Along the Musselshell

lope hunting          “What is it with you and that freak’n Crackberry? You’ve got to be the only guy I know who would find the one spot East of the Slope on the entire prairie where he can read emails from Vietnam or Indonesia or wherever the hell it is in South East Asia! What in the hell did you ever get out of that trip, anyway?” It was October ’05 and I was lying in a vast field of tall grass, surrounded with prickly pear cactus and tumble weed. There were only two or three sections, literally brief steps, where the phone would chime with an email coming through, reception. Bill and I happened at that moment, while glassing for antelope, to be in such a spot. It was a pretty fair question. I was reading an email from ASEAN or the Singapore Chamber most likely, somewhat fixated at the time on the growth potential of the region. I had taken a brief jaunt over to Singapore earlier that year, via Seattle and Tokyo, to visit with investors relations folks and executives with numerous regional publicly traded firms. It had been a worthwhile experience. There were countless takeaways, but trust and transparency loomed largest among the many. I was not able to get over the significant government ownership in the firms which in most cases was a majority and controlling stake. One of the Chinese Cos., a large shipping concern, was quite educational. I was not able to make my way through the countless slide presentations outlining the strategies of each of the many divisions. Layers upon layers of unnecessary jargon almost like, say the FDA, Forest Service or HUD, bureaucracy run amok. The firm, read the Government, felt to have been reaching for Western investment. As has generally been the case, I was able to discern my way through most of the promotion, coming away from the region feeling the best approach for now (then) was to own US multinationals which for the most part keep their owners’ interests in mind. Of course, having a beer at Raffles with a few of the Brits, discussing old “Last of the Summer Wine” episodes and the rugby World Cup was a good time. Getting to know a few expats during the Chamber’s social hour, listening to their strategies on how to go about doing business with Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and so forth was interesting as well. The truth is, I’d become somewhat disenchanted with our debt fueled, government driven predicament and wanted to see how the new frontier, having already experienced the pangs of socialism, was going to evolve. There was certainly a vibrancy there, but I told Bill, “Stick with what you know,” and left it at that. Always sound and simple advice, the best kind. Today, I continue to believe the US should pursue open trade with this region. The area’s commodity demand provided much economic relief to the West during its meltdown. The US needs to be able to sell its wares to emerging economies going forward as well as it continues to unwind, period. It’s a shame to see China and Russia being driven into each other’s arms at the moment.lope 2014          This season both Todd and Erin had tags and were able to go. Last year I missed hunting with my kids, though it had been a successful hunt. Bill, a retired CPA who had initially turned us onto the region, was in our party once more as well. Friday morning he left Missoula early dragging along his camper, now a fancy one with all of the amenities. I have to say, I miss the old Alaskan “Prarie Schooner,” an old 1970s job he had pulled off of a truck bed and mounted onto an old metal trailer. Great memories there. At any rate, we took in a Sentinel versus Helena High School soccer game during Friday afternoon, watching Todd and his buds. A fun game to watch, ending in a 2-2 tie. Following the game, we headed through Townsend and further east to rendezvous with Bill below the Crazies, one of my favorite Montana mountain ranges. The Crazy Mountain Range, so named by the Crow. A woman settlor went mad and wandered into the range never to return.musselshell v          The weather Friday night was unseasonably warm (50s) and dry. Bill had the camp all arranged by the time we arrived and was standing at a blazing campfire with Mike, Richie and Miles. Jim was sacked out in their trailer. These were other folks from Missoula I’ve gotten to know over the years during antelope season, as they often drew tags in the same area and had also been put on the section by Bill at some point in the past. Actually, both retired, I knew Jim and Mike pretty well from what was once the Missoula Court House where I played squash and they played handball and racquetball. Good guys and experienced hunters who have brought up others in the art.glassing          I really did not have a care during this trip. The principal aim was to attempt to get Erin her first antelope. Other than that, naps on the prairie. This one had to be a weekend only trip as school understandably dictated matters.  Todd, still disgruntled having shot a doe when he could have had a decent buck during his last trip over, was hoping this season for horns. As Mike said one night, however, “You know, a wise man once said you can’t eat the horns.” This is pretty sage advice and as we get older we begin to recognize such things. I did not read much the first night, a few pages of an old poetry I brought along. Todd did some homework on my laptop. We turned in early. Saturday morning we were out of the sack at 6:00 trying to get organized. The kids had pancakes and I had some pumpkin oatmeal. Bill had oats of some sort as well. Not sure of the day’s conditions, we went with light wool pants I picked up recently, old European military El Cheapos at the Army Navy’s small replacement in Missoula.
