I wouldn’t call it sleeping in, but we didn’t get up as early as the previous day because we didn’t need to rendezvous with Jawn’s dad on this second morning of the hunt. Having successfully filled his tag the day before, Jawn’s dad was doing what any smart man would do on a Sunday when the rain continued to fall: he was not getting up at 3:30AM.
As we drove into the hills above Kendrick we accepted the fact that it was going to be another wet morning, but we hoped that unlike the previous day, it wouldn’t be foggy. And then we ascended into a fog bank so thick that we couldn’t have seen a white fogline on the right side of the road even if there had been one. Jawn moved his foot from the gas pedal to the brakes and we slowed to a crawl, meandering up the twisting road toward the ranch. With our hopes of a fogless morning dashed, we parked and napped for an hour or so as rain pelted the roof of the truck. When
the sun came up the sky lightened enough to make out shapes in the dim light of dawn, we pulled on our jackets and faced the inevitable fact that we were going to get wet, again. I knew that my boots, which had dried out overnight, would not resist the moisture for long; my rain pants, ventilated from having waged battle with the rose hips and Idaho Mesquite from the day before, didn’t stand much of a chance as a waterproof barrier.
Suck it up. Proceed. Complain silently.
Not too long into the morning we hiked the ridge above a stand of timber, and in much the same fashion as the day before, Jawn’s eagle eye picked out a heard of elk bedded down in the timber a couple of hundred yards below us. His keen vision picked out a spike bull that I shortly thereafter determined to be a spike bull with a few extra branches: a 5 point…
But first let’s jump ahead a few hours to the drama of afternoon. The rain had subsided and the clouds lifted, making for an overcast but not unpleasant day. Micro, Jawn and I hopped on the quad so that we could cover ground more efficiently as we sought a particularly remote corner of the ranch to scout for elk. There was a very good chance that the remnants of the herd that had scattered earlier in the morning may have high-tailed it to this area. We held out hope for another shot. Another elk. With Micro and Jawn comfortably enjoying the padded seat of the Polaris, yours truly was perched on the front rack, the steel bars of which conflicted with my boney arse as we bounced along a “road” through the woods. I’m not convinced that being seated up front and therefore able to anticipate every bone-jarring bump before we came upon it did me any good or not. I’m thinking ignorance may have been bliss as I acknowledged my fate several times, “This is going to hurt”. It was a relief when we reached our destination and set off on foot. Even on legs weary from having hiked many miles already, walking was a welcome change.
The country surrounding us was thick with brush, and looked like a great hideout for a herd of elk on the lamb. For several hours we walked and stopped. We checked natural watering holes, glassed hillsides, and peered into steep draws that pointed downward toward one thing: that damn river. The Potlach River, named for a Native American ceremonious feast. When the wind silenced itself, one could make out the whisper of the river. It called out to me, tauntingly. What are you doing up there with a rifle, you silly man? I’m sure that Micro and Jawn heard nothing but the voice came to me again. You ought be down here with a fly rod, for I have many fish eager to accept your imitation bugs. I tried to block out the voice and concentrated on looking for elk, but the river was unrelenting and hurled one last insult. You know, there may even be steelhead in my waters. We didn’t see an elk all afternoon, and in fact the ranch seemed strangely devoid of any animal activity save for the raucous celebration of the crows that had found the gut pile from the day before. And a distant voice from below that seemed to be laughing.
Jumping back in time a few hours to the morning. The bull was bedded down with his body at a angle to us such that it didn’t present the perfect shot. No problem, as rarely do game animals present the perfect shot. I took my time and rested the forestock of my rifle on a rock ledge, giving me a nearly perfect, steady rest. Looking through the scope at 9x power, I could count the tines on the bull. He wasn’t any sort of Boone & Crockett record, but I was neither Daniel Boone nor Davey Crockett. I dialed the scope down to 3X and the bull became smaller, but not too small: he was only about 200 yards away. Steelhead. As I lay the cross hairs toward the right side of his body, between his shoulder blades, I took a deep breath. Come ply my waters. I exhaled slowly. There are many naïve trouts for you down here. All tension left my body. Visions of fruitless elk hunts past flashed before me. Not many anglers take the time to fish my waters. I was calm, collected. There would be meat in the freezer this winter, and a handsome rack above the fireplace mantle. I was steady as the rock upon which rested my trusty 7mm Magnum. At the same time my index finger pulled against the trigger, a Potlach River steelhead rolled before my eyes, taking a skated October Caddis before running downstream toward the Clearwater River…
My shot flew an inch too wide to the right. The bull, and the rest of the herd, was gone.
And I finally know what Norman MacLean meant when he wrote, “I am
taunted haunted by waters.”
