Rattlesnake Wilderness, Montana

I was getting married in two weeks, and I needed an elk in the freezer, fast. It was mid-September and nearing the height of the elk rut in western Montana. Poor planning for nuptials? Perhaps.

My co-worker Paul and I had both drawn rifle tags for a cow right in our backyard, the Rattlesnake Wilderness Area. The plan was to shoot a fat cow or two, haul them out on the bike trailer, and be home the next day. If there was an easy way to tag out, this had to be it.

Powered by Gatorade and confidence, we peddled our bikes up a road that followed Rattlesnake Creek for 15 miles. On the ride in, we passed throngs of dog walkers, babies in backpacks, and plenty of Spandex. In three hours, we made camp. I was 13 miles from my living room.

The roughly 33,000 acres that make up the Rattlesnake Wilderness were designated with a capital W in 1980, and wolves, deer, bighorns, lions, black bears, and the occasional grizzly roam the hills. But the Snake has some not-so-wild features. Rattlesnake Creek is a municipal watershed, and a number of its wilderness lakes are dammed and maintained by the local water company. Workers access these lakes via a 15-mile road, or cherry stem; wilderness is found on either side of the road.


The previous day, as a cool fog replaced summer’s smoke, we found fresh tracks a quarter mile from camp. We called softly, trying to imitate a lost calf. We watched as the fog breathed in and out every few minutes. After only 20 minutes, the unmistakable clank of antler on tree limbs sounded from down canyon.

A heavy-beamed 5×5 bull with mahogany antlers was heading right for us. He stopped at 15 yards, took a look to either side, and bugled. I swear he spit on me. It was a dream setup—for a bowhunter with a bull tag. Paul and I sat there, rifles across our laps, mouthing profanities.

After three days of rain, we finally called it. On the ride out, the axle on our bike trailer broke 7 miles from the truck. As I sat waiting for help, I realized that even in my backyard wilderness, elk are never easy.

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