Horse Trails & Elk Tales
Beyond Fort St. John, the Alaska Highway stitches its way due north through boreal forest and muskeg following, more or less, the course of the Prophet River. At Fort Nelson, the road bends westward, meandering into the foothills of the northern Rocky Mountains. The grades become steeper, the turns sharper and wilderness crowds in on the undulating ribbon of asphalt.
For much of the distance from Fort St. John to Fort Nelson, the Alaska Highway
runs ribbon straight through northern British Columbia.
The pull-out near Steamboat Mountain, an hour west of Fort Nelson and almost 3000 feet above sea level, provides the first real look at one of North America's last remaining wilderness sanctuaries. In the near distance, two sharp scars cut through the endless forest. The nearer of them is the valley of the Tetsa River, through the other flows the Muskwa River, the waters mixing to the east. To the south, unseen from this vantage point, are other tributaries-the Chischa River, Chlotapecta Creek, the Tuchodi River-that drain out of a huge wilderness area described as the Serengeti of North America.
Looking to the southern horizon, I tried to envision where in this vast region of rivers, mountains and endless forests we were headed. I'd studied the maps and knew that the spot where we planned to set up base camp was a three-day ride from the trailhead, crossing three heights of land and three rivers along the way. But the wilderness that stretched south and west from the pullout provided no clues and I was glad for it. The spirit of adventure, after all, is in facing the unknown.
At Kilometer 558 off the Alaska Highway, roughly 75 miles west of Fort Nelson and a stone's throw past the road sign that proclaims "Tetsa River Services Welcomes You," I pulled off the blacktop and onto a dirt road that led to a motley collection of rustic cabins, horse paddocks and a gas pump clustered around a sprawling log structure that served as the main lodge. At the far end of the compound I found my hunting partners-long-time friends Gary and John-already stowing their gear into a battery of panniers lined up along the front of Tetsa's log cabin.
Unperturbed by the pandemonium that inevitably develops at the trailhead, the horses wait patiently to be packed.
Our horses had arrived at the trailhead a couple miles farther west during late afternoon, more or less on schedule. Theoretically, all we needed to do the next morning was shuttle the packed panniers, tents and other gear over to the trailhead, load up and ride out with the better part of the day to make good time.
In addition to the three riding horses, our outfit consisted of eight packhorses.
A season veteran of the wilderness trails, Sonny is a gentleman in every respect.
The reality was that, by the time we'd tied the last diamond hitch on the nine pack horses and saddled up the last of the four riding horses, it was well past noon. For the better part of a mile, the horses' hooves clattered across the loose cobble of the Tetsa River's wide bed, then the well beaten horse trail left the river bank to cut into the yellow willows, their musty scent mingling with the sweet-sour reek of the horses. That night we bivouacked in a stand of spruce where moss grew like a thick, disheveled carpet. Four hours of steady riding the next day took us over the height of land and, leading our horses afoot down the long steep trail, we reached the Chischa River.
Most of the river crossings were easy fords like this, but crossing the Tuchodi with its
heavy flow and deeper water was a dicey proposition.
As steep as the trail down to the river had been, the other side loomed vertical and, despite the endless switchbacks, the climb was brutal with impossible inclines where the horses scrambled to keep their footing on loose rock. We stopped often to rest the animals, their sides heaving from the exertion and sweat slick on their rumps. Pulling up the rear of the column to keep an eye out for trouble, I prayed the packs would hold; redoing them was a two-man job on level ground and I had no stomach for facing the task on this climb by myself.
Just when it seemed it would never end, we broke out of the trees and out onto an open meadow. From there, an easy horse trail wound through an old burn toward the Chlotapecta and, when sunset caught us, we made camp along a small spring-fed brook overlooking a lush meadow. That night, we fell asleep to the sound of elk bugling in the distance and the horse bells clanging softly nearby.
We crossed Chlotapecta Creek during the morning and made our way up a long, open draw where feral horses feeding along the grassy hillsides. By mid afternoon we crested the height of land and, before us, the horse trail fell away into the Tuchodi valley. The first hour or so was easy going, but we hit heavy timber farther down where a web of game trails led us off on several false starts through dense spruce stands and deep bogs. Pack animals barged off trail through thickets of spruce saplings in an attempt to avoid the impossible muck, packs came undone and tempers frayed. After several hours of thrashing about in that hell-hole, we stumbled across the right trail down to the river crossing.
