That’s how Travis Van Noy summarizes an out-of-this-world backcountry bowhunting experience he had last month in Washington’s North Cascades involving a mule deer and not one, not two but three wolverines.
After Van Noy shot the deer and was patiently waiting for it to expire, the wolverines caught a whiff and had other ideas, chasing it down for a battle royale that led the buck to apparently jump off a cliff to escape its tormentors – which then feasted on the velvet of its antlers.
But in the end, not only was Van Noy able to salvage much of his deer’s meat as well as the head, he and his hunting partner were also witness to a series of very rare and stunning wildlife interactions.
“With fewer than 40 wolverines in Washington, any encounter with these wilderness icons is special. A family of ‘skunk bears’ beating a bowhunter to a downed buck is flat out incredible,” says Chase Gunnell, spokesman for Conservation Northwest, a regional org that has monitored wolverine recovery for more than a decade via remote cameras and snow-tracking transects.
THIS PARTICULAR INCIDENT OCCURRED in early September in the massive Glacier Peak Wilderness. Van Noy, a self-described “construction guy” and stay-at-home dad who lives in Issaquah, and buddy Kyle McGill, who lives in Woodinville and works for a local city, had hired Icicle Outfitters to pack them in for a drop camp hunt.
“Two of my favorite things are hunting and being in the mountains,” Van Noy says.
Day 1 of their hunt found the duo out looking for deer in the morning, but with “super crappy weather,” they ended up hunkered in camp until that afternoon when a buck in “perfect velvet” appeared out of the fog on a hillside about 400 yards away, Van Noy recalls.
Leaving his pack behind, he snuck to within 60 to 70 yards of the five-point, counting eyeguards, without it knowing he was there, but then the animal bedded down as snow fell and wind blew.
Van Noy says he hid behind a boulder for two hours waiting for the buck to stand back up and present a shot.
“I thought I’d have to throw a rock at him,” he says.
When the archer finally had an opportunity to loose an arrow, he hit the deer, but unfortunately a bit farther back than he’d wanted.
The buck then ran towards Van Noy, who nocked another arrow and fired a second shot over its back, missing because his sight was set for a different distance.
Still, he knew it was a mortal hit it by the deer’s actions, not to mention all the blood on the ground and a chunk of intestine hanging in a bush. But he also knew that his best play was to let it expire on its own time instead of pushing it and pushing it until it crawled into some hellhole or went over a pass and proved unrecoverable.
“Gut shot, you just gotta let him sit,” Van Noy says. “It’s gonna die, but it’s gonna take awhile.”
Returning to camp, he talked things over with McGill as they ate their Mountain House dinners. But then after an hour and a half had passed, things got unexpectedly active again.
“Just sitting around having our whiskey when I look up. ‘Those aren’t marmots,'” Van Noy says.
He watched as three lowslung, dark-colored animals “frisked” around on a big boulder before taking off into the wind.
“Holy sh*t, three wolverines,” Van Noy realized, followed by, “Wait a sec, they’re going to my buck!”
As McGill got out a spotting scope and began videotaping the scene, Van Noy watched the wolverines beeline across “500 yards in a minute” to reach the start of the deer’s blood trail and frisk again. The largest one continued toward where the hunters believed the buck to be.
“Oh, my god, they’re going to bump this buck and we’re going to lose him to them,” Van Noy says he worried as night began to fall on the mountains.
ON DAY 2, THE HUNTERS WOKE TO crisp, clear conditions and headed to where Van Noy had hit his deer. They followed its blood trail and found the wolverines had indeed bumped the buck from a bed, pushing it 40 yards to the “worst possible place” – the top of a 150-foot cliff.
“You could tell a battle scene ensued. They had him on the ground and he got up,” he says.
But even with all the tracks and drag marks, the “gruesome scene” didn’t tell them where Van Noy’s buck had gone – until they looked over the edge.
“Basically the buck jumped off the cliff. There were some guts in a tree. Suicide mission, ‘I’m jumping,'” Van Noy says.
The buck rolled until piling up on a root wad below.
“We had to climb down into this nasty cliffy stuff,” he recalls. “I’d assume he was dead (from the fall), but if not, they got him fast.”
Along with eating some of the velvet off its antlers, Van Noy describes wolverine wounds to the deer’s snout, neck, tail, anus and one leg. He says the tenderloins weren’t salvageable and there was bloodshot loss from his arrow, but he still managed to bag up some 70 pounds worth of venison.
But the wolverines hadn’t had their fill of fresh meat quite yet.
On Day 3, as McGill was out trying to notch his tag, the trio turned up again, this time to hunt hoary marmots.
“We heard crazy snarling, like a dog, ripping up a marmot, and saw one running along with a marmot in its mouth,” Van Noy says.
Back home, a Google search told him there are only an estimated 30 to 40 wolverines in Washington.
“So we just saw 10 percent of the wolverine population, or whatever the number is,” Van Noy says.
THE ODDS SEEM VANISHINGLY SLIM to have seen and experienced something like this, but the country Van Noy and McGill hunted is also prime for the species. It’s probable the three were a mother and two grown kits, part of a slowly growing Washington population that first reestablished itself in the North Cacades in the 1990s and has now spread to the Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams areas.
“Coincidently, I’ve personally High Buck Hunted in the same area, and managed a baited trail cam and ‘hare snare’ station nearby for three years for the U.S. Forest Service and Conservation Northwest, documenting just a single wolverine in all that time,” says CNW’s Gunnell “It’s wild, rugged country cherished by hunters, hikers and horsepackers, made even wilder by the presence of the wolverine.”
Finding Gulo, a 25-minute film CNW coproduced with the Cascades Wolverine Project, will premiere at the Banff Mountain Film Festival October 30, with more screenings this winter. Gulo gulo is the scientific name for the species.
Well known for their tenacity, wolverines are the biggest member of the weasel family, with females weighing up to 27 pounds and males to 44 pounds, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“They’re not big, but I don’t think it would be hard for them to take down a fawn or a sick deer,” Van Noy states.
A remarkable video taken during a March 2017 blizzard in Norway shows a reindeer trying to fend off a large lone wolverine, throwing its relentless attacker several times.
September was the second time that Van Noy and McGill have hunted this area of the Cascades and it follows a hike here 10 falls ago when they happened across a hunter in flannel, blue jeans and carrying a .30-06.
“You gotta come up here,” Van Noy recalls the hunter saying.
And so they did. Two years ago saw the duo hike in 11 miles while toting 60-pound packs, which led to their decision to hire an outfitter instead this year.
“Being a bowhunter, you’re in there two weeks earlier, before the madness of the rifle guys. Go in, see if we can get one,” he says.
What Van Noy and McGill got was a Washington wilderness experience like no other.
“It seems as wild as it possibly could get, it was so cool,” says Van Noy. “It’s all pretty magical.”