I still shriek in pain occasionally, but the doctor tells me that one day I may again walk normally. I still bolt upright at 3:30 A.M. and grope for a flashlight so that I can stoke a sheepherder stove which is not there. I have relearned what a wonderful thing indoor plumbing is.
What has brought me to this state?
I was on an elk hunt–the real thing, living in a tent camp at 5,000 feet in the Absaroka-Beartooth wilderness in Montana, just north of Yellowstone Park. Elk hunts, unlike your typical deer hunts, are a character-building experience. I have endured them many times before, and hopefully will again. If you have not, let me take you on one.
THERE ARE SEVERAL WAYS YOU CAN HUNT ELK. The first, and easiest, is to patronize a ranch that has a resident herd. You will not have to put out much effort, and you will almost certainly get your animal. The second option is to hike into the mountains as far as you can go on foot in a day. If you are truly hardcore, you can pack your own camp on your back and stay in the forests until your food and your legs give out, but unless you are skillful and can spend a lot of time in the woods each season, you will not get an elk hunting on foot because you can’t cover enough ground.
The third possibility is to go with an outfitter, ride way into the wilderness, and hunt with a guide. The odds are better because the horses can cover twice what you can in a day and the outfitters know the country and where the elk can be found. That’s the theory, anyway.
There were eight hunters on this trip–five gun writers, the president of an optics company, a retired sales manager, and a building contractor. The last two men were older than I am, which is old indeed.
We were collected at a motel in Bozeman and driven through Livingston to Gardiner, and then through Yellowstone Park to the trailhead, where the hunters whose places we were to take rode down to meet us. They were red-faced, bundled to the eyes, and had the look of men who have been cold for a long time. We learned from them that the weather for the past week had been bitter, so cold that they could not stay on stand for long, and that the party had collected one elk.
THE RIDE INTO OUR CAMP took roughly three hours and covered about 7 miles. This is a modest amount of time and mileage for the first day in the saddle. I know of some outfitters who take their hunters 30 miles into camp on a marathon all-day ride. Unless you have grown up in the saddle, three hours on horse-back will leave you groaning. An all-day ride will live you prostrate with agony.
Elk hunting means riding either uphill or downhill. Uphill is not so bad, but riding downhill, you must support your weight either on your rump or with your knees. If you let your legs hang loose and put your weight on your pelvis, you will mash your balls and your hips will feel as if a fiery iron bar had been driven through them. You can brace yourself with your knees to spare your balls, but your knees will soon become white-hot knots of agony. If you don’t brace yourself at all, you will lose your balance and pitch over your horse’s head.
The correct way to ride a western saddle is with the stirrups adjusted to let your legs hang nearly straight. Inexperienced riders who ride with their stirrups too short ride on their knees and pay in bitter coin. Sitting in your saddle will quickly become torture, and walking will be practically impossible.
Over the course of the week, saddle soreness was the leitmotif of our existence. We talked almost entirely about elk, and about our agony. This is no fault of the out-fitter. It is simply the way of elk hunting.
My guide was a transplanted South Carolinian named Wes. He has lived in Montana for years but still carries the scent of magnolias in his drawl. Wes is in his 40s and knows something of mortality and the futility of killing yourself trying to get an elk. Young guides, in their 20s, will destroy you–and themselves, if necessary–to get one. Wes was a bull rider in his younger days, and like most rodeo cowboys, he has broken most of the major bones in his body. He has sorrowful eyes and a slow smile. His pacs are patched with epoxy where the stirrups have worn through them.
OUR DAYS BEGAN IN THE DARK. At 3:30 we could hear the guides whispering as they walked the half mile to the meadow where the horses grazed. They caught and saddled the mounts and then met us for breakfast in the cook tent at 4:30. We rode out of camp in a profound darkness, but the horses, with their wonderful eyes, could see the trail perfectly well even in the pitch black.
