Monday, 25 July 2016

Buller Pass Hike

This weekend was finally beautiful weather in Calgary, after constant rain and storms and unseasonably wet conditions, so Jeanna and I took advantage of the conditions to get back to the mountains after our big Australia trip. We chose Buller Pass, incorporating the north pass to south pass loop, as a reasonable objective to ease ourselves back into hiking condition and to not choose anything too aggressive for breaking in Jeanna's shiny new boots! It was a great step up in my training for my sheep hunt in just a month's time, so I liberally loaded up my pack with a few extras for the day hike.

The route is about 15km return, with 800m or so of elevation gain. It is a lovely hike that incorporates several different vegetative zones, from the dense coniferous  forest by the trailhead, the up through an old burn, which is very prolific with grasses and undergrowth, then up into the alpine.

Jeanna breaking out into the alpine, looking toward North Buller pass. For future reference, the trail to the north pass leaves the main trail at the fourth log bridge.

The trail up to North Buller Pass

Working our way up to North Buller Pass. It was significantly cooler up in this valley than it was on the approach. The pass is visible the upper left of the picture.

The trail pitches steeply up at the pass, and to take advantage of a rib formation, the trail goes straight up. For scale, the tiny dot on the horizon is a person standing in the pass.

Jeanna almost at the pass, looking back down the valley.

Looking south from the pass towards Mt Kidd in the background. It is a beautiful high alpine meadow with a tarn down in the cirque. I'm embarrassed to admit that I didn't spot a young ram that was bedded on a rib down in the valley, but we saw him later when we got closer. We walked past the remnant snow to the right of the picture and over the meadow to access the return via the South pass.

Jeanna on the pass

The wildflowers were beautiful and diverse

One of three young rams that were hanging out in the high basin

We crossed over the undulating meadows and over towards the access to the south pass. Guinn's pass is in the background. We were hit by a spirited little squall, so put on our rain jackets, although we soon shed them again as we made our way up through the rocks of the South Buller pass.

The view from South Buller Pass, looking down to Ribbon lake and Mt Kidd

A wonderful day to be out in the mountains with my lovely wife!!

On our way back down South Buller and to the return trail. The wind was extremely forceful just as we came over the pass, but down in the valley it was quite pleasant, so once we got down there we stopped to lounge on the soft ground cover and enjoy the rest of our lunch supplies. There was a crystal clear stream running down through the valley, with delicious clean water. It was an idyllic way to spend some time on a sunny afternoon.

Jeanna's boots were a triumph, and I also tested a pair of thin neoprene ankle supports that are meant to reduce slippage in your boots - I think I will keep using them as they definitely made for a more snug ankle fit in my boots.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Retrospective: Finlay River Moose

In early 2015 I was contacted by Brett Cooke, an Aussie friend that I had made a couple of years earlier at Jordy McCauley's outfit in northern British Columbia. He was also up there working as a guide during one of my hitches, and we got on well as we both took a similar attitude to our work and hunting. However, now he was planning to come back to hunt for himself at Jordy's outfit and wanted to know if I would act as his guide. As a non-resident in British Columbia, you have to be accompanied by a guide in order to hunt big game, so even though he was quite capable of going it alone, he was in need of a guide to meet all the rules. This was a great opportunity for me, as I knew Brett could handle himself and I wouldn't be babysitting him (as is the case with many international hunters), and it would be more like a fully outfitted trip with friends. I talked it over at work and managed to negotiate a couple of weeks of unpaid leave and accepted Brett's offer.

September finally rolled around and after long trips for all of us, we eventually made it to Finlay River Outfitters base camp on the shores of Williston Lake. Brett had brought along another friend, Grant Burkitt, to accompany us on the trip, as it is definitely beneficial to have another set of hands on these longer trips, and I'm sure Grant was glad to have the opportunity to participate in this type of hunt. Brett's friend Patti had driven us from Prince George, all the way in to camp, which took a full day.

