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Ahhh, Montana

My husband related this story to me over dinner tonight. He’s headed out to Eastern Montana for a week of bird hunting, just him and our German Shorthaired Pointer, Stanley. He called to set up a reservation for a room in the big city of Circle, MT.

EZ:  Hi, I was calling to see if you have a room available Sunday night.

Motel Guy: Let me go up front and check… Sunday, you say?

EZ: Yep. It’ll just be me and my dog.

MG: Oh, so you’ll be needing two beds, then?

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Pulling the Trigger

I finally did it. I finally got my first deer.

***Please be warned. The story to follow is at times graphic and may not be your particular cup of tea. I mean, it’s kind of obvious given my opening, but the following is going to discuss, in detail, the hunting, shooting and processing of a deer. I really don’t want or mean to offend/gross out anyone. If you think that might be you, please check out my links and read something without so many blood and guts.***

We stepped out of the truck this morning an hour before legal shooting hours, on a cloudy, pitch black night. We climbed up into the State Land we’d be hunting by the light of EZ’s headlamp, held close to the ground, so as to not scare off any nearby deer. The entrance to this particular half-section of State Land is very steep and very rocky, so it was slow going and we both stumbled once or twice in the darkness.

This was the first time we’d been in this land this year, but we hunted it last year nearly every time we went out. So we posted up on the edge of the field that had all the fresh deer beds last year. Since I was the primary hunter for the day, I sat up against a limb of a fallen tree, while EZ laid back for a few extra z’s. There was still over half an hour before we could legally shoot, and since it was so cloudy, before we could really see. We waited, we got cold, and of course, once the sun brightened the eastern sky, all those hopeful dark spots out in the field proved to be bushes. We moved on through the area, checking out each draw in the direction that wind, which was quite strong, offered us most protection.

This particular area (no, I will not say where!) has three more or less parallel draws. We make a habit of staying on the ridges in the trees. If we discover deer within the draws or their side draws, we just might have a decent shot if the trees aren’t in the way. If the deer are on the opposite slope, the shot is likely too far to be feasible.

We were on the last ridge of the last draw and I was thinking today was probably a wash. We’d seen a few deer, but they were way too far for a decent shot and were moving off the State Land onto private ag fields. Although, EZ did pull on my backpack so hard that I landed flat on my butt when he spotted them. “Sorry. I got excited.”

EZ was checking in one direction while I was checking the other side of the ridge when he signaled me. I moved down to where he was, not seeing the deer he was seeing. I settled in next to him and he told me to peek down to my right, around a rock outcrop, there was a deer bedded down. I leaned over and sure enough, there were the huge ears of a Mule Deer, about 60 yards away. She was bedded down beneath some trees on the same slope as us of the draw. She stared at me wide eyed. I ducked out of her view. “What should I do? Should I shoot her?”

“I dunno, I guess.” EZ’s usual non-commital answer. “Do you have a good shot?”

“Yeah,” I said. “She’s laying down so it’s not great, but I can definitely get her.”

“Then, do it.” There’s a genius in his simple logic that I often overlook. I slid over back in to her view. She was still there, looking at me with the big eyes and huge ears. I lifted my rifle and looked at her through the scope. She was small, but I couldn’t tell a lot about her from her bedded-down, quartered toward position. Her eyes were bright, her coat was smooth, her relaxed body was filled out nicely. She was healthy.

I thought to myself, “Well, she’s a little small. Probably a yearling.  Not much meat. And that shot is not great. I can get both lungs, but I’ll probably get a lot of other stuff too.” I recognized that same cycle starting in my head. “Look, Kim,” I told myself, “You’ve got a lifetime to be picky about your shots and the size of your deer. But first, you need to just shoot one. This one!”

I looked over at EZ. He was already covering his ears.

I looked back through my scope put my crosshairs on the spot I thought would get both lungs. I stopped breathing and started squeezing the trigger. I knew the gun had fired, but I never did hear the bang. I looked down at her. She started to get up and couldn’t. She tumbled once, twice, tried again, tumbled again and then all motion ceased. Her death took in the neighborhood of 5 seconds.

