquarters onto the sled, and left the front quarters at the site of the mishap. I tied a line to the back of the sled, and Ben used that to keep it on the perilous trail while I pulled with a different line attached to the front of the sled. (Without the rear line the sled would have slid off the trail and plunged 35 yards down into the creek.)
Hours later we arrived at the pickup, unloaded the quarters and sled, then donned pack-and-frames and returned set out again on the trail for the front quarters. We lashed them onto our packs and made our way back along the trail. Staggering up the switchback trail for the last time, we reached the pickup at 2:30 p.m. — seven hours since I had squeezed the trigger on the elk.
Ben, who was a football player and had a teenager’s appetite, was wolfing down sandwiches from the cooler on the way back to Bozeman. “What’s tougher,” I asked him, “football practice or elk hunting?”
“Elk hunting!” he said without a moment’s hesitation.
It all could have been avoided had I written off the special elk permit and went to Gardiner to pursue one of the bulls streaming out of Yellowstone. But in retrospect that cow elk from the Elkhorn Mountains and the day spent with my late son Ben are some of my fondest memories.
Bernie Kuntz, a Jamestown native, has been an Outdoors columnist for The Sun since 1974