Hunting then and now
By Troy Paulson
Big Sky Weekly Contributor
When I was 16, my dad and I drove west to Montana from South Dakota to meet my uncles and elk hunt for a week in the Beartooth Mountains.
This was my first ever elk tag. I was a South Dakota resident, but my family was from Montana. My dad’s cousin was from Belgrade, and he went into the Beartooths every year for the early season September rifle hunt.
Before we left, we’d heard about a grizzly that mauled a hunter in a camper, so we were on edge. I know a lot more about grizzlies now, but back then (1996) I had no idea. We didn’t have bear spray.
My dad’s cousin had been in a few weeks prior to set up camp up over Daisy Pass. He’d hung some horse feed from a tree, and put up a wall tent. The day we went in, we rode 15 or 20 miles. Going down a steep pass like Daisy was terrifying because I’d never ridden horses in the mountains before.
My dad had borrowed two horses from my mom’s brother. My dad rode a small horse named Three Docks, and I was riding a big powerful bay called George. At the end of our ride, we had to go up this really steep hill. My dad had to get off and walk Three Docks up the hill. The other horses were switch-backing, but George decided he didn’t need to switchback and just went straight up. My uncle had been telling me how to ride a horse, saying to lean forward going uphill, but I just sat back and held on.
As we got closer to camp, we started noticing piles of bear scat. Then, mixed in with the scat was horse feed. Pretty soon the piles turned just to horse feed. We got to camp, and found claw marks on the tree where the feed had been. We realized rain had weighted the feed down so much a black bear was able to reach it. The bear had likely gorged on it until it’d overstuffed itself.
That first night we set up camp, put up the electric fence up for the horses, had dinner, and went to bed. My dad’s a diabetic, and in the middle of the night he had a low blood sugar attack and woke me up. When my dad has an attack, he’s a little disoriented. Plus it was the middle of the night.
“Troy, there’s a grizzly bear outside,” he said.
I heard a growling noise outside of our tent.
Dad had brought his 45 pistol along, and he was getting it out, ready for the bear to come through the door. Listening to this bear sound, I opened the door and peeked my head out. The moon was bright, and I could see across to where the horses were, thinking they were frightened.
I looked around and heard the growling still, then realized two tents over it was my uncle snoring really loud.
“Aw, shit,” Dad said.
We got some sugar in him and went back to sleep.
We didn’t see any elk that week, but we saw just about every other kind of wildlife – mule deer, black bear, moose, bighorn sheep and mountain goats. That trip hooked me on elk hunting anyway, and I’ve been out every year since.
Troy Paulson moved to Montana after college and still loves elk hunting in the mountains. He lives in Belgrade with his wife Megan and is an avid bow and rifle hunter.