My Dad’s Elk – Our Dream Achieved

For the first two installments of this hunt see The Dream Begins and The Hunt is On

If what we experienced for the next hour and a half of our hunt was shown to me on a hunting video, I would assume that it had been spliced together from several sessions. Gary would call and the elk would respond with grunts and complex bugles. We would move slowly and carefully along the ridge. Gary would call again, and after a brief pause, the elk would answer. Unfortunately, from the sound of the bugles, we were not closing in on the bull. Gary had to decide whether to go after the bull, or try to set up and entice him to us. I know I was of absolutely no help, but we had a short discussion before electing to set up just below the ridgeline.

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Gary indicated the tree he wanted me to sit beneath and then headed uphill, and to the right, of my ‘stand’. If the bull came into his call, he wanted him focusing on the caller, not the guy with the rifle. After only 15 minutes of answering back-and-forth with the bull, Gary joined me. It was apparent by the steadily lessening volume of the bull’s grunts that he was leaving the area, and it looked like we were going to need to go after him. To locate the general direction of the departing bull, Gary gave another blast from his camouflaged tube. I almost needed a fresh set of underwear when the bull’s challenge came from a short distance away. Gary changed to the cat-like mews of a cow elk, followed immediately by another bugle from his tube. As the bull once again let loose with his vocalization, Gary whispered, “There’s your bull, he’s a six-point!” With urgency in his whisper, he asked “Can you see him?!” I answered with a rising panic, “No!!” Just then my attention was grabbed by a golden flash in the valley bottom.

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The bull stretched out his neck from behind a fire-killed pine and let out a mosaic of sounds. A series of cow vocalizations from Gary caused the bull to turn toward our position. As he turned, he began a series of frustration/question barks causing his ribcage to jerk due to the violent expulsion of air. Gary answered with a long and loud bugle that transitioned into more cow mews.

To this day, I am convinced that it was an eternity before I watched the bull slowly swivel to his left! First, his nose, then his eye and then the base of his antlers appeared. Ever-so-slowly his impossibly thick neck, followed by his massive shoulder, slid into view. The trigger crept and the recoil from the Whelan rocked me back a fraction of a second after the crosshairs rested behind his shoulder. As I worked the bolt of my rifle, the elk froze and then turned slowly to trot into the stand of dead pines that occupied the valley floor. I worked the bolt of my rifle twice more as I followed the elk’s path with insurance shots. Gary threw his arm around my shoulders and exclaimed “Now, was THAT worth the price of admission?!” I could only come up with, “Unbelievable, absolutely unbelievable”.

Both of us felt the shot was good because the bull had frozen, rather than bolting immediately. Gary also thought he had seen the flash of antlers as if the bull had gone down a short distance into the timbers. We waited 10 minutes or so for the elk to expire and then made our way down the slope. As we reached the valley floor, we spotted the bull lying on the other side of a downed tree.

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I ran my hands over the long, pitch-stained antlers and savored the sweet-musky aroma. My brother would go on to harvest an even larger bull on this hunt. It did not matter. I had been brought to the Salmon River, this pine forest, to my trophy elk, because of my Dad’s dream.

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My Dad’s Elk – The Hunt is On

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Our first hunting day provided the type for the remainder of our hunt: woken before dawn as a guide lit the lantern and stove in our tent, devouring a delicious and filling breakfast, traveling several miles on foot or horseback into the surrounding country, still hunting until mid-day when we would take our “elk nap”, glassing throughout the afternoon, traveling back to basecamp in the dark, consuming dinner in an exhaustion-induced daze, and collapsing gratefully onto the camp cot. The one discordant note from the first day came from the lack of elk.

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Day 2 was basically a repeat of the previous one, except that Gary (my guide) and I found elk tracks on top of our previous day’s horse tracks along the main trail to camp. I was also captivated by still-hunting to within 40 yards of a mule deer doe, two fawns and three young bucks. Though wonderful, encountering mule deer could not remove the nagging doubts caused by the hot weather and missing game. As night fell in camp, and the other groups of hunters and guides returned, the same story was repeated – plenty of heat, dust and flies, but no elk.

