The drumming sound of hooves striking the hard worn trail marked the beginning of the seventeen mile trek through the Purcell Wilderness to the Big Cabin. One of A/Z guides, Fred and the grizzly bear hunter Gare had a head start on Ritchie and me taking up the rear with six loaded pack horses.
The trail forked one direction leading towards our destination, the Big Cabin, another eight miles down the trail, the other to the Ben Able Cabin which is less than half a mile up the trail. Mules always take the opportunity to think for themselves and the one and only mule in the string, Fred, decided to take off with three of his horse buddies towards the Ben Able cabin.
Jumping off my mare, frantically tying her up to run after the wayward mule with his folly of horses, you should have seen the look on the mule’s face when I intercepted him along the trail spoiling his plans for reaching the Ben Able Cabin. After a short fifteen minute detour, we were back on the trail. Self thinking mule-ism #1 down for the day.
Long before you reached it, you could hear the creek just past the Ben Able Cabin roaring. The spring snow melt had all of the creeks flowing at full capacity, being a Rhodesian Ridgeback, Kruger naturally has an aversion to water, things were about to get interesting. This was Kruger’s first official day on the job as a mountain dog and he had never encountered such a water crossing before.
The horses steadily crossed the swift water leaving Kruger behind to figure out his own path across. He jumped quickly in to the fast moving waters in attempt to not get left behind. The water covered his back pushing him downstream, using his paws; he grasped a rock pulling himself to the safety of the shoreline. I met him on the ground giving a hoorah and party for his successful crossing.
The weather was typical for this time of year, warm sunny skies followed by multiple series of dark skies and showers. Rain gear on, rain gear off. Repeat. There is nothing that smells better than the mountain after a good rain shower, all the scents of the earth are revitalized and the breeze delivering all of those wonderful scents of pine and grass.
We arrived at the Big Cabin without major ado, tired from the long trek through the valley. It felt good to be back at the Big Cabin. Kruger had a successful day being a dog, the horses all did a fine job packing in our gear, now time to ready ourselves for Gares grizzly hunt.
Like an alarm clock going off, Fred the mule’s bray welcomed the morning sunshine. The older I get, the more that I find myself appreciating the solitude of the mountain. Waking up and looking forward to a nice hot cup of coffee, taking in the view from the cabin, no emails to check, no phone calls to be made, no people around, no cars driving by. This surely is what heaven must be like.
Gare, the grizzly bear hunter woke up to a tummy ache and decided to forgo day hunting to rest up. Fred and Ritchie made use of the time heading up the trail to mend some fence while I stayed behind in camp to do some writing. Kruger enjoyed his morning off and slept recuperating from the long trek in.
By early afternoon Fred and Ritchie had returned and after a hot lunch, Fred and I took a few of the horses out to the slide to graze on the fresh mountain grasses. Dutch Creek lines the valley below and the steep mountainsides jaggedly erupt straight to the sky. Overnight, the peaks had received a fresh dusting of snow. The only sound coming from the creek below, my only worry was watching over the hobbled horses as they grazed lazily up the slope.
You can learn a lot about a herd of horses by including one single mule in your string; they are quite animated causing lots of mischief and are always thinking for themselves. Like an alarm going off again, I knew the bellies of the horses surely must be full when Fred the mule began to do more traveling than eating.
One thing you will soon realize when you pack into the wilderness on horseback is that everything is work. Feeding horses, packing horses, keeping camp cleaned up, preparing meals, washing dishes, everything is done by hand and no one rests much. If you want water, you grab buckets and go fill them in the creek, if you want to cook, you light a fire in the wood stove, if you want to wash dishes, and you boil water on the stove, so on and so forth. Days like today where there is free time to meander around are few and far between so I enjoyed the time and the solitude while I could knowing that tomorrow would bring another 17 mile ride out to Whitetail Lake with only me, Kruger, three horses and the mule Fred. Fred the guide, Ritchie and the grizzly bear hunter Gare were staying behind to hunt.
Before departing for the trek back out to Whitetail Lake, I radioed to Brent to let him know as soon as my ride began. 17 miles in a completely road less area that is filled with black bears, grizzly bears and the occasional wolf is nothing to take lightly and with horse wrecks being an occasional occurrence, it was important that Brent know the minute that I left so that he could keep track of my rough location on the trail in case I missed a radio check in. This country is big and things happen quickly so no matter how many miles you have on the trail, you never take your safety for granted. The long trip out went perfectly, the horses and even the mule were all happy to trail along back to Whitetail Lake.
Our next group of black bear hunters was a very special group. Steve West from The Adventure Series Television show and Rick Krueter from the Beyond the Hunt Television show, both airing on the Outdoor Channel. This was going to be a fun hunt as I had already been on prior hunts with both Steve and Rick and I already had hunted with one of the cinematographers Dan. Ian the other cinematographer was the only one in the group that I had yet to be acquainted with and he happened to be the only one on the trip that had never been around a horse.
Packing the belongings of six people for a nine day black bear hunt onto six pack horses can get quite interesting, especially when it comes to packing in very expensive and fragile camera equipment. Luckily, these guys came prepared, all their gear was in duffle bags and they had packed light.
As I put saddles on horses, Brent began loading up the perfectly weighed and organized gear into panyards and putting them on the horses, topping the loads with a diamond hitch. Saddle fit is unique to every rider, so it was my job to ensure that everyone was comfortable in their saddle and that each horse had a headstall and saddle bags.
