Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Hunting camp, 2017


Two hours and more crammed into the back seat of a 4 door Ford pickup as we slewed into the mountains of central Montana, chains on all four wheels, spinning, sliding and bouncing our way into another hunting camp. 

I’d just enjoyed two weeks in a hunting camp with no road access.  The whole camp had been packed in on horse and mule pack train and we’d only come out a couple of days before, on horseback, because the snow had gotten so deep that hunting was nearly impossible and mostly fruitless, as the animals are smarter than we are and had gone to lower elevations.  Se, we did too.

Now, we were headed into a different camp.  One that we could access with four wheel drive vehicles…kind of.  The outfitter and his crew had already been in and put up the tents and gotten the equipment ready.  Now, as darkness closed in and the cold settled down on us, we were almost there.  “Are we there yet?”  Bounce across one more creek and then there were the tents showing in the headlights.  My cooktent was the biggest and had two wood stoves for heating, a two burner propane stove and a propane oven/stove top for cooking.

No one was waiting for us at the camp so none of the wood stoves were going…no heat yet.  As I walked into the cook tent, a headlamp for my only illumination, I found several boxes, totes and coolers of groceries and utensils stacked around the tent.  Although the propane stoves were hooked up, the propane had to be turned on and I still needed something to cook on them.

In parka, gloves and warm hat, I began rooting through the various containers.  First order of business was to find a coffee pot and some coffee while I dispatched one of the guides to the spring for a couple of buckets of water.  We used just pots of water and coffee; no percolator innards in our pots.  “Cowboy Coffee”.  Once I got some coffee going, my urgency diminished a little but I still needed to
get a dinner going.

 In one of the coolers I found a 3lb and a 5lb chub of hamburger…solidly frozen.  Nothing I could do with that right now.  Hmm, what’s this, down in the bottom?  Ahh, 5 1lb chubs of hamburger.  Solidly frozen but much more useful.  I put my 15” cast iron skillet on the propane burner, skinned the chubs into it and covered them with the lid.  There; those will thaw ok.

Now, one of the boxes has canned goods.  Four big cans of "sloppy joe" sauce.  Another box with breads, including some hamburger buns and a package of frozen corn on the cob in another cooler.  Ok, we’re set.  Within a half hour, I had dinner ready, just about the time the outfitters crew had gotten the lights strung and the generator going so I could turn off my weakening headlamp and finish up by actual electric lights.  Both my wood stoves were going well by this time, too so I could take off my parka and gloves.  Less than an hour from the time we bounced into camp, I had coffee and dinner ready.  The outfitters wife had sent up a big apple pie so we even had dessert.   Life is good!

When I had gone into the first camp, on a two hour horseback/pack train ride and was setting up my personal space in the cook tent, I had realized I had forgotten (I’m used to doing stupid stuff, but THIS was a real winner!) my sleeping bag.  Not like I could just run home and get it!  One of the guides was not coming in that night so I used his bag that first night while the outfitter got on a horse and rode to a place a couple of miles away where his cell phone would work and called for additional items we had all forgotten…including my Sleeping Bag!  Anyway, I had a really good bag; a mummy bag, very lightweight and rated for -30 degrees.  Nice and warm and worked very well.  Not, however, as wonderfully luxurious as the huge -35 sleeping bag I borrowed that first night!  Wow!  What a great bed that one was!  For the two weeks at the Mount Edith camp I slept warm and comfortable in my lightweight backpackers bag with no complaints.  But, when we had that two days between camps, I had gone to Helena and bought one of those great, roomy, soft, comfortable, LUXURIOUS outfitters type sleeping bags.  No, I wouldn’t want to pack it on my own back but in a pickup or even on a pack train I wouldn’t be without it any more.  Best money I ever spent.

Anyway, all that said, I got my space together at the new camp, folding cot assembled, foam pad on it and my new sleeping bag spread out and open, getting warm.  I wasn’t right beside the stove like I had been on Edith but I was close enough.  True comfort.  A canvas tent, a wood burning stove and a sleeping bag on a cot, all twenty miles into the Montana wilderness where I was now going to cook for twelve hunters and guides for a week.

I’ve worked as a cowboy and ridden many a horseback mile but that was a few years and pounds ago.  When I was offered the cooking job for this outfitter my girlfriend laughed and said she wanted to watch me get into the saddle for the ride in.  I had to be babied a little but once I was in the saddle I was ok.

We rode for over two hours, up the south side of Mount Edith, then down past Edith Lake and on to the little basin where the camp was set up.  Here too, my cook tent was the biggest of the four.  I had two wood burning stoves for heat and for keeping things warm as well as a two burner propane stove and that wonderful propane oven/stovetop. 

I set up my bed next to the back wood stove, hung my gear on some nails in the tent frame and was home.

For two weeks, I got up around 0430 and fixed breakfast.  Out first group was seven hunters, four guides and a camp jack (general worker) plus myself.  I had set up a weekly menu to cover from Sunday night to Sunday morning schedule as the hunter groups come in Sunday afternoons and leave Sunday mornings. 