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Discouragingly, dawn on Day 3 was dry and again accompanied by the threat of climbing temperatures. This morning, however, Randy and his guide (Dave) along with Gary and I had left camp much earlier in order to reach a distant ridge near the headwaters of Bear Creek. We left Randy and Dave just short of the ridgeline that would act as the boundary between our respective hunting areas; Randy and I looked at one another as we turned to ride into ‘our’ hunting areas and mouthed “no poaching allowed!” We continued to the ridge and there changed the bridles to halters on our horses, tethering them in a stand of young pines.

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We began our slow descent from the ridge, but had traveled less than 50 yards when I thought I heard a distant bugle. Gary looked at me doubtfully. I had earned his doubt by repeatedly mistaking braying  mules, singing birds and creaking trees for elk bugles. This time though, I was proven correct when the elk again sent his challenge into the dry, crisp, alpine coolness. Gary pulled a tube call from his pack and quickly unleashed his first response bugle; the bull answered with a grunt. The next sound from the bull seemed much closer and was not a grunt, but a full-throated bugle. Gary inferred later that we had been interacting with two love-sick bulls, but at the time we thought it to be one, extremely-talented artiste…

Soon to come: My Dad’s Elk – Our Dream Achieved

My Dad’s Elk – The Dream Begins

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Communication Skills of a Guide – Part 2

            Guides are always sensitive to their hunter’s feelings.  The best Guides, like Tim and Larry, always aim to build up the hunter’s self esteem thereby increasing the hunter’s confidence.  The Guide only encourages, and is very careful to avoid mentioning any mistakes made by their hunter.  As an example, consider the following interchange between Larry and me.  “Man you did great”, Larry exclaimed!  “You really held your composure and were patient and then took the shot when it came.”  I had just endured 30 minutes of my guide trying to irritate a trophy elk into stepping from behind a screen of trees. It had worked, and we would soon discover that the 250 grain Nosler Partition from my .35 Whelan Improved, custom-built rifle had done its job.  “Yeah, I’ve had hunters yell at the animals instead of shooting, jack all of their cartridges out onto the ground without pulling the trigger, and look everywhere for the 800-pound bull, everywhere that is except 40 feet straight in front of them where it was standing in the open.  But boy not you, there must be John Wayne amounts of ice water running in your veins!”  Not wanting the celebration of my excellence as a hunter to stop, I prompted Larry one last time with a humble “Well, are you sure I did everything just right?”  I sat back, half closing my eyes, and waited to have the compliments waft over me.  He looked at me out of the corner of his one good eye and said, “Now that you mention it, I noticed you fiddling with your scope magnification.  And I just want to tell you that if you had missed your only opportunity to shoot that elk because of it, I would have been all over you like stink on a skunk!”

            The very best Guides, like Larry, enrich the hunter’s experience by also involving them in the post-harvest tasks. I already mentioned that I got to hold the meat while Larry tried to chop my hand off, but I wanted to do more.  I had been watching Larry and the other Guides and I was certain I could tie up the mannie packs as well, and as fast, as they.  “Are you absolutely certain that I can’t help you mannie the meat and get the packs onto the mules”, I asked for the 15th time?   Larry slowly straightened up from where he was crouching over one of the packs.  He turned toward me and said very slowly, almost like he was talking to an idiot child, “There are three things you can do for me.  Number 1 quit asking me that question, Number 2 stay out of my way, and Number 3, and most importantly, get off my rope!”

