Three nervous-making things right from the beginning: the thrill, but also challenge, of hunting new country for the first time; hunting with unfamiliar hunters for the first time; and frostbite, pain, and howling November snow-misery. All anyone talks about when they mention the Durfee Hills of central Montana is how cold it gets. And the wind. But when a couple of longtime board members of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA) invited me to go explore and elk hunt the hills, I said heck yes. They—Doug Krings and John Sullivan—are traditional bowhunters, which is a church, a way of life for them, but they were kind enough to allow me to bring my grandfather’s old .270. “We need you to kill an elk,” Krings explained. “There are way too many.” We’ve been hearing that all our life, right? Should’ve been here yesterday. “I talked to some hunters who just came out,” Krings added. “They saw five bulls down in the bottom of the meadow where we’re going.” Oh, the old elk in camp story, right?
“Not for Sale”
It’s true there are a lot of elk that use the Durfees at different times of year—2,000, according to the Montana Wildlife Federation—and in a warming world, the refuge of the mountain is a cool, safe haven for them. But to hunt bulls in the Durfees, one needs to draw a bull tag, against long odds. Spikes and cows, however, are legal with a general license, which is what I had. My daughters and I consider elk the first and most important food group, and so a cow or spike was just fine with me. More than fine.
The Durfee Hills are public land—held by the Bureau of Land Management, and owned by every American—but the only way to get there is by plane or helicopter, because access is cut off by a stranglehold of ranches, mostly thanks to the infamous Wilks brothers, Farris and Dan—Texas billionaires who made a fortune in fracking and bought all the private ranchland surrounding the Durfee Hills, then tried to buy the public land of the Durfees themselves. The public—particularly BHA—said no.
“It’s the best elk hunting in the world,” Sullivan said. “I’m sorry that the billionaires can’t have it. It’s ours. It’s not for sale.”
As if in a dream, the glass bubble of the helicopter drifts us across snow prairie. In all directions, we can see distant mountain ranges—the Big Snowies, the Little Snowies, the Castles, the Bearpaws, the Crazies, even the mighty Absarokas—and in the middle, our destination, the Durfee Hills, center of the prairie, and center of the battle of elk hunters who seek to hold on to our public land.
The chopper settles easily into an old two-track. We toss our duffels off into the snow and climb out, staying low, and unencumbered now, the chopper lifts back up, light as a thought.
Silence. Blue sky, sparkling snow. It’s still morning. We’ll be here for a while. Next to a good sleeping bag and matches or lighter, the most important accessory for hunting the Durfees is a good GPS. The private-public boundaries are not always delineated, and if you cross over, you will get popped; the rich folks have their ways of knowing.
We set about gathering dead wood. Krings has brought a modern-day tepee, a Seek Outside tent with a little woodburning stove not much larger than a couple of shoeboxes stacked together. The domesticity that precedes the hunt.
We set off to explore. “We can jump elk anywhere,” Krings says. “Be ready.”
Sullivan tells me that Krings is the best elk hunter in the state, but Krings defers: “My old man is 10 times better than me.”
“What’s he do?” Sullivan asks.
“He’s a priest.”
Krings pauses, points out blue grouse tracks, noting where the tips of the bird’s wings traced the snow as it waddled. Next he finds a stray elk hair that appears to have just blown in on the breeze—no tracks. Then: tracks, big tracks. We follow them to a barbwire fence with posted signs. We turn back, down into the steep north-slope timber, where there is little sign. But then, gaining a limestone knob, we spy a herd on a sunny slope. Mellow, undisturbed elk, and lots of them. Canyons, ridges, miles between us. Our work the next day is cut out for us.
“We can go to them tomorrow, but we have to be careful,” Krings says. “We might jump one, or a hundred, between here and there.”
That night in the tent, eating moose that Krings killed with his recurve bow in Alaska last month, we talk about the fight to save the Durfees. “This place is all my kids ever talk about,” Krings says. “To them it’s mythic. It’s where my 12-year-old daughter killed her first elk.” We step outside to look at the biggest, lowest Big Dipper ever; as if you could step into it. As if all the elk in the world sleep in it.
The Final Stalk
The next morning, we set out toward the distant elk, Sullivan and Krings navigating the complicated turns of this-land-is-our-land, this-land-is-Wilks-land.
No elk all day. Until, in swirling downslope winds, we bump a band of four spikes, see their antlers and tawny rumps bobbing along the edge of a small meadow and into deep timber. The scent of fresh, hoof-torn soil beneath the snow pungent, pleasant, indicting. The orange shrapnel of busted rotting logs.
That night at camp, whiskey and conservation talk. Hunting talk. “In the morning, let’s kill an elk,” Krings says. He has a look in his eye, and I know what it means: You can’t really write about the best elk hunting in the world if you don’t get a good look at an elk. “My old man used to say: ‘To kill an elk, find one and go to it. With blood in your eyes.’”
Come morning, Sullivan and I slip through the young ponderosa pines, past the ice-casts of elk beds. We stop when the wind betrays us, surge when it returns to our favor. We climb a steep rocky ledge without disturbing gravel. We smell elk. We crawl through more timber. We can see the sunlit hillside ahead, 300 yards beyond the edge of the timber. On it stand 20 spikes. I rest my grandfather’s old rifle in the crook of a branch, exhale, and squeeze.