Monday, May 23, 2011

Packing it In Post 1 Sheep Camp


Last September Melody and Mark invited us to go along on Mel’s sheep hunt near Trout Peak in the Absaroka Mountains northwest of Cody. It was one of the most incredible backcountry trips I have ever been on.

In more ways than one.

Mark and Mel pretty much had everything ready by the time Ben and I got to Greybull. The next morning we finished loading the gear and then loaded the horses into the horse trailer and drove to the trail head. The weather wasn’t the greatest, it rained and snowed a lot, so I didn’t take any pictures on the way in, but the ride was spectacular. It was a two-day horseback ride into the hunting area, but on the second morning the horses had gone out for an all-night picnic and it was raining fairly heavily when they finally sauntered back, so we stayed at our layover camp one more night and finished packing in the next day.

Early the morning hunting season started, Mel and Mark hiked around the ridge to the peak straight above our camp, while Ben and I stayed in camp trying to keep track of where they were going. Just a few hours later we heard a gunshot and we searched the mountains above the camp with binoculars, but it was snowing hard enough that we couldn’t see anything of them. Ben left with a man from a neighboring camp, some people Mark and Mel knew from Laramie, with two horses and a mule. I stayed in camp in case Mel and Mark came down a different direction than they had gone up.

Some time later the snow quit and I was able to spot them with their sheep straight above camp. Had the sheep fallen down a few more feet from where Mel shot him, he would have tumbled over a slight rock ledge and rolled right into camp. I watched through the binoculars as Ben and our camp neighbor found them and helped them haul the carcass to where the mule and horses were.

I waited excitedly until Mark and Ben got back to camp and I couldn’t wait to tell them I had seen the whole thing, but before I could say anything, they told me that a grizzly sow and three two year old cubs were on the trail Mel would have to cross with the horses. My excitement turned to anxiety in a heartbeat. Mark saddled his horse, grabbed his rifle and headed back up.

Ben and I started looking for a pair of trees where we could hang a meat pole to keep the sheep up high enough that the grizzlies couldn’t get it. Meanwhile, Mel and our camp neighbor had spotted the grizzlies and knew they couldn’t get past them with the raw meat, so Mel scaled down the side of the mountain back to camp, but Mark had already left. She peeled off her bloody clothes so we could hang them up high as soon as we got a meat pole up, so we packed them in one of the pack saddles and hauled them across the creek.

Just about the time we found the perfect place to hang the pole, Ben shouted. “Steve! Bear spray!”

I turned in time to just see the rump of one of the cubs. It was easily as big as an adult black bear. Then Ben shouted, “Mel, make noise!”

Mel had heard Ben shout at me, so in remarkable time she was banging on a cooking pan with her pistol. Ben and I crossed the creek to where Mel was and we stood back-to-back in a triangle: Mel with her pan and pistol, Ben and I with our bear spray drawn and ready. While we stood there, Ben told us that he had spotted the bears because he had seen a motion out of the corner of his eye. He looked up just as the sow saw him. They both froze for a second, staring each other in the eye. Then she and the cubs took off.

That was actually the first time I had ever seen a grizzly in the wild and I can’t explain clearly enough how glad I was that it was just the tail end of a cub, not the golden eyes of a mama griz.

Late that night, after we admired Mel’s trophy ram and had hung the meat along with all the bloody clothes, we ate dinner listening to Mel’s hunting stories. Tired and elated, Ben and I were about to head to our tent when we heard a strange noise.

“They’re back,” Mark said.

The horses had fussed a bit, but we hadn’t really thought much about it, because it was barely a fuss at all. Mark went out with his rifle. A minute or so later we heard him fire off a few shots. He came back into the tent and we all hoped that would be the end of it, but it wasn’t long before we heard them back again.

Mark said, “Well, it looks like it’s going to be an all-nighter.”

We went out with headlamps, bear spray, Mark’s rifle and pans to beat on so we could build a fire beside the meat pole and one in our kitchen area just across the creek from the meat. On our way to the creek, we shined our lights into the woods and saw four sets of eyes gleaming back at us. Indulge me enough to let me say that was one of the creepiest, most unnerving experiences of my life.

Last summer, just a few weeks before we left for sheep camp, Ben and I read in the papers and heard on the radio about a sow grizzly and her three two year old cubs attacking a campground near Cooke City. The sow had actually pulled people out of their tents. She killed one man and did quite a bit of damage to a woman. So now you can guess what Ben and I were thinking about that night in sheep camp.

Mark and I took first watch that night, while Ben and Mel tried to sleep, then we traded off. But who could sleep?

The next morning was absolutely beautiful. Ben and I had been hoping for just such a day so we could hike around those mountains. But all four of us had already conceded that one all-nighter with four grizzlies was enough. We began the process of packing up our gear as soon as we had eaten a quick breakfast and were able to start back to our vehicles at about two o’clock that afternoon. It was eighteen miles back to the trail head, but none of us wanted to try to camp out in the wild again, so we rode all the way back in a single stretch. It got so dark when night fell that all I could see was the white backside of the packhorse Ben was leading. I kept thinking how glad I was that the horses could see enough to keep us on the trail. I was amazed when I thought they must have remembered where to turn off to get back to the truck and trailer. Then I found out it wasn’t the horses at all, Mark was actually able to see in the dark!

Mel and Mark slept in their truck; Ben and I slept in the back of our Subaru. We were all cramped and uncomfortable, but we slept like babies.

The next morning when we got up, Ben and I found bear tracks all over our car.


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Packing up to escape another night of the grizzlies.

I know how disappointed you are I didn’t get any pictures of the bears, but I was thinking about other things.


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The view from our camp. It was just a little to the left of this and a bit more into the woods that Ben and the sow locked eyes.

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Ben helping Mark pack the horses.


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Another view from camp, with horses as ready to leave as we were.


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The view as were packing out.


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It really was beautiful.


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