We made camp that evening in a bend of the river, a site well used by travelers up and down the Tuchodi and, the next morning, rode out on the final leg of our journey into the hills. Six hours later we reached the old campsite among a copse of sheltering pines; even the fire pit was still there. This would be our base for the next ten days or so. Another 60 yards farther along, we found an old game pole lashed 18 feet off the ground between two pines. High enough, I hoped, to thwart the biggest bear.
After a three day ride, we finally arrived at the natural meadow where we made base camp.
That evening, we wandered along a game trail to a lookout where we could get a feel for our hunting territory. At the edge of the timber, the land dropped away in a long gentle slope. Beyond that, a succession of long ridges rose like corrugated cardboard, their steep, treeless west-facing flanks glowing green in the late-day sun. In the distance, tucked beneath a horizon of jagged, high peaks was the Tuchodi River valley. Glassing the near flank, John picked up a small herd of elk-cows and calves--grazing, their coats reddish tan in the late-day sun. Later, while we sat around the fire polishing off the last of our freeze-dried spaghetti, the bulls started bugling on the ridge near camp, their otherworld screams sending chills of excitement up my spine.
Before sunrise the next morning, I headed out on foot up the horse trail to the ridge. I'd just started my climb when I heard elk moving along the side hill to the right of the trail, then a short, high-pitched bugle. A perfect opportunity to blow the cobwebs out of my bugle. As the echo of my call had faded, I heard an alarm bark and watched four cows trot diagonally up slope, stopping briefly to look back before disappearing over the crest. Seconds later, the bull followed them the ivory tips of his antlers glinting in the first flood of the morning sun.
At the top of the ridge, the old horse trail swung south to follow the height of land while a well-worn game trail dropped over the crest and then stitched across a long open saddle to the spruce stands of the next ridge. In places, generations of moose and elk had carved the trail deep into the earth. Halfway across, I found the clawed footprints of a full-grown grizzly bear with a set of smaller tracks off to the side. A sow and yearling cub. Not a good combination to take by surprise.
By mid-morning with the sun high in a cloudless sky, the elk retreated into the deep shadows of the spruce thickets and, though they continued to scream their challenges from ridge to ridge, they were loath to leave their cool sanctuaries. With plenty of time left in the trip, there was no rush to hang an elk and the unseasonable heat would likely be tough on the meat. Better to round up the horses which, though hobbled, were likely well on their way back down to the Tuchodi. And there was wood to be put up for the cook fire.
I hunted the ridge behind camp the following morning and, when the elk retreated into the heavy timber of the side hill I followed them into their sanctuary, squeaking a cow call from time to time. Around mid-morning, a bull screamed nearby. Slipping in behind a spruce sapling, I squeaked back. The bull bugled again, closer this time. He kept coming. About 75 yards away, a spruce bough swayed. Another cow call. No response, but something big was close at hand. I could sense it. Stop calling, force the bull to make the next move, to show itself. Less than 20 yards out, a patch of fur slid past a small opening, soundlessly. That's when I felt a vagrant breeze on the nape of my neck. I knew the gig was up even before I heard the pounding hooves. I dared to breathe again, wondering how long I'd been holding my breath. It took much longer for my nerves to settle down.
On the trail back down off the ridge to camp, I reflected how easy it was to fall into the rhythm of camp life-hunting, putting up firewood, fetching water, looking after gear and setting a cook fire for supper. After two days, our woodpile was substantial, good enough to see us through a week of bad weather. Through the morning, high cirrus cloud had cloaked the sun, promising a change. Already, the breeze was cooler than it had been at first light.
That afternoon, I found myself a comfortable spot on the saddle where I could sit and glass the grassy slopes. Already, there was a band of half a dozen cows and calves grazing and, as I sat watching them, I faintly heard a bugle from the timber atop the ridge to my right. A second bull screamed in defiant answer from a big patch of spruce 400 yards to my left. Hoping to draw the animal out into the open, I bugled back. Before I'd finished the last grunt, the bull answered the challenge. This elk was hot, but not hot enough to abandon the safety of the spruce thicket. I had to move in on him, taking the chance that the ploy would infuriate rather than intimidate.
With the rut in full swing, we often had three and even four different bulls bugling in response to our challenge.
