Thoroughly Wilderness Elk

posted on April 6, 2010

We rode horses only 20 miles back from the road, but we might as well have ridden a time machine back a century. Past rock cliffs, under dashing waterfalls, through golden aspen woods. Away from cell phones, email, snarled traffic and metastasizing suburbia, eight hunters rode back to the 19th century, land of the mountain men, where a lone campfire flickers like home in an inky wilderness, a place where you feel the Milky Way spreading its icy glow over snow-kissed peaks.

This is Thorofare country, headwaters of the storied Yellowstone, migration corridor for elk, moose, mule deer, bighorns and bison escaping winter. Wild country. By-God honest wilderness where humans rediscover what hunting is all about.

“We got a big snow once and it was like a scene from that movie ‘Ice Age’,” said my guide, T.J. Redder. He was picking lunch jerky from his teeth with a grass stem on a treeless backfold of 12,000-foot Yellow Mountain.

We’d heard a bull bugle late that morning and climbed as close as we dared. Now we waited for him to chirp or squeal again so we could pinpoint his hiding spot.

“This’ll sound stupid but they were lined up just like in that movie. Snow was 2 feet deep and still comin’ and here they came, single-file, walkin’. Mostly elk. But the really crazy part was they were all mixed up, like a mule deer behind an elk, then a bighorn, maybe a moose and her calf. And they were talkin’. Little squeals and grunts and baaa as they came.”

“No kidding?”

“I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it.”

Redder’s description was in keeping with history. This corner of northwest Wyoming wasn’t named Thorofare for nothing. A natural funnel around Yellowstone Lake leads up and over the Continental Divide. It has been the migration route of game and humans for millennia. When John Colter turned back from Lewis & Clark’s homeward trip in 1806, he followed beaver sign upstream to a region steaming and boiling. Colter’s Hell. Shoshones and Blackfoot already hunted the area, though the bubbling waters and thundering mountains held them on the fringes. The young trapper’s wild descriptions brought attention from Jed Smith in 1826 and Osborne Russell in the 1830s. William Sublette was the first to guide a hunter in the area, Sir William Drummond Stewart, a Scot, in 1843. Teddy Roosevelt horse-packed and hunted here in September of 1891, calling this “a high, cold region of many lakes and clear rushing streams.” By the mid-20th century Jack O’Connor, Warren Page and Col. Townsend Whelen prowled these mountains.

The ride in, up infamous Deer Creek Trail, is almost worth the cost of the eight-day hunt. Outfitter Jeff Krueger leads you up the switchbacks from 6,200 feet at South Fork Shoshone River to 10,400 feet at Deer Creek Pass where winds off Yellowstone Lake sail hats 1,000 feet back from whence you came. “Trail” is a generous description for what is a thin trace of horizontal gravel pinned against the canyon wall by logs and posts teetering above a rocky gorge. Deer Creek foams below. This is not a bridal trail.

“Stay alert and ready to stick to that saddle,” T.J. advised as we rode from camp the morning we found the bull. The fire danced behind us, the barest sliver of moon rimmed the hulking black peaks ahead. “Grizzlies could spook that mule in an instant.” I felt for the pepper spray on my belt. The .280 Ackley bolt-action under my left leg seemed the more reliable option, but dragging it out in defense against Old Ephriam would drag me before a judge. Endangered Species Act. Best stick to the mule and run.

Iron-rimmed hooves cracked ice at stream edge. My mount swelled and shrank as she sucked icy draughts. Then we rode by starlight for two hours. Up crumbling banks, over sparking outcrops, ducking beetle-killed pines until bugles floated down clear and crisp like the first snow of autumn.
“They’re already near the top.” My young guide put heels to horse and surged upward. My mule and our pack animal did their best to keep pace. T.J. hated mules. “Too unreliable,” he’d promised, and one day a pack mule proved him right when she refused to traverse a rock chute the horses climbed easily. We had to lead her 2 miles through a different pass. There could be no balking this day. We had to catch an elk.

Plenty of wapiti were feeding and rutting in the 54 square miles of Teton Wilderness that Wyoming Expeditions hunts. Krueger and I engaged two bulls in extended conversation our first afternoon. Less talk and a lot more action would have been nice, boys. As the golden days trickled through the hourglass, our camp brought in the bulls. A retiree in his late 60s shot a 5x5. Carla Payne collected a splendid 6x6. Bob Kaufman claimed a 7x7. Chad Ramsey, hunting with Redder and me three hours from camp, slid down a snowfield, raced to the brink of a waterfall and dropped one perfect shot into a bugling 6x6 from 300 yards.

“Tie up here,” T.J. mouthed as he reined in beneath a side ridge near timberline. There were two bulls and three cows on the alpine ahead. Not big enough. Back on our mounts, across a draw, past antler-thrashed saplings, we raced the sun before it drove elk to dark timber.
“There’s a moose,” I said.

“No way. I’ve never seen a moose in here.”

