Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Swimmin' with Griz

A Grizzly Story

When I first started guiding, Art Weikum, the outfitter I worked for, had me guide more bear hunters than elk hunters. I was in good shape. Looking for bears is usually more challenging than looking for elk. Also, for whatever reason, I just ran into a lot of bears.

It surprised me how many hunters came into camp with a bear tag and said, “After I get my elk I want to get a grizzly,” and then after getting their elk, seemed content to stay in camp.

Leading my packstring over White River Pass on the trip in this story. The south end of the Chinese Wall is in the background. 1980 photo

In about 1980, a hunter got an elk and then actually wanted me to get him a grizzly. Other hunters in camp had seen a rotting cow elk in the Peggy Creek drainage west of the Chinese Wall. Rotting elk make for good grizzly hunting.

For those unfamiliar with Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, the Chinese Wall is a 12-15 mile long cliff that faces east and averages a 1000 foot drop.

Looking over 1000 feet down from Haystack Mountain, part of the Chinese Wall, Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, Montana. 1972 photo

Peggy Creek is rough terrain. The creek is a jumble of spruce, lodgepole and snowbrush. All around the jumble is broken limestone cliff. The head of Peggy Creek is near a dark blue jewel--Diamond Lake, but the creek doesn’t flow from the lake. Diamond Lake is landlocked and is surrounded by cliff on the east, west and south sides. Above the cliff is open country made of limestone gravel weathered to the texture and size of rock salt. The only thing growing is large tracts of juniper that are impossible to walk through. Beyond the open country is another cliff that drops in the opposite direction. That cliff is more than six miles long and nearly encircles Peggy Creek, Diamond Lake, Sphinx Peak, Amphitheater Mountain and Gladiator Mountain.

It is good goat country and good bear hunting since you can see and glass long distances. Because of its remote location the only people that get a glimpse of Diamond Lake are air passengers traveling from Minneapolis to Seattle.

The quick route would have been to follow White River to the confluence of Peggy Creek, tie the horse and walk up the creek, but wandering aimlessly in snowbrush is not a good method of hunting grizzlies. I like glassing, estimating and stalking. There are fewer surprises that way.

So, we left camp early, taking two mules, two pack boards and lots of extra rope. The first hour of the ride was in pitch black, but when the sun rose it was in the 60s and we enjoyed Big Sky Country.

View of Peggy Creek area. Cliff Mountain is in the far left. Peggy Creek is below the white limestone cliff center left. Sphinx Peak is the tit barely visible in the center. Diamond Lake is between Sphinx Peak and the bald high ridge in the center.

We tied the stock in a small patch of scrub pine, climbed several hundred yards of rip-rap and then followed a goat ledge up and over the first cliff face. My hunter was a little flustered when we reached the top. He was ready to move to Peggy Creek, but I wanted to glass to the south of the cliff—where we had just been. He saw no point, but I persisted and we glassed for a half-hour, or so.

Photo of a goat hunt. Outfitter Art Weikum is on the ground in the red coat. This is where my hunter and I tied our horses and mules and climbed a goat trail over the cliff in the background.

As we moved north east across open ground south and west of Diamond Lake, we'd stop and glass occasionally. The hunter was anxious and wanted to “get to the elk.” I persisted and we took our time.

A rift developed between us because our different perspectives. He was in his forties and I was only 19 or 20. Even with my six years of hunting—much of it bears—he wanted to do it his way.

We set down on a piece of rimrock that overlooked Diamond Lake from the west and Peggy Creek from the south. He wanted to drop directly into the brambles and “get at the rotting elk.” I explained to him it was better to glass and find something that we could measure and then move on him. He persisted. I suggested we take a short break and eat our sandwiches and glass for bear.

He agreed to the sandwiches, but then we got into a heated debate. It’s tough being a kid debating a client that is 20 years older. I think I relented, and we agreed to move into the jungle when we were done with the sandwiches.

The hillside dropped steeply from our rimrock. We weren’t looking at the next rimrock and juniper 30 yards below us. As I took a bite of sandwich, I noticed a grizzly peering over the rimrock at us. He looked like one of those cartoons that say “Kilroy Was Here.” Only a nose, two eye-balls, two ears, and two paws were showing.

When the bear saw we recognized him, he dropped from view and bolted. It was a couple hundred yards of jagged rimrock and tangled juniper to the west shore of Diamond Lake.
We crammed lunch into packboards, shoulder the boards and started down to our last glimpse of the grizzly.

Of course he was gone.

I said, “Chamber a round and slowly make your way down the rimrock,” as I pointed a bit south. “I’ll work my way down faster and get to the north end of Diamond Lake. That way we will have him trapped on the lake shore.”

I chambered a round and made my way quickly to the north shore.

Arriving at the narrow mud flat, the grizzly broke out of juniper onto the shore several hundred yards to my south. The hunter was still a hundred yards up the cliff face, but had good open shooting.

The bear saw me and turned to go back up the cliff. Then he decided to move south. He must have noticed there was over 1000 yards of open country to cover. He turned and headed in my direction. As he did, the hunter let loose two rounds from his .338 Winchester Magnum.
The bear never went down.

Instead, he trotted to Diamond Lake and dove in, swimming for the far side.

The hunter had reloaded and pounded two more rounds in the bear. He stopped swimming but was 30 yards into the lake.

After the hunter got the shore, we discussed the situation, I stripped down, we tied ropes together and I went for a swim.

Approaching a grizzly in water the temperature of frosty beer, even when he has been obviously dead for 10 minutes, is a great experience. When I got to him, my mind thought, “What if he has just one more movement?”

I treaded water.

The hunter yelled, “What are ya’ doin’?”

“I’m taking my time, what’s it look like?”

After treading water for seconds that turned into months, I made my way to the farside of the grizzly and tried to slip the rope over his neck. I’d never done that before, even on dry ground. Have you ever tried to put a rope on a hairy pig? Try it in 12 feet of beer keg water.

As I struggled with the rope, the remaining air went out of the grizzly and he sank to the bottom.

I dove down, put the rope around and pulled it tight, surfaced, and told the hunter, “I’ll go down and lift, you pull on the rope.” It took quite a few divings and surfacings to get the bear ashore.

Skinny dipping for griz' in the Bob Marshall.

We skinned him, put the hide on one board, the skull on the other and returned to camp were we got rather toasted on beer and bourbon and told and retold the story to the non-grizzly hunting riff-raff.

A constantly pounding headache interrupted saddling stock the next morning.

The hunter sent a good photo of my butt swimming and a very nice Gerber skinning knife that I still have and use.



Dennis A Carroll said...


Anonymous said...

Hey Dennis, most of the pictures don't show up for me....but I'm at work so could be my connection

carroll4212 said...

Pictures working now....although that's more guide than I need to see...just kidding, great pics