Muley Mountain High
By: Ian Baird
There are three things in my life to which all my passion is devoted: my faith, my family, and my love for hunting. I did not grow up doing much hunting, as my dad stopped just as I started getting interested, and because we lived on Vancouver Island, most of our time was spent fishing instead. Fortunately for me, when I went off to University I met my wife, who introduced me to alpine hiking, fly fishing and hunting. We used to do a lot of off-grid hiking in the southern mountains of BC and would see some amazing scenery – and a few animals of course – but for some reason we never thought to combine our love for alpine hiking with hunting. It was not until I started following Cameron Hanes and watching some of his alpine hunts in the Eagle Cap Mountains of Oregon that I thought it was something that I could also do in BC. That summer I did some solo scouting and found out quickly there were some really nice bucks in the alpine if I was willing to invest the effort to get there. Putting in the hard work and going deeper than most will certainly ensure there will be a prize at the end of the trek; after all, they don’t call it “Beautiful” British Columbia for nothing.
Fast forward to two years ago, when I called up my hunting buddy Terry and said, “This is the year we harvest a big alpine mule deer. It will take an incredible amount of time and effort, but I think I’ve found a decent spot to start our search.” At that point we decided to put all our other scouting on hold for the year and strictly concentrate on harvesting a special buck.
Our first trip to the area was a guessing game on how to best access the alpine. I had found one draw that would take us up to one end of the ridge with the least amount of distance to cover, but we most certainly weren’t expecting the amount of windfall and steepness that we encountered. With the slow going, getting up there relatively late in the evening, we were losing light quickly. At the first sign of an opening, we busted out of the draw and up the slope. I stopped to wipe the sweat pouring off my brow, catch my breath and wait for Terry who was about 150 metres below me.
While I was waiting, I quickly scanned a small opening and spotted a really big shed, a heavy-mass, four-point frame with three stickers coming off its G2 and G3; it appeared this place may have potential after all! We took a brief look around to see if we could find the match, but to no avail, and with light fading fast and another 500 metres to go to break into the alpine, we pushed on. As we gained the last bit of elevation, the trees started to spread out, and we could see the crest of the ridge, our goal now in sight.
When we hit the top and came out of the trees, we were completely spent; we decided to go no further, drop our packs and set up camp while we still had about five minutes of natural light between us and complete dark. (Ironically, this spot became the location we have camped at every time we headed up this mountain, as it is one of the best glassing spots we have found in the whole range.)
The following morning, as the sun’s radiant hue was pushing up through the darkness, we sat in silence, enjoying our morning breakfast and coffee, anticipating what the day may hold in the way of deer sightings. We glassed for about a half hour from our campsite before loading up our packs and heading out for the day. Just as we hoped, the deer we saw that first morning far exceeded our expectations! I spotted five different bucks at the back end of the ridge in the rim rock and while I stayed to video them and see if anything further would come out of the timber, Terry headed back towards camp by looping around the top side of the ridge.
It was there that he came face to face with three deer, one of which was jaw-dropping. The bucks fed to within sixty yards and Terry was able to get decent video footage. When we met up later, Terry showed me the footage of the deer, and we both sat in awe as neither of us had seen a deer like this close up in real life.
The following morning, we hiked up the ridge again from camp and as we crested the top, there he was, in all his splendor, a true velvet monarch. I managed to get some incredible video footage of this deer we later named, “the General.” This was going to be our target buck for the year, without question.
That summer we went back to the mountain two more times and Terry went one time solo. Each time, the General and his companions were feeding on top of the ridge; it seemed like every morning, like clockwork, they would cross over the ridge in the same general area, heading to their bedding area for the day. We immediately started making plans for the hunting season; it was apparent to us that our target deer should remain in the area.
Terry was going to do a solo trip there for archery season, as I had plans to take my two girls hunting for youth season on Labor Day weekend. Even though our youth hunt was successful – with each of my girls shooting tasty young mule deer bucks – I couldn’t help but think of how Terry was doing.
When Terry got off the mountain, he gave me a call immediately, and with excitement he said he came close. He had seen the General in his regular area and had managed to stalk to within sixty yards of him, but then one of his sentries spotted Terry and had him pegged. While the sentry did not spook and run off, he walked away and the other deer followed. Terry was not able to get any closer and the next day the weather changed and he was blown off the mountain. Score: General, 1; Terry/Ian, 0.