After breakfast I’d do the dishes and clean up my kitchen, put together the lunches for the next day and then would have the rest of the day pretty much to myself.  Hunters and guides all gone, doing their thing, camp jack getting firewood dealt with and taking care of the horses and mules while I read, took a nap or whatever.  I’d usually laze around through the early part of the day and then do some baking.  Cookies for the lunches, cakes and pies for desserts. Cinnamon rolls for breakfast treats, that sort of thing. 

Dinner didn’t have to be on the table until everyone was back and some of the groups were quite a ways away so they wouldn’t get in until way after dark.  I’d usually be ready to put dinner on the table around 8:30, often even later.  What with cleanup and getting things prepared for the morning breakfast, I usually didn’t get to bed until around 11 each night, then up at 0430 again to start it all over. 

At the Edith camp, water was hauled from the creek about 40 yards downhill from the cook tent.  Carrying two 5 gallon buckets of water uphill in the snow showed me that there must not be anything wrong with my old heart!  I’d be seriously sucking wind by the time I got to my tent but I had made it!  I kept a three gallon metal pot full of water on the wood stove all the time so I had hot water for cleanups and so on.  A small coffee pot with plain hot water on that same stove for things like hot chocolate or tea and a big coffee pot always full of hot coffee…always!  

We had a generator and had strung electric lights into all the tents but the generator didn’t like Montana cold so, when I turned it off at night, I’d put it inside the guides tent where it would be warmer and would start easier in the morning.  Usually, though, I had breakfast pretty much done by the time the generator got started.  I cooked a lot of breakfast by the light of a headlamp strapped to my forehead. 

Firewood had to be blocked, split and hauled into tents and wood stoves kept going.  This is, after all, Montana in October and November so it was plenty cold most of the time.  It amazes me that those canvas tents hold the heat as well as they do.  A couple of times, at each camp, the nighttime temps were subzero but we slept nice and warm in our tents. 

I thought the hunters were crazy for getting up at 5 and going out in sub-zero cold to go hunting.  I remember a routine by Ron White about hunting…”It’s real early in the morning, it’s real cold and I don’t want to go!”  That’s me any more.  My Grandfather probably spins in his grave when I say stuff like that! 

We had a shower tent set up.  Go in it and get a fire going in the stove, set the 3 gallon pot of water on the stove, leave and zip the tent fly closed to keep in the heat.  Give it a while to get the tent warm and the water hot.  There was a bucket with a spigot tied to a pulley so you could pull it above your head.  A pallet to stand on and some nails in the tent frame to hang your clothes and towel.  Put hot water in from the pot, add some cold water to your liking, pull the bucket up over your head and take your shower. 

The latrine was a bench with a toilet seat thereon, over a hole and screened by a tent.  Not warm or comfortable; just utilitarian.  My home bathroom habit of a book and plenty of time definitely went out the window here.  Get in, get it over with and get back to my warm tent! 

The first week of November it started snowing one evening and just kept snowing.  By morning we were pushing two feet of new snow and no end in sight with our only way down from the mountain a horseback ride over the top of Edith and back down to beginnings of civilization.  I looked at the outfitter and said: “For two years, I’ve been trying to talk you into hiring me for this and now I’m gonna die up here!”  He just laughed at me and told me he hadn’t lost anybody in 39 years and we’d be fine.  He was right, of course.  As a matter of fact, the horseback ride down to where the pickups could reach us was a beautiful, scenic trip that I wouldn’t have missed. 

A couple of days at home while they got the new camp set up (and I went in and bought my NEW SLEEPING BAG!) and then the trip into the camp near Tenderfoot Creek.  Although we were able to haul our gear in by pickup, I felt this was the more remote camp.  Two hours of 4x4 riding, chained up on all four and still slipping, sliding and bouncing over nearly non-existent roads, as well as the fact that there was NO communication.  At the pack train camp, we were within two miles of cell phone connection.  Even walking that isn’t too far and on horseback, pretty much nothing.  But, in the pickup camp we were two hard 4x4 hours from even the chance of getting phone use. 

My schedule was pretty much the same at either camp.  Cook breakfast, put lunches together and cook dinner. 

Will I do it again?  Absolutely!  As long as they want me as their cook and I can still hang on to a horse I’ll be headed into the Montana mountains every fall.  The job itself is great.  I’m free, even encouraged, to be creative.  I have the time and the solitude for not only the cooking but also for myself.  I’m comfortable with the living conditions and I didn’t miss the modern world much at all.  I am used to talking with Joann every day so I missed that but the outfitter had to ride down several times with game and other issues so we sent notes back and forth. 

If you can afford to use an outfitter for a Montana hunting trip, I can highly recommend it.  They work hard to find game for you and they have someone like me to keep you fed and comfortable.  

Come on up and see us.  The coffee pot is full and hot and the fire is always going.
 

 

 

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