Friday, October 22, 2010

Elk Hunting 101

October 21, 2010

I took the day off from work today and I went on a long hike. Deer hunting season is open but I didn’t take my rifle. This was more of a scouting trip. Also, I left the house around 11:00 am. I was going to hike up the south side of a mountain in the sun, it was 70 degrees out, it was an area I hadn’t been to before, there was a chance I would cross into private property, and, I was taking my dog. My chances of seeing a deer were somewhere around zero. Also, it’s a really bad idea to be caught on private property with a rifle. It’s even worse to be caught with a rifle and a buck deer. It’s pretty hard to run with a 4 point over your shoulder. But, if a guy was just hiking along with his dog and got a little turned around, most land owners would let him go with a warning and a ‘don’t let me catch you here again’ sermon. This is one of those unwritten rules of the outdoors.

I had seen a couple 2 track trails taking off from a public dirt road near the top of this mountain. They were less than a mile apart. I wanted to get up near the top as I knew there was public land to be hunted. Problem was the 2 track trails were most likely on private property. The lower one had a big gate across it, spray painted bright orange with ‘No Trespassing’ signs on both sides. The upper one didn’t seem to have a gate as far as I could see. I parked by the upper trail and headed up and around the corner. Just as I got to the corner, there was the gate. Spray painted orange, ‘No Trespassing’ signs on both sides. Dang! There was only one thing I could do. I turned around, walked down the trail, and got into my truck. I drove down the road about halfway between the two trails, pulled off on the opposite side and hiked straight up the ridgeline separating the two trails. No gate, no signs, no spray paint. How could I know that it was private property?

I didn’t see another person the whole day. I found a pretty promising hunting spot, and possibly, a little better way to get to it.

As I hiked along during the day, I thought about written and unwritten rules. They are found in many areas of life. Baseball aficionados talk about the unwritten rules of the game. I don’t think I know a single one of those rules, I can’t even spell aficionado without Microsoft’s help. But still, unwritten rules exist. Just as there are written and unwritten rules of sports, in the working world, and in most relationships, the same is true of hunting. The Fish and Game Regulations are the written rules governing when, where, and what you can hunt in Idaho. The unwritten rules govern the rest of hunting. From proper etiquette when you run into other hunters in your spot, to when to have bullets in your gun, to how to leave the testicles naturally attached to the hind quarter of an elk and not have them bouncing off your face every other step as you pack it out. This reminded me of one of my favorite sayings: “Rules are the guidelines of wise men, and for the strict obedience of idiots”. Lucky for me, my brother-in-law Bill and I, are some pretty wise guys.

Several years ago, Bill called me and wanted to go elk hunting. We talked about hunting spots and maybe trying something new. We had hunted up the Middle Fork of the Boise River a few times, hiking up towards Thorn Creek Lookout from the river. It was a very long way from the middle fork road to the Look Out. We would only climb up about halfway. Any further and packing meat back down to camp would be brutal. But it sure looked like good hunting up higher on the mountain. We then discussed how we could drive up to Thorn Creek Lookout and hunt down a little ways, staying well above the area we had hunted from below. This sounded like a great idea. The hunt was set. We would get up early in the morning, drive to the lookout, and arrive well before daybreak.

As I lay in bed the night before the trip, I thought about a couple of the unwritten rules of hunting. 1- Never go to a new spot in the dark, you should always have at least one person familiar with the terrain. 2- Never hunt down hill for elk. This second one is usually a non issue as elk live mostly on the mountain tops during hunting season. Carrying elk quarters downhill is tough, but carrying them up hill very far is insane. Good thing Bill and I are wiser than that. We planned on staying high and looking down the draws and ridges.