Terry then headed off to the Muskwa for his annual elk hunt while it was my turn to try for the General. We managed to get some friends to watch our kids, which meant my wife Kerry could come up hunting with me for three days. I was pretty excited to get up there three days after the rifle season opener, but wasn’t too excited about the weather, as a warm front had pushed up from the south and was giving highs of almost 28˚ C down in the valley bottoms. I figured we were going to have to focus our efforts on the timber edges and north-facing slopes if we hoped to find some bucks. The main goal of this trip was to see if we could get Kerry her first alpine buck, but if the General made an appearance we would most certainly go after him.
The first morning we hiked up to the top of the ridge very early, to beat the heat, and waited on top for nearly an hour to see if the deer would come through as usual. Unfortunately there was no movement, so we decided to press on to the end of the ridge and check the rim rock. About five minutes into our hike to the end, I realized I had forgotten my jacket where we had been sitting previously. I told Kerry I would quickly run back and get it and while I was gone she could glass the other side of the slope. I had only walked 200 yards back down the ridge towards my jacket when I spotted a buck in a small opening between two trees.
I brought my binos up to verify: it was him. Instantly my knees started to shake and my palms became sweaty. I quickly chambered a round and went to reach into my pocket to range him and realized that my rangefinder was in the pocket of my jacket that I was on my way back to get… rats! The buck was downhill from me, and I guessed he was 350 yards away, so I held just at the top of his back for my shot.
A quick prayer and a slow squeeze of the trigger, and the deer showed no reaction, but a couple of other bucks appeared beside him. I thought I must have shot over his back so I quickly reloaded, but by the time I could get the gun back up he was gone over the ridge! I couldn’t believe what just happened. I had just missed the buck of a lifetime and wondered if I would ever get a chance at a buck of this caliber ever again.
Feeling dejected and sick to my stomach, I quickly retrieved my jacket and regrouped with Kerry up the hill. She could see that I was quite upset, but in her confident and encouraging way, she said, “Don’t worry, you’ll get another chance. If it is meant to be, it will be as God has planned.”
For the next two days, we persevered through the heat and glassed till our eyes hurt, but were not able to turn up another deer. We came off the mountain empty handed. Score: General, 2; Terry/Ian, 0.
I think this is where my passion turned into an obsession, as I couldn’t stop thinking about this deer every waking minute. I just had to go back up the mountain the following weekend in search of him, so I changed some plans to make it happen. Friday afternoon came, and with everything loaded up in the truck, I headed up for a solo hunt. I hit the access point just at dark, so I knew it was going to be a slow trek up the mountain by headlamp as I searched around for the few sparse pieces of flagging tape we had put up in the summer. It can be an eerie feeling hiking in the pitch dark in the middle of nowhere by oneself, but fortunately I was prepared and familiar with the area. Additionally, the added drive and determination helped to quell any worries I might have had.
I crested the top of the ridge just before midnight, and quickly set up my tent and crawled into my sleeping bag completely exhausted. Despite the wind picking up as I started to doze off, and the tent feeling like it would blow over with each escalating gust, I must have been too tired to care; I quickly fell fast asleep, dreaming of an encounter with the General the next morning. My alarm went off a half hour before daybreak and I could still hear the wind howling outside the tent. I quickly got dressed and struggled to get the stove lit so I could boil water for a warm cup of oatmeal and a coffee. As I sat there, the hood of my Sitka raincoat sucked tight around my head to block the wind, I thought it crazy that a week ago it was easily 15 degrees warmer.
With the last sip of my coffee, the slopes started to lighten up, and I felt the first rain drop. Time to put on the rest of my raingear! The rain started off slowly as I worked my way up the first grade to the infamous crossing area, but just as I got to where I wanted to set up, the rain and wind started to intensify. I quickly stuffed my pack and rifle under a small fir tree and crawled on my belly under the low-lying branches to find a relatively dry spot. For the next four hours, the wind and rain slammed the side of the mountain as I took refuge under that small tree, with visibility no more than ten feet in any direction. There was a time during this storm — as the rain pelted my face and the wind made its best effort to rip the trees from their roots — where I thought I might be insane to be willfully enduring this, but my immense passion for the pursuit of my hunting goal quickly quelled those thoughts. I emerged from the tree after the storm passed, quite wet on the outside but relatively dry on the inside. I was so thankful I had invested in good rain gear, as it truly was worth every penny on this trip.
