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Montana Story: The Mule That Could Out Run Secretariat

A TALE for DERBY WEEK: Thanks to some of those at the Barnett's Creek United Methodist Church Candidate Forum last evening, Saturday, April 26, 2014, who reminded the writer he ought to post more stories on, Bill Troutwine dug into his files and came up with this story so fitting on Derby week. He could have had a great racing career, but the stewards had no vision, would never allow the writer to bring a bear onto the track to spur Jack on. To put the story in his biographical time frame, Bill Troutwine writes, "This is another story in my collection of stories I wrote for my Grandchildren about my experiences in Montana. It takes place before I actually moved to Montana. I was still living in Shepherdsville, KY. at the time. This trip along with a couple of others helped inspire us to move to Montana." It is a gem, a little literary masterpiece. We hope others continue to scold Bill Troutwine until a book is forthcoming. - EW
Click on headline for complete story with photo(s). Next previous William (Bill) Troutwine story. Bill Troutwine: My Second Chance Posted on 2014-02-09 07:52:13

By Bill Troutwine

In the fall of 1989 I had decided to take an elk hunting trip to Montana. This would be my second Montana elk hunting trip. In 1987 I made my first hunting trip to Montana. On that first trip I killed my first elk. I had killed it in the last hours of the last day of the hunt. From that moment on I was addicted to elk hunting.

I contacted a friend of mine Evert Armstrong, who lived in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and asked him if he would like to go on a hunting trip with me. Evert said he would love to go so we started making plans for the trip.

Planned to leave three days before elk season began

The season opened on the 15th of September so we planned to leave my home in Shepherdsville, KY. early on the morning of the 12th. This would give us enough time to get to the trail head which was about fifty miles of cow path type dirt trail south of Big Timber.

We were driving my truck and pulling a horse trailer with my two mules Jack and Jill. Our plan was, get to the trail head the evening of the 13th, then leave the early morning of the 14th with the mules and our camping equipment. We would spend the day walking 25 miles and leading the mules with all our camping equipment and food packed on their backs. We would climb from 5000 foot elevation at the trail head to 11000 feet at the top of the pass then we would descend to 6000 feet to the floor of the Slew Creek drainage.

Our trip in took us longer than we planned. It was black dark and we were still five miles from where we wanted to be. We decided we would make a temporary camp and get some rest as we were exhausted and finish the trip the following morning.

We slept under the stars in area infested with Grizzly Bears

We unrolled our sleeping bags and just slept under the stars and out in the open. I decided it would be too much trouble to put up our big wall tent for just one night

This whole area was infested with Grizzly Bears. We had barely gotten to sleep when we were both awakened by the grunting and wolfing of a bear. He sounded like he was probably thirty or so yards from us. This was somewhat unnerving to us since this was the closest either of us had been to a Grizzly Bear, though not as close as I would be before this trip was over.

The bear soon wandered away. We could still hear him grunting and could tell he was walking away from us. We felt much better because he was wondering away, but still the thought of a bear being in the area wondering around made it difficult to go back to sleep.

Even hobbled, Jack managed to get away

We got up the next morning and I went to get the mules. I had left them in a little grassy area close to where we were sleeping. When I walked into the little meadow I immediately saw Jill, but Jack was no where in sight. I couldn't understand what had happened to Jack. I had placed hobbles on both mules before going to bed. With their front feet hobbled normally a horse or mule can only shuffle their feet a few inches at a time and could cover no more than a couple hundred yards all night long. Jack had managed to get away. I put a bridle on Jill and hopped on her bareback taking a lead rope with me to lead Jack back when I find him. I started back toward where we parked the truck because I figured that would be the most logical place for him to go.

I had ridden about a mile or a little more when I had decided he couldn't get any further than this with hobbles. I was starting to turn around and go back and look in another direction when a couple of hunters came riding down the trail. I asked them if they had seen a red mule along the trail? They said they had seen him about a mile back. They said he had his front feet hobbled but was hopping like a rabbit and making pretty good time going up the trail. Knowing Jack was about a mile up the trail ahead of me I pushed Jill into a slow run and started up the trail. After about ten minutes I caught up with Jack I caught him and headed back to where we had been camped.