            To conclude this essay let me state again what I said at the outset, the most gifted Guides are master communicators.  They never use ten words when two will suffice, they always express themselves in clear, certain tones and they always – repeat always – encourage dialogue between themselves and their hunter.  An excellent example of just such a positive interaction occurred between Larry and myself concerning the fact that, in addition to my elk tag, I carried a permit for a black bear.  I had already collected a trophy black bear two years before, but if the opportunity arose, I sure was interested in getting another.  In this vein, I asked Larry if he thought a bear might be drawn to the remains of my elk.  He looked at me and brought our dialogue to a close with, “God, I hope not!”  I must have looked shocked because he answered my stare with “I am an Elk Guide.  Bears are nasty, greasy, tick-infested animals and if you shoot one, you will be gutting, skinning and carrying it out yourself!”  I thought about asking Larry whether he would be willing to tell me how he really felt about bears, but he seemed to be grumbling under his breath and had once again picked up his axe…

Communication Skills of a Guide – Part 1

            Larry’s grin widened as he reviewed the facts about the “Bear Crick Montana Testicle Festival”.  “Yeah, it’s really just an excuse for a drunk, but over 10,000 people show up to drink beer and eat mountain oysters”.  “Oh, by the way it’s called the ‘Testy Festy’ for short”, he added with an even bigger grin.  Not for the first, or last, time I wondered at the range of topics on which my Guide was an expert.  Larry could wax lyrical on subjects as diverse as Native American customs to alfalfa farming, from the diamond hitch to the Bear Creek “excuse for a drunk”.  I truly enjoy being in the presence of people who are both knowledgeable and well spoken who are, for lack of a better phrase, “master communicators”.  Yet the best Guides aren’t just highly gifted in telling stories, they are also word artists whose entire purpose is to employ their communication skills to make the hunter’s trip an experience of a lifetime…

            “Don’t you trust me?” Larry asked as he lowered the hand axe.  He had already field dressed and skinned my elk with minimal help from yours truly, but now that the carcass was ready for quartering, he had told me to hold the half an elk upright while he chopped lengthwise through the backbone.  I responded to his question and the twinkle in his one functional eye with, “I just don’t want to go through the rest of my life being called ‘Lefty’”.  Now a Guide who knows his stuff puts his hunter at ease with calming assurances. Larry was an artist in this type of verbal intercourse.  So, he adjusted his patient look and said “In my entire 30-year career, I’ve only maimed three or four hunters, so the odds are in your favor.  Now, hold the elk steady…”

            Guides often have to use their vast repertoire of verbal assurances to calm their hunter’s unease due to a lack of familiarity with their four-legged companions – meaning horses and mules.  A master Guide is able to accomplish this even when the hunter is riding in the dark, on a nervous horse, along a precipitous trail, near a roaring river.  A case in point occurred on a trip I took into the Selway river backcountry after black bear.  It seemed that darkness always found my guide Tim and me riding along the rocky ledges of the Selway.  Until that trip I had considered the old saying “too dark to see your hand in front of your face” to be an exaggeration for effect.  I was wrong.  On our journey back to camp each night the only thing visible were the sparks from the shoes of Tim’s horse as it scrabbled frantically for a hold on the downward sloping granite near the sheer drop-offs.  I never saw the sparks from my horse’s feet, since I closed my eyes when it was our turn to slide in the direction of the roaring cataracts.  However, I was with a perceptive and sensitive guide who could sense my discomfort.  To alleviate my concerns, Tim assured me that there was a surefire technique to enable a rider to survive a tumble over the ledges near which we were riding.  “It’s simple”, he said one night as we slithered our way repeatedly toward certain destruction.  “If your horse goes over the edge, kick your foot out of the downhill stirrup and just roll uphill away from your horse”.  Being a scientist, I asked the obvious data question.  “So have you ever known that to work?”  “Sure have” Tim answered.  “A couple of years ago another guide, by the name of Curt, was riding along this same trail, just about in this exact spot.  His horse got a bit close to the edge and broke through an undercut.  Well, quicker than you can say “Oh my!!” they were over the drop and rolling toward the bottom.  But Curt kept his wits about him and did a sideways, double somersault, ending up holding onto a bush while his horse went tumbling on into the rocks at the bottom.”  Not really feeling any better about my chances in a similar situation, I said with a shudder “So then I guess he was o.k.”  “Yeah he was”, Tim answered while sucking his teeth, “that is until the mule he was pulling came over the edge too and rolled right over the top of him…”

Stay Tuned for ‘Communication Skills of a Guide – Part II’