The American Steppe

Antelope Season - MT 2015           When fishing season rolls around in the spring, we usually all purchase sportsmen’s licenses which include fishing, upland birds and big game tags. Erin this fishing season opted out. When I put the crew in for the annual antelope lottery, I neglected to consider that my daughter did not have a conservation license which was needed prior to entering a lottery for a special tag drawing. I went online to check the status of the drawing in the late spring and noted she had not been entered whereas the rest of our party, Seth, Todd, Bill and myself had each drawn tags once again for the annual eastern Montana antelope excursion. When I mentioned this to Erin, she gracefully stated hunting was not a priority to her whatsoever and that she was completely ok with not having a license this season. ‘Last year was a lot of fun, but it’s perfectly ok, dad,’ or something similar she had mentioned. I sensed the reality, which was that there were plenty of other priorities. Indifference. I sympathized.Bird on Stock Tank Post           This was on my brain as Todd, Seth and I plugged along Highway 12 between Helena and Townsend. I was pointing out the antelope that are frequently along the stretch for Seth to observe. He was along this trip for his first antelope jaunt. How nice it is to have Todd driving for part of the ride. I spent the time rereading my annotations in Michener’s work Poland. What a masterpiece. Quotes like ‘Laskarz, tell me one thing. Why do you and your old style friends still seek to revive the liberum veto?’ ‘Because the major problem of any free government is how to protect the responsible few from the pressures of the irresponsible many. Plato knew that. So did Cicero,’ Laskarz responds… The Seym’s liberum veto, one man. Michener allows readers to experience the hardships the Poles have experienced throughout the country’s history and thus understand the average Pole’s deep rooted love of freedom. Religious strife and carnage, the Teutonic Knights, Tatars, battle of Grunwald (Tannenberg), Swedish occupation, rampaging Cossacks, the plight of the serfs, the Turks, the Partitions, on and on… I have a lot of admiration for the people of Poland. One comes away from Michener’s literature wondering exactly how it is that men can behave so barbarously towards one another. Religion is often seen in the picture at some level; yet, also unchecked ambition. America has been fortunate not to have had the historical carnage Europe has experienced. I agree with the average European’s destain for war. All men should stand against war. Truly, over the years, what has Mars accomplished?Stock Tank 2015           After rereading parts of the above, I found myself ordering a copy of Poets and Poetry of Poland: A Collection of Polish Verse, Including a Short Account of the History of Polish Poetry, With Sixty Biographical Sketches while en route. Shortly thereafter I received an email from the bookseller (a third party off of everyones’ favorite electronic bookseller) saying ‘Dear Mr. Thayer: Thank you for your order–but I’m afraid I simply can’t find this book in my inventory. I’ve turned the place upside down searching for it, where it ought to be and everywhere else. I like(d) to pride myself on having an airtight inventory, but this one does seem to have wandered off. Please accept my apologies for the inconvenience–and of course a full, immediate refund. Please let me know if I can find a comparable copy of this book elsewhere. All the Best’. A. Clark. I reckon these things happen… Otherwise, it was a relatively uneventful drive over. Bill had gone over Thursday evening to attempt to secure a spot for his camper. He spent Friday scouting the Block Management property with some other folks from Missoula who are often there as well. The kids had school Friday morning so we got a later start. It’s pretty fancy staying in a friend’s camper. He texted us that half of the plug-ins at the sites were dead, but he managed to find one in working order. When we showed up, I parked in the empty site right next to the camper where one of the outlets was, sure enough, not functioning. Members of the larger Missoula party were on the opposite side, sandwiched between yet another camper behind a white 4Runner. The weather driving over was bluebird and in the high 70s. Saturday was expected to be the same, with rain and cooling temps on Sunday. We went to a joint Friday night called Jailhouse Pizza where I ordered a Caesar Salad. One of the Block