Soon everyone was ready to head up the trail, our destination, 17 miles away, the Big Cabin. We were quite the string with Steve, Rick, Dan, Ian, Brent, myself and six pack horses that were split between Brent and myself.
The winter run off had caused all of the creeks to rise up to maximum capacity making for swift waters and Kruger had only swam twice before on the first trip into the Big Cabin, this time, there was twice as many horses crossing the swift waters. Kruger made the mistake of jumping into the water upstream from the horses and I watched in fear as he was quickly pushed down stream and directly underneath Ian’s saddle horses legs. Somehow by the grace of the good Lord, Kruger managed to swim under the horse without being trampled.
The heavy winter snowfall causes giant snow slides that literally wipe out everything in their wake. These mountain slides are a favorite feeding area for all wildlife and you just never know what you are going to see when you are crossing them.
We took the hungrily feeding bruin by surprise. He was so ravenous with hunger just having come out of hibernation that he didn’t notice our giant string until we were practically on top of him, in a quick retreat, the black bear put himself up a giant tree. Steve and Rick both had black bear tags in hand but took the opportunity to simply take pictures of the bruin and hold onto their tags.
We reached the Big Cabin tired from the long day with much work that remained. Horses to un-pack and saddle, water to be collected, dinner to be made, it was going to be a late night.
Brent asked Ian what he thought of the long trek and he replied with “My horse is a better horse than I am a human.” It was right then that we knew Ian was going to be the trip entertainment full of quick wit and humor. Apparently, he was pleased with his horse’s behavior along the trail.
Spring black bear hunting hours are unlike any other hunt schedule that I am ever on, the summer days are long and the nights short. My typical day goes like this: wake up at 6:30 or 7:00am, feed horses, light a fire, make breakfast, wash breakfast dishes, fetch water, make lunches, wash lunch dishes, prep for dinner, saddle horses and hit the trail for the afternoon/evening hunt around 2:00-3:00pm, come back to camp around 10:00pm, unsaddle horses, cook dinner, wash dishes and go to bed around midnight or 1:00am.
During the day, Ian and Dan would be busy running around filming scenic in camp; everything was filmed from me cooking to the guys cutting firewood or Brent shoeing horses. Like I said before, everything in camp is work and there is always something to be done.
Roughly five days into our trip with the 12 horses eating alfalfa cubes and the entire string becomes exceedingly energetic, especially when they are not doing enough work, so Brent and I decided to take the entire string and turn them loose on one of the slides to graze on less potent feed while we all went hunting.
Kruger took the lead and I was second on my horse Tequila leading all six horses, Brent was taking up the tail of the string. The moose was running fast, chasing Kruger directly towards us. In the spring, cow moose are more dangerous than a grizzly bear if they are protecting a calf and I was immediately worried that this cow had a calf stashed somewhere nearby.
This was a bad situation. My horse felt like I was riding on a stick of dynamite, ready to explode at any moment and the horses behind me were getting more nervous at each charge by the angry moose. The horses were tailed together, meaning that if one freaked out and started bucking, there was no way they were getting untied unless Brent or myself did the un-tying. Kruger and the other two dogs were doing a good job of diverting the moose during her charge attempts essentially keeping the moose from charging over the top of me on my horse. Fortunately, my mare kept her wits about her and took the situation in stride.
The moose was not backing down and the situation was becoming dire so Brent had me attempt at turning around the entire string of horses. This was no easy feat with heavy timber and fallen logs. Things went from bad to worse when the horse I was leading pulled the rope tight and out of my hands. Instead of the horses funneling through the maze of timber and back onto the trail, they were winding themselves around the small trees, creating an absolute mess.
Being on the ground with a charging moose is less than safe, if the moose gets you on the ground, she is apt to stomp you to death. Brent had to dismount his horse and untie some of the pack string so that we could resume our retreat from the crazed moose. Keeping a watchful eye on the moose, Brent managed to get part of the string untied and away we went back down the trail towards the Big Cabin.
A couple minutes down the trail, we just started to relax when out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of the moose, charging at us again! She was not backing down. Up ahead was a wide spot in Dutch Creek where we felt we could safely swim the string of horses to the other side and out of the moose’s way.
The water was deep and swift covering clear up to my saddle bags, we were getting wet. Kruger was literally going to have to swim for his life or get stomped to death by a moose. Safety is something that is easily taken for granted and on the far side of Dutch Creek, we were still not safe from the moose. She was right behind us, swimming after us.
Brent had no choice but to take off running as fast as his horse would go charging towards the moose screaming and yelling. The moose finally took heed and went back across the water, taking a few moments to look around before disappearing back into the forest. The encounter lasted nearly thirty minutes but to us, it felt like an eternity.
Situations like this one are exactly why, when I ride the trail alone, I check in often on the radio. The mountains have a way of humbling you. No matter how much money you have or who you are, we are all on the same playing field out here.
The memories like this one and many more made during this trip are sure to last a lifetime, Rick tagging his first ever black bear after five years of trying and Kruger’s first mountain trip as a grown up dog and my 34th birthday celebration. You all will have to wait to see how the remainder of the week unfolded when you watch The Adventure Series or Beyond the Hunt on the Outdoor Channel.
What I can tell you is that leaving this land brings a sadness to my heart and soul that is difficult to put into words. Living here on the mountain, traveling back in time to a place where work is done with your two hands and aid of a good horse, this is my happy place and I can’t wait to head back up the trail to the Big Cabin next spring.