“She’s dead,” I told Eric. In the first 10 seconds after pulling the trigger, I felt horrible. I wanted to take my bullet back and walk away empty-handed yet again. “Oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God.” The adrenaline began spilling out my mouth in the form of that phrase, over and over, with the occasional “oh fuck” thrown. My regret and horror at what I had done quickly eased into relief that she had gone down so quickly, which then became disbelief that I had actually finally done it. Though I sort of never wanted to do it again.

My hands quivered deeply and uncontrollably, all the while feeling like tiny worms were crawling beneath my skin. It’s hard to overstate the amount of adrenaline coursing through my body at that time.

EZ: “You did it!!”
Me: “Oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God. Fuck. Oh God, oh God, oh God.” I’m sure I was a joy to be around just then.

Once I had calmed down enough to negotiate the rock outcrops between my fallen deer and I, we started down toward her. The adrenaline had mostly subsided by the time I got to her. I was still feeling a little unsure and a little freaked out, but I had stopped the mental ward act, for the most part. Eric immediately got to work. “Stop,” I said, “I need to…” I removed my glove and laid my hand on the side of her chest. “Thank you,” I told her. Then, after that moment, I was fine, ready to get to the earthy business of field dressing and fully resolved with what I had done.

Although the bullet had passed through both lungs, killing her very quickly and humanely, it had also clipped the edge of her stomach. This is certainly not ideal, but isn’t the end of the world either. Eric, who’s field dressed an deer and an antelope (I was present both times, but it doesn’t really sink in until you do it), guided me along and told me what to do. I am one who always errs on the side of caution a bit, so took my time and took great care with all my cuts. I did everything except cutting around the inside of the pelvic bone to free the back end of the digestive system. I just felt too clumsy for that. We released all her entrails onto the ground, a treat for the coyotes, and cleaned her out a bit with all the water we had.

She was light and save for getting her out of the steep draw, it was an easy drag back to the truck. As we drove back home, the elation set in. I had finally done it. This has been a goal of mine for close to two years and I finally achieved it. I’ve been interested in hunting since I had a high school/early college boyfriend who hunted and started to learn what hunting was all about. So I guess you could say that this has been an at least latent desire for close to 10 years. Now, it’s done. I’ve taken my first deer and experienced all the joy and fun and disappointment and desire and horror and satisfaction that comes along with it.

I can say now, that hunting is an amazing thing to do with your time. It’s so often characterized as some testosterone sport in which drunken rednecks drive their ATV’s around and try to shoot the thing with the biggest antlers with no respect or regard for the animal, the law, or ethics. Hunting can be easily perverted, but from my conversations, I can say that the average hunter has a deep love of wild lands and the animals that roam there. They respect the animal they harvest from long before the shot, until the last package of meat is pulled from the freezer. Hunting is emotional, earthy and real. It is the only way that we humans have to meaningfully interact in nature rather than merely observe it. And I love it.

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The Beginner’s Mind

My husband and I started hunting last year. We are both adult onset hunters from non-hunting families. EZ even spent most of his life as a vegetarian (Montana cures vegetarianism, in case you were wondering). Our good friend, R, of horribly accident prone fame, taught us to hunt. Fortunately, he seems to have much better luck with hunting than with seemingly more innocuous activities, like car camping. R is a passionate, ethical, and competent, life-long hunter and we were very lucky to learn under his tutelage. We hunted many days with R our first season, but for all the time we put in, I had one second worth of a shot all season. I hesitated and ended the season empty handed. EZ got a nice doe early on in the season.

This last Friday, Eric and I went here to hunt:

This beautiful little spot is along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. It was chock-full of mule deer. They all hung out high on the sides of buttes. The lack of trees and the wide, open spaces meant that the deer always knew where we were except in special cases. From across the valley, we spotted about 15 deer hanging out in the bowl of this butte.

So we snuck up the right, front side of the butte, as viewed in the picture. By the time we climbed up there (we had spotted them from over a mile and a half away), there were only two does left. One about 220 yards from me and the other 150 yards away or so. I was on a rock outcrop, so I found a rather awkward, but effective enough way to brace my body, laying prone. One rock was supporting my chest and another held up my hips. My legs were strewn akimbo over a jumble of other rocks. Comfort is of little concern in moments like this. I tried to find a good rest for my rifle and ended up with my hand braced over a pointy rock and the rifle resting in my hands.

