Author / Justin Helvik, Avid Outdoorsman
The Old Man’s steel, gray eyes peered inside as he looked to get comfortable. The warrior within me that had driven me for years was tired and battered. An accident, requiring surgery on my foot rendered me crippled for the majority of the previous fall. My tenacity withered as my waistline grew.
In hunting, as in life, we experience the highest mountains and lowest valleys. It wasn’t long ago when I was packing a 380 inch bull elk off of the mountain. Soon after, I was packing two surgical screws in my midfoot. It’s in these valleys where the Old Man will try to stake his claim. It is easy to stay positive when the trail is smooth and the going is good. However, when the path gets rocky, self-doubt, insecurity, and excuses pave the way for complacency and apathy. Something had to change. The wise words of a sage hunting comrade reverberated through my soul, “Don’t let the Old Man in.”
Easier said than done; there is no slowing father time.
I was knocking on 40, an age that many place on a pedestal as some pivotal moment in life. How does one stay young and wild at heart? By planning an uncompromising backcountry hunt on the emergence of their perceived mid life crisis. Unpredictable spring weather, rugged mountains, and a raging river were placed on the docket. A souped-up cast and blast; seeking to paddle whitewater in search of bruins in the heart of some truly wild country. This was going to be my way of giving the proverbial middle finger to the Old Man.
After months of planning and preparation, the crew was whittled down to four adventurers. A young river rat, Matt; a maniacal hunter, Andrew; and a superbly talented content guy (and hunter), Zack. That left me: a hefty, crippled, soon-to-be 40-year-old shell of a man. Unlike the young guns that accompanied me, a family and tenured career factored into my mindfulness. Too often, many hide under the veil of adulthood to avoid exploits that are inherently dangerous. However, it is imperative for one’s spirit to embark on these savage endeavors to keep the old man from manifesting. Without challenges, we lose heart to the mundane cycle of civilization and mediocrity.
The time finally came when the shuttle dropped us off geographically in the middle of nowhere but exactly where the soul yearned for me to be. As we prepped our gear, self doubt converged with confidence at the confluence, creating a river of turbulent emotions. We shoved off the river bank, leaving the facade of acculturation behind us. I could feel the seasoned warrior inside me stir from his long slumber. It didn’t take long before a torrential rapid reached up and slapped me in the face. The warrior, now roused, whispered, “It’s about damn time!”
We floated down the beguiling river dodging massive boulders, dancing with wave trains and eddies. With each turn of the paddle, I became more connected to the river. One moment she would lull me to sleep with a two-step. The next, a ruckus jive would ensue as she would toss me, twirl me, and dip me. A sharp reminder that she was in the lead.
After several river miles we glided into our first camp mid afternoon. Before our drysuits were stripped, Andrew spotted our first pursuable bruin rummaging through the pines and firs. It was game on as we hastily jockeyed for position. After thirty minutes of the bruin playing hide and seek in the timber, an ethical shot materialized. Andrew sent 143 grains across the river and bear one was down. Matt and Andrew retrieved the bear as Zack and I made a dash up a steep finger ridge in hopes of catching another unsuspecting bruin before the moon chased the sun away. No critters caught our eyes, but the craggy country did and summoned a primal emotion buried deep inside of us all. There is a mystique amidst rivers and mountains. We are drawn to these wild places despite the implicit risks they pose. It’s in our DNA. For centuries, we humans have sought them out as we chased angels or fled demons.
The following day we scratched and clawed through dense underbrush up 2,000 feet above the river. The river appeared to be nothing but a small trickle carving its way through the canyon walls. Our team split up so we could cover more country. Matt and I took pursuit of a jet black bear we spotted from down canyon. Patience yielded me an opportunity at the unsuspecting bruin, but I missed. Plain and simple, I came up short. Missing a shot bruises the ego more after working so hard to get that one opportunity. We decided to make our way back to base camp instead of spiking out. After four hours of crossing deadfall, crawling on our hands and knees through thick underbrush, and scaling crumbling, precarious cliffs, we returned to base camp around midnight. Perhaps it was better we couldn’t see exactly what we had just traversed.
