It started out pretty simple, two country boys wishing and dreaming about hunting. Let’s go elk hunting in Idaho, Daron said. Might could, I replied, but I need a rifle. All I got is a 30/30.
Three hundred and fifty dollars later I had a brand new, shiny, Winchester .270 Weatherby with a scope and ammo that costs $1.50 per shell. I was ready to go elk hunting, except I knew very little about Idaho or elk hunting or even really how to get there. Go west young man, go west.
Daron, not to be outdone decided to go bigger. He shouldered himself a .300 Weatherby Magnum that probably could kill a rhino, but hey, ya never know what you will come across in the wilderness.
It was decided, “We’ll go to north central Idaho where you can scoop the elk up with a butterfly net”, Daron announced. I know I’m a dumb country boy but I kinda knew that this was an oversimplified outlook on the outcome of our trip, but hey who’s to rain on our parade? We need a plan.
Forming the plan we decided to keep it pretty simple. Go to Idaho and kill as many elk as we have tags. Get said elk from the backcountry, process said elk and return to Missouri alive with said elk. We need tags, food, transportation and a guide.
Daron’s dad Howard and his brother in law Rick, and some guy named Chuck decided they want to be part of our plan. Howard being a veteran of wilderness hunting knew what was in store for two Ozark’s boys but was strangely quiet about our plans, only saying this. “The terrain is so steep you boys will be tearing your socks in half before you get back to camp”. I thought Howard was touched a little, why would we tear up perfectly good socks?
We arranged for a guide, someone Howard knew. The guide assured us we had tags and could put us in an elk hotspot in early October and guaranteed a wilderness experience. I even opted for a black bear tag and Daron decided he’d get an extra deer tag. Might be fun to kill a bear I thought. Howard and Rick, and some guy named Chuck got themselves an elk tag and a cougar tag. We were loaded with tags and a plan. Howard just smiled alot.
The day for leaving grew closer and the packing commenced. I had heard and read quite a bit about the critters in Idaho and I was no greenhorn to hunting. I packed for the worst possible scenario, taking a sidearm, elk bugle, compass, candles, raingear, rope, knives, extra winter clothes, survival blanket, survival food, everything I could think of packed in a duffle bag along with a polar sleeping bag. Howard and Rick, and some guy named Chuck decided that flying was the way to go, bypassing an 4000 mile road trip. Not me and Daron. We wanted the travel experience of seeing the sights across the west.
The grand day came to leave, no more work for 2 weeks. We were hunting elk.
As we went west into Kansas, Daron announced a little side trip to Wichita to pick up another one of our party. What? “Oh yeah”, Daron said, “he’s a family friend and he wants to go.” News to me I said but hey, if he’s a friend of yours then he’s a friend of mine. “Never said he was a friend of mine”, he replied. “Fred’s his name.”
Fred was a unique individual. He was a bachelor lawyer and the picture definition of an old west ” Eastern Dude”. A carpet bagger and a tenderfoot my family would have called him. He had read every Zane Grey novel and watched “Lonesome Dove” twice and was a self proclaimed expert on the west and its culture. The latter he readily and monotonously affirmed across Kansas, Nebraska and half of Wyoming. Fred was a tall, stocky man with thick glasses, a shock of red hair and citified ways about him. He was about at home on an elk hunting trip as the Queen of England would have been, but he was a family friend I kept telling myself. Somewhere about the Idaho, Wyoming border we started plotting Fred’s demise.
We traveled fast , switching drivers and stopping only to answer the call, eat and refuel. We marveled at the vast expanse of the west, multitudes of antelope and contemplated our upcoming adventure, and secretly Fred’s demise. We met Howard’s company including some guy named Chuck in Boise. We stopped long enough to sleep for a few hours and then on to the wilderness to hunt those elk. The only bed that was partially unoccupied was with Fred, I chose the floor.
Another 6 hours on the road brought us to the ranch that would be our base camp. We met the outfitter and he set us up in our cabin quarters for the night. Tomorrow he promised we’d meet the guide, pack the horses and ride into the wilderness for our hunt. “Fred, you ever rode a horse?,” I asked. “Read about it” was his reply. His demise seemed more promising.
Early the next morning our guide showed with the horses. Howard picked mine out for me, he wanted me to have the biggest one since my stature was such as it is. He said, “Now if that horse gets tired carting you, you get off and give him a ride.” Howard was of some girth himself but him being my elder, I refrained from retort.