         Once the sun poked through, always a spectacular scene in eastern Montana, things had the look and feel of rain with light overcast. Bill and Todd went east up the same hillside and we, Erin and I, went west having formulated a basic plan sitting in the truck just prior while they drank coffee from the thermos and I had a cup of Pero. Pretty decent stuff Bill had put me on the season prior. Erin and I sat with our backs against a worn weather guard above an old water tank looking up into the hillside. There are a few water troughs in the area, but this one has been pretty productive for hiding behind over the years. It is not used by the game, as it sits too high, but makes a nifty spot to lay low. It was not long before my partner was zonked out. I looked to the east, where I could glass the orange of our partners hiding behind some distant shale rocks. Harriers frequent the area hunting jack rabbits and voles. I have a hard time telling the difference between Harriers and Peregrines, as I believe they’re about the same size. There were not many shots coming from the river bottom. In the past I’ve noticed such things along with geese and ducks flying above the turning Cottonwoods which outline the Musselshell. Almost the only trees in the area, flowing above the winding water source.
         It remained quite quiet. At mid-morning Erin and I decided to hike up the hill doing a small loop from the west. The contour allows for game to bed down in the coulees, which has occasionally produced a single buck carefully glassed while slowly walking up from below. As we started off, I noticed a large group of antelope coming down from the east above Bill and Todd. Maybe thirty head. “There should be shots pretty soon,” I mentioned, almost whispering to my daughter. We watched the scene unfold from the binoculars. No shots. The antelope broke into small groups and looped well below us to the north. It is remarkably large country which allows game to take advantage of the changing landscape, which I decided must have been the situation. We watched the large group finally wind its way to a nearby ranch, dated 1909, which we did not have permission to hunt on. The one small section between all of the block management. It was open to others though, so I suggested we hike further up the hill and wait near the top to see if another party scares the group our way. It was interesting watching their behavior from the glasses. They actually bedded down, no care in the world. One of the few green spots, grass in sea of prairie. Looking off of the south end of the top, where I’d heard shots earlier and another excellent section to glass that seems to go on forever, I noticed two figures standing over their game. One small group was southeast and another southwest. The area has a small, almost wall like shelf which winds across the top of the field to the west, allowing one to sneak up on unsuspecting game feeding or bedded down below. If one does not walk glaring “skyline” he can find himself in a pretty good situation. Three antelope to our west and on the upper section were coming our way. I think Erin saw them first. Two were does and one a decent buck. The buck decided to stop below the distant butte, while the does continued walking our way occasionally glancing back to entice the third. We decided to wait for the does to pass below us, then thought we’d walk down the hill, behind the wall to the south, continue behind the wall, rising back up further west and be in a good situation with the wind. I had initially though approaching from the north would give a better shot situation, but the wind would be a problem. So, we headed down to try our luck. As we got up, another buck startled us and walked (ran) almost directly below us continuing to the south into the broken terrain between the two other hunting parties dressing their game. “How did we miss him?” I asked a speechless ET. I hit the other buck again with the field glasses and he was still bedded in the same area. Fair enough, I thought.
         We snuck around, below the shale wall just above one of the other hunters. He looked at us as we scaled along. We started back up the south side to sneak up on the antelope above, hoping he was still there and we could keep low enough for her to get off a shot. “He’s still there, come on and do as I do…” I whispered. She followed behind me, leaving her pack behind a rock and crawling forward as I dragged mine quietly. The wind was seriously howling in our faces from the north. We reached a distance of 80 to 120 yards where I stopped and raised up the pack which has a small rest I attached with a bungee for her to use. The lope was looking at us but had not gotten out of its bed. I stared at the familiar black mask, contrasting with the hollow brown and white hair of the main body. My daughter raised the .270 onto the small rest and attempted to steady things. I held the pack with my left arm while plugging my left ear with my right hand. I knew this was going to be a tough situation as the backpack was shimmying left and right regardless of my efforts due to the gales. The buck got up, looking at us, but remaining in place. He had decent horns. “Shoot when your comfortable,” I said. She took a shot. The buck moved to our left, unharmed. “Relax, and shoot again,” I said watching the animal move further off to our left (west). She had trouble shucking out the spent shell and pressing the bolt back in with a new one from the clip. I took the rifle and helped her do so. The buck was still within range, looking at us and standing still now maybe a few hundred yards away. Erin took two more shots which did not find their target. I watched the dust come up behind the animal along the hillside on the second shot. It was just to the left, chest high. The lope took off finally with a pretty full stride and I indicated that was how it sometimes goes and to not worry about it. The wind played a part, but also perhaps the excitement yips, aka “buck fever.” “Next time, remember what we did at the range, slowly exhale and squeeze your whole hand. Try not to jerk the trigger,” I reminded gently. She was frustrated, but not bent out of shape.
