October 23, 2023
A faint scratch in the landscape diverged from the well-worn trail before ascending the steep hillside. Tyler Viles subtly pulled the short packtrain—just four animals long— to the left, away from the North Fork of the Shoshone River on a path that roughly paralleled Red Creek. Well, parallel if you straightened out the dozen or so switchbacks lifting us above the river’s rough-hewn valley. We started our day in the dark, unloading horses alongside the highway near Pahaska Tepee, Buffalo Bill Cody’s famous hunting cabin bordering the east entrance ofYellowstone National Park.
Following the North Fork of the Shoshone past Crow Creek, we crossed into the North Absaroka Wilderness not far from the historical lodge. The stock, owned by Viles’ employer Shoshone Lodge Outfitters, was some of the best I’ve ridden. As well-behaved and amicable as you can expect from horses and mules that earn their hay carrying nimrods and greenhorns into a back- country filled with grizzly bears. Even the buffalo we encountered didn’t rile the animals much, though Viles’s horse did give a quick buck at the one bull we came upon guarding the trail in the predawn shadows.
The surrounding mountains were mostly bare, with few spruce and pine surviving among the standing dead. This was blowdown country, still showing the ugly scars of a handful of fires dating back to the big blaze of 1988. Most of the timber was scattered like spilled matchsticks, making any off-trail excursion a test of both endurance and patience. This path had been cut open some years before, so other than the steepness of the grade, the horses barely faltered during the climb.
Just before the trail slipped deeper into Red Creek’s narrow canyon,Viles pulled his horse to stop and dismounted. Beth Shimanski, of Savage Arms, and I followed suit.Viles busted through the underbrush to one of the few live trees on this bench, securing his horse and the pack horse with a couple quick throws of their lead ropes. He grabbed our reins next, hitching our mounts to skinny, stunted pines that were obviously new growth since the Clover Mist conflagration swept the valley clean back in‘88.
It was late morning, and the plan was to find a comfortable spot to glass during the midday lull. Though the breeze was cool, this first day of November was warm in northwest Wyoming. We were hunting mule deer in Wyoming’s famed Absaroka Range, hoping to catch a big buck migrating out of Yellowstone ahead of the coming winter. As it were, the unseasonable temps and lack of high-country snow had kept deer movement to a minimum. But the day before, spent mostly on horseback with brief breaks to glass the high mountains, Viles had found us a buck, and I was able to hang my tag on a fine mountain mule deer just before dark.
RED CREEK CACHE
Now it was Shimanski’s turn on the trigger, and Viles was hoping some deer might funnel out of the country north of us by following the creek into the larger river valley. Not expecting to see much during the middle of the day, we grabbed our binoculars, pulled some snacks from our saddle bags and posted up on a finger overlooking the surrounding hillsides. It was a commanding view, but with the alpine sun bearing down on us, we struggled to keep our eyes open. That is, until Shimanski spotted a deer feeding on the hill high above us.
Through our binos, the buck looked mature, big bodied with a wide rack and dark forehead. He was feeding through some thick oak brush some 600 yards away, disappearing and reappearing among the dead and downed timber. We had been expecting a longer wait and weren’t quite prepared for this midday encounter. I snuck back to the horses to grab a spotting scope, while Shimanski followed to fetch her rifle.
As I approached the horses, I instinctively looked down to watch my footfalls among the tangle of brush and deadfall. Just under the hoof of one of the horses, I caught a glimpse of something metal. My first thought was a halter had slipped, so I bent to pick it up. It wasn’t any sort of tack from our team, but a length of rusty chain. As I pulled it, a trap—jaws clenched shut with age—emerged from under a rotted logged. Digging a bit, I found a second. Both were single-spring, No. 1s, etched Oneida Victor with a distinctive V cut out of the pans.
Out of all the spots in this vast wilderness, we’d somehow, fatefully, tied up at the exact spot of an old trapper’s cache. I’m a realist, and a skeptic. But I also believe there’s no such thing as a coincidence, and have often found signs, for lack of a better term, that have led to success in the field. Loyal readers might remember my story “The Grand Prize”(Oct. 2019) where I stumbled upon a similar talisman just before killing an elusive mule deer buck. Surely, this discovery was another mystical guidepost along the trail of life.
Rattling the dirt loose from the traps, I turned to show Shimanski the treasure I’d just unburied. “You’re going to kill this deer,” I told her.“ And we’re going to call it the Trapper Buck.”