The next morning about half an hour before day light, we drive past Thorn Creek Lookout. We meander down the other side of the lookout and park by a big rock out in an open meadow. We each have a day pack with food, water, clothes, and other hunting stuff. We have a pack frame for carrying heavy quarters, if needed. We leave it in the truck. We each carry a rifle. It’s still pitch black out as we walked off the side of the mountain and down towards the middle fork of the Boise. The brush is thick and noisy, so we move slowly as we wait for a little day light. As it begins to lighten up, we see an open ridgeline that runs out from, and down the mountain. We make our way to the ridgeline and begin moving down. It isn’t too long until we start hearing some elk grunts and barking below us. It is light enough to see pretty well as we hurry down the ridge towards the sounds. About 20 minutes later we get into the elk, they take off running. A large bull and a spike run off to our right and through some open sage brush. The large bull never slows down and rounds the corner away from us. The spike stops broadside in the opening and turns to take a look at us. Elk should have their own unwritten rules, one of which should be – Never stop running to look at people wearing bright orange jackets.

As we begin butchering the spike elk, Bill mentions that it isn’t a real big elk. Maybe we could leave the rear half in one piece, strap it to the pack frame, and get it out in one load. If it turns out to be too heavy to carry, we can just cut it in half with the bone saw and make another trip down and back. I think to myself how brilliant that is and hope that someday I can be as wise as Bill. Bill then gives me this proud look and says that his grandpa always told him that he was ‘strong as an ox and just as smart’. I was about to mention that that may not be a compliment, but I didn’t want to ruin that look on his face. It was turning out to be a beautiful fall morning. The sun was out shining on us, we had an elk down, and we were enjoying the great outdoors. We only had 2 problems that I could see. 1 -We didn’t know exactly where we were, and 2- We weren’t sure how far down the mountain we had come. I suddenly remembered those 2 unwritten rules that were bothering me last night. I’m not sure why they would pop into my head at such a great time and place as this.

We get the elk gutted, skinned and the front quarters off and into game bags. The rear quarters are in one piece, (with the testicles still naturally attached per the written rules). The legs are cut off at the knee and we are ready head up the mountain. Besides the meat, we have 2 rifles, 2 daypacks, and the head and antlers. We decide to take the rifles, backpacks, the head, and one front quarter in the first trip up. It will be a lot to carry, but the second trip will only be a front quarter and the rear half. We’ll get the pack frame from the truck and strap that hind end on to it. The sun is high in the sky as we head out. The cool morning has turned to a sunny, hot day. The ridgeline is dry, dusty, and mostly open to the sun. We plod straight uphill for 45 minutes, stopping to rest every now and then. We are hot dirty and tired and still have another trip to make. I trip over a root and the elk quarter goes flying off my shoulder and into some dry powdery dirt. Dust puffs up all around the meat. Bill starts getting cranky as he wrestles with the backpacks, head and a gun. He’s not a big fan of dirty, dusty, elk meat, so I keep my head down and keep plodding. It takes us another hour or so of climbing to find the truck and get unloaded. We had gone down the mountain a lot further than we thought that morning. Whose idea was it to go so dang far down this mountain and then shoot something?

It’s well into the afternoon as we eat some lunch and drink a lot of water. We’re ready to head back down the mountain. We take only the pack frame and some water. We found a narrow bit of a trail that side hills from just below the truck to the ridgeline we came up. We cross the side hill on it, and then we’re on our way back down, lighter, but tired and dirty from the first climb up. We make it to the meat late in the afternoon. We strap the rear half of the elk to the pack frame with the legs pointing up. We tie it down tight so it won’t shift around while carrying it. That’s another unwritten rule. If something this heavy shifts while on your back, it can cause a dangerous fall. The pack frame and elk has to weigh at least 175 pounds, probably more. Bill sits down and pulls the shoulder straps on. I help lift as he stands up. He gets it up, tightens the pack belt around his waist, and starts up hill. It looks pretty heavy but he moves at a steady pace. I take the other front quarter and follow along. He’s looking tired as he makes his way, slowly, up the mountain. Even those hairy testicles bouncing off his ear every other step don’t seem to bother him. After about 10 minutes, he stops. He’s mad and he’s tired. It’s just too heavy to do in one load. We decide to cut it in half and make another trip. Bill’s frustrated and wants to get this pack out finished. He asks me for my bone saw to cut the half into 2 quarters. Well, my bone saw is in my back pack up in the truck. Now he’s really pissed. I didn’t dare ask him where HIS bone saw was. I already knew the answer anyway. We stomp around in the dirt and dust awhile and decide we’re going to have to muscle the half elk up the mountain in one piece, rather than climb the mountain to get a bone saw and still have 2 more trips to make, the last, most likely in the dark. I tell him that I’ll take a turn with the pack frame. He looks at me like this is all somehow my fault. He straps the frame back on and lets his anger help muscle the elk up the mountain. I pick the front quarter up out of the dirt where I dropped it and follow along. After a few hundred yards up the steepest part Bill slips and lets out a painful grunt. He turns around and leans back onto the hill and gets the weight off of him. He wiggles out of the pack and then writhes in pain. He tells me that he thinks he blew out his bungee. I think on this a minute and just as the smart ass in me is about to ask if he needs some help to relight his bungee, I stop. I know that Bill’s a pretty colorful guy with a great hunting vocabulary, and some anatomical names that I never heard before, but something tells me to refrain from the smart ass comments that I have been cheering him up with most of the day. Also, I’m not quite sure what a bungee is, where it might be located, and if it even needs to be relit after being blown out. Though, I can clearly see that blowing out your bungee is plenty painful and quite irritating.

