Closing season 

When gates shut down the road to the old elk camp, tradition takes a turn

The call came on a warm August evening. My mind was focused on supremely important end-of-summer conundrums. What sunshiny ale to try next. How many backpack and fishing trips could I wring from the calendar before fall. Two months away, my thoughts were far away from hunting. But suddenly, the October opening of elk season seized my consciousness like an unexpected strike from a savage brown trout on a slow day of fishing.

"They closed the road," my caller said.

It was a cousin, Doug, bearing bad tidings. The announcement left me with a profound sense of ambivalence.

click to enlarge JACK BALLARD

For over three decades, most years have found me bumping up a rough, winding trail of ruts and rock once a year—the one my cousin was talking about. My family history with the "road" extends to the fall of 1953, when my father and two uncles made an exploratory foray up this Forest Service road into the Snowcrest Mountains. The pioneers had but two rigs: an old 3/4-ton pickup and a battered stock truck. Neither was four-wheel drive, but in the hearty spirit of the times they chained up and ground their way into the mountains. They at last found a campsite where the rutted trail crosses Beaver Creek.

The camp consisted of a canvas wall-tent, housing bedrolls of cotton sheets and scratchy wool blankets on a length of heavy tarp. A layer of yellow barley straw strewn under the tarp provided padding and a dubious measure of insulation. But despite the Spartan accommodations, each man felt a growing, near-mystical attraction to the landscape that sprang from the terrain as much as from the game. Dawn found the hunters waiting at the edges of open parks where flaxen grass drooped wearily with an icy coating of frost. Riding high on barren ridgetops above timberline, where wind tossed icy shards of snow into an ageless blue sky, the vista revealed rocky slopes descending to waving oceans of evergreens, then rising up again to wild mountain continents as far as the eye could see. When the vehicles turned back down the road, groaning with the additional weight of fat elk, one for each hunter, the three brothers felt as if they'd discovered a misplaced sliver of paradise.

A few seasons later, they moved their elk hunting camp some six miles up the road from Beaver Creek. Not many years after the dawn of the third millennium, the second generation of my family's elk hunters celebrated a landmark anniversary with the single remaining survivor of the first. My uncle, Tom, had hunted for 50 consecutive years from the same camp, the ridgepole elevating the canvas of the cook tent secured to the same pine tree for five decades. In celebration we bought him a fine Filson hunting vest, embroidered with an elk head and an inscription heralding his accomplishment.

"What are we going to do about elk camp?" Doug's voice now scratched from my cell phone, squashing my nostalgic recollections with the burning issue of the present.

"Let me think about it," I said.

Think I did, for several weeks, while members of my extended family pondered the merits of protesting the order to close the road. The route was to be gated at Beaver Creek, far below our camp, the victim of a newly implemented Forest Service travel plan intended to expand the reach of roadless country where illegal vehicle travel and erosion are persistent problems. Like mountain bikers and snowmobilers who claim to support wilderness so long as it doesn't impinge on their favorite riding area, I couldn't help but find the situation irksome. Who were these arrogant, bureaucrat SOBs messing with my family's elk hunting tradition, a tradition likely older than the candy-assed individual signing the closure order?

But even as my gut desired nothing more highly than regurgitating all over those responsible for messing up my recreation, my head heralded the decision. Roadless areas need protection. And numerous studies show that elk retreat roughly a mile from well-traveled vehicle routes. Chances were, a bull could be brought to earth in the meadow adjoining our traditional camping site. It would simply take something like a four-mile hike or horseback ride to get there. Doable, very doable, from a camp pitched near the gate that would now bar access to the upper portion of the road.

click to enlarge JACK BALLARD

A month later I was back on the phone with Doug. Recruits for a hunt below the old camp had dwindled to myself, my two teenage sons, and Doug and his two younger brothers, also teens. The kids were in junior high and high school, so we couldn't take the full span of the opening week to hunt. At best the boys could miss three days. With a full day of travel on either end it seemed too much, a 300-mile drive to pitch a camp in a familiar drainage, but far from the normal areas I hunt.

I inhaled deeply.

"I think I'm out this year, Doug."

"That's okay," he replied graciously, though I knew him well enough to detect the disappointment in his voice.

My boys were far less successful at disguising dismay. "We're not going to elk camp?" they asked incredulously when I announced the change of plans. At two and three seasons under their belt-less hunting britches, they'd already been thoroughly captivated by the experience and its soul-stealing tradition.

"Then where are we going to hunt elk?"

"We'll find someplace close to Red Lodge."

The season opened, and for the first time in a long while, I discovered myself in search of fresh grounds for hunting elk.

A Saturday afternoon found the boys and I idling up a Forest Service road less than an hour from home. Previous study of a topographical map revealed a swath of country about a mile wide and four miles long, a bench of aspen groves, meadows and dense stands of evergreens. To the north, barren foothills trailed away into an empty horizon. To the south, the bench ended abruptly against the canted face of the Beartooth Mountains. A little sleuthing in records from the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks indicated elk in the area. We were ready to go hunting.

click to enlarge JACK BALLARD

But maybe not. The closer we motored to my intended launching point, the more vehicles we encountered. By coincidence, all the drivers and occupants munching corn chips or puffing languidly on an afternoon cigarette were wearing orange clothes. Rifle racks adorned most of the pickups. Rounding a bend, we spied a brace of hunters, guns slung on their shoulders, dragging a whitetail doe toward the road by a front leg and one ear.

"Lotta people around here," Micah observed from the back seat, in case I hadn't noticed. I had, and was possessed of more than half a mind to make a U-turn at the first pullout and sulk back to town. We came to a place to pull over, then waited while a trio of pickups and two chubby hunters on an ATV rumbled past. I killed the ignition, thinking we could at least get some exercise.

We crossed the road, then hiked up a wickedly inclined slope, skirting a barbwire fence that marked the boundary of a small tract of private land jutting into Forest Service acreage. Patches of snow from a previous storm clung crustily to the landscape in shaded areas and dimples along the slope. Though our course followed the most foot-friendly route toward the ridgetop, some quarter-mile away, I saw but two boot tracks.

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