By the looks of the horizon, I probably wasn’t going to have much time before the next storm blew in. I quickly raced down the ridge towards the rim rock, glassing as I went. I wasn’t able to turn up a single deer during the 5 km hike from camp to the back end, nor did I see a track. Surely my missed shot from the previous weekend didn’t clear the deer out of the area completely? They must have been hunkering down in the timber, sensing the weather system that was coming.
I should have followed suit, because while I was glassing the rim rock, the next storm hit with a vengeance. I figured the winds were gusting upwards of 70-80 km/h, nearly blowing me off my feet. I knew I needed to get back to the tent and take shelter, if indeed it was still there. So, for the next hour, I trudged through the wind and rain back to camp while constantly praying for my safe return home to my wife and kids. As I entered the opening in the trees to camp, I was elated to see the tent was intact. I quickly shed my outer layer, stuffed it in my backpack under a tree and dove into the tent. The storm continued for the rest of the evening and throughout the night.
When I awoke in the morning, the wind had subsided but the rain was still coming down. I checked the weather forecast and it looked like there was going to be no end in sight. I quickly wolfed down a granola bar, some moose jerky, and a quick coffee before hitting the trail heading homeward. My pack felt a lot heavier going out due to my waterlogged gear; this was quite different from my vision of a heavy pack full of meat and antlers coming off the hill. I vowed I would be back soon once the weather changed. Score: General 3: Terry/Ian 0.
Family plans and commitments at church precluded me from going back up the next weekend, but I knew Terry would be back from the Muskwa in a few days and hopefully he could go the following weekend. After much debate and some serious promises to deliver on our ever-increasing honey-do lists at home, Terry and I each got the green light to give it one more go after the General.
Those days prior to our departure seemed to take forever, as we anticipated our weekend journey. We were more excited than two kids entering the gates of Disneyland for the first time. Friday finally came and Terry had everything ready to go, so that as soon as I got off work we could hit the road. Yet another kamikaze trip up in the dark landed us at our camp spot just before 1:00 am; it took us a bit longer than normal having to trudge through the fresh snow. The steep parts were extremely slippery – thank God for our hiking poles.
We quickly set up camp, prepared our packs for the morning, and turned in for the night with great anticipation of what the next day would hold. Overnight the temperature plummeted, and when we awoke there was a layer of frost on top of our sleeping bags from the condensation of our breath. Fortunately, we had put a couple of our water bottles in our sleeping bags so that we had some unfrozen water to boil for coffee.
After a quick oatmeal breakfast and a warm cup of coffee, Terry and I suited up and headed out for the day. Our first glassing spot turned up a couple of small bucks across on the next mountain, but there was nothing on our side slopes yet. We decided to head up the ridge and split up to cover more territory. The wind was now gaining momentum as the cold front smothered its way through the mountains, the sting of the wind on my face reminding me to quickly don my balaclava.
It was bitterly cold as I sat next to a stunted fir tree at the top of the ridge, waiting for the bucks to cross on their morning ritual. I had placed my bet that the bachelor herd of bucks, with the General leading the way, would follow the same route as they had done every other time I had been up there previously. While I waited, Terry headed further down the ridge another kilometer just in case they came up the next draw over. We said we would talk to each other around 9:00 am, unless we heard a shot.
I tried to stay put and wait the deer out, but my toes had gone through the burning, painful stage already and were starting to turn numb. I had already been sitting there an hour in approximately -15˚ C with the wind chill, so I decided to do a loop down to the back side of the ridge to warm up my feet and come back to this spot in an hour. On my way I stopped and glassed from all our regular spots, but today there was nothing moving. I guess the deer decided to hunker down out of the cold as well.
I dropped off the backside of the ridge about thirty minutes later to get out of the wind, and the sun had now come up; the combination of no wind and the rays of sunshine felt like a warm blanket. I decided to stay on the leeward side of the ridge and follow the trail through the buck brush to the last glassing spot along the ridge. This rim rock canyon usually held deer, and our other target buck in particular, “Big 4,” called this area home. He just might be out for a late morning feed with this wonderful sunshine poking through the clouds.