Fred however, was another story. He presented himself in the most gawd awful brand new, yellow, buckskin pants and jacket any eastern dude could have picked out complete with fringe. To say the least he was a dandy. Our guide snickered, shook his head and returned to packing the horses and the rest of us wondered what was next with Fred.
The first few miles were easily traveled as it was over mostly flat land, which was good for Fred because he was less than an adequate horseman. He musta skipped that chapter. I’m sure his horse held him in the same high regard as the rest of our company, but travel on we did.
My horse and I got along fine, as he was a big fellar like me. We had an understanding from the start. I knew he had been in high places and narrow ledges before and I knew my way around horses. Getting into the high country formed the bond a little tighter between me and him. Howard just rode along quietly and Fred, he was still trying to figure out the steering on his model of horse. “Different than the Wal Mart horses you’re used to huh?” I asked.
We went thru a series of steep switchbacks and climbed several thousand feet. We had 20 miles to ride to our camp thru some wondrous country, filled with huge pine trees and numerous mule deer. Things were looking up for our company and hopes were high for filling our tags. The weather was unusually warm and skies were clear. Our guide, we learned, was from back east and had given up corporate America for the wide open country. He left the city behind and now is living the dream in the wild west.
We rode on thru glades and meadows, finally descending into a valley which we soon learned was to be our home for the next 7 days. We arrived at our camp to find two joined wall tents and a third separate tent that resembled a Civil War Sibley. Howard was quick to claim this as his own, citing his need for solitude while sleeping. It was quickly dubbed the Howard Hilton.
One of the wall tents was the kitchen/dinning room. We unloaded the food and placed it in the tent. The sleeping tent had five cots and a pot bellied stove. I claimed a cot near the rear of the tent hoping Fred would opt for the real wilderness experience and sleep outside. No such luck on that one.
Our guide gathered up the horses and started to leave. “What? You are taking the horses? How are we getting around?” “I guess you’ll walk” he said and down the trail he went. He looked back over his shoulder and said, ” You can drink the water from the creek but you’d better boil it first. Make sure you bathe downstream from where you drink. See you in 7 days.” “Well I’ll be” I mumbled. Howard was no where to be found, probably sprucing up the Hilton and Fred was trying to find the chapter in his book on survival. I just looked at Daron and said, “How are we gonna carry all those elk?”
We kicked the chipmunks and some other unidentified small varmints out of the sleeping tent and commenced to make house. The creek, our guide referred to, was just a few yards away from the opening of the tent and on that particular warm day it looked inviting after a long ride. I went down to wash the tail dust off and get a feel for the lay of the land. I said earlier that we descended into a valley, but it was more of a bowl, it was up any direction you looked and more up in some than others. Socks, I hope I brought enough socks.
The evening meal was grand, taken out under the glorious display of the stars. The cool crisp Idaho fall air was refreshing and made the long miles to get here just fade away. Tomorrow promised a good opening morning to hunt elk… and then it happened. “Mind if I tag along with you gents?” Fred said. Suddenly Idaho seemed so small. There was no place to hide. Daron, quick on his feet answered, “Chuck don’t have a partner”, and the bond was formed. It may have been love at first sight for Fred, not so sure about Chuck.
With the disaster averted I set about making my bedroll into a bed. I had my .44 hog leg tucked under my pillow for any untoward encounters with the local wildlife. I shucked out of my clothes and sunk down into my sleeping bag and planned my day ending with a trophy elk to bring home and drifted off to sleep.
Somewhere in the wee hours of the night I woke to frost on my pillow. I am used to a lot of things but frost on my pillow is not one of them. Someone forgot to load the stove before bedding down. With the temperature somewhere near Arctic it was hard to convince myself to take one for the team, but I did. I extricated myself from my warm bed and tried my best to hurry, but not wake the others. The fire had burned down to almost nothing but just enough embers remained to catch the kindling and soon I had a nice warm fire. Now, back to bed before I freeze anything important off.
Long before dawn we awoke. Excitement was in the air as we dressed and made ready for the hunt. Daron and I had seen a trail along the mountain to the south and it was decided we’d climb up to it and skirt down along and above the creek on that trail. Backpack, water, ammo, binocks, snacks, gun, tag, socks and knife, ready. Finally, we were elk hunting.
We climbed the mountain that was directly south of the camp up to a little trail that went downstream from the camp. We went along the trail and few hundred feet and came to a flat rock that jutted out over the creek bed. It had various species of feces on it and was ceremoniously named Defecation Rock. This would become a prominent landmark and meeting place of our hunt.