I closed in to about 300 yards and bugled again. Instant answer. Moving closer, I called again. Another bugle, but now the bull was coming. I hunkered down and switched to a cow call. He screamed again, maybe 100 yards out. Then silence. Time to force the hand. Staying low, I moved closer and, raising the bugle, screamed the best insult I could muster. That did it. I could almost feel the vibrations of the reply against my face. Then silence. He was close, but where? Wait for him. Let him make the next move. Minutes ticked by. Then, from behind me, a bugle. We'd passed each other, one searching for the other. Cow call, cow call. He had to be coming up through the timber.
We met on the trail. Head on, 50 feet between us. One as surprised as the other. His high antlers seemed to span from one side of the trail to the other. One shot and the bull went down.
Certain that it was over, I moved away from the elk to sit down, calm my nerves and await John and Gary to help clean and quarter. In grizzly country, it's smart to have one person with a gun on watch while a downed animal is being cleaned. We returned the following morning with a couple of horses to haul out the meat, approaching the kill site cautiously in case a bear had taken possession during the night. Nothing had been touched and, by noon, the bagged quarters hung safely from the meat pole.
Packing an elk back to base camp is sure a lot easier when you have a steady pack horse to do the heavy work.
Gary who was bowhunting arrowed a good bull before dark that evening after working it to within 40 yards on a cow call, but he was unable to follow the spoor in the failing light. Certain the bull was down, we returned with horses first thing next morning and, sure enough, found the elk piled up in a depression just 50 yards from where it had been hit. At mid-day we had a second elk on the meat pole.
Gary took this typical northern bull elk with his bow the day before the blizzard hit.
Sometime that night, the weather changed-a light rain at first and wet snowflakes by daybreak. At lunch, the snow had started to accumulate and it kept falling steadily through the afternoon and evening. Come morning, the camp was covered under a four-inch blanket of the white stuff. No matter, we would be breaking camp in a couple of days and once out of the high country we would likely leave the snow behind.
Set back from the meadow in the shelter of the evergreens John and Gary's tent is snug even in below freezing weather.
John, who was also bowhunting, passed on a number of animals and, on the last day, had a huge herd bull at five yards without being able to get a clear shot. From the lookout near camp, we could see blue skies over the river.
That night, the nervous snuffling of the saddle horse tethered beyond the flimsy fabric of my tent jolted me out of a deep sleep. I listened to it fidgeting anxiously, the hard snow crunching under its hooves. Farther back, the other horses stirred, restless as well. We had tethered them because rounding them up could cost us valuable time the next morning. We needed to break camp, load up and make our way into the Tuchodi drainage before dusk.
Sonny snorted again and shook his mane. "Funny," I thought as I worked my left arm out from the warmth of the sleeping bag to check the time. "He's usually calm and easy-going." Two thirty in the morning.
Then it hit me. The meat cache. That's why the horses were fidgety. There had to be a bear at the game pole. I groped for the flashlight and boots, ready to barge out of the tent and defend the meat. Moments later, common sense prevailed. Stumbling through the bush in the dark of night, armed with a small flashlight and a rifle to chase off a full grown grizzly was not a good plan. Somebody was bound to get hurt. Best to stay put and hope that the meat pole would stand up to the bear's best efforts. When I opened my eyes again, daylight had come and I could hear John and Gary taking down their tent.
Over at the meat pole, the tracks in the snow laid out the story. Two grizzlies-an adult and a yearling, judging by the tracks--had come down off the ridge straight to the cache, drawn by the sweet scent of elk meat. While Gary's meat had survived the onslaught, mine did not fare as well. A back quarter, the ribs and one backstrap were missing. The larger bear had stood up against first one, then the other trees supporting the pole and rocked it until the meat broke loose and fell. No wonder the horses were fidgety.
We made camp that night on a sidehill, then crossed the Tuchodi in late morning and overnighted on a point of land jutting out onto the mudflats at the far end of the first lake. In the morning we would saddle up early and make our way to the second lake in time to meet the floatplane, turn the horses over to an incoming party of hunters and load our gear for the flight back to civilization.
The last camp of our trip was at the far end of the East Tuchodi Lake where elk bugled late into the night.
We packed up in the early morning fog for the last leg of our adventure.
That night, as we sat around the last campfire of the trip, a bull elk screamed a crazed challenge close to camp. The next morning, on the trail between the lakes, I happened to glance down. In the fine dust was a perfect imprint of a grizzly track. It had to be just minutes ahead of us. An apt farewell.
George Gruenefeld has been hunting big game for over four decades and his travels have taken him to several continents. Most of the time, though, he concentrates his efforts on the Prairies and mountains of Western Canada.