         We made our way back around to the east, hoping to tie into the other two, who I glassed on a surrounding hilltop not far from where we began our first approach. We met and sat down next to a tire mineral lick to discuss the morning. I asked about the initial group and they indicated they were not able to get a shot as the game were onto them too soon, staying in the distance and going around and below. Todd said later in the morning he crawled on his belly for like one hundred yards, at one point over an unseen cactus, and proceeded to miss a nice buck numerous times himself. Todd was frustrated. I can’t explain the thrill one gets watching his kid put on a long and difficult stalk, regardless of the outcome. I wished I’d been an observer. We ate some lunch and nodded off for a while below the rancher’s road.water tank          Later that afternoon, we decided to try a different section where I on Tuesday last year at dusk managed to find and shoot a buck. Last minute of the season, prior to driving home early the next morning. We split up in the same two groups again. “Are you sure you don’t want to hunt with Erin?” I asked Bill who replied “She should be with her father during her first antelope hunt.” Fair enough, that’s the way it went. Walking out, I passed Jim who, in his late 70s, was resting camoed out against a fence post high above a section where he had a nice view of the below ground. He mentioned his brother had not been able to come out this year. He also mentioned there were folks in a small party to our distant west, but otherwise no one else around. “Good luck” we said as we parted, deciding to hike in for a bit. We soon found another bluff to sit on, dry and rocky. Two rabbits flushed on our brief climb. I again could see Bill and Todd who had also found a spot along a hilltop in the distance. The day passed to dusk and four antelope does crossed nonchalantly a few hundred yards below us from west to east. “Do you want to shoot one of them? We have to leave tomorrow,” I said. “No, I don’t think so,’ she replied after taking a tug from her water hose. “Are you sure, we might not see anything tomorrow? Today has been unusual with all of the game sightings,” I almost pleaded, but to no avail. We had either sex tags. I thought of shooting one myself, but, like the kid, also decided indifferently to let things go until maybe tomorrow. Todd and Bill had a crack at the same group earlier but did not shoot. “I’m out for horns,” Todd had insisted following his episode earlier in the morning.
         I took a photograph with the small compact of the distant river bottom from our perch as the sun set. The colors were dark, a brown and green lower hue with the upper blend of dying foliage. Molly had made chili for us Thursday night, which I put into Bill’s microwave for dinner. This was really living for one who usually employs simply a tent. There was no fire Saturday night as it had begun to rain. One of the guys in the other group had shot a doe and a buck, having two tags. Other than that it was a pretty quiet day for everyone. Jimmy, another Missoula acquaintance and former track coach, had come by mid afternoon on his green four wheeler, blood on the hood. He had been successful, shooting a small buck not too far from our initial section in the morning. We were all happy for him as he’s battling cancer. I was pretty tired, so after setting up for Sunday morning, I tried to get some sleep. We were a little worried about the conditions of the road in the morning as rain can bring forth muck and gumbo issues – an inability to get into some of the country.musselshell valley          We dressed a little warmer, Sunday morning. The rain had cooled things off. It was drizzling, but not coming down steady. I had listened to the rain on the roof during the night, coming down as the camper lightly shook with the wind. It had almost been a full moon. As we left the camp, around seven o’clock and in no hurry, I noticed a fish rise on one of the ponds below the road at the camp site. We pulled into the gas station near the campground for coffee. Getting things together for the kids, I realized I’d forgotten my heavy wool brown plaid shirt, which I usually hunt in when it’s not too cold, snowing heavily or raining – cool enough to warrant. So, while I filled the thermos, they whipped back grabbing the shirt. It’s missing a button now on the left sleeve, but I tend to stick with old things that have worked in the past. I’d sew another one on shortly, I thought. Given all of the game we’d seen on Saturday, we decided to take the same approach.
