A Long Way Up: Montana Backcountry Black Bears

A Long Way Up: Montana Backcountry Black Bears

We saw the color-phase Montana black bear twice, and each time making a successful stalk was a long shot. But we had to try.

The first evening it was across a vastly broad drainage. A winding eyebrow of a trail promised to close the distance.

Already many backcountry miles into the day, we ran the trail, racing dark. It was a futile race. A gorge suddenly yawned like an abortive edge of the earth between the bear and us. When we found the bear the second time, the situation was better, but also worse. It was morning, so we had time, and we were closer. We were also much, much lower, and a grizzly sow and her cub fed in the avalanche chute that led to the bear. Just as bad was that devil’s gorge still between us.

It was deep but so steep-walled that the far side appeared close. Close and so vertical that it hurt my neck to glass the chocolate bear far above us on the other side. I wanted that bear, but I had to question whether attempting a stalk was safe. Or, at least, safe enough.

Four days before, my hunting partner Adam Weatherby had taken his first black bear with the new Mark V Backcountry Ti rifle. We’d packed deep into Montana’s Cabinet Mountain range with Kevin Wilkerson, Weatherby marketing manager, and Justin Gibbins and Shane Foutch of Limitless Outdoors. Just as light was fading, we’d found and shot a beautiful black bear. Using the also-new 6.5 Weatherby RPM (Rebated Precision Magnum) cartridge, Adam reached 400 yards across the canyon to drive a Nosler 140-grain AccuBond through the vitals.


THE HARD WAY

Bears abound in the Cabinets, but taking one isn’t always easy. Many locals keep a .338 magnum in the truck and shoot fat lowland bears on their work commute. Earning a bear in the deep backcountry was an exhilarating challenge—and proving difficult.


Working high and glassing emerging green in avalanche chutes, we hunted loner bears, the kind that would rather den high and stay high than flock to the lush lowland greenery like most of their kind. Including Adam’s bear and a yearling cub we’d watched for most of a shockingly cold afternoon, this chocolate-colored bruin was just the third black bear we’d found. We’d seen as many grizzlies.

Dawn brightened into morning as we waited and watched the grizzlies feed across the slope and finally into timber a safe distance from our planned stalking route. Diving off the ridgeline trail and into the gorge, we were blessed to find an avalanche chute on our side, which enabled us to make good time to the bottom.

There we paused. Spring runoff in the Cabinets creates small raging rivers down the bottom of every canyon. These are young mountains, jagged where Father Time hasn’t yet worn them. The knife-edged boulders in the bottom worked the driving water to a froth.

Digging crampons out of my pack, I strapped them around my Danners.


We crossed cautiously, not voicing our thoughts that the afternoon runoff would raise the creek much higher. It would be harder to cross back, and hopefully we’d be carrying heavy packs.

Water was everywhere, so we didn’t carry much. Aside from emergency essen-tials and a freeze-dried meal each, our packs were empty. It was cold, but we stripped to our T-shirts, knowing we’d generate plenty of heat while climbing.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but what followed was the closest thing I’ve done to technical free-climbing while hunting. The side of the gorge was nearly vertical, and layered with masses of alders, long slick grasses, and spongy mosses. Two water runoff chutes crossed halfway up, creating a massive “X” shape on the canyonside. We started up the right side and kept right at the cross, clawing our way up through entangling vegetation. Occasionally, the going was better right in the washed-out chute, and we climbed the slick wet rocks like stairs.


I used the rifle as a trekking pole while climbing, planting the recoil pad into the muck and the willows and the sharp rocks, leveraging and balancing off the rifle. Better, I figured, to risk breaking it than my middle-aged bones. At least, I thought to myself, the Cerakote-covered stainless-steel barrel and titanium action would shrug off the conditions.

CROSSING THE DIVIDE

About two-thirds of the way up we came to a lovely cliff, water cascading over and around it in lacy veils, a mist of droplets turning the immediate air to a London fog. Lovely, but there was no way around it.

There was nothing to do but go for it. Fine spray crashing around my head and shoulders, I toe-climbed the face of the waterfall. Justin climbed to the side, faster, and pulled me over the upper lip. I rolled over, got stable, and gingerly reached down to help Adam over the top.

Hours later, looking down, Adam would say, “That was much more difficult than anything I’ve done while sheep hunting.”