My feet had now warmed up over the course of the past 4 km, so I decided I would sit and glass the rim rock and have a snack. Looking across the canyon, I spotted a nice bull moose and his cow, moving through the open patches of timber, but I couldn’t see any deer. I reached into my pack and pulled out my radio to call Terry, as it was 8:52am, when a flicker of something in the sunlight caught my eye.
My heart started to race in anticipation as I grabbed the rifle off my pack and chambered a round. The flicker appeared again; it was a large antler moving through an opening in the stunted alpine fir trees, with a deer’s body following closely behind. This wasn’t just any deer – this was a mature, heavy-beamed beauty!
I was unsure if it was one of our target bucks, but at this point I didn’t care. He was clearly one of the biggest bucks I had ever laid my eyes on and I knew he deserved my full attention. I brought my Remington 7mm-08 up to my shoulder just as he stopped and looked my way. Fortunately for me I was at the base of a small tree and with the sun at my back and my camo was doing its job, he was unable to pick me up. I now had the crosshairs on his front, but he was facing straight on. I just needed him to turn broadside for the shot. It seemed like an eternity, but was probably only a few minutes, when he finally turned slightly and I gently squeezed the trigger.
He stumbled and started running downhill and I quickly got off two more quick shots before I saw him tumble out of sight into a thick bunch of buck brush. As that wonderful smell of burning gunpowder cleared the air, I listened intently for any movement in the brush while looking through the scope in the direction I last saw him. There was complete silence. I quickly said a prayer, hoping that indeed the buck was down, and then sat there for a moment as waves of emotion overcame me. This buck was a culmination of twenty hard years of hunting and I had finally achieved my goal of harvesting a mature mule deer.
I turned on my radio and quickly gave Terry a call. He said he had heard the shots and asked if I had shot the General. I neither knew nor cared. While Terry made his way 2 km to my location, I grabbed my pack and clambered down the steep slope to the buck brush below. There the buck lay with his antlers entangled in the branches; a true monarch of the mountain had come to rest for the last time. I sat there for the next twenty minutes, looking over the beautiful landscape and feeling blessed for the opportunity to harvest this wonderful animal. I had truly achieved my muley mountain high.
When Terry arrived I put my hand on the buck for the first time, as this was our buck, our quest, our adventure. Hoisting his antlers out of the buck brush confirmed his identity — it was him. The General.
After a couple of hours of pictures, caping, deboning, and packing up the meat, we were ready to head back to camp, each of us with near 100 pounds on our backs. All I could think about was getting a fire going and roasting up some fresh tenderloin, sprinkling it with some of the seasoning salt and pepper from my bag. It was a tough slog back to camp, but we made it in about two hours, our legs feeling like wet spaghetti noodles as we collapsed to the ground in exhaustion.
We rolled out of our packs and took a quick rest, then took all the meat out of our packs and spread it out to cool properly before hanging it up for the night. While Terry collected the wood and got the fire going, I carved up some tenderloin medallions and seasoned them. As the fire started to crackle, we lay beside it to warm up, rest our weary joints, and cook up some well-earned meat. The first taste was a true reminder of one of the main reasons we do this – pure organic protein goodness; a better bite I have never had!
After eating, Terry decided to turn in to the tent for a quick nap while I laid out the cape and went to work on cleaning up the hide and turning the lips and nose, followed by salting it. By this time, the sun was higher in the sky and the wind was still blowing briskly; the perfect combination to help dry out the cape. After a good hour of work, I laid the cape out in the sun on a couple logs to allow the wind to blow over it. I too was very tired after all this and also decided to lay down for a bit.
We must have been totally wiped, as our short nap turned into a full-blown siesta. We awoke at 4:15 pm and realized we had better pack up and get back out on the slopes for the evening hunt – it was now Terry’s turn to bag a buck, and I would be the full-time cameraman. Another accomplishment we hoped to achieve on this trip was to get one of our kill shots on video, so we ventured out in search of another special deer to harvest.
Stay tuned in a future post for the second half of this adventure...
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