“You’re about to. Comin’ down the creek.”

“Well I’ll be … the wolves actually missed one. Or drove her out of the Park.”

Yellowstone provides a reservoir of elk, but sometimes holds them until snows push them out. Wolves and grizzlies wander in and out, forcing elk to move and shift feeding grounds. You have to keep searching. This is wilderness, not some game farm.

The sun was painting the western ridges orange when we started up the main mountain. T.J. had been counting off basins day by day, narrowing his options.

“I seen ’em over here yesterday while we were bringing Chad’s bull out, so they should be in one of these hidden basins,” Redder explained when we stopped to let the stock blow. “Unless wolves completely chased them out.” But we hadn’t seen fresh wolf sign. No hand-sized tracks. No one had heard a howl all week. “We should be good.”

It was late morning when we broke into the last hidden basin. I recognized the rocky peak and tundra flat below it. A herd bull and 18 cows ruminated there throughout the previous day like pronghorns at nosebleed altitude surrounded by a moat of tundra. But it was empty now. Had they crossed to the other side? T.J. bugled. The mule fidgeted, leather squeaking. Redder whistled again. A thin, high bugle filtered back. They were on our side of the mountain, somewhere in the basin. We tied up and glassed.

“A cow went into that stringer up the far side, just below that dead pine,” T.J. said.

“I see her. No, I’ve got a spike. There’s a spike laying just under that red log. The cow’s below him.”

“That was no spike that bugled. There’s a big one in there.”

It was noon now, late in the rut, and nothing was likely to move until late afternoon. We ate, napped, glassed … 1 o’clock … 2 … 2:30. Nothing stirred.

“We’ve gotta make something happen or it’ll be too late to get out of here. I don’t wanna bushwhack off this mountain with fresh elk blood all over us. Let’s see if he’ll talk.”

The kid bugled. The bull answered.

“He’s below the spike in that heavy timber. We’ve gotta get closer. Stay behind me and go slow. He can probably see us.”

It was at least 1,000 yards across the basin with a deep gorge between, but we ghosted behind white pines turned fire-red by bark beetles. We ducked behind still-green firs and crawled across grassy meadows. “Cows!” Redder hissed. “Right below. Far side. See? They haven’t seen us. I’m gonna try calling him out. He knows those cows are down there.”

I shed my pack, snicked a 140-grain Barnes TSX into the Rifles Inc. M700 chamber, propped it in the shooting sticks and nodded. T.J. proceeded to whine like Wyoming’s hottest, most neglected cow elk. The bull lustily offered his sympathies—more whining. Another sympathetic bugle. Don’t worry darling. Your man is here. “There he is, coming through the trees.” Half the pines were beetle-killed, yet the bull was obscured more than half the time as he sauntered toward T.J., his next conquest.

“It’s the herd bull. Six-by-six. He’s at 600 yards now.”

“Keep him coming.”

Whine whine whi-i-innnne. The cows stared. The bull kept coming, rolling rocks, raising dust, losing altitude. Then he hit a trail and headed south, paralleling us.

“He sees the cows now. He wants us to come to him. Can you hit him from here?”

“If I have to. How far?”

“Rangefinder says 450.”


“We can’t move and he isn’t coming any closer. We need to take him and get out of here.”
The rifle shot half MOA and I knew the trajectory. Wind was nearly calm where we were, but we could hear it whistling through the gorge. “I’ll hold in front of his shoulder.”

The rifle jumped off the sticks. The bull humped.

“Too far back I think. Hit him again.”

The second bullet was also too far back. I held completely off the bull and put the last shot on the shoulder. The bull hit the ground. “Go go go!” T.J. urged as I picked my way down the forested slope, duff and pinecones and logs sliding before me. We needed to cross the creek and find a faint trail that led up and around a bad cliff before the curtain fell. Dusk was on us. I started skiing, bouncing, gravity taking me. My mule wasn’t balking, nor was the pack animal. You could hear antlers snapping limbs, hooves clacking boulders. It had taken us a half hour to reclaim our mounts, cross the canyon and climb to the dead bull. A few quick photos and then we boned him, bagged the meat, left the cape and tied down the antlers. The local grizzlies had more than 25 years to learn the sound of the dinner bell. We could have a hungry guest in moments. We bailed.
“I hear the creek!” I hollered back.

“Sing out. Let ’em know we’re coming. They’ll have trouble hearing us over the water.” The light in the western sky was little more than a memory when we crashed the willows and splashed across the silvery water, shouting our grizzly warning. Up the far slope we climbed, sweating, leading the stock, T.J.’s headlight probing for the trail he intentionally left poorly marked to camouflage his secret basin. Within 15 minutes he found it.

“We’re good now. Mount up, but keep talkin’. Keep singin’. It’s another two hours home and grizzly country all the way. Look out for this limb.”

Grizzly country. Elk country. Hunting country. The way it was then. The way it is now in Thorofare country. 


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