By Alan Sorensen
Seeking complete silence, total darkness? Nearly impossible to experience in town, they're frequent companions of those who rough it in elk camp in Montana.
Those two are among the attractions that keep Havre's Dan Frickel and his kin going back to the state's high country and river bottoms each year in quest of elk.
Frickel is so hooked on elk camp that he devotes his entire five-week vacation each year to the late October through late November hunt. Frickel claims his campsite and begins setting up his elk camp the last week of October, usually a few days before hunting season begins.
Frickel's first memories of elk camp were as a 7-year-old with his parents, aunts, uncles and cousins in the Absaroka Range and along the Bighorn River of south-central Montana. That's where he picked up his love of wall tents and trail camps a love he began sharing with his three boys long before they could hunt.
"My kids were all young when we started doing this," Frickel said. "When we lived in the Flathead, we used to go hunting during the week and ski twice a week, on Wednesday and Saturday since they were about 4 or 5. Didn't get much work out of them."
That could account for Frickel's playing the part of the Little Red Hen, the person who takes charge of getting things ready. It's nearly a year-long job, what some would call an obsession. "I don't know, I guess I work harder during my vacation than I do at work," he said.
This year Frickel had to prepare for three different camps. The first was supposed to be the first two weeks of hunting season, from Oct. 18 to Nov. 1, at a campsite between King's Hill Pass and White Sulphur Springs. It's their seventh year at the Little Belt Mountains site.
Hunting season opened on Sunday, Oct. 21, this year, so Frickel went down the Thursday before to claim a campsite. He and Art Radford set up before the rest of the party arrived on Friday.
"We left (Havre) about 5 in the morning," he said. "It took about four hours pulling the trailer."
That trailer is a standard car trailer, about 8 feet wide and 18 feet long. Frickel fitted it with 4-foot high side walls and ends and constructed the tailgate so it could double as a ramp. When full, the trailer contains nearly everything, including the kitchen sink and the handcart used to dolly it all on. A special heavy-duty tarp covers the whole load and is secured by bungee tie-downs.
The time it takes to set up camp depends upon the help at hand.
"This time there were just a couple of us and the other guy had a bad back. We got the cook tent up and our sleeping tent up. By the time we got the cooking tent set up and everything inside it, it was Clark National Forest, they collected about half a cord of wood.
Frickel said that when he and his three sons Eric, 29; Chad, 26; Nate, 22 set up camp, it takes about a half hour per tent. Two of the tents sleep up to eight and one can sleep five.
"If my brother's there at the same time, it takes another 45 minutes for his tent," Frickel said. "It sleeps five or six."
Frickel said the camp raising is a team effort with everyone knowing his job. "When we set them up, we set up as partners," he said.
Each tent has its own hollow-tube framework that must be constructed from long and short tubes and four-point joints. The tents are tied down from the tops of the walls, and logs and other weights are laid across the outside bottoms of each wall. "We set up a tarp on the floor, tie it and tape it up against the wall of the tent."
That little extra flooring that runs a couple of feet up the sides of the tent allows the tent to breathe but keeps the wind from howling through.
A plastic tarp is flung across the top of each tent to keep the heat in and to allow the snow to slide off. They are anchored to the ground. "We use under that for storage."
Each tent also has its own wood-burning stove constructed out of a halved 55-gallon drum. The stoves, made by Corey Holmes of Havre, have two welded handles for easy moving, a wheel welded to the bottom for insulation, a hinged door, and fitted stove pipe. A corner of each tent's roof has been cut away and a nonflammable material sewn in around a hole for the stove pipe. Instead of kindling, the Frickels use propane weed torches to get their fires lit.
"Now it's cooling down, so we get the wood in the stoves and light it the old Boy Scout way, with the torch," he said. "Then we set up our dining table and our 4-by-8-foot sheet of plywood on saw horses our food counter and our cook table, 2-by-8- foot table. We've got a coffee table in there for our bowls, plates and utensils. We dig out our cooking containers, all the supplies, pots and pans and frying pans and set up condiments on a milk crate lain on its side, some stuff inside and some on top with grease and butter beside it."
Next, the campers set about putting together their own sleeping areas and assemble their cots.
"I've got what they call a cot tree, up the end by your head," Frickel said. "I hang a couple of rifles on the side of it and hang clothes on it.
"Now it's time to snack and play cribbage, or you can go outside and sit at a table by the fire outside."
When the rest of the group including Frickel's sons, brothers Steve and Mark and their sons Travis and Ryan from Laurel, cousins Robert and Kevin Emineth and Darrin Frickel from Billings, and Bill Ackerman from Havre arrives Friday, work continues on the camp. After a breakfast of bacon and eggs or pancakes, everyone heads out to collect more firewood, a couple of cords to last the two weeks. Two or three people cut the logs in 6- to 8-foot lengths and the others throw the logs down the bank. Then they're hauled back to camp, and enough wood to last a week is cut and split.
"We've got a couple of guys setting up propane lanterns, two per tent, and then we've got people setting up wood stoves," Frickel said. "We put four or five shovelfuls of dirt in each stove to keep the bottom from burning out." (When those stoves are emptied into the campsite fire pits at the end of the hunt, Frickel said, nearly all of the dirt has been burned away.)
