It seems that fall is arriving on schedule this year and snow is hitting the high country as I write this. My buddy Dan and I have been getting out to chase the elk a bit with our recurves. Elk are definitely bugling but proving difficult to get close to in our chosen haunt. In late morning we set up on wallows to see if anything comes in to cool off. There hasn't been much fresh activity in the wallows. But is has been cooler than usual this bow season. For the first time in several seasons there has been a frost on the ground in mid-September. A welcome sign. The leaves are already turning and soon it will be below freezing most nights. Bring it on. Dan clued me in to a bear 'sign post' tree several years old near one of the wallows we set up on. Something neat to see. This was likely done by a black bear as they are able to dig their short, sharp claws into a tree easier than a Griz. This one looked like it climbed up than let it's body drag it's claws for about 3 feet or so. It could almost be a sign post tree for Wolverine(the comic hero) with the length of one marking. A tree like this is a rare find. Luckily for us it looks rather old and he probably isn't in this area(that we know of). A friend of Dan's whose hunted this area as well said he came in one afternoon to hunt and spooked the biggest black bear he's ever seen. So big he decided to leave in a hurry. If the tree is any indication we know why.
As mentioned previosuly, on day 5 of my sheep hunt, I learned of the tragic death of my good friend, Amos Ridenour.
Amos appeared in Montana Sporting Journal (Fall 2007) in an article I wrote on winter fly fishing. There couldn’t have been a better guy to personify the spirit of winter fishing. If something was more difficult, the conditions harsher and less people willing to do it, Amos was all about it. Fearless defined him to the core. As a surfer in the Atlantic Ocean and avid climber scaling frozen waterfalls and cliffs in the nearby Gallatin Range, he gravitated towards nature’s ultimate challenges, be it water or rock. As a sportsman he gravitated towards fly fishing (mostly at first because his wife, Liz, was an avid angler) and waterfowl hunting. More than anything he seemed to enjoy the inherent camaraderie the two pursuits naturally produce. A duck hunt or a day of fishing was always brighter with Amos along. He was the first one to break out a fine cigar during a lull in duck blind action. He was also the first one to laugh at you if you missed an easy shot, lost a fish, or fell in the water.
More than all of that, he was a dedicated husband and father with a deep faith in God. He always seemed to show up in your life when you were in need of some good advice. In the short span of time that was his life on earth, he affected more people than most of us will in a long lifetime. All of us who knew him are better for having him in our lives.
Still processing and grieving the loss, I will never look upon certain places with the same eyes again. From the Bear Trap stretch of the Madison to the spring fed runs of the East Gallatin, all hold a deeper significance now. I will still go but they will not be the same. Amos’ spirit will always be there in the rush of the water, the tight line of a hook-set brown and the hum of a mallard drake bombing into the decoys. All the while I will be waiting for his laugh or a wise crack that he always had ready no matter what you did. As Norman Maclean said at the closing of A River Runs Through It, ‘I am haunted by waters.’
To that Amos would probably say ‘Bro! Please! Don’t be so dramatic’ but I can’t help feeling it. He wouldn’t stand for any of us letting sadness getting in the way of and putting off doing the things we enjoy. So while a normal aspect of grieving is lacking interest in things we enjoy doing, I will commit to the opposite. Never let an opportunity to hunt or fish, especially with good friends, get away from you. Soak it up and savor it as none of us know when we will catch that last fish or take that last shot.
Last day on the mountain. Rain pounded my bivy most of the night but luckily shut off sometime this morning before 5. Heading up the ridge towards my sheep mountain the air had that crisp feel to it that only arrives in fall. There was definitely cooler air behind the weather last night. Strips of clouds drifted across the mountain and above revealing a clear sky. Once perched and glassing I could see all around that most of the clouds were cloaking everything below 8,000 feet with only the peaks jutting above. Clouds broke up everywhere in the sky and the cool breeze portended of autumn. In a distant park I spotted a herd of elk appearing to be in pre-rut mode with smaller sized members of the herd making short sprints away from a larger member of the herd-too far away to see antlers. Mountain goats remained near their chosen cliffside perches feeding on lichen covered rocks. Rams proved yet again elusive. Despite the absence of sheep the fall feel to the morning with gin clear skies, the increasing southern angle of the sun, and crisp air injected an energy of good things to come yet this season. With a long day of walking ahead I wrapped up my morning glassing and headed back down to load up camp. The hike out was long but made better by the weather. I made it back to the truck by 4 p.m. Driving out there were further signs of fall's approach as foliage along the brush choked creek was beginning to turn. Yet another sheep hunt in the books with an unfilled tag. But with each year I feel I'm getting closer. The unlimited hunt isn't for everyone. For me personally, there is no better way to end a summer or start fall than with a sheep hunt.
This morning started off not according to plan. Waking up to answer nature's call about 3 a.m. found me socked in with clouds. When it was time to get up for the day at 5, still socked in. Knowing I would not be able to glass with such conditions I slept in. At 7 the clouds showed no signs of letting up. Without anything better to do I turned on the phone to check the quota status. Season still open after two days. A good sign. It also meant no one had been seeing rams. I clicked over to send my wife a status text that I was okay and recieved tragic news. At 8,500 feet in my bivy sack on a sheep mountain I learned that a very good friend had been killed in a rock climbing accident yesterday. One wonders how they will react to such news finding it out so suddenly without any of the emotion involved in learning it directly from another human being. The only sound was a light wind whisping through the spruce trees where I was camped. Perhaps the lonliest most indifferent sound in nature. Disbelief was the initial reaction. I decided to crawl out of the tent, make breakfast and contemplate my next move. Sheep were a very distant thought in my mind now. The fog lifted about 10 and I headed up the mountain. Somehow I felt a strange closeness to Amos, my departed friend being in the high country than I might have down below. The day he died we were both on mountains doing what we liked to do. For now I simply reflected on the good times we'd had chasing trout and ducks on the Madison and Gallatin rivers. There would be time enough to face the tragedy of his death down below. I knew the last thing Amos would want me to do is not finish this hunt and abandon the possibility of harvesting a ram this year. I would be headed down tomorrow anyway. With a heavy heart I slung my rifle and backpack to make the most of the day that was left. Much of the rest of the day was fairly pleasant as the clouds broke. I ran into another hunter who'd just barely missed crossing paths with a sow griz and two cubs. He looked a little white in the face. About 5 the clouds rolled in with rain and that set the stage for the rest of the night. Gaps in the clouds provided a few moments of spectacular alpenglow on peaks in the north end of the park. Crawling into my bivy an hour after dark, thunder clapped and soon the bottom fell out of the clouds. Rain all night.
