F&S Classics: Astronaut Elk Hunt
In this story from the archives, four spacemen travel to Oregon for an out-of-this-world elk hunt
CHRIS ROOSA, 10-year-old son of one of America’s astronauts, Stuart Roosa, recently received a present of a .410 double-barreled shotgun. The gun is old, possibly 40 years or more. It doesn’t have an expensive Circassian stock or such things as a selective single trigger or selective automatic ejectors. It does have something far more valuable. As Bob Perkins, of Coos Bay, Oregon, who gave Chris the gun says, “That gun has raised several kids, maybe half a dozen. And when Stu said he was going to teach Chris to appreciate the outdoors I gave the Roosas the gun, told him to bring up his boys on it, and then pass it on to someone else.”
That gun, its history, the affection Bob Perkins has for it, and the knowledge both men have of the value of a gun in a growing boy’s life, are almost symbolic of the relationship between the two men. The gift was given to Chris following a hunting trip shared by Stuart Roosa and Bob Perkins. The men were after elk in the percipitous hills and big timber country of Coos Bay, Oregon, this past fall.
Bob and Stu first met in the rugged lava beds of eastern Oregon, where a group of astronauts were undergoing some simulated moonscape training. Bob and fellow Coos Bay businessman Phil Waters decided to visit the lava beds to see firsthand how such training was done.
A curiosity about the universe, along with a great zest for living and an eagerness to take on the toughest of jobs, is part of an astronaut’s character, so it was little wonder that before long Bob and Phil, who also find life challenging, made the acquaintance of several of the astronauts.
It was a short step from that first meeting to talk about the outdoors, guns, and hunting. One of the country’s largest herds of Roosevelt elk is in the Coos Bay area of Oregon, right in Bob and Phil’s backyard. So they asked Stu and Charlie Duke if they would like to come out for a hunt and bring a couple of friends along.
The men were enthusiastic, and they invited fellow astronauts Gordon Cooper and Joe Engle to complete the party. Both were naturals for the occasion: Gordon Cooper, or Gordo, is an avid hunter and gun lover with the experience of many hunts behind him; and Joe Engle would almost qualify as a gun nut, although he doesn’t have the hunting experience of Colonel Cooper.
Now that the guest list was set, Bob and Phil began looking for a place to hold the event. What they needed was a combination of good hunting territory and men who knew it and would act as guides for the hunt.
Their search led them to the Weyerhaeuser Company’s 210,000-acre Millicoma Tree Farm, where a herd of about 2,000 elk range. This is prime elk country, with newly logged areas interspersed with vast tracts of oldgrowth Douglas fir. The logged-off areas are open to the sun, and there elk food grows profusely. At the same time, the instinct of animals to have cover close at hand is served by the dense timber.
Bob and Phil went to Oscar Weed, area manager for Weyerhaeuser, and asked him for help in setting up a hunt. Oscar, who is fascinated by the work the astronauts are doing for America, needed no urging. He looked into his organization and came up with four veteran elk hunters who not only knew the habits of these wily Roosevelt elk, but knew the Millicoma Tree Farm very well, having worked in it for many years. And so the woods safety engineer, the woods logging boss, a shovel loader, who also is president of the local woodworkers union, and the forest engineer for the area were chosen to guide this illustrious group.
Camp was set up on an old logging landing, and Ovie Coleman, the woods logging boss, organized the hunt. Ovie travels the logging roads regularly, and in preparation for the hunt, marked a tree farm map with the places he had last seen herds of elk and several old loner big-horned bulls. This would at least be a start.
The first hour of the season is one of the best times to hunt, for the animals haven’t been spooked by shooting. Over the course of the year they have grown so used to cars, pickups, and logging trucks that they don’t even look up when one rumbles by. If you stop a pickup near them, however, and start to walk their way, they’ll get nervous and leave.
The secret of elk hunting on opening day is to be in position before the sun comes up, which means stationing yourself either in a spot where you know the elk are apt to be at daybreak, or if there are many other hunters around, in a spot where you feel the elk will scramble when the shooting starts.
For this hunt, Ovie Coleman had decided to cover both bets in the predawn stake out. On two sides of a large draw where he knew a big five-point loner hung out, he placed astronaut-guide teams, while he and Stu Roosa set up about a quarter of a mile away around a bend in a logging road looking up the draw. I was with them, along strictly as a cameraman and for the ride.
A Spike in the Sights
Coleman, it turned out, wasn’t the only one who knew where the elk were, for as we all took our positions in the predawn darkness, a small car came coasting quietly down the logging road with the lights turned out. This hunter took up a position in the middle of the astronauts, who were staked out around the draw approximately a quarter of a mile apart.