We spent a day in camp sorting out our pack string (well actually a pretty long part of the previous night and the day was spent finding and catching the horses in the bush where they had escaped), pulling together tack and camp gear and food for our trip. We also pored over maps and talked to everyone in camp to garner any extra information on the area we had chosen to pack into. The trails had been cleared the previous year, so we hoped they would be passable. We were intending to pack into 'Swede Camp' which is at the junction of several drainages and would give us lots of options to hunt, while also providing good grazing for the horses on the far side of camp. Although the trails had been cleared, no-one had actually hunted in there for several years.

Our departure day came and we eventually had all the horses and our tack loaded and were on our way. Matty Linton and his fiance Kelly took us to the trailhead and we were very grateful for their help getting all the horses packed up and us on our way. It is always a stressful and demanding process to get a large string of horses packed and get riding tack all sorted out, particularly when you are not familiar with the horses in question, and having to adjust all the tack to fit.

Before long though, we were lined out on the road and heading off toward the distant mountains. Our string was a pretty motley crew, but overall good honest horses that we would come to be very pleased with. I was riding Rex, a high-headed, heavy boned paint who seemed pretty green, but kind natured. Brett was riding Brick (AKA 'Brick the prick') who, although cantankerous at times and inclined to disagree with his riders' choice of direction, is a very seasoned mountain horse and on the whole pretty reliable. Grant was on Mystery, a ratty tailed blue roan palomino who is diminutive but very gentle and easy to get along with. In the pack string were Tuk, a big black horse who I particularly liked and traded in and out for my saddle horse throughout the trip. He has a reputation for being mean, but he never put a step out of line for us which was good. Next was Class, a big bay packhorse who is a reliable plodder and then the two wild cards - Ernie, who is a younger blue roan and Bullet, a half wild loner paint who had a bad habit of taking off on his own adventures.

Our trip in to camp was pretty slow - our navigation was relying on years old memory and vague directions, and there was a lot of deadfall on the trail, so Grant was busy with the saw while Brett and I managed the packhorses. The trail took us down along a creek valley, crossing numerous boggy patches, before a steep trail led down to the valley floor and another very steep trail led up the other side.

Packing in

Looking back down the steep trail out of the valley

Rex nearing the top of the climb out of the valley

Once back up on higher ground the trail was pretty good (despite the trail cutting required) and the horses had sorted themselves out a bit (and we had started figuring out their various ticks), so we were running a few of the packhorses loose which makes life easier in the rough terrain.

Looking up towards Sheep Camp

It was a big trip in, but we made it all in one piece and with all our horses sound which is really the benchmark of a successful trip! Swede camp was well stocked with firewood and despite being a bit of a mess with old junk spread around everywhere, it was a perfect spot to camp. We were pretty busy that evening, unpacking all the horses and storing the tack, cutting poles for our wall tent, leading the horses to water and hobbling them to graze, then eventually cooking up a meal for our growling guts!

The first morning we woke to a light dusting of snow, and were thankful for the potbelly stove we had in the tent with us!

The next few days continued much as each other, working our way up the various valleys around us, in non-stop rain snow or mist and calling regularly in clearings for moose. It should have been the peak of the moose rut while we were there, so the strategy was sound, although we were a little discouraged by the apparent lack of game. We didn't see a single moose the first day, and on the second day we set out to clear a trail in the evening, thinking it would make our life easier if we went that way the next morning. We were cutting trail and being pretty noisy with the chainsaw, and as we pulled up to a big log fallen across the trail we looked up the hill above us and saw a cow moose. We bailed off our horses and got a good look, as she was soon joined by a bull and a second cow. This bull was not too concerned by us, in fact he started making his way towards us. We got a really good look at him and seriously debated taking him, but in the end decided that he was a bit young. The problem was, we were boxed in with a chest-high log across the narrow trail, and he just kept coming in threateningly. I know a lot of old packers are more afraid of moose than bears, and I must admit I was starting to get pretty anxious about our situation and the safety of us and our horses! We hastily cut the log and continued up the trail, and he barely moved off even with the saw running.