I eyed both deer in my scope. I decided that the closer one was the more reasonable shot for me. I flicked off the safety, having chambered a round just before I’d crested the hill. I looked at her. She seemed aware of my presence, but unconcerned. My brain started churning. “Wow, she’s pretty scruffy. Wonder if she’s sick. Maybe I should pass on this shot. But she’s fat. Really fat. She’s fine. So what is that, like, a hundred and fifty yards? So how much will the bullet drop [Note: I shoot a .270, so the answer is hardly at all]? I think I should be riiiight there [moving crosshairs]. But her coat… that one book said if their coat’s all messed up, don’t shoot it. But she’s so fat. Whatever. Shoot it. [starting to pull trigger] Oh dang, when I start pulling my heart is thumping on this rock and it bounces me a little. But I’m staying well within the kill zone. Oh shit, I wish someone would just come here and tell me to shoot.”

I looked over at EZ, who was stationed behind the crest of the hill about 15 yards away from me. He gave me a goofy two thumbs up. “Oh, what does he know? He can’t see her. He can’t see how scruffy she is. She’s fat, Kim. She’s healthy. Just shoot her.” I tightened up on the trigger again. And at that precise moment, she took a step. I released. She took another step. And another, then she started the all four legs bounding that they do. I tried to whistle to get her to stop. But I found my mouth dry and unable to whistle.

Then, she was gone. Over the rise and out of my life. Her partner followed quickly. I collapsed on my awkward perch. Head hung down between the rocks. I felt my eyes begin to sting as I rose back up and cleared my cartridge and flicked the safety back on. It was over. The only decent shot I’d ever had and I pissed it away turning mental cartwheels around the problem. I was so angry at myself. Eric walked over and asked what happened and I dissolved into tears. If you ever hear anyone say that there’s no crying in hunting, they’ve never hunted with me. When I’m around, there’s a lot of crying. I’m generally not too much of a crier, but the quiet intensity of the situations hunting presents is like no other activity humans undertake. When that intensity releases, I cry.

This scenario, from what I’ve gathered, is something almost every neophyte hunter encounters. Hunting, in particular the moment of the would-be kill, at least the first time, reveals and intensifies one’s weaknesses. In everyday life, I’m a little on the over-thinking, indecisive side. In that moment, indecisive and overthinking were ALL I was. The moment crystallized my weakness. I’ve heard stories of other hunters who let off a few willy-nilly shots their first time that land nowhere near the deer. I imagine that they might be a tiny bit impulsive or excitable. Anyhow, from the folks I’ve spoken with (and here in Montana, there are plenty of hunters to relate their ‘first-time’ story), every body has got their weird thing they do the first time they have a real shot. Whether or not they were successful in actually pulling the trigger and getting their animal seems largely dependent on whether they have someone by their side encouraging them or not. They all tell me that once I pull the trigger that first time, I won’t have this problem again.

So, I am disappointed in myself, but hopeful that I will overcome it and get my deer this season.

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Snowhole Canyon- note: this does not qualify as big water
Well, today was the big water day. I’m happy to report that we emerged upright and no worse for wear.

First was ‘Bodacious Bounce’ rapid, Class III (VI being unrunnable). I think this one is probably easier at higher water levels. As it is (around 3500 cfs), the rapid is a long tongue guarded by large rocks on either side so that you can’t run anywhere but right down the center. Of course, down the center at the end of a long wave train is a very big hole. It is just runnable; the kind that boats the size of ours can run 6 out of 7 times with no problem. But watch out that 7th time!

Dad was almost that 7th run. His 14′ cataraft climbed up part of that big hole just as it was surging and then he stalled out. He sat there for a full 3 seconds before a wave came up behind him and shoved him right over the top of the wave. I was rowing our 14′ raft, which is pretty heavily loaded, and we crushed right through that hole with no problem.

Next up was Half and Half Rapid, Class III. It is supposedly named so because half make it and half don’t. I guess the half that don’t make it run it at higher water. Other than me smacking an oar against a rock, Dad and I both easily cleared this one.