When I arrived at the temporary camp site Evert had everything packed up and was waiting on my return so we could get started on down the trail to our original destination. It took a couple of hours for us to cover the five miles to where we had planned to make our camp for the rest of our hunt.

Settled on a nice campsite, set for a two week stay

It was a nice camp site. A nice creek ran in front of our tent and we had a nice grassy meadow beside the camp for the mules, but this time when I put Jack in the meadow, I took a long rope and kept him tied to a tree. We had decided this would be our home for the next two weeks so we went about setting up the tent and cutting some firewood. We had a nice camp but we didn't have much food since we had so much other gear and only two mules to pack it all in.

We cut back on the amount of food since we figured one of us would probably kill an elk or deer in the first couple of days. Unfortunately that didn't happen and we had to start really rationing our food so we could have a little food to eat for each meal. We had some powdered soups and a few packs of cheese crackers, but mainly our meals consisted of a glass of powdered milk for breakfast, a big spoonful of peanut butter for lunch and a can each of sardines for dinner. The second day into the hunt Evert asked me where I had put his carton of cigarettes. He said he had just smoked his last one and needed to get a pack from his carton. I told Evert I had taken his cigarettes out of the mule pack and left them at the truck. I said I needed the room for food and even with that I didn't have enough room for food. Evert said, what am I going to do? I can probably live two weeks without food but I can't live that long without my cigarettes.

Finding great spot for elk ambush, he and Evert split up

We had been hunting for about eight days and everywhere we went we saw tons of grizzly sign. There was bear tracks everywhere, but we had not seen a single elk or deer. Then that evening Evert and I was out riding and looking for elk when we decided to follow a small trail we had found going through some really tall dark timber. We followed the trail for a couple of miles and we broke out on a big flat, open hill top. There was elk sign everywhere. There were elk droppings all over the place and a small pond or spring where the elk had been wallowing to keep cool and to help keep flies off of them. It looked like a hundred hogs had been wallowing in that hole of water. We thought we had found a perfect spot to ambush a couple of elk. So Evert went to one end of the meadow and I went to the other. We decided to wait there until almost dark, hoping to see some elk, then we would meet up and head back to camp.

Just before dark Evert came riding up to where I was setting. He said are you ready to ride back to camp, and then said I have seen nothing. I said I haven't seen anything either, we had better get started back to camp, because it will be dark soon. I got on Jack and started down the same trail we rode in on. Evert was on Jill and following about 25 feet behind me and Jack. I reached the woods where the trail entered. It was still light in the meadow but looking into the tall timber, it was jet black. Just as Jack started to enter into the woods a grizzly bear was on the same trail about to come out of the woods. Now the bear and Jack are on a collision course and neither was aware of the others presence. About the time I saw the bear, the bear also saw us. He let out the loudest growling wolf, reared up and spun around.

When Jack heard the grizzly, he spun so fast he nearly threw rider

With the bears roar Jack becomes aware of what is happening and he comes up on his hind legs and pivots faster than any cutting horse I've ever seen. He spins so fast I nearly fall off. Now there is a Grizzly Bear no more than an arms length in front of me and a mule under me spinning so fast my body is starting to resemble a corkscrew. I am starting to lose my balance on this crazy mule's back, but I know I can't fall off here with this frightened, angry Grizzly. I knew no matter what, I had to stay on Jack's back. Jack is now turned 180 degrees, and somehow I managed to hang on.

Jack manages 0-to about 150 MPH in one massive leap

Now Jack is going about 150 miles per hour and he managed to do it in one massive jump. We are headed straight towards Evert at speeds faster than I have ever reached before or after in my entire life. Evert is still just setting there with this blank look on his face. As I go by I sideswipe him nearly tearing off both our knees. Jack streaks past in a dead run oblivious to the fact that he had nearly knocked poor Jill and Evert into the next county. By now jack has reached full speed and we are halfway across the meadow. I decide to look back to see if the bear is chasing us. I don't see the bear, but I see Evert still setting where I left him. I can't understand why Evert and Jill aren't running for their lives, too.

Having outrun the bear, it was time to stop. But WO? No.