Coming back down the trail, well after dark, he must have really spooked our horses as they both jumped and bolted through the timber as we came back through the same area. It was exciting to say the least managing a chainsaw in one hand, and the reigns of an exploding horse in the other as he ploughed off the trail and ran through the trees in the pitch black darkness! We both escaped that situation unscathed and rolled into camp with some stories to tell that evening.

Another wet day without any moose returning our calls or spotted in the slide paths

Swede Camp was very well provisioned and made for a comfortable camp. It was also the perfect situation for keeping horses, as you could push them further up the valley away from camp, hobble them and they had huge areas of knee- to waist-high grass to graze on. We set up a rope across our back trail to deter any homeward wandering, but they would have to come through camp to get out, and we only had one attempted escape from the loner Bullet, on whom we left a bell attached at all times!

Typical country where we would call into clearings and glass all the slide paths.

Beautiful wild country

Another cold morning, but looking like much clearer skies
Good moose country

Some momentary sunshine!

After several fruitless days, we tried heading up into higher country, and went to the head of the valley behind camp - it was very cold and snow covered up high. Based on the conditions, we thought that perhaps the moose were not up that high as it was so much more comfortable at lower elevations. This theory was later proved to be dead wrong!

The wet and the cold has a way of getting in to your skin, no matter how tight you bundle up!

Yet another good looking area that yielded no result from calling over the course of an hour or so.

Riding back to camp in the evening

Grant and Brett on Mystery and Brick
Grant on Mystery

The head of the 'lick valley'. Such ideal moose habitat that we were confounded by the lack of game that we had sighted.

On this morning (on day 6), we did find a set of very fresh large bull tracks and several cow tracks heading towards the trees at the back of the valley, so we were hopeful that there was a bull around.

We parked the horses in some trees and set off. Fortunately we loosened their cinches and prepared for being away for a while, because we didn't return to them until many hours later and well after dark.

After calling for some time with perfect wind and no sign of response, we decided to take a closer look at the tracks we had found and started following them. We continued following them up the valley and they headed right for the back of the valley. They were clearly very fresh and there was at least one set of cow tracks with his. Having all cut our teeth hunting Sambar in the alpine hills of Victoria in Australia, all three of us reverted to our old still hunting skills and started 'walking him up' as they say in Victoria. From where we were the valley seemed to close out, so we expected that he could be very close. As we continued on the tracks, they led across a cascading stream and up a steep bank, so we just kept on them.

The steep slippery slope led us eventually up to a high hanging basin, that was invisible from the valley, and was a significantly different climate, with snow on the ground and stunted trees growing in ribs, with big slide paths and alpine meadows separating them. As the tracks kept on up into this basin, we got into a good position and started calling. We heard the distinctive 'Ooomph' of a bull moose shortly after! It took us a while to eventually locate him, way up the back of the valley. I was looking at him through my binoculars, and said 'He has a cow with him', then I said 'No, he has two cows with him'. I looked a bit closer and out stepped a third cow! He must be the big daddy of this valley and has all the cows rallied up in this alpine basin out of harm's way. It didn't take much time looking at him to determine that he was a bull we wanted to take. His antlers weren't incredibly wide, but he had many long points, and nice wide paddles. If anything, he was a bit weak in the brow tines, but he was a big mature bull and he was what we were looking for. 

The four moose, bull bottom right

Zoomed back a bit

How our view of the moose looked, with them in the clearing at the far end of the high valley

We made a plan of attack that we could get into a slight depression and work our way much closer to his position in the deadfall at the far end of the valley. It was pretty hard climbing and it took us some time to get closer to where we wanted to be.

