Saturday, May 22, 2010

Hold Your Fire

Here's a snapshot of my Friday evening:

3:00pm - Matt calls, wanting to know if I'll join him on an evening bear hunt...we'd leave in an hour.
3:05pm - I work feverishly to put the finishing touches on an advertising proposal.
3:45pm - I'm frantically pulling mothballed camo out of the closet, and loading my Mystery Ranch Crew Cab with a few essentials.
4:00pm - A quick stop at the post office to fire off the proposal.
4:15pm - I arrive at Matt's, late as usual. We hop in his rig and hit the road.
5:45pm - We arrive at the trailhead and with my naked eye I can see a herd of elk in a distant meadow. This is new country to me, and it looks great! Heavy timber interspersed with grassy parks and a lush creek bottom look like ideal bear habitat.
6:15pm - We're glassing from a great ridgetop vantage point with a commanding view of several meadows. There are elk in nearly every meadow, including a couple of sizable herds and some bulls sporting a bit of antler growth.
7:00pm - Getting antsy now, we're still at the same vantage point and despite abundant wildlife, no bears have shown. Matt hunted this location the evening before, but was much further down the drainage. At 7:30 lastnight he had spotted a big bear in one of the meadows we were now overlooking, but he couldn't cut the distance in time. Tonight we're in good position and hoping for a habitual routine from the bear.
7:15pm - We decide to start working our way down to the bottom of the drainage, to getter a better view of the creek bottom meadow directly below us.
7:30pm - We come to a slight break in the timber as we head downslope...enough to glass the meadow and - right on schedule - Matt spots a bear. With the creek covering our noise and the wind in our face, we make a beeline for the meadow.
7:45pm - We creep to the edge of the meadow and there is the bear, unaware of our presence. Matt is pretty calm and collected considering the circumstances, and is getting into position for a clear shot. Being the ethical hunter that he is he takes one last look around and wouldn't you know it - this big, jet black bear is a momma.
8:15pm - We've been watching this sow and her two cubs for about a half hour from a hundred yards, the cubs are pretty entertaining, wrestling with each other, scurrying around the meadow, climbing trees... and generally causing mischief.
8:30pm - We spend the last half hour of shooting light hiking along the creek bottom, seeing bear sign, and loads of elk and deer, but no more bears.
9:00pm - In the twilight we hoof it up a thousand feet out of the drainage and back to the truck. I'm out of shape.
11:00pm - We roll back into Bozeman, tired, but happy with our evening hunt. We'd lucked out and found a bear, perhaps the same bear that Matt had seen the prior evening. Above all else we felt fortunate that Matt had spotted the cubs before pulling the trigger, which would have effectively ended the lives of three bears. In the heat of the moment it would have been all too easy to assume the bear was alone, since the cubs were well concealed in the timber at the edge of the meadow.

The moral of the story? Hold your fire.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Smith River Trip

What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Right? After a challenging Smith River trip, I'd like to believe that is the case. After a few days of indecisiveness leading up to the launch date, due to river conditions and a member of our party canceling, we decided to go ahead and float the Smith River anyway. I really had my heart set on spending my 30th birthday on the Smith and with a forecast calling for cool temperatures, we were hopeful that the river would be dropping and clearing throughout our trip.

On the morning of Tuesday, the 27th, we launched our canoe at Camp Baker with beautiful weather and pretty good river conditions (2' of visibility). Most folks do the Smith over 4 nights and 5 days, we opted to extend the trip by a night and a day to ensure that we'd have ample time to fish over the course of this 59 mile float.

The first day and a half of the trip went off without a hitch and we stopped frequently to wade fish the more productive looking water. The first flies out of my box were a JJ Special and a San Juan...I never had to deviate from that tandem setup. The fish were all over both flies on the drift, and a few took the JJ on the swing. Lots of heavy browns up to 17" and quite a few solid rainbows came to hand those first couple of days on the water. Best of all, the 70-80% chance of rain on Tuesday night and Wednesday didn't materialize...things were going great!

But then things took a turn for the worse late on Wednesday. Long story short, we dumped the canoe in a pushy cliffside sweeper that we approached much too casually. That debacle cost us dearly, we lost a paddle, a rod, an axe and 3/4s of our beer! Fortunately we were less than a mile from our boat camp and the clouds never opened up that night, giving us a chance to quickly build a warming fire and dry ourselves out. Hypothermia avoided, we settled into our respective tents for the night, looking forward to more fishing and paddling in the morning.

It wasn't to be, at dawn on Thursday morning I awoke to the sound of quiet, but persistent spattering on my tent walls...a light drizzle I assumed. As I peered out of the vestibule I was surprised to find a wintry scene with snow falling hard and accumulating quickly; this hadn't been in the forecast! By the time I'd finished my first cup of coffee the storm had intensified greatly, with heavy snow blowing in sideways on a fierce, sustained wind. This wasn't a day to be on the river in a canoe. We got a hot fire going and fed it steadily as the snow piled up in the canyon. We hunkered down and waited out the storm, spending three nights and two full days at the Canyon Depth boat camp as more than 2' of snow fell over a 36 hour period.

The storm broke late on Friday and we covered the final 40 miles or so of river in short order, putting in a 30 mile day on Saturday and a 10 miler on Sunday. We were pushing to get off the river and didn't fish much over the final two days and when we did it was unproductive. The trip was challenging and offered up the worst weather conditions I've ever experienced on an extended, self-supported backcountry trip of any nature. But we survived it, learned a few things along the way and gained some valuable experience. I like to think I'm stronger for it.