         As the bright orange sun illuminated the east, I noticed a fresh snow dusting on the Crazies across the valley. The same for the Snowies, opposite to the north. As I rested against the wood deck above the tank, looking into the surrounding country, I thought of why I had moved to Montana. “Who would not like to live and raise his family here,” I thought to myself. “It’s all here, without the problems.” I had learned enough interning at Bear that that was not for me on a full time basis. The city life’s ok occasionally, I guess. I’d stayed in the industry, but in a discreet kind of way. A quiet place where I did not have to commute to the Adirondacks or White Mountains on the weekends. “You’ll never realize how lucky you are,” I’ve often said to my children, “Until you move away and look desperately for a way to return after five years or so in an urban setting.” Kids have to get away and experience things for themselves. I did this. Fourteen years in West Virginia growing up, four in Indiana for high school, three in the Beantown and finally Missoula, where the hang gliders go off above the green oval, the red bricked University campus and the Clark Fork. “A Place Sorta, the Berkeley of the Rockies. Keep Missoula Weird” All apt. I felt like one of only a few conservatives around when I arrived in 1990. I morphed a shade to deeper libertarianism, however. The financial aspects of this don’t quite fit the Missoula mold, but the place seems to accommodate all walks, regardless.
         Todd and Erin had mentioned trying to stay awake better Sunday, attempting to help observe matters when sitting still. I principally enjoy trekking about and not hunting from a stand or rest like they do in Texas over deer. This time as the two of us sat there, Erin watched the open fields above the river valley to the north while I watched the hillside to the south above us. I streamed some classic music from a station in Berlin found on the Blackberry Ap 91.1. For some reason many of the available stations are not available to me, which as one can imagine, is quite annoying. I sometimes needlessly worry about running over the cell’s data plan, which of course rarely occurs. I let it go and splurged. Perhaps Jean Tirole can enlighten us on the cell industry’s oligopoly as he’s evidently done with the financial sector. Perhaps he’s done so already, as in all fairness I’m, like many, unfamiliar with his work. Glassing about while listening to the German music, I thought about a past obituary I’d read for Frank Schirrmacher, a former publisher of the Frankfurter Allgemeine who had died of a heart attack. This thought was triggered by a Peter Thiel interview I’d read where he’d discussed the role of technology and how it’s only had an impact on certain industries, media, according to Thiel, being a significant standout. “Then you have the problem of dog shit. No matter what, you know it’s always going to be on the sidewalk right around the corner,” I could hear my Northeastern U. economics history Prof. A. Dyer, of the “Maryland School,” stating loud and clear one day in the late ’80s following a rant about Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” and tech’s “innovative” role. I did not always agree with his take, but I certainly respected the man and the issue with which he was wrestling. How is it, by the way, that somehow prices never seem to make it to zero? Maybe it’s government? I’m not sure. Amazing what comes up in the mind when in the middle of nowhere, though. Large firms will always employ scale and if they can pull it off, build cartels to eliminate competition. Also employing government’s subsidies and incentives to gain an advantage as well. Technology in this realm can aid competition. Technology in general, however, not only hinders certain occupations but over time eliminates entire industries as well. This, however, I’ve decided to chalk up to the natural process. Nature over time has her way. Certain technology in the wrong hands, however, can be and often is a disaster. This is the reason for policy makers having reservations on what falls into the hands of potentially hostile governments. Who defines which governments are hostile? One does not have to look far from home to see the harmful effects of technology as well. Back to Berdyaev’s Paradox of Evil.
