A Blood Trail, A Grizzly, and a Lightning Storm

A Blood Trail, A Grizzly, and a Lightning Storm

It was a mid-September afternoon with clouds quickly darkening overhead as we made our way to a remote clearing in the Idaho mountains where three creeks converged. Our objective was a bull elk, each of us with an archery tag in hand, as we entered the eleventh day of our efforts. The terrain that surrounded us was heavily saturated from the periodic rainfall we had been experiencing each day prior, consequently lending the soles of our Crispi boots to a steady accumulation of mud. We were operating in Grizzly country and adequately prepared to defend ourselves if necessary, but there had been no sightings or evidence of their whereabouts thus far. We supposed it was only a matter of time given the distances we had covered to that point.

When we reached “Mile 3” utilizing our OnX Maps, the spruce and lodgepole gave way to knee-high grasses and some varying marshland. Fortunately, and not too long after our arrival at the clearing, we heard the distinct bugle of several bull elk in varying directions from our position. As the afternoon soon turned to early evening, we made the decision to split up and pursue different bugles on our own. The elk density throughout the days prior had been high, but we had been experiencing challenges in closing the distance to within an ethical range based on our personal proficiency and confidence. It was this decision to split up that proved dividends on our behalf, as I will soon begin to describe, but it also positioned us as individuals unknowingly amongst a roaming Grizzly that was working that basin concurrently. Were we becoming target-fixated and complacent in our decision making? I suppose the correct answer depends on the character and preparedness of the individual, but an argument oriented toward complacency could still be made.

With the decision made to go our separate ways for the remainder of the evening, we each saved the waypoint at our feet and agreed to rendezvous shortly after it became dark enough to don our headlamps. After performing a brief operations check of our Garmin InReach and Zoleo Satellite Communicator, we wished each other luck and went our separate ways. I proceeded westward and soon re-entered the tree line there which provided moderate shooting lanes and visibility. I made my way slowly, cow calling occasionally to which the bulls eagerly replied, and eventually came to the edge of a different creek and knelt beside a young tree for cover. After a short series of calls later, a mature bull elk appeared to my right at roughly 45 yards and bugled again. He eventually continued across in front of me, and once behind a tree, I drew my bow and found my anchor point. At a predetermined range of 25 yards, I aligned my sight picture to the best of my ability (given the excited circumstances), and let the arrow fly. It hit mid elevation and 3-4” back of the bull’s front-left shoulder. He took off running downhill along the creek and the signs of a hit began to make themselves visible.

Not more than 5-10 minutes after releasing the arrow, I was presented with an ever-fading light and heavy lightning storm directly overhead. I remember the instantaneous flashes of lightning and the crack of thunder that followed not more than a second or two later. The display overhead was soon accompanied by building rain and some hail, and I did my best to follow the blood trail using my secondary headlamp, always adding progressive waypoints and descriptions where significant blood was found. I would learn later that traditional flagging or reflective cordage would have been better suited in such terrain and conditions. I would later tally that observation amongst my other lessons learned. Ultimately, I was able to follow the blood trail with relative ease given the wet conditions to the point where vegetation made it quite difficult, and I began to question my next step toward recovery. Should I proceed in my attempt to locate the downed bull before the rain washed away the blood, or should I make my rendezvous in the clearing as was planned? My Garmin InReach message sent moments after the arrow was released failed to send, as I was presented with a rare “GPS Signal Insufficient” message and confirmation that it remained to be sent. I wondered what my brother’s thoughts were at the time?

I ultimately pulled off the blood trail and made my way to the clearing. OnX Maps were critical in my navigational effort at the time, and without them my attempt to navigate back through the dense vegetation and surmounting elements would have proven more difficult. Eventually a headlamp appeared through the timber, and we were once again rendezvoused as a team. After much deliberation, we decided to make the 3-mile hike outward back to the trailhead where our shelter was nearby. Our intention was to return at first lite when the storm was forecasted to have passed, and hopefully have either tracks or some remaining blood to continue our prior efforts.

At first light of the next day, we situated ourselves and our gear and made our way back to where I had arrowed the bull the evening before. Not more than 500 yards from the trailhead, fresh Grizzly tracks in the Idaho mud were easily seen placed on top of our tracks from the night before as they shared a common azimuth toward the clearing. These tracks remained on our trail for the next two miles and then steered westward into the timber. With our self-defense mechanisms verified “made ready”, we continued along the trail and off into the timber to where the last known blood marking had been found the night before. Through the next several hours my brother and I searched for blood and made further progress, frequently advancing when teamwork and a little luck permitted. Once we were of significant distance from the point of impact, we officially lost the blood trail and began arcing in an advancing radius outward. It was then that the Grizzly tracks presented themselves once again, and as one may come to expect, the fresh Grizzly tracks were oriented in the same direction the wounded bull had been traveling. Mechanisms in hand, we advanced with verbal warning. Not long after, we found the downed bull as the Grizzly tracks passed to within only 50-feet, never having touched the bull itself. Were we fortunate to have downed the bull near a Grizzly that didn’t have an appetite? It appeared so, but we knew it at the same time was perhaps unlikely.

WIth one brother posted on security and the other focused on breaking down the bull, we eventually loaded up with half of the boned-out meat and secured the remainder in a nearby tree. Our pace outward was aggressive, as we understandably had no intention of hiking with heavy packs later that night. Besides, there was a local cantina not too terribly far away that offered cold cervezas and tacos as a reward for our physical efforts, so long as we were quick enough. Both packouts proved uneventful to our delight. We never saw the Grizzly itself or any additional, new sign thereof again.

Having made the cantina with little more than 30 minutes to spare, we conversed on our adventure over an ice-cold Pacifico and Blue Moon (of course, having requested the tallest glasses available) and discussed whether our decision to part ways the night before had been wise. We agreed that it indeed was as we were “objective-driven” to down a bull elk on that trip, and that we had prepared mentally and tactically well prior to the trip with concern to Grizzlies. Nevertheless, I am forever grateful that the bear never presented itself upon us in real time. Ask yourself whether you would be willing to operate well beyond the trailhead where Grizzly frequent? And if so, how would you have prepared and what would you have done differently?

Lessons Learned:

  • Don’t skimp on quality and performance when it comes to your secondary headlamp, especially when operating in regions that host Grizzly.
    • Background - When my primary headlamp had failed earlier in the trip due to steady rainfall and many miles hiked under darkness, I was forced to rely solely on my secondary. Both the lesser field-of-view and inadequate lumens provided an added variable of complexity I’d otherwise would have avoided.
  • When faced with a blood trail and heavy rains, use flagging or reflective cordage QUICKLY!
    • Background - Waypoints saved to an electronic device can vary in accuracy, especially when plotted within timber or other dense vegetation. If I had resorted to marking the progressive blood trail with the reflective cordage I had on hand, I could have saved precious hours the following morning when attempting to pick up where I had left off. Time is a precious commodity when searching for a downed animal, especially in the warmer months.
  • Just because you haven’t witnessed a Grizzly or any sign thereof in the first ten days of your effort, doesn’t ensure they aren’t in fact working the same basin with you on the eleventh!

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