Today dawned with overcast skies and a slight breeze out of the southwest. Sometimes this means warmer weather(not sure how much warmer it could get up here) other times it means rain and cooler temps. This close to Yellowstone anything could happen. Looking south in the direction of Yellowstone Lake it seemed to be nothing but endless clouds. The barometric pressure gave me that feeling that 'sheepier' weather was on the way. The ewes and lambs were out feeding again at first light but no rams could be located. After three days of glassing the same country I was starting to get that feeling of doubt about my chosen perch. Being someone who likes to hike all over the country its a challenge to stay put for days on end. But in this country on this type of hunt one needs to conserve energy for when they actually do see rams. However I had one other mountain 3 miles away that I knew rams had been harvested on in the past and there had already been two other hunters on this mountain. With the weather seeming to want to stay mild and possibly cooling off, it would be a good day to move camp. At 10 a.m. I loaded up camp and got to walking. The hike alone was worth it-a razor sharp ridge with wide views into the park and forest service land, all the while my next sheep mountain in sight. Finding a good spot to camp, I made the short walk to a nearby water source to re-hydrate and resupply. Life is a little easier in this spot. I hiked up to glass the rest of the day being greeted by wind and rain. Several mountain goats provided a good way to pass the time. It's interesting to watch them lie on a cliff edge like a porch dog with driving ran in their face. Their indifference to the harsh terrain they call home is staggering. The country on this mountain has the ideal ram needs according to the biologist-plenty of steep country with a pittance of grassy slopes I'd consider taking a shot on a ram in. After seeing no sheep a a half hour before dark, I eased down the mountain to camp. The rain finished up giving way to a clear night sky. A dead whitebark pine trunk near camp made the ideal spot to sip a snort and watch stars as only they appear in the high country.
This morning I climbed into my glassing perch with the .270 at the ready. Nothing is as anticipated as the first rays of light on a sheep mountain on opening day. Weather looked to be about the same. Cool in the morning, hot through the day and somewhat cooler in the evening. The morning glassing was slow again. Nothing in the avalanche chutes, nothing in the vertical strips of timber. Following another mid day break from the heat I spotted sheep finally about 7 p.m. All ewes and lambs maneuvering a cliff face to a broad grassy slope, its always a pleasure to watch the ease with which these animals negotiate crags and chutes humans have no business in. Two of the ewes wore radio collars so FWP is monitoring these guys. I watched them feed onto the slope and just before dark back into the crags. No rams today.
At first light I was perched below a ridgeline scouring the mountain with my binoculars. By 10 a.m. I'd seen no sheep or any other game for that matter. Believe it or not this is somewhat of a good sign. According to the biologist rams in these units tend to head for the most rugged inhospitable terrain. Food and water do exist but not in great supply. I also felt good as I shared the mountain with the only outfitter guiding in the area. If they were here it was because they'd likely scouted it two months prior and it was the best place to be. Nearing mid day, temps were starting to climb. Needing to resupply water I dropped all excess weight from my day pack loading up empty bottles and the bladder. Dropping down into the drainage below it was a half hour hike to the spring. Shaded and tucked tight in a small draw the temperature was ten to fifteen degrees cooler-good place to cache meat in hot weather After downing two nalgenes purified through the Katadyn I filled up the bladder and refilled bottles heading back up the mountain. Temps were staying in about the mid 80s without a breeze. I hung out in the shade taking a mid day nap until it was time for sheep o'clock at about 4:30 or so. By dusk, no sheep. Back in camp I raised a snort of 40 Creek Canadian Whisky in good luck for tomorrow, Sept. 1, when the season opens.
I spent most of the day getting into sheep country. Finally arriving in my hunting area I dropped the 50 pound pack and felt like I could fly. With only a couple of hours glassing light left I cooked up some Mountain House grub for dinner while scanning the myriad avalanche chutes and nearly vertical strips of timber likely to be bedding areas. These bedding areas are in terrain so treacherous the hunter must wait for sheep to move into more 'gentle' feeding areas. Nearly out of water I conserved the little I had left. Tomorrow I would have to drop down a thousand feet or so to an obscure spring I'd found and top off my bladder and 2 Nalgenes. That would keep me in water for 2-3 days. For those who are not familiar with the Unlimited Sheep hunt there are several districts along the northern border of Yellowstone National Park which possess terrain so rugged and remote that sheep permits have not been restricted like they are over most of the state. FWP sells as many permits as people want to buy and maintain a district quota. Most units are a 2 ram quota. Not only are these areas rugged and remote, legal rams(3/4 curl or better) are difficult to find. This is my third season hunting the unlimited areas and I'm still trying to figure things out. Each year is an educational process if you are hunting the country correctly. On average they say it takes a hunter 5 years to figure it out and score if he sticks to it.