Looking back towards the valley we came up

By the time we got to a position across from where we had last seen the moose, they had moved into a copse of thick jack-pine, leaving us in a difficult situation. What was even more tantalizing was that we could see his antlers sticking up, but were very concerned that he could give us the slip if he went back deeper into the jack pines.

We decided to try to get across the valley so we could potentially get into a position to call him out and get a shot at him, and worked our way carefully around the steep hillside, down into a treacherous ice-covered gushing stream and up the other side, through a tangle of crusty snow covered deadfall that was making our progress impossible to keep silent, and very difficult to stay hidden. As we were getting close to a location where we thought we could conceal ourselves and try to lure him out with calling and thrashing, Grant motioned to us that we had been spotted by one of his cows! We were well and truly flat footed, with nothing but a few tree trunks to try to hide behind. Only part of the cow's face was visible through a gap in the jack pines, but she was keeping an eagle eye on us. Every now and again she would look to a particular spot deeper in the trees and at one point I caught the flash of an antler tip in that spot, so we knew the bull was there. I tried calling, and I tried using the shoulder blade paddle to rake the tree I was standing behind and tried just waiting, but nothing was rousing the bull, who was probably only 150 meters from us, but completely hidden. We stayed locked in a stalemate for over half an hour, us getting progressively colder, and under the ever vigilant stare of the cow moose, who was almost motionless.

Eventually, I guess the tension got too much for the moose and they started trotting away, which by pure luck, led the bull through an opening in the trees about 200 metres away. Brett was ready and just before the bull left the clearing for the safety of the trees, Brett fired his .338 Win Mag at the trotting moose and had an instantaneous effect of dropping him in his tracks and he slid on his back back down the slope and out of sight into the trees. After such a long wait, it all happened very quickly, and Brett made a great shot. We started making our way over to recover the moose, talking loudly and clearly all relieved from the tension of the past few hours. We clambered into the clearing where the moose had slid, and to our absolute disbelief, there was no moose! There was the skid mark in the snow where he had slid down and then magically vanished! At least in the snow it was easy to follow tracks, but with four sets, it took us a while to find his tracks going uphill. We found sporadic blood in his tracks, but it wasn't gushing out, and he seemed to be travelling well. Tensions were running very high as we struggled through the deep snow and twisted trees on the steep slope to follow his tracks, all the while trying to keep a trained eye on the longer ranges to spot him moving off. After a couple of minutes, I spotted him way up higher above us on the slope, and he had doubled back and was travelling back the other direction from his previous movement. He was moving quickly, and was approaching a ridgeline that would give him an escape if he crossed over it. Brett couldn't see the bull at first, but once I got him trained on the moose, he made a spectacular shot offhand just before the bull crested the ridge and he came crashing down in a cloud of snow and slid out of sight into the stunted trees.

It took us some time to struggle up through the snow and buried springy tree limbs...

... but we found him stone dead from the second shot, piled up in a tangle of jack pines. His sheer size was overwhelming. It was pretty incredible to walk up to a creature this size that we had pursued for so long and as always it was a moving and somber experience to have taken his life.

Brett with his trophy. He was a grand old warrior

Unfortunately, his second run had taken him from a nice manageable meadow into the steepest, thickest tangle of pines on a deeply snow covered slope which added a significant degree of difficulty to the processing task ahead of us. His body was actually hung up in the trees, and we had to be very carefully in moving him as he wanted to slip down the slope deeper into the trees.

We caped him, and took of his skull cap, and performed the gutless method of removing the meat, taking everything from one side first, then managing to roll him onto the other side to repeat the process. We packed what we could for the first trip out, but given that we only had small daypacks, that was really only the cape and antlers and the backstraps and tenderloins. We slid the rest of the meat down from the main carcass and left it in the snow for our return trip, hoping that a Grizzly didn't find it overnight.