Management landowners (whose son not too long ago died of cancer) showed up and was told, ‘Sorry, we just closed’. Bill got up and visited for a bit with Randy. Over the years we’ve gotten to know Randy’s family, having hunted on his ranch often during the trips. Bill has hunted the area for over a half a century. After dinner we visited over a campfire about the next day’s plans and caught up a bit with some past acquaintances. One of the Missoula regulars was not there with his boys this year, suffering with late stage pancreatic cancer. I spent part of the night shuffling gear and getting the packs organized with the boys. I only brought two rifles, not intending to hunt though I had a tag. Last season I had a ball with Erin, our daughter, teaching her the ‘sport’ of antelope hunting.Musselshell Valley 2015            Saturday, when we awoke, it was still warm outside. I actually decided to hunt in an old pair of Levis and a pair of Maine Hunting Shoes. Both light weight and simple. Often in eastern Montana in October it can be frigid on the prairie, with snow and ice accompanying the Prickly Pear and Sagebrush. Saturday, however, I found myself looking for sunscreen and my Glacier National Park billed cap. We had decided the night prior to start the day off visiting the Stock Tank, where numerous times in the past we’ve hidden and patiently waited for other hunters to move game in our direction. Typically opening day the place can be pretty busy; thus, this has been a productive option. Seth and I hiked into the area and sat below the familiar boards. Bill and Todd settled not too far off below to our northeast. ‘Ok, if and when they come, you’ll want to stay down. Don’t stand up. You will take a nice rest on the boards above the tank or on the pack. We’ll sit here and glass the grasslands above us and the farmer’s wheat fields down there,’ I remarked, pointing down towards the few pockets of timber in the area along the Musselshell River. Below the yellow and brown timber are layers of fields and swales. There are a few structures along the bottom, but not many. Hey bales and a few dilapidated old buildings rest on the northern edge of a recently cut wheat field. As we sat there, I pulled out a pencil and field book and briefly sketched the landscape below Old Baldy and Greathouse Peaks to our north. ‘What the heck? I know nothing about sketching, so why not try it’? I reckoned. We were situated between the Big Snowy Mountain Range and the Crazies. We watched two additional hunters creep not too far to our northwest and then settle below a small swale. Further, there were no shortage of ‘road hunters’ driving the area along a fence line below us. At some point, a herd of maybe a dozen antelope came up between the two parties below us and my first reaction was to have Seth duck and cover below the tank itself for fear of other shots heading our way; however, Bill and Todd knew where we were and did not shoot.

           The antelope fortunately were closer to Bill and Todd’s side rather than the strangers across the draw to our northwest. As the antelope approached, I attempted to get a quite excited boy situated so that he might be able to take a shot. The animals made their way closer and we noted a nice buck in the group, lagging near the rear. The small herd made its way safely above Bill and Todd and began to come around the east side of the stock tank. ‘Ok, do you see the buck,’ I whispered ‘He’s a really nice animal, towards the rear of the herd. Do you see him’? ‘Yes, dad’. There was a lot of ‘controlled’ excitement. Seth tried to get settled on the rest. At some point my cell phone started ringing. I think it rang maybe five or six times. I completely ignored it – but it never fails. ‘Ok, Seth, take the shot. Take the shot, Seth…’ I quietly continued as the animals moved now above us and up the hillside. Finally, he took a shot and missed. It was a pretty exciting moment and ‘first time fever’ was clearly evident. We laughed it off and were thankful no one below had initially fired in our direction. ‘I never even heard your cell phone, dad.’ ‘Well, now you know how this works. You need to try and stay relaxed. Don’t wait too long. Shoot while they’re in range, Seth’. I don’t recall all of the comments. As we peeled off a layer of clothing, I hit the dial button to see who had called and not left a message. An insurance company ‘soliciting’. ‘Hm’? I thought to myself. It’s a shame cell service now covers the entire area. Bill and I always recall when there used to be only one odd spot in town, right as one drove over a small bridge north of the football field, where there was reception. For many years the area had no mobile service. Now, everywhere.Antelope Season 2015 E MT           Seth and I had some jerky while I sketched the tank and the opposite direction, up the hillside. The sun was baking. Todd eventually dropped off of the hillside and down to visit with us after he and Bill hiked a loop hoping to maybe kick something off of the top our way. It was quite odd weather, reaching the mid-80s. Both boys were now in in t-shirts. Over the summer I bought a Fujifilm X-T10 with a variable lens to 50mm and a pancake 27mm lens. I had a lot of fun taking some photos of bears in the Rattlesnake and tarpon in the Key West area. It’s was great camera. I liked the many manual settings. I thought I’d use it for this hunting trip as well, but at some point during the latter summer I decided to donate it to the photography class at one of the local high schools. I’m not sure what got into me, but I reckon I realized that photography can get too fancy pants and I did not want to get that involved. So, I bought a sketch pad and a pencil and pulled out my old Elph handheld, and – that’s it. Occasionally a few photos with the phone as well. My truck is 12 years old too. As I told the instructor, ‘I hope the kids get something out of it. I certainly hope they get to use it,’ wondering to myself a bit about what really goes on in such classes. While Todd was over, we visited a bit about his first antelope experience, a year when he shot a doe. I took a few photographs of the boys after which we discussed how to go about the remainder of the early afternoon. Seth and I decided to hike up the hill and over the back. ‘I want to take Seth to where his sister got that one last year,’ I said to Todd.Eastern Montana           Bill was working his way around a section and back to the vehicle, mentioning his feet were hot. Seth and I had a pleasant hike, but were not able to get within range of a few small herds. One was a group of about eight or so which spooked back up the hillside and over the top to the area where Todd was hiking. We also ran out of water, at which point we decided to head back to the vehicle. We heard a few shots in Todd’s area. As we crested the hill, making our way down through some thick grass, for some reason I pulled out the phone and read a text, ‘Call me when you get this,’ Todd. So, I called Todd. No answer – machine. We continued down the field and saw Todd in the distance. Once we got closer we noted he was standing over an animal, his first buck. ‘Nice job. How’d it go’? I said. ‘It was probably part of the group of eight we sent back over the hilltop a bit earlier,’ Seth remarked, looking at the animal. ‘Look at this,’ Todd said pulling down his rear britches. ‘I sat on a Prickly Pear right after I shot him’. So, I pulled out a Leatherman and proceeded to pull out the small needles from upper back of his leg. We admired the sable aspect of the antelope’s mask after which I proceeded to remove the two hind quarters while Bill worked his way up to us with more water. Over the years, Bill taught us a nice method for field dressing an antelope which is ‘paunchless,’ removing all four quarters, neck meat and the backstraps. Bill helped Todd dress the balance of his quarry. We then place the meat in pillowcases and bungee corded it to the packs to hike out. This method gets the hide off quickly.
           One of the items I like about the area of Block Management where we hunt is that there are no motorized craft allowed. Walk in / walk out. No four-cylinder fumes and racket. That having been written, of course, Saturday we noted a vehicle driving a loop into the section where we were hunting. This of course was not allowed, but occurred. We hiked down to Bill’s pickup and pondered the balance of the day. We were parched. It being almost dusk, we decided to call it and see how the others fared. Two of the five in the other Missoula party had not filled their tags; otherwise it had been a pretty productive day.            