Published November 30, 2012, 07:26 AM

Working hard to spot elk

Outfitter Keith Atcheson, Laurie and I spend most of the morning driving central Montana back roads, and stopping frequently to glass parts of the “island mountain ranges” common to this part of the state. “I see a cow elk up there but no bulls,” Keith announces. “Otherwise, I’d have you sit in that saddle and try to push some elk by you.

By: Bernie Kuntz, The Jamestown Sun

Part 1 of 2

Outfitter Keith Atcheson, Laurie and I spend most of the morning driving central Montana back roads, and stopping frequently to glass parts of the “island mountain ranges” common to this part of the state.

“I see a cow elk up there but no bulls,” Keith announces. “Otherwise, I’d have you sit in that saddle and try to push some elk by you.

Keith tells us about one particular monolith: “Legend has it that the Assiniboines carried their dead to the top of it and left them there. I have climbed it twice and don’t believe anyone carried any bodies all the way to the top of that.”

About mid-morning Keith is peering through his Swarovski spotting scope and says that he sees a group of bull elk below the crest of a far-away mountain.

“A week ago we had 18 inches of snow, and elk were running around all over the place down here. But now they are up high. We’ll have to go up there to get at them.”

We return to camp where his wife Niki, who like Keith is a guide and world hunter, serves up a huge breakfast of bacon, sausage, eggs and huckleberry pancakes.

“We could take the ATV up a trail almost to the top, climb over the crest and maybe get into those bulls. If you can’t make it, we could always turn back.”

“Let’s try it,” I reply.

So at 11 a.m. I climb onto the back of the ATV (I don’t remember ever riding one before), and we make our way along small ranch roads. Eventually we leave the roads for an ATV trail that winds up the back of the mountain. It soon becomes steep and choked with snow, and to prevent the ATV from tipping over, I have to get off and walk, using my 5-foot diamond willow walking staff for support.

My artificial hip and knee trouble me a great deal as does my lower back. But I continue to struggle upward, grabbing the rear rack of the ATV at times while Keith winches it up the trail. It takes almost an hour to reach a point where Keith decides to park the ATV.

“We’ll go on foot from here,” he says. “Just take your time.”

Taking my time is not a problem. I put one foot in front of the other, slowly moving upward through grass and rock here, the snow having melted in the sun making the walking easier. But it is still upward. Thankfully, Keith has strapped my 7mm Weatherby onto his Badlands pack so I don’t have to worry about the rifle.

The wind is raging, blasting 40 mph or more as it has all morning. It is a bit past noon when we cross the crest of the ridge and into a mixture of pine and fir, the trees bent and tortured by decades of incessant wind. We are back in snow now. Keith digs out a spot beneath a rock slab, sets his pack there and motions for me to sit and relax. I remove my fanny pack and do just that. Then he goes scouting. In less than 10 minutes he is back.

“We have to get out of here!” he whispers. “There are two young bulls 50 yards from us, bedded in the timber. I am sure there are more.”

So we move 100 yards up the ridge and find a comfortable spot to recline.

“We’ll have to stay here for a couple hours or more,” Keith says. “We have to wait until the elk move out into that meadow to feed.”

I make myself as comfortable as I am able and settle down to wait. After an hour, Keith announces, “I am bored. I’m going back to the ATV and look around. Anything you need?”

“Yeah, you could bring that old fleece pullover I left there.”

Keith is gone for an hour, and when he returns he hands me the fleece pullover and I put it on. Jake bought the thing for me for six bucks one time, and it has saved me from freezing my butt off on more than one occasion. It will save me again on this day.

There is no letup with the wind, but we are somewhat sheltered by the timber. In a couple hours there will be action. More about that next week!

Bernie Kuntz, a Jamestown native, has been an Outdoors columnist for the Sun since 1974

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