The biggie for the day and for the trip was Snow Hole Rapid. Holy moly… As soon as I got my first glance at this Class IV monster, my heart leapt into my throat and wouldn’t budge! The rapid is littered with enormous boulders. I don’t fear swimming large rapids that much. It can be unpleasant, but once one is clear of the boat, one generally gets flushed out the other end no worse with no more than a few bruises (assuming a life-vest and proper swimming technique). Big rocks, however, pin boats, pop tubes, destroy gear and take lives. The safest way was easy to pick out. It required entering the rapid on the far right and pulling hard left for a few strokes to miss a triangular boulder jutting from the river. After that, keep your boat straight, go over a pour-over and enter the fray, praying that none of the numerous holes and general frothy mess can flip you.

We scouted for almost too long, but it was like trying to tear your eyes away from an accident that was about to happen. I conferred with EZ and we agreed that I would row Snow Hole. He may be new to rafting, but he has quickly picked up the fundamentals of rowing a rapid successfully. I still probably have better judgment in rapids due to many years of rowing, but EZ easily makes up the difference in size and strength (in rowing, size is a huge advantage). I wanted to row because I wanted the challenge of this rapid, the toughest I believe I had ever rowed, even though it terrified me.

As we walked back to our boats, Dad and I must have seemed as though we were walking to our executions. He was worried about entering the rapid in the wrong place. I was more unsure of whether I was really strong enough to make big move to the left than I care to be (but not enough to let EZ row!). The intensity of entering something like this, feeling like you have, at best, a 50/50 shot at emerging upright with everyone inside the boat, is a bit overwhelming.

We shoved off and decided that Dad would run first. The pool above the rapid is incredibly slow and perhaps Dad was stalling a bit. I just wanted to get it over with, so the wait seemed excruciating. Dad finally entered the rapid and I got to see most of his run. He entered in a good spot, nailed the move to the left, but got knocked sideways on the pour-over. Just as I was entering the rapid, I say that he had righted himself and had gotten through the worst of it.

I went into the rapid just where I had wanted to be, turned sideways and back-rowed twice hard. I felt good about my setup and straightened out. There is a lot of second-guessing that goes on in the midst of a tough rapid and I began to question whether I was really far enough from that rock or not. It was too late to do anything about it, though. As I passed the rock, I could just hear the end of my oar barely knick the rock, putting me a safe distance away from it. I dropped into the frothy chaos, meaning I’d safely gotten through the section I felt was potentially the most dangerous. I was able to stay straight and find my way through, so I let out a hoot! It always seems the appropriate response after such an endeavor.

After Snow Hole, I could feel my adrenaline drain away. I soon gave the oars over the EZ because it left me feeling weak. And anyhow, he had demanded the oars for at least one of the big rapids of the day. We both love to row, so someday we may just have to get 2 boats so that we can both row all the time. No compromising.

EZ rowed China Rapids, a long Class III supposedly named for a group of Chinese miners purported to have died there. The rapid is a long s-curve, entering right then pulling far left around the bend and then dropping down a sneak route between the bank and a boulder on the left. Technical, but not particularly big water. Eric got turned sideways at the bottom, but the worst was over at that point and it made no difference. I hardly even got wet, but he lost some style points.

The other thing of note today is that the weather finally broke. We got up this morning to blue sky peeking between the clouds. The day was in the high 70s to low 80s with large cumulus clouds rolling through here and there. It was very pleasant. Mostly, I was relieved to have relatively warm weather on a big rapid day. It at least removes the worry of hypothermia from the list of possible dangers.

Tonight we have a nice camp with a long, multi-level sand bar. Eric fly-fished for a while and caught and released a 12″ smallmouth bass. Our camp tonight is out of the yellowjackets, which were quite prevalent at other sites. We had been setting up a cup of Margarita mix to attract and drown them at the other sites. We didn’t even have to give them tequila!

Well, I’m missing out on a nice evening of conversation now. Goodnight!

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Well, we’re water logged by now, but really no worse for wear. It scarcely stopped raining all day, but the rain never fell hard except for a few brief bouts. Mostly, it wasn’t exceptionally unpleasant because the winds were very mild.

I did a very poor job of packing for cold weather this trip. I generally give it more thought, but as it always seems to go lately, work was crazy the week before I left. Idaho and Montana have not had weather like this since back in May. The firefighters must appreciate a non-windy, rainy day like this. For those fires, I’m grateful for this weather, but my selfish side wishes this crap could have waited a week!

