Today was our last elk hunt of the season and we began without high expectations for success, but the exhilaration of just being outdoors, in the high country, was enough to cause us to make the trip.
After two hours, thirty-five miles of driving through the snow into the back country of the Cabinet Mountains of western Montana, we parked our one-horse-open-sleigh at the base of McCully Ridge, slightly southeast of Fishtrap Lake. (Well, I’ve gotten soft: it’s a little more than one horse, and it isn’t open – thank Goodness!)
The excuse for this trip, sometimes called “the quarry”, was elk. For those not familiar with them, they’re a large member of the deer family and an adult bull will weight 800 to 1000 pounds, not exactly what one might think of as small game. For me, one of their most endearing qualities is the country in which they choose to live.
At this time of year and continuing on into March, the home of these elk is along the medium ridges and the more open south-facing slopes of those ridges where they can find enough food to sustain them until the grasses of spring again turn the mountainsides green.
Their chosen winter range is harsh but beautiful, and the elk have evolved a way to keep them warm, even in deep snow and sub-zero temperatures. To compensate for temperatures that range from 100ºF in the summer to -40ºF in the winter, twice each year elk shed every hair and re-grow their coats. By late July they shed their thin sleek copper-colored short summer hair and replace it with a two-layer winter parka which is five times warmer. It consists of a dense wooly undercoat and a longer layer of thick guard hairs that overlay the undercoat. The insides of the guard hairs are constructed like a honeycomb and provide so much insulation that an elk can accumulate a heavy layer of snow on its back without having its body temperature melt the snow. I don’t feel sorry for them sleeping in the deep snow of winter.
After an hour’s hike up the slope from where I left the “sleigh” the snow was knee-deep on a little shelf along the ridge and as I arrived there the heavy snowfall stopped and the sun appeared for just a few minutes before the clouds closed in again, giving this view of the elk’s winter home. It’s what I will remember during the long winter ahead.