HUNTING THROUGH HISTORY
For centuries, the Absarokas have been a prime destination for hunters, from the indigenous tribes who called the mountains home to modern explorers drawn to the untamed, game-rich wilderness. Early mountain men were some of the first non-Natives to push through the region, trapping beaver, mink and other furbearers as they made their way south to rendezvous on the Green River. Many were drawn by explorer John Colter’s wild accounts of the nearby geothermal activity, which came to be called Colter’s Hell.
The area has also long been known for its trophy elk and mule deer, and the high mountains are home to bighorn sheep and mountain goats. Like many hunters of my generation, I grew up reading about adventures in the Absaroka Mountains from such legendary writers as Jack Atcheson, Sr., and our own Jim Zumbo, who was so enthralled with the wilderness he bought a house outside of Wapiti, where he still resides. Even Ernest Hemingway spent a few seasons hunting here, taking his first and only bighorn in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness along the Wyoming/Montana border.
Although elk and deer numbers have declined in recent years due to predation from wolves and grizzlies—like the giant boar that rumbled by us the day before—the Absaroka range still draws hunters from around the world, each seeking the kind of adventure only found in such unspoiled, raw wilderness.
In 1913, the North Absaroka Wilderness played host to royalty when Prince Albert of Monaco hunted in the region as the guest of friend and forest supervisor A.A. Anderson. Just a few miles up the valley from our trapper’s cache, where Torrent Creek dumps into the North Fork of the Shoshone, the Prince, along with several locals including Buffalo Bill Cody, established Camp Monaco.
The Prince was successful during his long hunt in the Absarokas, taking several elk and deer. His most coveted trophy, however, was a big bear. According to local news reports:“With the first shot the bear fell but it required two or three more shots before the bruin consented to remain absolutely quiet. The kill is a magnificent specimen of the black bear and the Prince will have it mounted whole and it will then be sent to his palace in Monaco.”
Camp Monaco is still used today by hunters who draw one of the region’s prime big-game tags, though modern outfitters covet it more as a flat, grassy spot in otherwise vertical, rock-strewn country than for its place in history. During the Prince’s hunt, a large spruce was scarred with a blaze and painted with the words Camp Monaco, along with a scrawled image of bear paw. The tree stood as a signpost to history until it was swept up in the 1988 fires. Even then, it’s bare trunk remained until 1994, when locals lifted the stump via helicopter and transported it to Cody, where it now rests in the Buffalo Bill Center of the West Museum.
How long had that trapper’s cache lay undiscovered, buried beneath the blowdown, only to be exposed by the nervous nickering of a hunter’s horse? Certainly, it couldn’t have belonged to Colter or one of the following mountain men. The Oneida Community, a religious commune in Lititz, Pa., didn’t start making traps until 1852. By 1913, when Prince Albert was hunting these hills, the company was selling upwards of 7 million Oneida Victor traps per year. Could one of the Prince’s party members have buried his cache here?
Doubtful, but perhaps a long-shot possibility. Better odds, at least in my mind, were that Shimanski would soon be notching her tag on the big buck above us.
THE OLD MAN OF THE MOUNTAIN
We expected the mule deer to bed down for the day, but it was still on its feet when Shimanski and I returned to our guide.Viles soon had it in the spotting scope and put the range just north of 600 yards. It was a long poke, and with a steep angle from our hide, but Shimanski was able to get prone and turn the custom dial on her Leupold scope to the appropriate range. She was shooting a Savage 110 Ultralite in 6.5 PRC, plenty of bullet for big mountain mule deer. At the shot, the buck collapsed, disappearing into thick oak brush before the crack of the bullet could even echo back across the narrow canyon.
Shimanski made the shot look easy, but the recovery would be a lot more difficult. The blowdown meant leaving the pack animals at the base of the mountain, which was much steeper than it looked and a nightmare to navigate. We found the buck buried under a tangle of deadfall, and it took a combined effort to drag him out from his timbered tomb. We made quick work of the quartering and were soon stumbling down the steep grade to the horses grazing below.
On our way out of this wilderness I’d so long dreamed of hunting, I was hypnotized by the deer’s wide rack tilting rhythmically in time with the pack horse’s even gait. In the fading light of the short November day, I thought about the buck’s life. How many times had the old man made this trek, migrating out of the mountains to survive the harsh Wyoming winter? How many wolves had it outrun, or grizzlies had it avoided in its lifetime? Had it encountered other hunters as it trotted by the trapper’s hidden cache, or grazed in the meadow surrounding Camp Monaco? Silly questions with impossible answers, perhaps. However the deer had lived, whatever it had experienced, the Trapper Buck was now part of the fabled hunting history of the Absarokas.