Dad modeling his cold weather gear

We only made it 13 miles today, so we will have some ground to make up in the coming days. We would have gone further, but we were about to enter a long canyon with several large rapids and few campsites.

We passed up a fairly good site a couple of miles ago because the guide book indicated that there were ‘several’ in the area. I guess ‘several’ means two if you write guide books. The other site was already taken.

We ended up at an expansive campsite at Whitehouse Bar. Of course, being the last large site for many miles, we knew we’d have to share. This is not a prospect we are ever excited about, but tonight, our camp-mates are a 20-30 person group of Christian high school age kids. They alternately pray and scream. We ended up camped next to them at the put-in and a couple of the guides ended up annoying me more than most of the kids. One would compulsively find a stump, rock or other elevated platform to stand on, then proceed to make incredibly inane announcements. Other than a few screeches and squeals, however, they have been pretty mild tonight.

They set up their tents closer than we had originally agreed upon, so after a few beers, I offered Dad 20 bucks to start setting up our shit bucket (in case you’re not familiar with river trips, you generally have to pack your poop out) a few yards from them, just to see the reaction it would elicit. He began to bargain for more money, but seeing that I was willing to up my price significantly, eventually declined.

We had our dinner of ‘Bachelor Hash’ (a 1-pan meal of potatoes, veggies, and ground beef) and then a dessert I prepared and froze at home, Peach-blueberry-huckleberry Crisp. Then we played guitar and sang and now it’s about bedtime.

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The put-in day is always a little on the wild side. Boat launches are chaotic with many groups trying to get on the river ASAP and everyone’s gear strewn about. Honestly, this one wasn’t too bad. We had the guy trying to pass us while we were both backing our trailers down a fairly narrow boat ramp. The quintessential pushy guides were there, but relatively few other groups were launching. We pushed off by a respectable 11am.

The river is, naturally, nothing short of gorgeous. The water is very clear, but takes on a dark, emerald green tone when you’re not looking straight down to the rocks below you. The canyons are mostly basalt. Most of the bedrock takes the form of big lumps of oriented more or less vertically, but basalt columns are observed regularly. Near the stream, there are the usual assortments of willows, grasses, sages and other small shrubs. However, higher up, the flora is dominated by golden colored grasses. The contrast of gold, black, and green is stunning.

My companions on this trip are just my husband and my dad. I can’t imagine company I could enjoy more out here. Dad has been taking me on trips down river all over the western U.S. since I was kid. I’m truly lucky for that. My husband is a neophyte rafter. He’d been on a few guided trips before he and I bought a raft last summer, with our wedding money in lieu of taking a honeymoon (instead, we named the boat “Honeymoon”). He has thrown himself full-force into the hobby in the last year. EZ researches and learns about things almost compulsively when he has a strong interest. Well, apparently, he has some interest in this! He often tells me things that I didn’t know in 15+ years of actual rafting.

Today a storm front moved in. We experienced a very rare, strong, down-canyon wind (wind almost always blows upstream, I’d really like to know why). When we arrived at camp, we had barely hauled everything on shore when the downpour began. The rain fell hard and the wind raged for almost and hour. Dad, EZ, and I huddled under a tarp with our beers and waited it out. We are a lucky bunch and the storm eventually passed. We were considering no-cook dinner options for a while there.

So, now it’s evening. We’ve had dinner (Penne with Romas, Olive Oil, Red Wine and Italian Sausage) and the sun is setting in a manner that is most appropriately described as sweetly. Since I cooked, it was up to the men-folk to wash the dishes. I even photographed the event!

Hundreds of swallows just arrived under the pink, gray and deep blue sky. The are flying rather chaotically overhead about 100 feet up, chirping loudly. Now, just in the time it took me to write that, they are gone.

Well, the pink is fading to the clouds and the sky is darkening. EZ will soon pick up his guitar and I’ll sing until the dark is entirely upon us. Then, off to bed!

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I’m off!

To the River of No Return! The Mighty Salmon River! It should be a great trip, just me, EZ and my Dear Ol’ Dad! I promise, I will think of lots of very interesting things to write about while I’m out there. 🙂

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