My water bottle, left just outside the tent, was frozen solid when I crawled out of my sleeping bag one pale dawn last week. But by the time we topped out on the plateau, we were down to our T-shirts, enjoying the warm sun and the impossibly clear air.
Homer went off to explore in one direction and brother Val and I went in the other. Eventually, we would all arrive at the same little valley, where we would carefully glass every nook and cranny in search of a giant mule deer buck. One of these times, we are going to climb up onto that plateau for the opening day of hunting season, and we will see one of those deer we have been looking for all these years.
It doesn't seem like it could be more than 20 years since Homer and I first saw those magnificent animals up on that island of rock that rises right along the spine of the continent. The memory could have been stored yesterday.
We had hiked since before dawn. As evening settled in, we scrambled up the last 1,000 feet and dropped our packs in a sheltered spot below a snowfield where we could get melt-water for drinking and cooking. Then, free of our heavy loads, we hiked off to the north, toward some timber in the distance, just to see what we could see. We settled in on the shelf of rock overlooking a little valley, with a bit of a rivulet of spring water trickling down the middle of it. We didn't have to wait long.
One by one, mule deer bucks began to emerge from the early September shadows of a little thicket of alpine fir on the far side of the valley. Each glided silently down toward the spring through the knee-high grass of that wind-swept plateau. And each buck was bigger, both in body and antler, than the previous one.
If we had stumbled upon the Fountain of Youth, we could not have been more excited. The next day, and the day after that, we saw them again. When it came time to leave, we knew we would return to this place.
We came several years, during late summer, just to check in on those deer. They were always there, right where we had first seen them. And that wasn't all. Some days there were elk right there in the midst of them. And from where we sat, looking out over that little valley, we could lift our gaze slightly to the nearby cliffs and always see a mountain goat. Golden eagles circled lazily above. Occasionally, a bear wandered through, turning over rocks, digging away at ground squirrels and tearing rotten logs to pieces. And once, we even saw a wolverine, hurrying along an open ridge of rock, not far below our camp.
We talked about hunting in that place, but for years, we never got around to it. It would be a major operation to get there, and then to pack an animal out if we got one. We kept putting it off.
Then one day, five or six years ago, Homer and I realized that we were not getting any younger, and that the statute of limitations that our bodies eventually will place on us could be running out at any time. We immediately began to make an annual trip to that plateau during hunting season.
Religiously now, we plod in there each year, sometimes taking along a friend. We have gone in mud and waist-deep snow, sunny days and bitter weather.
This year, with my brother Val along, we had four of the most magnificent fall days in the mountains that I could possibly imagine. We walk the same trails, camp in the same places and glass that little valley from the same protected perch in the rocks. We always have the place to ourselves. And the deer we remember no longer are there.
Friend Short and his dad, Bob, have a place near the trailhead. They have watched our comings and goings with gentle amusement.
"There's a reason nobody goes in there hunting, you know," Short observed from his saddle when we met up on the trail as we were walking out last week.
"I know why you go in there. I remember when those deer were in there, just like you do. But they haven't been there for a long time now. The fire might have had something to do with it. The outfitters, sure had something to do with it, and I don't know what else. I know
they aren't there anymore," Short continued.
There, on a little-used trail in the middle of nowhere, the three of us ground-pounders chatted with the two horsemen. We talked a bit of politics, working gingerly around some of the current election issues. We talked a little sports, getting updates on the Grizzly and Bobcat games from the preceding weekend. But then the talk got back to the country, the wildlife and that rocky island in the sky.
"I know you guys are going to keep on going up there, whether or not there's any deer. I remember exactly how it feels to look around that plateau and want to stay in that spot forever. You get there and you don't want to go home, or even think about home," Short said with a distinct twinkle in his eye.
"And, sooner or later, those deer will be back up there. Whether or not you see just depends on if you live long enough," he added with a laugh.
Sooner or later.
Two days after we got home, Homer was on the phone beginning to make plans next year's trip.
Greg Tollefson is a Missoula free-lance writer. His column appears each week in the Outdoors section.