Backcountry hunting experiences with horses, mules and men..

JFoster

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Joined
Feb 8, 2021
Messages
25
Location
Helena, MT
Since I've been packing in the backcountry for 30 years, it was suggested I share some experiences. I'll share one and feel free to pitch in with your stories as well, both good and bad experiences! Hope you enjoy.
September 2013 found me in a designated Wilderness area with a limited entry big bull tag in my pocket. My 70-yr-old hunting buddy Ray, also had a bull tag and had never killed a big bull in his entire hunting career. He'd killed many cows and small bulls, but was looking for something special. *We set aside 16 straight days to hunt. At the time, I only had two horses and a mule for the trip, so my friend rode and I walked, while we packed a horse and mule. *The trip in was uneventful and we set up in a beautiful spot with meadow grass and a creek running through. Camp was comfortable and we settled in for the long hunt.
At this point, I'll skip ahead to when things started going haywire.
About our 3rd day, my brother was scheduled to hike in and meet us at our camp. We heard there was a major storm approaching, but had no cell service to let him know. I figured he had heard about it and would wait for the storm to pass before trying to hike in.
Ray and I were out hunting when the storm began to roll in, so we returned to camp early to get the horses on the hi-line and get under cover. The storm hit with force about 10 minutes before we made it back to camp. This was a storm that Noah and the Ark would've struggled with! The rain hit so hard that everything was under 6" of water in minutes. When I say everything, I mean the trails, camp, the meadow, everything. This was just the beginning.
We made it to camp and immediately "waded' out into the meadow and grabbed our stock and ushered them to the hi-line that was protected in the trees behind camp. Thankfully, we had them tied before the lightning started. Lightning began striking all around us. Flashes and the explosions of thunder were simultaneous and never ending. As fast as we could, we dug trenches around our tents to divert as much water as possible, grabbed some food and crawled in our separate tents to ride it out.
I've been in some rain storms in my time, but nothing even remotely close to what we were experiencing this night. This storm was labeled a "100-year event" when it was all said and done and the resulting damage was staggering throughout the region.
After several hours, I drifted off to sleep amidst the non-stop barrage of rain, lightning and thunder.
About midnight I heard someone calling my name outside. I figured it must be Ray and his tent had filled up with water. Nope! It was my brother hollering at me to let him in the tent.
I couldn't wrap my head around it. No way he hiked in during this storm.
I quickly jerked open the tent and he staggered in. I couldn't get much out of him that made sense and once he got out of his wet clothes and buried into his sleeping bag, he was almost instantly asleep.
The next morning the rain had subsided to a drizzle and I went to check the horses. They were standing in about 1 1/2' of water. I couldn't put them out into the meadow because of all the water, so I moved the hi-line to higher ground and went back to see if I could get my brothers story out of him. It turns out, he is very lucky to be alive.
He had left his truck about 3pm and should have made it to camp in 2 hours. He was coming in light, because I had packed all his gear in for him, including all his rain gear.... (you see the problem here?). He had only been hiking for a short time when it started to drizzle and he didn't think much of it (he had missed the forecast), so he pushed on. Another 15 minutes and he knew he'd made a mistake. The heavens had opened. At this point he turned around and tried to go back to the trailhead. He made it about ½ mile before he heard a deafening roar ahead. As he approached, he saw the entire mountainside was coming down in a landslide of water, boulders, trees and mud. He couldn't go back. He turned again and headed up. After somehow getting across a major creek and up some steep switchbacks, he attempted to get under cover. He laid down alongside a log under some branches above the trail and tried to stay warm. Through his shivering he faded off to sleep, but lucky for him, the water had risen so high in the trail that it woke him up when it splashed against his face. He was 8’ above the trail and yet, it was now a roaring creek. He knew he had to get up and try again. Somehow, he waded another 3 miles in thigh deep water and found my tent. What is hard to grasp here, is that this was up the side of a mountain and steep terrain, but the volume of water was so great, that it was running thigh deep in nearly every direction. I was there and can still hardly believe it. My brother had survived against all odds and against the force of hypothermia.
The next week and ½ went great. I'll just say that Ray tagged his first big bull and I ended up shooting a fat cow.
All was well until we tried to pack out. If we had cell service, my brother who had left days before, could have sent a warning about the trail.
We knew there were going to be issues with the trail and weren't sure we could make two trips out. So, we packed all 3 animals with an entire camp and two elk. The mule I had along is a huge brute, so he packed the whole bull. The two horses had my cow and camp. My backpack had about 80-100lbs on it and Ray had about 40lbs on a pack.
Overloaded, we headed out with about 3 hours of daylight left. Not a problem, because it's only a 2 hour walk out and that left us an extra hour to navigate bad trail...right? We made it about 10 feet. The horses had left just before I untied the mule. When I untied him, he promptly jerked me off my feet to catch up to the horses. Not too big of a deal, except he jumped a creek just outside of camp. I guess the buckles/hooks on meat panniers aren't designed to do that when you’re carrying all 4 quarters at once. Things began breaking and he kept running until the whole load was either on the ground or under his belly. The horses really don't care for wild eyed mules that are dragging things to come running up behind them in the trail. They too decided to see how quick they could unload their packs.
It took well over an hour to get all the packs put back together, but off we went. I knew we'd probably have to do the last mile in the dark, but that was the easiest part of the trail, so no big deal.
We made it another ½ mile. I was in front with the mule, had a mare behind me and Ray bringing up the rear leading the gelding. This is when the mule told me that he just got stung by a hornet. It's not important how he relayed this message to me, what's important is that the nest that he kicked has now turned its vengeance on the horses behind us. I got turned around in time to see Ray get kicked, backwards off the trail by the gelding that was now at full speed back towards our camp.
After checking to make sure Ray was ok, I headed back up the trail to find the runaway. He made it about a 1/4 mile before the saddle went upside down and he stopped to wait for help.
Ray was bruised, but no worse for wear and after a re-set, we were headed downhill again.
We made it down the switchbacks and up out of the big creek bottom and stopped for a breather. I knew that if all went well, we only had another hour to go and this was the easiest part of the trip, so I convinced Ray, we needed to keep moving to navigate a few bad spots that would probably be ahead while it was still daylight.
We made it almost a mile. As dusk was settling around us, we came to what used to be a small drainage and dip in the trail. Not so much. The trail was gone. In its place was a gully, 20' deep with sheer walls. The water had carved a new canyon. It was only 15' across, but straight down and straight back up.
I dug out my headlamp as the darkness settled and began digging a steep shelf into the bottom of the trench. I repeated the design on the other side getting out. It was steep and sketchy, but we had to try.
I took my mule first and he slid to the bottom and barely made it out the other side with a huge effort and stood there panting. I took the mare next. As she slid down, she fell to her knees and tumbled into the bottom before scrambling to her feet trembling, with bloody legs. After catching her breath, I got out the other side and with a long lead, encouraged her to follow me. She almost made it to the top before losing traction. I dove past a tree and took a wrap and literally kept her from going over backwards into the hole. Somehow, she got traction and with a mighty lunge, made it to the top. The gelding did fairly well since the other two had carved the trail a bit better and I half carried Ray down and across. It was pitch black now.
We had about 2-3 miles to go to get to the truck, but there was no trail left. It was just one big landslide of boulders, broken trees and mud. In the dark, the best I could do was listen for the creek that was a few hundred yards below us, knowing it headed past the trailhead. We couldn't get closer to the creek because of the slide debris, but we staggered by headlamp in a zigzag through the mine field until somewhere around midnight we stumbled into the trailhead.
Ray collapsed in the truck and I set about unloading the horses and getting them into the trailer. We didn't know if we could get out, because there were boulders the size of Volkswagens littered around the parking lot and road and lots of mud. We didn't know it at the time, but a D9 Cat had pushed a path from the main road up to the trailhead and it left us with a couple inches of clearance in places to finally get off the mountain and down to the highway.
I arrived home about 4am in a state of complete exhaustion and collapsed into a sleep coma. Woke up ready to do it again! ;)
They never did re-open that trailhead. It was far too large of a job to make that road and trail useable ever again.
 