As luck would have it, the astronauts and their guides turned out to be drivers for that other hunter, who bagged the five-pointer shortly after shooting hours began.
But the hunt was only beginning. Roosa and Coleman may have missed a chance at the loner, but they had stopped almost above a herd which included at least one spike.
“Don’t make any noise,” was Ovie’s whispered advice as we moved quietly toward the elk. I walked cautiously to the edge of the road and looked into the dark, foggy valley beneath. Almost immediately I heard the rattle of rocks in what obviously was a streambed below. I put my finger to my lips and motioned to Stu with the other hand. As we both stood there peering down, we heard the rocks rattle again. Then the drifting fog parted momentarily and we could see the brown sides of a herd of elk in the clearing some 150 yards below.
They seemed edgy, and were walking down the creekbed toward a stand of old-growth timber 100 yards away.
Stu Roosa, whose vision as an astronaut is far sharper than most people’s, peered through his binoculars, checking the herd to see if any of the animals were bulls. Ovie Coleman, in his late forties, shorter on eyesight but long on elk hunting experience, explained that the first thing to look for when checking a herd is color.
He told Stu that a spike would have more of a brown color to his mane, while a cow’s mane would be darker, almost black; that from behind, a spike’s tail patch would be darker brown, while a cow’s would be lighter, and that big bulls, as a rule, run more to tan when you look at them broadside.
Thus, instead of going through the herd animal by animal looking for antlers—a real trick when the elk are among the trees—Ovie scanned the herd for color first. When he saw what looked like a male, he would zero in on that animal with his glass.
As the animals moved out of sight momentarily, Ovie and Stu slipped quietly over the side of the steep bank into some thick brush to sneak closer for a better look. Being quiet on a steep hillside like that can be almost impossible in the dim light of a foggy morning.
As the hunters tried to get closer for a better look, the animals took a route that put them closer to Ovie while brush hid them momentarily from Stu. Although he wanted Stu to get a shot if at all possible, Ovie knew that in just a few seconds the herd would be lost in the old-growth timber and there was no time for the astronaut to get in position to shoot. So standing in chest-high brush, he drew down on the spike in the herd and squeezed off a shot. The elk traveled only a few steps and then dropped.
As soon as I heard the shot, I ran the 200-yard handicap over blowdowns, brush, and rocks to the sight of the kill. Because of the surrounding hills and the thick fog which still drifted back and forth, it was very dark, even though it was legal hunting time. As they stood admiring their prize Stu said, “This is amazing. Shooting an elk before daylight. I just can’t get over it.”
That elk made the hunting trip a success, for with something like 5,000 hunters due to comb the 210,000 acres of the Millicoma Tree Farm for elk, the hunting party that scores at least once has no complaints. And they scored even higher by getting a second animal that same day.
The hunt was a resounding success in another way. When it comes to the joy of being afield, of feeling a good gun in your hands, of enduring heat or cold, dust or rain, you want good companions. Therefore, men choose their hunting partners not by their station in life, or because of their money, but by the kind of men they are. And as Gordon Cooper said when the hunt was over, “I don’t know when I’ve been in a hunting camp where everyone got along as well as they did in this one.”
The businessmen who set up the hunt, Phil Waters and Bob Perkins, remained in camp throughout to handle the cooking chores. They were joined by another businessman, Dean Sheldon, and their menu was almost worth the trip itself. For breakfast there was a choice of several kinds of juice or fruit, blueberry hotcakes, link sausage, eggs cooked to order, hash-brown potatoes, donuts, maple rolls, toast, milk, and a monstrous camp-style pot of steaming coffee. The second night in camp, elk liver was on the menu along with steak. Several of those in the camp had said they didn’t care for liver but they had never tasted fresh elk liver.
Gordon Cooper, the most experienced hunter among the astronauts, ate the liver with obvious pleasure. “Is that ever good,” he said, as he took the first bite. “I’ll take another piece of it right now.” The others had to try it after that comment, and soon even the liver haters realized that here was a real gourmet’s dish.
After the chow was finished each of the three nights, the party turned into a storytelling contest. Dean Sheldon, the head cook, proved to be the top storyteller of the camp. But the astronauts showed a keen sense of humor too, and told uproarious stories. To someone not knowing the people involved, the ribbing they gave and took would seem merciless, but the hearty laughter belied that possibility. Every elk within miles must have wondered what all the noise was about.
