My Dad was no saint. He could (and often did) swear like a sailor. He had a temper that was scary to behold. And he helped me understand the almost indescribable excitement of the hunt. Such realizations were brought forth when my brother, Randy, and I decided to plan an elk hunt to the Salmon River drainage of Idaho. There had been a lot of life since our hunts with Dad; there had also been his death. My Dad was a difficult man to get close to, so as an adolescent I had begun the process of distancing myself from him. Yet, as the planning of the ‘elk trip’ moved from dream to itinerary, one memory of my Dad kept returning. It was of a conversation in which he spoke sadly about an elk trip to Colorado, taken before I was born. He told me about not seeing any bulls, but having cow elk come to within 30 yards of he and his friends. My Dad seemed to consider the trip a failure because he did not bring an elk home. I recall thinking not so much of a failure, but rather of his description of the animals standing 30-40 yards away in the early-morning mist.
Preparation for the trip brought me to another confrontation with memories. Shortly before his death, my Dad had given me a custom-built, .35 Whelan Improved Mauser-action rifle. As he handed me the rifle he said “This will bring down anything on this continent, but I really hope you get an elk with it.”
So, choice of firearm was simple. It made more sense to take a less expensive rifle, one that I would not worry about as it became scratched and dented in a saddle scabbard, but I wanted to fulfill my Dad’s and my dream of taking a trophy elk with the Whelan.
The day finally came for me to fly to Seattle where I would meet Randy for the drive to Salmon, Idaho. As always, I fretted over sending my rifle into the belly of a plane and through the hands of people who could not begin to imagine the importance of what that hard plastic case enclosed – not just a metal and wood tool, but a connection to a heritage begun the day my Dad first hunted in his home state of Iowa. Within 30 seconds of picking up my rifle case, it was lying open and I was experiencing a release of tension as I gazed at the intact stock.
Two days later found us in a twin-engine Britain Islander that alternately skimmed across the rugged hilltops and sailed over the intervening chasms of the Salmon River drainage. As the flight progressed, my mind had begun to ponder the Herculean feat accomplished by the expedition led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clarke. As summarized by James P. Ronda in his book Lewis and Clark Among the Indians, “…the expedition struggled along…the Salmon River through country made difficult by heavy timber, steep hills, and dense thickets. Progress was slowed as horses slipped and fell. A snow and sleet storm made the going even more treacherous.” In stark contrast, our flight was smooth and ended with a gentle bump onto the grass airstrip.
I followed the other hunters off the plane, breathing deeply from the alpine air. I had a healthy measure of confidence about the outcome of our hunt; I had hunted this general area once before with the same outfitter. On that first hunt I fulfilled a lifelong goal of taking a wilderness hunt, and in the process collected a trophy black bear. This second trip would also include high quality guides, a great basecamp, and an extremely remote hunting area with only horses, mules and our own feet and backs to find and bring back the game.
Randy and I were to be hunting out of the same camp with our new friend, Ron Differ. Though all three of us had bear and deer tags, we had come primarily for the chance to hunt elk during the bugle season (i.e., mid-September—mid-October). Elk, however, don’t always choose to bugle during this period, especially when the temperature is high enough to roast a chicken on an exposed rock. That was the climatological anomaly that surrounded our hunting party as we made the five-hour ride from the airstrip to our alpine meadow base camp.
Our final descent into the meadow was accompanied by the clanking of bells that hung around the necks of the grazing horses and mules, the glow of the lantern light through the sides of the cook tent, and by the sight and smell of the woodsmoke trailing from the camp stove.
Soon to come: My Dad’s Elk – The Hunt is On