We rode from the base camp, which was at 5,000 feet, up into the high meadows, which were at nearly 10,000. It took two hours, and the horses plodded nonstop up nearly vertical slopes that would burst your heart or mine.
As it grew light we dismounted, drew our rifles from their saddle scabbards, and followed Wes to the edge of a meadow. Then the calling and the waiting began. It was the end of the rut. Since the bulls were becoming reluctant to come to a bugle, most of the music Wes made consisted of cow and calf calls. We waited. We hoped. The hours passed. When nothing showed, we mounted up and rode to another pasture.
Realistically, if you don’t lure out an elk in the gray light of morning, you probably won’t get another chance until the gray light of evening. They tend to bed down during the day and nothing will budge them. But you ride and look and call all day because time is against you, and you must hunt until it is too dark to see. Then you ride back to camp, have dinner at eight, crawl into your sleeping bag, and wait for 3:30 to arrive.
I did shoot an elk, but it wasn’t mine. There were two groups of us, arrayed on a wooded ridge overlooking a meadow right on the Yellowstone Park line. We knew there were bulls in the park, waiting to be coaxed out, and after an hour or so of cow music, a big bull and two raghorns (3-pointers) began edging toward us. The guide doing the calling had put an inflatable plastic cow elk out in front of him, and although it didn’t fool me for a second, it cast a spell on the big bull.
Closer and closer they came, the big one deeply in love, the raghorns deeply suspicious. I had my crosshairs on one of the raghorns, but I had to wait until the building contractor on my right could shoot the big fellow. At the report of his rifle the big bull dropped in his tracks, but the two raghorns bolted before I could get off a shot.
Then the bull staggered to his feet and headed for the Yellowstone line. If he made it across we could not touch him; he would be left for the wolves and the ravens. Wes said, “I think you better jump in here,” so I shot him in the shoulder and down he went. He was a hell of a good bull, a 6×7 that probably scored 340 Boone and Crockett points. He was the bull of an elk hunting lifetime. The man who would take him home had hunted 20 years for this moment.
What do you do at a time like this? In our case, we lay on the hillside in the sunlight and were very casual, as though one of us had just hit the lottery and if we acknowledged it in any way, it would turn out that we had the wrong number after all. It is always sad to see how, in the hands of a good field butcher, a 1,000-pound miracle of evolution is reduced to a few neat packages on the back of a mule in the space of a few minutes. What had been a bugling bundle of lust only a half hour before was now simply meat and antlers.
ON THE LAST DAY IT SNOWED. The weather up until then had been beautiful, but now the temperature dropped, the wind picked up, and a heavy, wet snow fell. Wes and I made it to a high pasture, where he began calling. And out through the gray wall of the storm a piping bugle answered. He sounded like a small bull, but at this point we were not particular. I picked a boulder, steadied the rifle across it, and waited, praying that somewhere out there, something was about to have a terminal fit of stupidity.
He would not come, and finally the bugling stopped. Wes built a fire of pine logs whose smoke stung like tear gas but whose flames were at least hot. We waited, and waited, and nothing happened. And finally we rode down the mountain for the last time.
Our party got one other elk, a big old fellow with broken antlers and a hide scarred from fighting. By elk hunting standards, we had done fine. Two elk for eight hunters is 25 percent, and that ain’t bad.
We rode out of the mountains under a blue sky with the sun bright overhead. Groaning with joy, we climbed from our saddles at the same spot where we had mounted up a week earlier, and were regarded with the same awe by the men taking our places as we had shown the men whose places we took. And that was the end.
WHY DO THIS? Because I think of an old cowboy named Tommy Sicard who had ruined his health, and who could climb no more, and who looked out a window with tears in his eyes and said, “God, I miss them mountains.”
I do it because I have hunted deer and elk for about the same length of time, and I have never been on a deer hunt where I thought I can’t do any more and headed down the mountain with the bitterness of it like bile in my throat.
Gun Guide p.68
Habitat Map p.70