We pick up where we left off with Part I: The rain had tapered off and the fog was lifting, allowing us at least the hope of being able to see any elk that might be bedded down or just hanging out in the distance. We devised a plan whereby Jawn, Micro and I would make the easy hike to the edge of a bluff overlooking a stand of timber below the wheat field, which was below the stand of timber below the bluff where, thanks to fog, nothing had been seen that morning. No shortage of bluffs and timber stands here. Once we were in position, Jawn’s dad would be walking the course of well-worn game trail far below us, pushing through the thick brushy draw. It made sense to have a guy who’s almost 80 do the hard work while we
young middle-aged men sat and waited. So as not to rile the AARP it should be noted that Jawn’s dad could very likely out-hike any one of us, so he was the right man for the job. Any elk he kicked out would run directly below our location. With our keen eyesight the aid of binoculars we’d see them and have plenty of time to set up for an accurate shot.
Once we were in position, Jawn’s eagle eye picked out a small group of elk casually going about their day in the timber. In clear view was the body of a large animal that would eventually reveal itself to be a cow and a couple of other smaller animals, though not an antler amongst the bunch. Jawn radioed to his dad, “We have elk. Stop.” Then he turned to me and asked, “Want to shoot a cow?” Apparently the guy with the out-of-state tag got first right of refusal, or acceptance. I decided that while I am certainly no trophy hunter, I wanted to wait until we hopefully saw a bull. I harkened back to Mrs. UA’s parting words as I left for the weekend hunt, “I’d really like you to bring home some antlers for the fireplace mantle!” Micro echoed my sentiments just as a shot rang out below. Followed by a few more shots. Maybe as many as 7, or 8. That was either a good thing, meaning an elk was good and dead, or no elk was dead and hope shots were being fired in desperation. After the barrage of shooting subsided the two-way radio crackled with news that Jawn’s dad had one down. Jawn’s dad must have known that neither Micro nor I had wanted to shoot a cow. Then again he is the landowner, so he can do whatever he wants.
The three of us descended the steep slope, complaining about our knees the whole way, until we met up with Jawn’s dad. We admired his harvest: it was a big cow (elk, to be sure). She was dead, and amazingly not riddled with multiple bullets. We weren’t sure what the additional shooting had been all about. Jawn’s dad didn’t wait around to explain, as he quickly headed downhill toward what was apparently some sort of road. He’d hike back to the ranch and return with a tractor to make the job of hauling the big cow out of the woods a bit easier. Jawn, Micro and myself were tasked with getting the animal down to the road. Shouldn’t be too hard, after all it was downhill and only a hundred yards or maybe a bit more. It would feel like “a bit more” by the time we completed the task.
Once the cow was field dressed, rather than quartering her out we decided to leave the hide on and drag her by her hind legs. Being that it was down hill the entire way, gravity would do the bulk of the work. It would be like dragging a sled. The only problem was that the cow was nothing like a sled, and we had logs and trees and slippery rocks and mud (it had been raining, you know) that made footing precarious at times. At one point we looked around and couldn’t see Micro, who had disappeared backwards into the brush. Between the intermittent clapping of his hands, Micro’s voice rang out, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”
If the terrain wasn’t challenging enough, there were thickets of the nastiest, rain-gear and flesh-shredding-vegetation that grabbed hold of anything possible and threatened to poke an eye out if one weren’t careful. A kevlar body suit, helmet and safety goggles would have come in handy.
Finally, soaked from the inside out from sweat and from the outside in from rain-soaked brush, and bleeding from superficial wounds, we emerged onto the road which was really little more than a two-track depression through the brush. With the cow out of the woods, Micro and I headed back uphill from whence we came to retrieve guns and packs. Following the fresh skid trail was easy and revealed that we really hadn’t traveled a great distance at all. But dragging a 450 lb animal (field dressed) had added what seemed like miles to the task. During the ascent I was motivated by the promise of the hydration bladder in my pack which was full of fresh water. Unfortunately the musky taste served as a reminder: when you loan your pack to your son for a summer hike, remember to have him drain, rinse and dry the water bladder before putting the pack into storage. I’d rather have rung the water out of my socks into my mouth than consume the foul contents of my pack bladder. Oh well, there was a cooler of water and beer back at the truck, which would be available for consumption within an hour and a half. Jawn’s dad arrived with the tractor and we loaded the elk into the front bucket for the trip back uphill to the ranch. From our location we were within earshot of the river, and it called to out me. But I was not here to be distracted by a watery temptress. My legs were tired and I opted to save my energy for the hike out, rather than making a side trip down to look at a river I couldn’t fish.
We spent the remainder of the day at the Wilson’s enjoying the company of Bill, Darlene and Alvin. These local folks have quite the meat cutting setup on their property: they used to butcher hogs on their farm so they made short work of single elk. I did get to run the electric bone saw for a spell, but mostly I stood around feeling worthless and wishing I had a video camera as I tried not to laugh out loud as the Wilsons bickered between themselves about where to cut and how to do this and “hand me that damn knife I’ll do it myself!”. At one point I took a couple of steps backward to make room should Alvin and his mother come to blows, which thankfully they did not. I couldn’t help but see the potential for a reality show.
At the end of the day we had an elk hung and cooling and I captured my finest-ever photo of a cow (not an elk, but the slow variety). Not bad for a day’s work, though I still hadn’t pulled the trigger. That opportunity would come the next day.