It didn’t seem to spook the animals, though. On the first day of the hunt when everyone came back into camp for a break and chow about 10 o’clock, a big spike walked out into a clearing a couple of hundred yards below the camp. The astronauts had gone with Ovie Coleman to get saplings for a big tripod on which they could hoist up the first elk for skinning. The camp was on a bluff that dropped off to the clearing below. John Eggers and Dean Sheldon were standing near the edge of this cliff when the big spike walked out. It was like a scramble for an air-raid alert as they grabbed for their rifles. A downhill shot at 200 or more yards is one of the hardest of all to make, and the hunters missed with more than a dozen tries. The elk kept strolling through the flat, looking around, obviously confused by all the shots but unable to tell where the echoes were coming from.
Eggers and Sheldon had emptied their guns and it looked as if the elk was going to stroll back into the heavy timber when Bob Perkins came running out of the cook tent. He had only time to fire from a standing position but he drew down on the elk and finished it with three shots. That episode was good for at least half an hour of charge, countercharge, and banter over the chow table that evening.
By the second day of the hunt the elk had wised up. On opening morning they had been out in the open patches where there was plenty of food. But when the shooting started they’d moved into the heavy timber.
This is a country of precipitous hills, huge blowndown trees, shoulderhigh ferns, and other brush, which makes the going tough. It’s a test for the hardiest of men. But this hunting party of astronauts, who are in top shape, and logging people, who have been working this kind of country most of their lives, had little trouble.
Because visibility is sometimes cut to 25 or 50 feet, hearing and smell are very important. It was in some of this deep timber on the second day that Gordon Cooper came upon the rank, pungent smell which says elk have passed here recently.
“I could hear the whistling of the bull ahead of me,” says Gordo. “And at times it looked as if a herd of cattle had gone through ahead of me.” He took off in pursuit of the herd, moving as quietly as possible, trying to slip through the brush and catch sight of the bull.
A Close Call
Before entering the deep woods all parties had agreed to work a certain area and come out on another logging road. But when Gordo came upon the herd he veered off in a different direction. Several hours later, as darkness settled in the deep woods, everyone was at the agreed-on spot except Gordo. In most hunting parties the absence of a hunter at dusk causes alarm. But the other three astronauts were only joking about the possibility that Gordo would have to stay in the woods overnight.
Had he downed an elk late in the day he might have done just that, for he would have had no choice but to skin it out where it was. That’s a job of several hours for one man, and would have taken till well past dark. Rather than trying to come out of the deep woods in the middle of the night, it’s often better to build a fire and stay there.
But since astronauts have gone through some of the most intensive of survival training, a night in the woods would have presented no difficulties. I asked Gordo about that afterwards, and he explained the different things he would have done, where he would have gotten his heat, what he would have used for shelter in the woods. “It would have been no problem,” he said, “compared to some of the things we’ve been through.”
There’s always a chance, however, that a man can slip and break a leg, so there was an overtone of concern as everyone woundered where Gordo was. Finally, just before dark, he came out at the appointed place. He had veered far from his area, but with his keen sense of direction, had come back to the original place.
“I never got close enough to see them,” he said as he wiped the perspiration from his face.
I also asked him about physical conditioning. He said he believed age was more psychological than chronological. His stamina bore that out, for at age 43, he could scramble through the woods with an agility that would put many in their early 20s to shame.
Physically, all the astronauts were impressive, but I think the rest of us in camp were even more impressed with the character and outlook of these men. All were deeply concerned about what is happening in our country today, the division and bitterness which is seen on all sides. These are family men with children, but they don’t object to the time they have to spend meeting the public or giving talks because they are world famous. As Joe Engle said, “I feel that we are participating in an investment by every person in America. We have the responsibility and the privilege of sharing this.”
Rex Allison, one of the hunter guides, commented: “This particular hunt was almost like America in miniature. It brought many types of people together with a common goal—to show a good time and an outstanding hunting trip to four of America’s astronauts. I sit across the bargaining table from Merlin [Merlin Freeman was the guide who is president of the International Woodworkers of America local union for Weyerhaeuser’s Coos Bay operation] and we have some real arguments, but we were drawn together by the same thing on this hunt.”
Everyone had such a good time that when the four astronauts got back to Cape Kennedy and told of their experiences, they immediately got a dozen or more volunteers to make another safari to the misty, deep-forested hills of western Oregon for elk.
A Parting Gift
With a background like this, and the affection Bob Perkins has for that old .410 shotgun, it was as natural as the sun coming up for him to give it to astronaut Stu Roosa when Stu said he was going to teach his children to appreciate the outdoors. As he said, he felt it an honor to pass the gun on.
That battered old .410 has become a symbol in the life of Bob Perkins. And it could well continue to be a tradition in the Roosa family as more that just a gun. Perhaps it will be seen as a symbol of one of the things that made America great—the priceless value of a boy, a gun, and a father who wants his children to love the great outdoors.