We decided to attend the local Moose Lodge fundraiser, an annual dinner for the hunting season weekend opener. It’s a nice facility and usually a nice meal. This go round was no exception. Chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes, green beans, roll, beats, cole slaw – the works. ‘What do the Moose do with the proceeds from the meal’? I asked the ticket lady. ‘Mostly use it to maintain the facility. We host funeral receptions and weddings. Childrens’ activities, too’. She said over the racket of many other conversations. I decided, given the activities in the facility, to go ahead and indulge. I sat across from a larger member of the group and another fellow who wore a ball cap with Hong Kong printed in large type across the front. Immediately behind these two was the County Sherriff. It was a great meal. I cleaned my plate. Back at the camp while sitting around the campfire chatting I got to see photograph of a mountain lion on someone’s phone. The lion had situated itself directly behind the fellow while he was elk hunting in the Blackfoot. Another fellow pulled out his cell phone and discussed the constellations. ‘Do you see that? Do you know what it is?’ he asked, directing a green laser light beam from the tip of his cell phone towards a clearly moving satellite. ‘Is that the one that transmits back the color of my piss’? I asked, as it moved over head. There was muffled laughter around the campfire. ‘That’s the Space Station. It’s 410 miles away,’ he continued, following it with his little pointer like a professor in a large introductory statistics lab. The classrooms with two hundred and fifty freshmen stacked in an auditorium like facility… ‘Oh, that’s one that gives me hope,’ I said, following his laser beam. ‘It demonstrates that Russia and the US can get along. There’s hope yet for the world,” I continued, somewhat sarcastically, but not entirely. ‘Watch, it will disappear shortly,’ he said as, sure enough, it flickered out. I found it hard to believe it was only 400 miles away, but it was pretty bright. He discussed his phone’s App which details the satellites overhead. We then watched what this fellow described as a meteor shower. I watched one falling star fade into the oblivion as it streaked towards earth. Todd then told to those of us who remained around the fire his story about the antelope he ‘harvested’. His stalk took a little effort, but he managed the job. Once in Bill’s camper, we read for a bit and then set the alarms for Sunday morning to get up at 5AM. For some reason both Friday and Saturday evening I did not sleep too well. It certainly was not the quarters, as we were living large in a full camper. I was sleeping on a bed, no less.Stock Tank           The original plan had been to hunt both Sunday and Monday if need be for the kids to fill their tags. In the past we’d often hunted through Tuesday, though preferring to get out of town typically by Monday evening. Rolling out of the sack Sunday, Seth and Todd were both pretty tired from all of the hiking the day prior. Bill had gotten access to the far south end of the area, a private ranch that abutted the Block Management area where we were hunting. He visited Thursday evening with the son of the rancher who formerly owned the place. The son mentioned to Bill his father had unfortunately recently died from COPD. We were pretty excited the son gave Bill permission to hunt on the property. The son mentioned a former sheepherder with which Bill was familiar was now in the hospital. The sheepherder was a colorful character. One year, Bill and a couple of other Missoula hunters (with their kids) came across this herder. He rode on his horse wearing chaps, boots, a leather vest and absolutely nothing else. Long hair and enlarged pierced earlobes with rings. It was snowing and frigid on the prairie when they crossed paths. Bill says the kids that day along with the fathers were absolutely shocked. Speechless. Nothing was said. They just looked at one another, then he rode off. ‘That Shepherd’s still alive?’ I asked Bill while we were at the pizza joint Friday evening when Bill mentioned getting access to the property. ‘Yep.’ ‘Where is he? In Billings? In a hospital around here? Let’s go see him!’ I insisted. ‘I did not ask which hospital he was in,’ Bill concluded.

           After waking up Sunday morning, I read a passage from a poem in Judith Ryan’s Cambridge Introduction to German Poetry – “Uber den Untergang der Stadt Freystadt” (written in 1637 by Andreas Gryphius). The passage alludes to the horrors of war and its aftermath – the burning of Freystadt during the Thirty Years War.

‘…Doch schweig ich noch von dem / was arger als der Tod/
Was grimmer den die Pest / und Glutt und Hungersnoth
das auch der Seelen Schatz / so vilen abrezwungen’.

‘Yet still I do not speak of what is worse than death,
more horrible than the plague and fire and famine:
that the treasure of the soul has been taken from so many’.