Finally where we could see, we hustled, attempting to find and get into position atop the tiny knoll we’d pinpointed from below. If our best-laid plans worked out, the bear would feed out below us as the afternoon waned. Possibly, it would get up for a midday stretch and give us a chance several hours earlier.

So we hustled, but we hustled a bit too far. A hiss from Justin interrupted me concentrating on not falling off the mountain, and I looked around, slowly comprehending. Skirting below the ribbon cliff that capped the mountain, we’d gone too far. We were in the bear’s bedroom, and if we hadn’t blown it out already, we were seriously likely to.

Huddling against the cliff, trying not to move much, we held a brief powwow. Most likely, we figured, we were within 200 yards of the bear. But perhaps we were much closer.

There was no place to get comfortable, and staying put for an afternoon-long wait was out of the question. We had to backtrack.

Twenty minutes later we dropped our packs on the backside of the little knoll we had originally planned to shoot from. Exhausted, shaky, and admittedly a bit lightheaded from burning up the side of the gorge, Adam and I made the mistake of the tired and hungry and began digging out food.

Justin was performing the due diligence we were neglecting. He whispered urgently, “I found your bear!”

A BEAR IN A BED

Suddenly no longer tired, I belly-slid over the tiny knoll to where Justin was hunk-ered down in a whisker of willows. His binocular pointed almost straight below, into the shadowy bottom of the draw where we believed the bear was bedding. Sure enough, there it lay, stretched in a curve, dozing with its head draped over an old deadfall.

Digging in my toes to keep from sliding, I eased the rifle out in front. The legs of my bipod bit deep into the moss, stabilizing and stopping my slide.

Bears have malleable bodies and often take positions that make pinpointing the vitals difficult. I’ve shot a handful of bears, but none were as oddly positioned as this one. I had to zoom the scope to full magnification and study the bear before I could determine exactly where to place my shot.

It was a good 220 yards down and across that mountainside draw, and I was in a very precarious position, but there wasn’t a tremor in my crosshairs thanks to the bipod dug into the earth. Holding an estimated four inches below the spot I wanted to hit in order to compensate for the acute downward angle, I squeezed the trigger.

“When it comes to killing bears,” old-timers will tell you, “shoot the last wiggle out.” As the shot echoed across the gorge, I ran the bolt like there was no tomorrow, but the bear was gone, leaving nothing but the memory of a leaping convulsion and a downhill streak of chocolate-colored bruin.

Shane doesn’t say much, but when he speaks, it’s usually profound. “Just afore that bear went out of sight, it went all loose,” he said. “We’ll find it wrapped around a tree down the hill a ways. Good shootin’.”

Content to give the bear a bit of time before tracking it, we fired up the Jet Boil and brewed water for a few freeze-dried meals. Because the bear had leaped so nimbly from its bed and vanished, uncertainty crept in. Judging by its reaction, the hit was either poor or a heart shot.

Unless they’re shot through and through with a big bullet, bears often don’t bleed much. Fat plugs small bullet holes. Loose hide shifts and covers holes. And fur soaks up blood like a sponge.

I was worried when there was no sign of blood near the bear’s bed.

Crashing and clawing tracks pointed downhill. Twenty yards along, Shane found blood. “It’ll start to roll soon,” he stated with a confidence I didn’t feel. “Then he’ll be easy to track.”

I had never followed up a bear in such steep country and was unfamiliar with the phenomenon. “Here,” said Shane. Sure enough, the steep slope showed a streak of disturbed earth splashed with blood. Tufts of fur hung on every protruding stick and rock. Clearly, the bear had “gone all loose” there, tumbling head over heels.

Without big trees in its path, the bear might have gone all the way to the bottom. We found it hung around the trunk of an ancient conifer 70 yards below. My Hornady 143-grain ELD-X had entered midribs and angled forward, turning the lungs to froth, taking the top off the heart.

Packs loaded with meat, hide, and skull, we down-climbed, trying to beat the dusk. Elation and remnants of adrenaline fueled us, and fatigue made us cautious. Pausing halfway down to filter water and hydrate, we sat, soaking in the overwhelming beauty of the Cabinets and basking in that unique combination of pure exhaustion and the glow of success so treasured by backcountry hunters.

“It’s a bit cliché,” Adam said. “But it just doesn’t get any better than this, does it?”

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