As we loaded up, a blizzard rolled in with big thick heavy snowflakes, which only made our situation more gruelling. It was also very late in the day and we were pushing darkness to even get back to the steep slope, let alone the horses back in the valley. Under our awkward loads we struggled down through the calf-deep snow and worked our way out of the valley.

That looks like a happy hunter to me, having taken a huge BC moose the hard way - horse-packed deep into the backcountry, hiked into the alpine and recovered his trophy in a full blizzard. Given that he had the lightest load at this point, Brett was also packing my shorty .45 for any up close bear encounters we had to deal with, which fortunately were none!

You would be hard pressed to find a more authentic wilderness hunting experience...

Grant and Brett packing the hide and the antlers

The final creek crossing before the comparatively easy walk back through the valley to the horses.

We finally made it back to the restless horses, who were quite anxious about our approach in the dark, smelling strongly of moose and blood. They were well enough behaved though, and we securely attached the hide to Mystery. I rode and carried the pack of meat and led mystery, while Brett and Grant took turns walking with the antlers and riding Brick. It was a long slow muddy trek out of the valley in the dark, and it was with great relief and exhaustion when we finally pulled into camp that night. We still had some work to do in tending to the horses and unpacking our gear, but once that was all done, we immediately indulged in some fried tenderloins and toasted the success of the hunt with some 'Whisk'!

We were pretty slow the next morning, and treated ourselves to a big breakfast that heavily featured moose tenderloins! Our camp routines were settling in, and we had ourselves pretty comfortably set up.

Brett and I went and caught up the horses and enjoyed the feeling that the pressure was off and we had our trophy in camp, and could now just enjoy the adventure of being in this amazing wild place without the need to find a big moose.

Mystery and Brick were a bit further afield... There was a very good supply of feed for the horses which was very good to have.

We packed up a couple of horses with empty boxes and made our way back up the familiar trail to recover the rest of the moose meat. On the way back up the valley, we saw several grizzlies, which only added anxiety to my mind of whether we would have to deal with a grizzly on the moose meat that we had left higher up the valley!

We had to ride our horses quite close to this young boar to get past him, but he paid us no heed and I think in the fairly strong wind masking our noise and scent he may not have even realized that we went past in the trees.

I was coming to really like Tuk, and Bullet made a handy little pack horse if you had a lead on him. The moose was in the high valley to the upper left of this picture.

We started the steep hike up to the moose carcass again with our big empty packs and stiff boots. Much better prepared than the previous day when we hadn't expected to end up so far away from the horses.

Brett pointing out the spot where the bull finally fell - just at the end of his fingertip.

Making our way up the wide slidepath toward the jackpines where we had left the meat. Needless to say we were on high alert for grizzlies. We had re-sighted in Brett's rifle up in the valley before heading up to the meat, and hadn't raised any bears with the gunshots, but were keeping our eyes open and guns ready regardless!

We found the meat cache, and hauled the quarters down to a small flat and open spot to bone them out.

Some of the boned out meat ready for bagging and packing. This is when it is nice to have snow as a nice clean working surface to cut meat as well as keeping it nice and cool throughout.

Heavy packs and tired legs, looking back to the site of the hunt one last time.

All smiles on the way out, with a heavy pack load on the horse and heading back to camp for another meal of moose steaks!

A picture that would warm the heart of any backcountry hunter and horseman!

That evening, after getting all the meat back in camp, and enjoying a hearty meal, the three of us set about cleaning up the moose cape. It was a long and tedious job to turn the ears (moose have very big ears), turn all the lips and nose and eyes (moose have a very long nose and mouth) and clean off the cape, however the job was made far more enjoyable with the camaraderie of three of us working away at it together, the raging campfire to keep our spirits high, and the liberal quantities of 'whisk' to lubricate our conversation! 

It was quite a late night in the end, but we got the cape nicely worked up and fully salted and tightly bound for the pack-out.