            The poem was an interesting way to start the morning. We arrived at the rancher’s property early. The place was grey and quiet. Desolate, almost. We could hardly open the truck doors the wind was howling so badly. The weather report the evening prior had called for dangerous wind levels and sporadic rain on Sunday. We put on rain coats/shells and headed up into the canyon. Bill went low and to our east. I went with Todd and Seth high along a small ridge line. The straps on the two rifles both broke. On one the screw stripped and pulled out of the stock. The other, the electrical tape had worked itself off during Todd’s crawling through the prairie the day prior. I re-taped the .308 but said the heck with the strap on the .270 after it came out a second time. Of course, I was not intending on using the rifle anyway, hoping to have Seth do the hunting during the morning hike. We took some photographs of the area while sitting on a ridgeline. We could hardly walk, it was blowing so badly. This affected the ability to do much looking through the binoculars as well. Finally I saw a few antelope in the distance with the glasses. We got up on the animals and noted they were both does. We had either sex tags and only Sunday and Monday morning were remained for hunting, so I mentioned to Seth that he may want to shoot a doe for the meat. It would be his first animal. As it turned out this consternation did not matter as we were not able to sneak up on the wary animals. Antelope are extremely observant. They have large eyes and great eyesight. Great awareness of their surroundings and environment. Also, a great sense of smell. Hard to sneak up on. During these hunts there is always a lot of crawling across the countryside. After these two animals spooked, we laid down on a ridge and watched three hunters across the valley try to sneak up on a second group of a half dozen or so. Up a distant hill the antelope rapidly went, easily outsmarting the three hunters. The critters were headed towards the Stock Tank area where we had hunted the day prior. Bill managed to locate us finally after we yelled into the phone over the great wind gusts. After a brief nap on the prairie, we decided to head off of the private ranch. We decided to drive the county road, glassing some of the western border of the Block Management area. As soon as we started driving a small group of antelope bounded across the road in front of us and onto some off limits property. ‘Hey, stop by that wind mill. I want to take a picture of it on our way around,” I mentioned, while simultaneously watching the lope bound off in the distance towards where we had earlier watched a brush fire to the south. ‘What do they use those for, anyway’? I asked. ‘It’s a well, for water,’ Bill said. So, I took a few photographs.Windmill Well           We then drove by a school owned section of land which is public accessible with no school structures. I guess the school system gets revenues from leasing the property. We noted a large herd to the west on private ground standing in the middle of a rancher’s field. The animals were completely calm as the wind rocked the truck while we glassed. Finally, we arrived back to the stock tank are on the Block Management. Driving in, I noticed one antelope in the distance on the hillside. ‘I can’t believe they’re standing out in the wind like this,’ Bill mentioned at some point. It was odd. Seth and I got out and discussed how to go about sneaking up on these animals. It was pretty open, with a bit of broken ground in places. We both took packs, Seth the rifle. I could not hold still to glass the small herd with the binoculars. There were maybe seven lying down and on two there were horns. We bent over and hiked in. When below a swale, we decided to try to go over the top to see if the antelope were still there. I did not see the animals, so, frustrated, I stood up looking in all directions. ‘What the hell? Where’d they go’? I asked myself. Then, I saw they were still there, further off than I realized, all wisely lying down now. I dropped back down to the dirt and brush, and motioned to Seth to come up. ‘Ok, stay behind me and do what I do. Okay’? Crawling on all fours while looking for cactus and other such things, we made our way in the howling wind closer to the antelope. We were not able to get very far, however, as the antelope all got up and stared at us. Seth took a rest on the pack while I attempted to help brace the rifle stock with my right hand, this while simultaneously sticking a finger from my left hand in my ear. It was just blowing too much. Seth took a shot, but missed and followed with one more, again missing cleanly. Somewhat dejected, we walked back to the vehicle. ‘Don’t worry about it Seth. Todd has been out here 6 years and killed two antelope. It’s not easy. We then saw a large herd in the lower grain field area and pursued them to no avail as well..Sagebrush E Mt            It had been a great weekend. My youngest was fortunate to have seen many animals and gained many new valuable experiences. He learned about antelope and their peculiar behavior. He learned about the American Steppe – the antelope’s environment. He learned a bit about sheep and cattle ranching, both of which are abundant in the area. He learned about the great wind farms on the surrounding hillsides managed by the Hutterites. In short, it had been another wonderful trip to eastern Montana. I will conclude, however, with the remark that similar to the odd weather patterns, animal behavior seems to be almost in a non-natural state. It is perplexing to see how animals behave today. The birds and deer in the backyard. Magpies, Dogs. Pick an animal. This is evident not just in our ‘neck of the woods,’ but in other parts of the country we travel to as well. It’s not something explainable. One day while elk hunting a few years back, a friend of mine remarked, ‘Now why is that elk standing there, alone in this place’? It was an interesting question which I’ve thought about more than once. Perhaps the elk was simply just there, browsing as elk do. I do wonder, though, is nature somehow in a controlled state today? Can there be such a thing? Even the fishing feels canned on some days. If this somehow is the case, it will only be temporary. My faith in nature remains strong. I’m moving towards a sketch pad and maybe writing, gradually away from the hunting rifle. I can’t explain why, but it is the case. We’ve had a great deal of fun in the field over the years. There will probably continue to occasionally be a hunt trip or two as my children take up the heritage that’s been passed down. That, however, will be up to the kids.

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