And there he was. A small black dot about a mile down the canyon, feeding on the mountainside. “That’s a bear!” I said. “Are you sure?” Daron replied? “Look for yourself” I said, as I handed him the field glasses. A few minutes went by, and then a few more. “I think you are right”, he said, “Let’s go get him.”
I counted five mountain canyons between us and the bear. These were like fingers on an outstretched hand coming down the mountain. He was on the last finger. We marched down the first one deep into the canyon and then back up. It took about fifteen minutes to cross the first one. Out of breath but not deterred, we scoped the bear again. Still there. Another hike down and then back up. Now tired and out of breath we rested and he was still there. Repeated twice more and about forty five minutes later we were on the ridge across from him. Factoring in the altitude, I was tired, and breathing like a steam engine. The bear had not moved. He was looking for grubs and was intent on eating. I guessed him at 300 yards. Daron agreed.
We waited until I had regained some strength and breathing returned to normal and made a suitable gun rest for my rifle. It was a wide open shot across a canyon. Oh for a range finder!! The bear was huge, jet black and shimmering blue in the morning sun and had no idea we were there. I had never shot at this distance before. I knew my rifle was sighted in at 200 yards, so I placed the crosshairs at the top of his back, near the front shoulder. Daron had his rifle at the ready for a follow up shot in the unlikely event I missed. I squeezed the trigger and the rifle responded. I looked up in time to see the bear raise up and pivot uphill. Then I hear Daron’s .300 mag. fire and still the bear was running uphill. I jacked another shell into the chamber and fired at the running bear. Similar to the canyon we had taken fifteen minutes to cross, he crossed this one in 30 seconds, over the top and gone, just like that. I missed. He missed. I missed again. After a long silence, I said, “Better go see if we hit him”, knowing full well we missed. So down the canyon wall we climbed and over to where the bear was standing. We counted 120 paces. 120 yards!!. We had over judged the distance and had shot over the bear 3 times. Come to find out this was a common mistake in the west where wide open shots were the norm instead of the exception. Who knew? The Ozark’s boys had learned lesson number one the hard way.
No blood. No hair. No bear. “Here’s the deal” I said as I contemplated our hike back to camp. “You know these five canyons are just plain in our way back to camp, right?” “What if we were to go down the mountain to the creek we know is there, bypassing the canyons and walk it back to camp?” “Cuz, back home walking the creek is easy.” “Dang good idea” Daron said, “We’ll do it.” Seemed logical in a strange redneck sorta way at the time.
“Sure wish I had some of that Pet Milk your dad is always going on about, I’m pretty dry since our water ran out, how does that go again?” I asked. Daron said, “Pet Milk is good, Pet Milk is rich, no teats to pull, no s*%* to pitch, poke two holes in the son of a [email protected]$#%.” “Sounds right” I said. “Your dad has a way with the English language, kinda flows off his silver tongue, a veritable Edgar Allan Poet of the West!” ” I’m still thirsty though.”
I didn’t really care what was at the base of this mountain as long as we were going downhill, and downhill, and then more downhill. After descending for what seemed like hours we came to a rather straight up and down piece of real estate I would refer to as a cliff, and then the creek 100 feet below. “Now what?” I asked. “Let’s head back to camp along this ridge and maybe we can find a way into the creek,” was the reply. “Better than going back up that mountain,” I muttered. A quarter mile up the creek we found a way down a really steep canyon to the creek. We made it to water without breaking anything important and plunged right into the cold stream. Hot muscles and cold creek water equal only one thing. Leg cramps. I thought I had an acute case of tetanus of the legs. After about two or three minutes of extreme pain I noticed Daron drinking the water. “Hope there ain’t no amoebas or other one celled critters itching to get to your guts” I said. What the heck? I too drank long and deep. Tasted like earth, but it was cold and wet.
We rested for awhile and then started toward camp. Rounding the bend, the creek narrowed and then we saw it. Very large pine trees laid across the creek like a giant game of pickup sticks as far as we could see. Over one and under another for a solid mile up the creek we slowly crawled. Exhausted and cranky we finally saw the white top of our sleeping tent in the distance as the sun began to set. We made it. “I not so inclined to tell the rest of them how dumb we are if your not,” I said. Daron too tired to reply, just moaned and grunted. I took it as a vow of silence on his part.
The next morning I could not get out of bed. I was so sore and stove up and hurt so bad that even breathing was hard. I decided to stay in camp and loosen up and I might go out this afternoon. I need a bath. Howard said “If you want sympathy look it up in the dictionary, we didn’t come to Idaho to lay in bed.” This coming from a man who walked the grand total of 100 yards yesterday. I smiled at him but even that hurt.