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Pagosa

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Nov 13, 2011
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1,175
Location
Montana
Really cool story, glad you all survived, and that is a super nice bull for your friend. Good looking horses too!!
 

Sytes

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Sep 25, 2009
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Montana
Way too early to get me drooling for the backcountry!

Great read, a beautiful bull, and well heck... I'm Flippin' Jonesing for this year's bob hunt!

Thanks. Really, enjoyable read. Glad all work out well.
 

JFoster

Member
Joined
Feb 8, 2021
Messages
25
Location
Helena, MT
Way too early to get me drooling for the backcountry!

Great read, a beautiful bull, and well heck... I'm Flippin' Jonesing for this year's bob hunt!

Thanks. Really, enjoyable read. Glad all work out well.
Never too early...😋
 

jlong17

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Jan 21, 2019
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289
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'Merica
Pictures? Or IG post? Otherwise it didn’t happen😜 I’m kidding. Awesome story!! I enjoyed reading. 100 year events are no joke. I’m glad you all made it out safely and can enjoy retelling the adventure
 

JFoster

Member
Joined
Feb 8, 2021
Messages
25
Location
Helena, MT
Pictures? Or IG post? Otherwise it didn’t happen😜 I’m kidding. Awesome story!! I enjoyed reading. 100 year events are no joke. I’m glad you all made it out safely and can enjoy retelling the adventure
😆 Seems I had my hands too full to take pictures during the fun! Lol
 

Randi

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Aug 4, 2019
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383
enjoyable read, thank you

being around horses all my life I learned early in life that the two things that scare horses are something that moves and something that dont !

I have experienced several mishaps at rodeos and horse shows but the two that that always come to mind when this topic comes up, are the two times we were surprised by a cougar in the back country. The horse went 30 feet sideways in one second and I didn't
 

Europe

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Dec 26, 2018
Messages
1,214
post deleted, as I have been told, rather sternly, that my post was suppose to be about using horses to hunt. My apologizes.

I can not think of a hunt where we used horses that is anywhere close to as interesting as the story posted by the op.

JFoster; that was quite an experience, glad it turned out o.k. Enjoyed your post
 
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Panda Bear

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Apr 23, 2019
Messages
764
Sorry to hear that April. I always enjoy your posts and many times your posts are a close as I will ever get to a specific location.

We had a horse break his leg trying to get away from a bear when on a Fannin hunt and had to put her down. Had bears scare horse's and create a few minutes of chaos but nothing like what foster went thru. Glad you and horses survived
 

OntarioHunter

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Sep 11, 2020
Messages
2,226
post deleted, as I have been told, rather sternly, that my post was suppose to be about using horses to hunt. My apologizes.

I can not think of a hunt where we used horses that is anywhere close to as interesting as the story posted by the op.

JFoster; that was quite an experience, glad it turned out o.k. Enjoyed your post
Pay no heed to the thread conformity nitpickers. Same clowns are busy posting childish stills clipped from stupid movies. No one seems to complain about that juvenile nonsense with zero articulation skills. Hopefully you will repost your misadventure story.
 

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