It was with some regret that early the next day we set to work pulling down camp and packing up our gear, and preparing to pack up our string of horses. We all worked together well to split the gear into balanced loads and plan out the packs that now included an extremely heavy salted cape and an awkward set of moose antlers! I have heard some good advice from a backcountry hut custodian on the topic of a big pack-up: "Everything will get done if you just keep moving and focusing on one task at a time". Eventually it all came together and horses were tacked up, packs were loaded and hitched on, and finally we had our string lined out and hit the trail out of camp. Packing horses in the mountains with heavy loads is definitely more of an art than a science, and I would say that I am much closer to a lowly apprentice than a master artist, so I will admit, that as the most experienced packer in the group and as the 'guide', I was running a high level of anxiety about getting our very heavy loads and horses out safely on the long trail ahead of us. I also knew that we had a lot of tricky mountain travel ahead of us including deep swampy sections, precipitous steep slides, narrow creeks and untold number of fallen logs across the trail. Particularly with heavy loads, the difference between nicely packed horses moving well and a total wreck is pretty slim, as the packs are always moving with the horses gait and it is a matter of working with that movement and keeping everything tight and balanced. All this is to say, that with a big string of horses with heavy loads on rough trails, things can get western very quickly!!

Rex is wondering what the stress is about - he could do this all day!

Heading out of the high country

Without too many issues we made it over the boggy parts of the trail and eventually to the steep drop off to the creek. At the very steep section, we let the horses run loosely as there was a lot of slipping and sliding and it is much easier for them to keep their footing if they are not tethered. Just to make matters more interesting there was a downed log right on a knife edge part of the trail with steep drop aways on both sides. With all the horses bunched up it was a bit of a tricky situation, however things got worse when the pull-starting line on the chainsaw broke and we weren't able to saw the log and move it off the trail. It was too high to step over right on the trail, but by going slightly downhill on one side the horses could just get over the log. Sounds simple, but getting them all over, then back on the trail without slipping down the steep bank was a little hair raising!

Finally we made it down off the escarpment and took a breather at 'Sugar Camp' where it was significantly warmer temperature than up higher.

We had a few hi-jinx getting up the other side, which was a similarly steep trail. Tuk got a bit excited and had a run in with Class on the trail which required some major repacking of the antler load and the meat/hide load, and Bullet (the loner horse) decided to spontaneously bail off the side of the steep trail and take off back towards sugar camp through the deadfall!

Despite a few tense moments, the pack-out was pretty good going and we eventually found our way up onto the final meadow back towards the trail head with all of our horses in good health and all our gear in one piece.

Despite being within the final half-hour of the trip, our decision to stop and put on rain gear was vindicated as the heavens opened just before we hit the road and we finished the ride and unpacked in an absolute deluge. Unfortunately our SPOT messages back to base camp hadn't got the right message through, so there was no one to meet us at the trailhead. Once we got the horses unpacked, we tarped up all our gear in the pouring rain and set up a tarp for ourselves, lit a fire and settled in for what could be a long wait. We left blankets on the horses so they didn't cool down too quickly, as they were all very tired and dead quiet after their big workout.

We were also pretty exausted and as the fire warmed us up and we ate some leftover food, we were pretty soon all asleep on foamies on the ground in our makeshift camp.

Some hours later we were woken by an engine and were pretty pleased to see Matty Linton pull into the trailhead in Jordy's truck! He was pretty pleased to see the moose antlers on top of our packs!

We had a few days back at camp to clean out gear, repack our stuff and get in some bull trout fishing in the legendary Chowika river. We also put in a fair bit of glassing for black bears, but didn't see any big ones before dark.

Overall it was an outstanding trip with great guys and a beautiful part of the world. Jordy provided not only logistics, access and trail maintenance but some good honest mountain horses and all our tack for the adventure. It is a great area and he is doing a lot to really upgrade his outfit and infrastructure which is impressive to see.

These hunts are what I live for and every time I do one it makes me want to do it more not less, despite the hardships. Here's to the next adventure!