|The bull and his harem|
|Wind-whipped clouds put on a show|
|Bighorn sheep share the range|
We didn't realize it, but it officially closes for the season on Dec. 1, and we walked in Nov. 30, one day after the end of big game hunting season.
What luck. During our 4 mile hike we saw an elk herd of some 20 animals, six bighorn sheep, including two rams, and some deer, along with amazing scenery in all directions, dominated by the Sleeping Giant Mountain, Holter Lake's oxbow, and the snow-covered Rocky Mountain Front.
This is an area of grass, gulches, and high ridges that offers wildlife plenty to eat and room to roam as winter range. It doesn't open again until May 15.
It is 60 miles south of Great Falls, and 40 miles north of Helena, an area of 35,000 acres along Cottonwood, Elkhorn and Willow creeks also adjacent to the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area.
The first time I entered this area was in 1975 when I accompanied Wayne Arnst, the Great Falls Tribune's outdoor writer, who was doing a story on the area which had been a ranch and then was sold by a family from San Francisco to the state for wildlife management. I met Bill Milton, a family member, at that time. He went on to ranch in the Roundup area.
Climbing buddy Mark Hertenstein has been talking up this area all Fall. He's mountain-biked and hiked throughout this 35,000 acre paradise.
The last couple of years we've been hiking just west of this game range above Holter Lake.
In addition to the wildlife we discovered ridges that led us up successively higher to a long, igneous wall not unlike the walls you find on Square and Crown buttes. As we approached the wall, the herd of elk emerged and displayed themselves, at first hesitantly, then boldly. We had plenty of time to admire them from a healthy distance.
From the piles of elk droppings it was obvious to us that this was their home.