Thursday, November 23, 2017

Terry Burbach (left), Greg Shaffer (center) and Mike Lee discuss their plan for the afternoon hunt during the fourth annual Elk River Free Trappers deer hunt and camp. The loosely organized group of men with a passion for mountain men and muzzleloaders gather for a week to harvest meat and camp in a tepee while using technology from the 1820s.Greg Shaffer uses a ramrod to load his hand-crafted muzzleloader during target practice. Unlike modern firearms, the powder, patch and lead ball are loaded via the front of the barrel, also known as the muzzle.

Hunting group embraces practices of the past

On a clear and sunny day in early November, sparks flashed like lightning and thunderous booms echoed through the hills north of Glendive. 
 
Hunting for venison with little more than muzzleloading rifles and their wits, the Elk River Free Trappers (ERFT) spent a week in a remote area of Dawson County pursuing game and sleeping in a teepee like their forebears 200 years ago. Harkening back to the mountain man era of the early to mid-19th century, the men dressed and lived in a similar fashion to those who explored the west and blazed trails for settlers from the east.  
 
Greg Shaffer, Glendive resident and cofounder of the ERFT, said the group met each of the last four deer seasons to hunt and camp in the traditional way. 
 
“We got together because we all like muzzleloaders and we wanted to preserve some of the skills of the mountain men, and have fun while we do it,” Shaffer said. 
 
Although the Elk River Free Trappers are not an official group, and do little actual trapping, the name is an homage to the early days of the mountain men. 
 
“We needed a name and flag for the group, and the Yellowstone River area used to be full of elk, so that’s how we got the name. It’s kind of a loose group of eight guys, but so were the free trappers,” Shaffer said. 
 
During the height of the beaver trapping period between 1810 and the 1840s, a free trapper was like what we would call a free agent. He traded his pelts independently to whomever paid the best price. On the other hand, a “company man” was usually indebted to a specific fur company for the cost of his gear and took orders from the company representatives. 
 
Shaffer said the freedom and challenge of the life lived by the trappers also appeals to men today. He started shooting muzzleloading rifles in 1969 and hunted everything from rabbit and deer to bears and elk in order to put meat on the family table. 
 
“[The mountain men] would live out here for 15 or 20 years without returning to what we would call civilization. It was a tough life and that is what intrigues me so much. How they could survive and actually make a living out here. It’s important to keep the skills alive and preserve a part of history that is being forgotten,” Shaffer said. 
 
Cofounder Mike Lee said the passion that connects the various members of the group is their love of building and shooting muzzleloaders. 
 
Unlike modern firearms that fire rear-loading metal cartridges containing explosive propellant and a highly refined projectile, traditional muzzleloaders use a loading method in which all of the necessary elements are packed in a specific order from the front. 
 
These front stuffers also shoot black powder that produces a large amount of smoke and round lead balls that are less aerodynamic than modern bullets. 
 
Lee said that hand-crafting an elegant and accurate firearm out of wood and metal is incredibly rewarding. Not only is the gun custom fitted to the maker for a comfortable and accurate shooting experience, it also has unique accents and details that make it stand out. 
 
The technology might not be advanced, but the firearms are still capable of ethically harvesting game at distances out to 150 yards, Lee added. This year, the group took 15 deer and have processed them for meat. 
Fellow member Terry Burbach, who took a deer this year with his self-made muzzleloader, said each gun built is an original. Unlike historical reproductions of guns owned by mountain men in the past, the firearms made by the modern mountain men are one-of-a-kind. 
 
Along with the guns themselves, the members of ERFT also make their own knives, sheaths, belts, clothes and shooting accessories. They use traditional materials like wood and leather, and traditional methods to craft equipment that closely matches what was used by men of the 1820s. 
 
However, Lee said the focus is not on period correctness or the details of the handiwork but instead on the camaraderie shared by all at camp. 
 
“We are not interested in how accurate your clothes are to a certain time period, it’s about people getting out and appreciating these guns and a way of life that has always drawn an honest kind of person,” Lee said. “My greatest moment of the week wasn’t my own shooting, it was when my son-in-law shot his first deer with a muzzleloader that we built together. That was a pretty awesome experience and I would encourage more folks to get out and experience it too.”
 
Reach Daniel Nolker at dan.nolker@gmail.com.
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