The rising sun illuminated the distant ridgeline with a warm, iridescent glow. A bachelor group of bulls, highlighted by the alpenglow, worked the ridgeline, thrashing lodgepole pines and sparring with one another. The transition from friend to foe was on its way. I sat perched on a rocky knob, overlooking some of the wildest country Montana has to offer. One particular bull caught my eye. He wasn’t a giant, but led me to ponder what might lie beyond him in the recesses of that country. The basin was big, steep, and unforgiving. With thousands of vertical feet to ascend, miles of trailless terrain, fickle weather, and grizzlies lurking in the shadows, few people ever dared to venture there.
I found myself wrestling with just how far to push myself. There is a fine line between being hardcore and just plain stupid. This wasn’t about ego or for the “Gram.” Perhaps it was the craziness of 2020 that forced me to take a hard look inward. With all of my summer plans run amuck by Covid, I found myself frequenting the elk woods – not only searching for elk, but also seeking solace.
I was drawn to that particular remote basin because it was the ultimate opportunity to challenge myself. Truth be told: this wasn’t about trying to score inches, but rather about removing self-doubt and pushing myself outside of my comfort zone. There were obviously easier regions to hunt that typically produced bigger bulls. I yearned for more. I decided to tackle those doubts and insecurities and venture into the great unknown.
I wouldn’t be alone on this endeavor as photographer Jordan Gill joined me. I had mixed feelings about having someone with me on this hunt. I consider myself a lone wolf and I typically hunt solo. I agreed to let a photographer tag along under the premise it wouldn’t take away from my experience. The Stone Glacier crew assured me that Jordan was the right guy. Given the scope of this backcountry hunt, I felt having a sidekick may be a good idea. Besides, I have never been one for taking selfies.
Jordan and I set out before the season opener and reached camp just as the sun was setting. We hiked to just below the saddle and were greeted with a few bugles and the sound of antlers clashing. We looked at each other with a grin. The stage was set for what would be a hunt of a lifetime.
At first light, we located and worked a bull for a few hours to no avail. We sat down to relax in the fresh autumn air. Every so often, we could hear another mysterious bugle from afar. We couldn’t lay eyes on him, but our curiosity heightened. His boisterous bugle reverberated through the canyon. The waiting game commenced.
Later that afternoon, a cow appeared across the canyon, nearly a mile away. Soon six cows were feeding through the broken timber. Finally, the bull appeared, lumbering into an opening, thrashing a conifer. The sight was astonishing; he was the one. He owned the basin. Every micro decision from this point on would matter. One wrong move and the bull would undoubtedly vanish as he had evaded hunters for years. An acute focus took over as I watched the herd bull and his harem. A couple of painstaking hours passed. I knew it would take patience and resilience to close the deal. It appeared they were making their way across the mountainside, heading for a seep to water. Jordan and I agreed it was time to begin our stalk.
After a treacherous descent and climb, we arrived at our ambush only to find the elk had dropped into the bottom of the canyon. We nearly decided to back out when we heard the bull bugle again, now working up the drainage with the wind at his back. There was no hesitation; with under an hour left of daylight, we made a play.
The next hour was the most intense stalk I have ever endeavored. Jordan and I worked together seamlessly in a game of tactical chess with the wary ungulates. After several close calls, we found ourselves in an advantageous position with only a few minutes left. The bull was the last in the convoy. As he entered my first window, I drew only to have a satellite bull enter the picture and scream. My heart sank as I watched the herd bull charge down the mountain to run off the challenger. My opportunity was lost. Fortunately, after chasing the raghorn off, he climbed back towards us, giving me one last chance. The bull stepped into a small window as I gently let out a cow call. He froze, my pin settled, and I released my arrow.
It seemed like an eternity as my arrow sailed; as if time stood still. My hand found its mark. The hit wasn’t immediately lethal, but Jordan managed to locate the bull bedded in the creek bottom. It was now dark, so we decided to back out and return to camp. An onslaught of thoughts barraged my mind. Would he stay put? How long would he hang on? Would the meat spoil? Would a griz claim him overnight? How in the world would we get him out of that hole?
At dawn, we made our way back to where we had last seen the bull. We approached from above with caution. At first glance, I saw nothing. A pit grew in my stomach when Jordan suddenly asked, “Hey, what is that down there?” Massive tines protruded above the lush vegetation in the creek bottom. A rollercoaster of emotions; relief, ecstasy, and even a stroke of sadness engulfed me. Jordan gave me space as I approached the fallen mountain monarch. I took a moment to give thanks. All was good, including the meat.
The old warrior had wandered the mountains for over 12 years. Buried against his shoulder blade was a piece of copper and lead where he had been shot in the past. He had experienced it all; a lifetime of evading grizzlies, wolves, humans, and surviving the relentless mountain elements.
I felt as if I wasn’t worthy of taking such an animal. There is no doubt that I was lucky. Perhaps, it was fate or, one could argue, that I made my own luck. I had found what I was seeking. It wasn’t the 379 inches of antler that I now grasped; I had overcome my doubts and tribulations. In a time when the world seemed to be falling apart, I felt fulfilled. Even the ensuing brutal pack out of nine miles and 3,000 vertical feet didn’t deter my euphoria; if anything, it added to the experience. I had accomplished what I once thought was impossible. Further, I was able to cherish the moment with a new friend and hunting partner.
About the Author: Justin Helvik is an asst. high school principal, avid outdoorsman, mountaineer, and trail runner. Justin live in Bozeman, MT with his family.