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Montana Grand Slam: The Elk Trail

Andrew McKean Avatar

Day 2 of Jim Ewing's epic Grand Slam Adventure will take him to Montana's snowy high country for rifle elk hunting. He will continue to accumulate firsts: his first time upon a horse, his first encounter with a canvas wall tent, and his first sighting of elk. Here's his story, from the trailhead to the camp.
Jim is eager to lend a hand at any task. Here, he helps outfitter Layne Wilcox pack one of the horses that will carry hay, our hunting gear and food to the high-country camp.
Layne and Jim pack soft-sided panniers on one of the hardy pack mules.
Layne Wilcox owns and operates Advantage Backcountry Outfitters (, which specializes in remote elk hunting in southwest Montana's Snowcrest Mountains. Wilcox is a hard-core cowboy, trick roper and prodigious elk hunting guide.
Wilcox is assisted by guide Shane Escott, who could easily be mistaken for an Old West gunslinger. When he's not guiding elk hunters, Escott is a foreman for the Madison County road department.
Jim's lucky to have a third guide, Tom Kulesza, who brings his own mules to the hunt. Kulesza is a full-time farrier and a remarkable hand with mules and pack strings.
Jim soaks up the energy and chaos of the trailhead. He is minutes away from starting the elk portion of his Grand Slam Adventure.
As he waits for the pack stock to be loaded with gear, Jim anticipates one of the big firsts of this trip: his first experience on horseback.
Tom gets a head start up the trail with his pack string.
Meanwhile, Shane helps Jim into the saddle and adjusts his stirrups. He gives a quick overview of using the reins to turn and stop the horse. Jim is aboard Sarlie, one of the steadiest horses in Wilcox's carefully selected string.
Ewing marvels at the movement and power of the horse beneath him.
And soon he's on the trail, leaving the stock trailers and pickups behind. It will be three days before he sees mechanized transportation again. In the meantime, all his movement will be under his own power or horsepower.
The trail bends and winds about four miles to the tent camp. As we climb, the forest gets steadily snowier.
By the time we reach about 8,000 feet in elevation, heavy snow drapes most of the pine boughs. Layne had told us to expect about two feet of snow at camp.
Finally, we reach our destination, the four canvas wall tents that are the heart of Advantage Backcountry's base camp. We'll stow all our gear here and prepare to scout for elk this evening.
But first, Layne wants to ensure that Jim knows the anatomy of an elk. Jim gets a quick lesson in bone structure and bullet placement.
And then we swing back in our saddles and head even higher in the mountains, to a lookout where we can glass several thousand acres of alpine parks and timber edges. At the very last light, we spot some elk. They're the first elk Jim has ever seen, and he rides back to camp with high hopes of encountering them tomorrow.

OL hunting editor, Andrew McKean and, contest winner, Jim Ewing head into the snowy backcountry in search of trophy elk.