The next morning on the eve of my 40th birthday, our hunting comrades returned. Zack had punched his tag on another beautiful bear and then spiked out to avoid navigating the callous terrain in the dark. Next, the crux of the river run laid before us. No time for hunting; as our time and energy was focused on the whitewater ahead. The hydraulics capacious, the holes engulfing; the once-soothing flow was now an angry deluge cascading downstream. One wrong maneuver or picking the wrong line could mean serious consequences. The Old Man checked out as the warrior was now at the helm.
Some lines were smooth and graceful. Others, not the case. One lateral curler caught our boats and flipped us like rag dolls, careening us down the cataract. A yard sale of epic proportions followed as we all tried to swim to safety and salvage our gear. Despite one’s best laid plans, the river often does as she pleases. Upon capsizing I was launched downriver, flailing towards a house-sized boulder. As my head emerged from one hole, the granite pillar was upon me with only a split second to react. I tried to position my feet downstream to absorb the impact but was no match for the surge. Quickly ducking my head, I collided with the rock. The hydraulic pulled me under and like laundry in a spin cycle, the river violently whirled me around. As quick as she pulled me in, she spat me out river right. Somehow my paddle emerged simultaneously, hitting me square in the face. I caught an eddie and escaped the turbulent water. Luckily Matt survived the carnage as he rode the rapid like a bronc rider before helping to gather our astray gear.
This was the moment of truth. My body was tattered along with my confidence. Throwing in the towel or letting self doubt take hold of the psyche would be detrimental at this juncture. Knowing what many considered the most fierce rapids still laid ahead, we had to rally. A strong mind is far more critical than a strong body when it comes to overcoming adversity. Drawing upon past experiences, we were able to conjure the mental fortitude to finish running the remaining rapids relatively unscathed. Having made it to our next camp, there was no time or energy for an evening hunt. We surrendered our exhausted bodies to rest. No birthday cake or candles for me; just a crackling campfire and a freeze dried meal. Fitting for an old soul with a flair for adventure.
It would have been easy to hit snooze and stay in the friendly confines of the nomadic abode. However, the warrior was raring to go. The sleeping giant was awake. This time Zack and I raged up the mountain. In short time we were rewarded with yet another opportunity: a chocolate phase grazing on the ridge across from us. I set up, took aim and…squandered another opportunity. I watched the mature boar lumber over the ridge and out of sight. A battle of emotions waged on internally. Once again, perseverance trumped surrender as we continued our arduous march up the escarpment.
We arrived at our glassing knob and within short time spotted a few brown and black ursids foraging across the landscape. Spotting bears wasn’t the challenge; cutting the distance in this vast, sheer country was another matter. Zack and I would reposition every so often to examine folds and crevices from different angles. Eventually we found a bear within striking distance. The jet black bear had decided to take a siesta behind a large tree. We started a mad dash down the backside of the ridge, closing the expanse, when Zack caught a glimpse of another bear moving through the thicket nearby.
We quickly shifted gears and focused our attention on what appeared to be a solid boar. A short, stealthy stalk brought us within my comfortable rifle range. The .300 WSM barked and within moments we recovered the fallen bruin. The complexity of emotions felt in that moment are difficult to describe. Zack and I took our time as we broke down the bear. We reveled in the moment. The warm, spring sun grew the tranquility within me just as it nurtured the sprouting flora around me. The success of taking a bear was not what defined this hunt. Yes, backstraps and bear grease are satiating, but the reckoning within is what truly defined this voyage. After overcoming failures, pitfalls, and fears, the warrior was once again galvanized.
The next day we floated the final stretch to our takeout. Upon arrival, a sense of melancholy hung in the air. After five days of unadulterated, wild adventure we had to return to civilization. While excited to see my loved ones back home, a part of me is still floating on that wild river and chasing bruins in those enchanting mountains. One thing is for certain, I returned a better man. Perhaps I cannot stave off the gray hairs, but I sure as hell can stop the Old Man from coming in. It’s not his time.
About the Author: Justin Helvik is a fourth generation Montana native who lives for adventure in the outdoors. He and his family live in Bozeman, MT where he is currently an educator. His passions are his family, working with students, and exploring the great unknown.