"Now we can haul all our personal gear into our own sleeping tent, then we have soup and sandwiches and coffee, because we have the propane tanks hooked up to the big stoves and can heat water."
The downside of elk camp, if there is one, is going without showers. Everyone can get a little ripe in the woods.
"We'd been coming up here for a couple of years and the guys in the next camp went into town every night," Frickel said. "They had everything they needed, but they still went into town. I asked them why they went into town, they had food and everything at their camp. The guy looked at me and asked, What's the name of the town?' I said, White Sulphur.' It took us a while longer to realize they were going in to the hot springs."
On Friday night, after getting situated at camp, the whole crew heads into White Sulphur Springs to soak at the Spa. On Saturday, they drive around the country, checking spots they'll head to when the season opens the next morning.
Hunting for the Frickels means walking 10 to 14 miles a day up and down the backcountry. "We saw plenty of elk," Nate Frickel said. "We chased them right into the guys from Michigan you know, those guys who have to hunt from tree stands where they come from."
Their routine at camp is pretty predictable in an unpredictable way.
"The rest of the week, before we go to bed at night, we make a big pot of coffee and fill four or five Thermoses so when we get up in the morning we've got hot coffee," Frickel said. "And when people get up in the night, they throw more wood on the fire."
Breakfast, too, is planned but unplanned.
"We don't have any designated cooks," Frickel said. "Whoever gets up first starts the fire and cooking. We have a menu already made up, so we don't have to make any decisions. We cook our breakfast and then people make sandwiches for their day packs in case they don't get out of the mountains for lunch."
The routine calls for hunters pairing up and discussing the day's meeting points.
"We have meeting points coming off different creeks and whoever comes out first drives up and down the road, giving people rides," Frickel said. "When you get your elk, you do your thing with it. You cut its throat and gut it out. We've got these trail markers and generally you have to walk out four or five miles. We come out for help, get the rest of the crew, grab the backpacks if we need them, or the elk cart, and we all go up in there, load it up, tie it down, and then get out of the way because the kids are driving. They'll run you over with the cart."
Over the years at their various camps they've seen a lot of wildlife, including a number of grizzly bears, but usually end up running more elk into other hunters' lairs than they bag themselves. One elk a year is a good score.
This year, the only score was a spike bull brought down on Oct. 25 by Eric. It was hauled out over a couple of miles of tough terrain on a single-axle, four-wheel cart operated by two of the youngsters. Ackerman and Frickel, who helped load the elk, left at the same time and made it back to camp just 10 minutes ahead of the carcass.
That camp broke up early, on Oct. 28, because most of the nine to 15 campers had to return to families or work or bow out due to injuries. "It takes longer to tear down, because you have to put everything in its own box and stack everything in boxes," Frickel said. "We tear the kitchen tent down the night before. It's the biggest. That's got the most to put away."
Spike Magelssen and I arrived at the camp Saturday afternoon for a visit and attracted a U.S. Forest Service ranger. Curious about a small red car in a hunting camp, the ranger inquired about our purpose. When told it was just a visit, he complimented the Frickels on setting up a real camp in an age when most hunters arrive in motor homes, campers or trailers.
The following Wednesday, Frickel and two friends, Bill Ackerman and Paul Nelson, set up a small riverside camp in the Missouri River Breaks just north of the Fred Robinson Bridge. They came back Tuesday, again empty-handed, but happy just the same.
"It's more of a picnic," Frickel said. "You hear animal noises at night elk bugling and whistling, coyotes and their pups howling and yapping, birds calling. And at times there's absolute quietness, not a sound, and total darkness in the tent."
Frickel also is a big collector of rocks. He walked out several miles in the Breaks and wondered why he was so tired until he opened his backpack and found a rock he'd picked up that was the size of a small bowling ball. This year's take includes a petrified squirrel's skull, petrified vertebra, and "an oyster shell, way, way up high."
The next weekend, he and two other Havre hunters, Bill Blake and Jerry Woods, booked rooms at the Spa in White Sulphur and walked some backcountry. Again Frickel came back empty.
Frickel said he and his brothers are going down in the Absaroka Range. "Somewhere south of Big Timber," he said, "and we'll probably stay in a Forest Service cabin $25 a day.
"Then I'll hunt around here Thanksgiving and try to fill my tags," Frickel said. "If I go back to work without filling my deer tags, they'll laugh at me."
Frickel begins preparations for the next year's hunting camp even as he unloads the gear from the last camp. "My two big grills, I clean them now, and the two big frying pans they've got grease on them and they mold," Frickel said.
The planning for next begins not long after heading back to his job as a railroad engineer. He inventories all of his supplies and packs them away. He then starts making lists of what he'll need next year and planning on improvements.
"This summer, I go through all my (large plastic) boxes because everything goes in boxes," Frickel said. "All the silverware, I take it out during the summer and give it a good washing and polish it up."
Mending begins in the summer, too, as does bargain hunting.
"I shop for several weeks at the end of summer," Frickel said. "I start looking for sales coffee and steaks, I freeze them, chili, macaroni and cheese.
"This year I made ham hock and beans, three gallons, at home, to take, and I made six gallons of elk stew and that was two meals," Frickel said.
Bagging their limit or coming home empty next year seems to be the least of the Frickels' worries. They're in it for family and fun.