Not seeing a bear chasing us I decided to stop jack and try and get my heart back in my chest. I started pulling on the reins and yelling WO, WO, but Jack was not convinced that the bear wasn't on his tail and he wanted no part of stopping. No matter how hard I pulled Jack wouldn't slow down, so I finally decided to pull on just the left rein and start him running in a circle. With me pulling just one rein he slowly started to circle. I kept pulling him into a tighter circle until he started to slow down. He finally came to a very nervous hopping type of a walk. We rode back down beside Evert, and I stepped off Jack, my knees buckled and I nearly fell down. Evert said, What in the HELL is the matter with you. When you and Jack ran into us you nearly tore my leg off".

Evert never saw the bear, but saw Jack, and realized what a runner he was

I told Evert what had happened. He said he never saw the bear he only saw Jack rear up and spin and take off running. He said he thought I was just showing off. He said his thought was, I don't know what you are doing all that for. I already know you can ride like a cowboy, but I'll be damned if I ever thought that mule could run like that. He said, and I quote "that mule could win the Kentucky Derby; by heck he could out run Secretariat".

It took a while riding in the dark and Jack was a nervous wreck, but we finally reached camp. We put the mules out to pasture and went into the tent and ate our can of sardines and went to bed. I had a terrible time sleeping. It seemed for some strange reason every time I went to sleep I would wake up in a sweat, dreaming I was being chased by Grizzly Bears.

The next day was our tenth day and we had seen no elk. We rode out to hunt in another new direction and in mid afternoon we spotted a five point bull elk. I was going to let Evert shoot him, but by the time we completed the climb up the side of a mountain just to get to where we could get a shot, Evert said I was going to have to shoot the elk. He was breathing so hard, there was no way he could make the shot. So I settled in behind a tree to try and steady my rifle. I was breathing pretty hard, and I could feel my heart pounding too. I waited as long as I thought I could without the elk walking away. Soon I started to feel my breathing and heart rate slow down enough that I thought I could make the shot. I was wrong because I missed that elk and I still haven't forgiven myself for missing him. To date I have killed 20 elk and that is the only one I ever totally missed and let get away.

Preparing to break camp, writer was pretty down about missing elk

Evert and I started back to camp. As we rode we talked, and I was pretty down about missing that elk. Evert said how would you like to break camp in the morning and head out. He said, we will only be leaving two or three days earlier than we were planning. I would love to have a big steak and a cigarette. I told Evert it sounded good to me and I sure could enjoy a big steak, too.

We tore camp down that night and packed everything except our sleeping bags. We slept under the stars, and got up before daylight, loaded the packs on the mules and headed for the truck. Twenty five miles of walking and leading the mules put us at the truck around midnight. With the fifty miles of dirt trail to drive before we would be to Big Timber it was daylight before we were there. We went straight to the local truck stop and ordered two of the biggest steaks they had. It was absolutely the best steak I have ever eaten. Evert said the only thing that was better than his steak was the cigarette he grabbed as soon as we reached the truck.

After resting up that day we started for home. The trip home was uneventful and two days after the steak dinner, or I guess I should say steak breakfast, we were back in Shepherdsville, KY. and Evert was preparing to start his drive on up to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Little did I know that in less than a year and half I would be moving to Montana to spend the next fifteen years. I would have many more encounters with bears, elk, mountain lions, and the most dangerous of all, people with criminal minds!

In the next fifteen years I would kill six bears, three mountain lions, along with numerous elk, deer and antelope, and arrest more criminals than I could count. It seems like a very short fifteen years, and some of the most exciting times of my life. Montana was good to Donna and me, and it left us with some of the best memories anyone could ever hope for.

Had to sell Jack; he never regained his trail sense; kept seeing imaginary bears

I kept Jack for about two years after his encounter with the grizzly, but eventually sold him. He was never good on the trail after that bear experience. Every stump, bolder or dark shadow in the trail was a bear to him, and it always kept him spooked. No matter how hard I tried, I could never get him over it. He was never going to quit seeing imaginary bears. Jack's racing career didn't pan out either, as they would not permit me to bring a live bear onto the race track to motivate Jack. - BILL TROUTWINE

This story was posted on 2014-04-27 09:30:22
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A Derby Week 2014 story: A mule that could out run Secretariat

2014-04-27 - Kentucky - Photo submitted by Bill Troutwine.
My daughter Melissa and me with Jack and Jill
just prior to taking them to Montana on a hunting trip. Bill Troutwine

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