         As I was pondering these matters, one of the finer antelope bucks I’ve seen in a long while made it’s way over the upper ridge top. The wise old animal decided that was far enough, remaining high above us. “Do you have a shot?” I asked Erin knowing already the correct response. “No, he’s too far away.” The animal made his way west across the upper reaches and we were not able to get within range. We decided to work our way over the shale section at the top to see if perhaps any game could be found in the bottom to the south. As we slowly peered over the top, careful not to poke our heads up too far, I glassed an animal alone bedded down below us. I thought it was a doe, but knew at this stage it would not make a difference. “Ok, lets get a little closer and see if you can get a shot,” I gently whispered. Wind was not an issue on Sunday and I was optimistic that she was calmer than the day prior. I set up the pack and she took a rest, bringing the rifle up to her cheek. The animal stood up and for a moment was broadside, but then turned and directly faced us maybe a hundred yards or so away. Antelope have large eyes and take in everything in their environment. This is what makes hunting this animal exciting. “What should I do?” my nervous daughter asked. “Wait and see if it turns again.” This was tough advice after the prior day’s episode, but the animal did not seem too spooked or apt to run off. However, it turned giving a brief look from the side but continued walking. This was potentially going to become a problem. The animal stopped, however, once more directly facing us. This time, though, Erin squeezed one off. My finger was in my left ear. The antelope dropped, shot through the front of the chest. It was a nice shot. The teenager gave me a big smile coupled with a high w lope          We walked down to the animal. It started to steadily rain. We looked at the entry and exit. Part of a front shoulder was destroyed, but otherwise the meat had been unharmed with the bullet carrying into the vitals. We pulled out two knives I’d sharpened Friday night in the camp. We cut out the correct notches in the tag, wrapping it with black electrical tape around one of the hind hocks. Bill over the years has come up with a “paunchless” field dressing method that involves removing the legs, neck meat and back strap without having to deal with the entrails. Pretty slick really. As the rain pelted us, I lifted up one of the rear haunches to begin the work and we then realized it was actually a young buck. This brought forth some laughter by ET, realizing she had harvested a male (not that it mattered). Bill and Todd joined us having been texted earlier. I looked at the water beads building on the bluing of our two rifles which were laying side by side in the wet grass. We placed the meat into old pillow cases and put it in our packs. Pretty simple business. Crazies          Todd continued to hunt while Bill, Erin and I hiked to the vehicle. On the way out we jumped two large mule deer does that were bedded in a coulee. The contrasting dark color of the deer with the surrounding tan and brown environment was stark. Even the ears appeared magnified due to the contrasting background. Once to the vehicle, we had lunch and debated the next move following Todd’s return. It was decided to attempt one last section to the south which would require a brief drive. Mike had mentioned at one point he’d seen animals along the outer boundary of the ranch’s block management area. Realizing I had a long drive ahead, we decided to meet back at the vehicle at 4.30, three of us splitting up walking up different sections, Todd in the middle. Erin decided it was nap time, remaining in the vehicle. The rain had finally stopped and the wool was drying out. I hoofed it up a fence line along a ridge, observing Todd to my north and Bill well below in the bottom field to Todd’s north. Looking over at one point, I noticed Todd now squatting on his knees, looking up towards the hilltop above him. Then, I watched six or seven does, led by a buck, rapidly run below him and to his left then back finally many yards above the vehicle. He ran after them, hoping they had stopped in an area below a ridge line. He could not from his position see below the ridge. I, from above watched the whole thing unfold. The animals looped north along the road after dropping below the ridge, not stopping. The then meandered well west, below Bill, who also was glassing the small herd.
         Todd and I tied up not too long after the episode near the upper hilltop. “When they finally stopped below me, within range, I could not shoot because of the vehicle in the distance,” he said, now lying on his back looking into the sky physically and mentally drained. I felt terrible for the boy as I knew that that would be his end of the weekend hunt. He was spent. A soccer game followed by a long drive and two days of hunting. “I’m sorry, but you made the right decision,” was all I could say. “I’m going up above for a moment and will be back down shortly,” I continued while glancing Bill in the far distance, a small orange dot in a limitless void. I hiked to the top, took a picture of a small green square of grass with another water trough in the middle. I liked the contrasting colors. Water is life on the prairie. I took a few more photographs of the surrounding grasslands and mountains. Rough country with a colorful history. Sitting below a fence line watching two more oblivious mule deer does below to the south, I wondered if I’d ever be back. It was quite a moment. The sky seemed so large at the time. The clouds, with their many patterns, felt like immense temporary figures, sailing grey and white through nature’s ephemeral window.leesthayers

One thought on “Along the Musselshell

  1. Richard Davies

    I so enjoy reading your entries. One of your many qualities that I find admirable is the way that you raise your children–introducing them to the world of nature. I wonder if even you, at times—and possibly your children—take too much for granted, this great outdoors, that surrounds you. I also like the honest and forthright quality of your writing: you wrote for example, concerning the felling of the antelope: “This brought forth some laughter by ET, realizing she had harvested a male (not that it mattered.)” I love the word, “harvested,” that you used to describe this action. The precise and accurate use of that word elevates your writing far above a certain ‘préciosité’ that all too often afflicts some of your contemporaries who somewhat portentously proclaim themselves to be vegans. The care that you and your family took in felling the antelope accurate reflects the powerful notion of the ‘circle of life’ that too often slips into a dreadful and cheap cliché. This does not occur in your writing.


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