Those unwritten rules enter my mind again as I notice we’re on the side of a mountain, dog tired, the sun beating down on us as it fades in the west. It’ll be dark in a couple hours, and Bill has a blown out bungee. After a few minutes, Bill’s up moving around mad as a hornet. He looks like he’s limping, but on both legs. I still don’t know where his bungee is. We formulate a new plan. He’ll take the front quarter and head for the truck as fast as he can. I’ll take the back half and slowly work up the hill. He’ll get to the truck, get the bone saw and come back and find me. We’ll split the elk in half and each carry a hind quarter the rest of the way out. I get the pack frame on, Bill helps me up and we’re off. He takes off with the front quarter and his blown out bungee. I slowly start my ascent. I know I can’t sit down or I’ll never get up again. I work my way up the hill for what seems like a long time. No water, no shade, my legs are burning and I dread the leg cramps I know are coming later on that night. I’m in no joking mood and begin to wonder when Bill’s coming back. I climb over logs and up steep inclines as I picture Bill back at the truck drinking the water and sitting in the shade, watching the sun set. After what seems like hours, I finally make it up to the side hill trail and start across. It’s steep and slick and the light is fading. I could easily break a leg, roll an ankle, strain my back, or maybe even blow out a bungee in this mess. I finally see Bill coming back down the trail. He’s about 25 yards away when our eyes meet. He looks at me, his anger gone, and says in a nice voice. “Man, you’re doing really good with that. You’re only a quarter mile from the truck”. He keeps his distance and starts walking back towards the truck telling me how strong I look with those testicles bouncing off my head and some other crap about carrying meat and then something about an ox. But I’m not listening anymore. In fact, I’m starting to get a little peckertated with him and his phony compliments and encouragement. He stays about 20 yards ahead of me and is now walking backwards talking to me and telling me to keep going, and how close we’re getting. I make it across the side hill trail and I’m at the bottom of the last incline. At this point, I would like to ram this whole back pack and elk up his bungee, but I know I’ll never catch him. I start up the final incline until suddenly, I’ve had enough. I can’t do it anymore. I ask him in my most polite voice if he would be good enough to come over and GET THIS DAMN THING OFF OF ME! He looks a bit hurt as he helps me get the pack off and onto his back for last couple hundred yards. I must have forgotten to say please.

We make it to the truck as the sun is setting over the mountains. We unload, rest a minute and get a drink. We start talking about what a great day it has been and how much fun we had. How lucky we are to find elk in a new spot. We talk about coming back next year.

There must be another unwritten rule that says all hunts are fun as long as no one gets seriously hurt or lost for more than 2 or 3 days. I’m not sure if the bungee blow out is considered serious or not at this point.

We make it home late that night. My legs cramp up in the middle of the night. I wonder if this is what it feels like to blow out my bungee. The next day, Bill gets in to see the bungee doctor. The doctor gets it put back in place or relit or whatever they do for blown out bungees. He’s good as new in a couple weeks and we start planning our next trip. We reminisce about how good the last hunt was and how wise we are in following the rules of the hunt.