Now most of you will think to properly pack out an elk you must quarter it and walk it out…. No no, you’re doing it wrong. I grew up in western Montana in a very narrow canyon, so narrow that when my dad got an elk in the winter he would tie a rope around its neck or put it on an old car hood and drag it down to the road. Then, he would take the Chevy truck and back it up with the tailgate down and make it flush to the hillside and slide the elk right into the back of the truck. Done deal, and no meat wasted. Well, the 13 year old brat that I was had seen elk hunting videos and knew that’s not how it is done. I explained to my dad for my first elk hunt I want to do it right, “I want to go on a real elk hunt, Papa!” I would say. He simply responded with ”I will remember you said that”.
In Montana there is a unit south of the Bitterroot valley with proliferant amounts of elk. Until the age of 16, a youth sportsman can obtain a cow elk or bull elk in this unit and adults were only allowed a brow tined bull . My dad’s buddy, Mike, lived in the foothills of this unforgiving, exhausting area. It was 700 vertical feet with sage brush and rocks…. nothing else. At this point in the season there was a lot of snow. One early morning, Mike called my dad to inform us there was a herd of elk on his land. We packed everything up in the truck and head south for about 40 miles.
The entire drive I thought to myself I am going on a “real” elk hunt. We pull up to the house with the lion hunting hounds losing their minds over the vehicle in the driveway. Mike was gone, but his wife explained to us that the elk took off up over the mountain and he took the kids to cut them off up the road. We proceeded up the road where we found Mike’s truck parked off to the side. As I hoped out of the truck my eyes were searching for the skyline, my neck kinked as I was looked straight up. I took one step into the wet snow and leaned as far forward until my nose was inches away from the ground and headed up. Not 10 feet from the truck in the moment of stepping one foot forward I slid down two feet. My dad yells back at me “Ya!, it’s fun isn’t it? This was your idea dumbass”
Thoroughly exhausted, drenched by the sweat or snow not sure which, we reach what we thought was the top of the hill but instead was a small plateau and then more up. I laid down in the snow. More sarcasm flowed out of my dad’s mouth. “what are you panting for?! I am the one gonna have a heart attack and we don’t even have an elk yet”. Proceeding up the last part of the mountain with my pack practically dragging alongside me (knowing quite well if it was the rifle my dad would kill me right then and there). We made it to the top of the hill to find not a single elk but several blaze orange spots on different hill tops. We were dead center in the crossfire between other hunters. Seemed like within seconds we started to hear shots then we watched elk reach the skyline and run past the other hunters. As my dad told me to find cover from the shots or the elk seeing us or quite possibly both. The damndest thing happened. The elk had turned and ran straight at us. My dad yelled at me to sit and get a good rest.
It seemed like I blinked and the whole herd of a 100 plus elk ran past, being so close I could see individual hairs. My dad looked at me and said “did you hit one?” I couldn’t tell ya. I don’t remember squeezing the trigger or hearing the shot. So I pulled the bolt back of that old ruger 243 to see that the casing didn’t have a bullet anymore. I said “I guess”, my dad responded with “what do you mean I guess?!”. We slide on our asses down the back side of the hill to find blood and sure enough one cow and one bull were down in the bottom of the draw.
As my dad taught me how to quarter my cow the snow started to pile up around us and the sky darkened. My dad gave me the two front legs of the cow and said “let’s go”. It was all I could do for a 13 year old girl to pull those legs up the hill and then believe it or not, the down hill was much worse. Combined those two front legs weighed as much as me and where dragging me down the hill. I would tumble and get off course, and have to physically lift the legs up over the downed logs. At the bottom of the mountain I collapsed in the snow. My dad stood over me and said “really, that was the first trip!” A truck pulled up next to us, it was our friends explaining we had been the only successful hunters that day. Was I little jealous they weren’t dragging elk legs up and down the mountains? Just a little bit.
After packing mine and then coming back the next day to get the rest of my dad’s bull I realized something. I realized no matter how you elk hunt, it is always a real elk hunt and for some dumb damn reason I crave it every year.