Later that evening we were sitting outside the tent swapping lies and a thin wisp of smoke came wafting out of Howard’s tent, the Hilton, followed by a larger plume. “Howard?” I said. “Yeah?” “Your tents on fire.” We all rushed over to the tent but stopped short of going in, not sure what was on fire. Howard came by us like a herd of turtles and disappeared into the tent. “I thought you ordered the non-smoking room Howard,” I yelled. He emerged with the offending material still smoldering, “I found it, it’s a, or was, a blanket that got too close to the stove. “No working smoke detector? You need to speak to the manager,” I said. “Still sore about the sympathy comment I see?” he asked. Karma can come back to bite ya…huh?” I replied. “I guess you’ll wanna sleep with the poor kids tonight?” I asked. “No sir, I’ll be just fine,” came the reply. Tragedy averted we bedded down for the night.
The rest of the week was spent covering as much ground as possible in search of the elk. We would hear a distant bugle now and then but never got within sight of one. Up and down those blasted hills, over creeks and back up a mountain and still not even a glimpse of the elk.
Our guide showed up in the middle of the week expecting to pack out any kills we had. Daron had managed to kill a scrawny whitetail buck and it was packed back to the base camp for processing. We came all this way to kill a whitetail deer we could have shot off our own back porch?
We decided for the last morning we do an old fashioned Ozark’s deer drive. We all lined up, spaced out and marched up the mountain expecting to flush anything shootable out in the open. No luck on that, we resigned ourselves to the fact that the elk were safe, the bears were safe and we had to go home tomorrow.
Back in camp, Fred suddenly jumped up and ran over Rick and placed his arm around some guy named Chuck. Pointing up the mountain with his other hand he said, “Do you see it?” “See what?” Chuck said. Fred drew Chuck in tighter. “That mountain lion laying in that tree up the mountain,” Fred said. Still pointing up, Fred tightened his grip on Chuck. “Right there, in that tree,” Fred said. I looked at Daron, who’s eyes revealed what I was thinking. “Fred your are off your rocker and let Chuck go,” I said. I think Fred had snapped from being in the wilderness too long, or from being close to Chuck, I wasn’t sure. “Oh maybe I’m seeing things,” came Fred’s reply, as he loosened his grip on Chuck. “Chuck, you ok?” Daron asked. “Yeah, but there ain’t no mountain lion up there,” Chuck said.
The next morning the guide showed up and we packed the horses for the return trip. Tired and wilderness weary we rode along mostly in silence, retracing the trail we came in on. We reached the base camp that afternoon and settled into our cabins for the night. It is a miracle what a shower will do for a person’s outlook on things. We agreed to be on the road the next morning at daybreak and it was lights out. Fred had decided to fly home with Howard and company opting to spend more time with Chuck we surmised. That freed Daron and I to blaze our own way home. All we had to do was drop Fred off at the airport in Boise and then it was homeward bound for us.
Six hours on the road to Boise and we were saying good bye to Howard, Rick, Fred and some guy named Chuck. “Let’s go east,” I said.
Daron drove most of the way across Idaho and when we reached the Wyoming border announced that he did not feel very well. “Probably that last creek nobody but you drank out of on our last day,” I said. “Probably”.
“Lay down in the back I’ll drive,” I said. So Daron bedded down in the back and off across Wyoming we went. It wasn’t long before I hear, “Better pull over….NOW!” Daron left his breakfast, lunch and his recent snacks along I-80. I got really good at deciphering his guttural noises as to which ones meant pull over or was just a passing cramp. Then as if the spewing wasn’t enough, mother nature added her calling card and the other end had its time. We became acquainted with all the rest stops along I-80 and got really good at timing the blessed events. Looking somewhat pale and spent, I offered to take him to a hospital or clinic, or bury him but he refused all.
Somewhere around midnight, and in the thickest fog I’ve ever encountered, we went through Cheyenne. “What town is this?” he asked. “Cheyenne or Hell, I’m not sure” I replied. I got in between two semis and we went across Nebraska at 85 miles per hour. When we reached Kearney about daybreak, I could go no further. We holed up at a rest stopped and tried to sleep for a few hours.
Daron announces, “I feel better now, I think I’ll drive awhile.” “Good for me,” I said. “I guess we don’t have to worry about how we are gonna carry all those elk, huh?”