Kevin Olmstead, owner of Prophet Muskwa Outfitters, greeted me as I arrived in British Columbia for my 10-day combination elk and moose hunt. After a quick meeting with Kevin at his lodge, a ranch hand crammed me into a tiny bush plane that carried me to Prophet’s base camp where I’d meet my young guide, Chucka, who although quiet seemed confident and experienced.
Chucka and I rode all day by horseback to a remote spike camp, through snowfall and over the mountain pass with two packhorses in tow. I felt like Daniel Boone, following a game trail to reach a mountain cabin. Caribou crossed our trail and moose-too small to hunt-fed on grassy slopes.
We spent my first day hunting out of the spike camp, bugling and huddling over a spotting scope. Just before dusk, Chucka got a promising response to his bugling. An interested bull elk was climbing up the mountain toward us and calling aggressively. We soon realized, however, the bull was on the other side of a substantial ravine covered with large boulders and that the only way across was via a downed log. My youthful guide gracefully danced to the other side of the ravine, and looked back at me. A challenge, I thought, as I tried to cross on the log as quickly as Chucka had. I’d gotten about three-quarters of the way across the ravine before the log crumbled under my considerable bulk. I landed on my shoulder in the bottom of the ravine and knew instantly from the pain that it was dislocated. Chucka, ever the concerned guide, whispered that the bull was getting away, and to hurry. I crawled one-handed to the top of the ravine where Chucka pulled on my arm, adjusting the bone most of the way back into my shoulder.
Needless to say, I missed the bull. Chucka and I decided to re-cross the ravine in the dark, taking the more tiring, but safer route of traversing at the bottom. By this time, my shoulder was throbbing with pain and I was dizzy and bleeding from the nose. The latter symptoms were a mystery until I started vomiting. I then knew it was altitude sickness. If that wasn’t enough, my flashlight broke, and the spare died.
Anxious to get back to our spike camp, I was shocked when Chucka said he thought it was too dangerous to return. It seemed he had another concern besides the dangers of riding at night. Chucka and another client had killed an elk a half mile up the mountain the previous week, but they lost the animal to a grizzly bear and Chucka said he was “uncomfortable” riding past the carcass at night to reach camp. Thoughts of being the subject of a bear attack article raced through my mind, and I agreed we should wait until first light.
The next day, Chucka and I limped our way back to camp and after a short rest, spent the afternoon on ridges, hunting via a spotting scope and mock bugles. Several elk were called within shooting range, but our monster from the previous evening was nowhere to be found.
The next morning, Chucka returned to camp with an angry look in his eyes. “I only found one packhorse,” he grumbled. “The others took off for base camp during the night.” I was skeptical, figuring it was unlikely hobbled horses would find their way home. Chucka assured me they did, because he’d tracked them to the foot of the mountain trail that led to base camp.
We reached base camp late in the day after agreeing to saddle the one packhorse we did have and take turns riding. Ranch hands met us about 2 miles out and said our five missing horses had wandered into camp the previous night. I looked at them and decided I was perfectly willing to shoot a packhorse instead of an elk.
The head guide suggested we hunt out of an alternate, lower altitude spike camp the next morning. Chucka claimed moose were plentiful and big in that area so we loaded our now repentant horses and headed out, full of renewed optimism.
After half a day on horseback we stumbled onto several herds of moose. Chucka ordered a dismount, and we glassed each herd. But after looking over the bulls, we decided to continue to spike camp and hunt again early the next morning.
Around midnight, I felt a familiar pain in my lower back. I suffer from chronic kidney stones and have numerous emergency room visits and surgeries behind me. I was in agony, but well-prepared. The codeine was within easy reach so I popped a couple pills and settled back. Soon enough I started feeling warm, but then began to itch. Using my repaired flashlight, I could see a rash breaking out. Again well-prepared, I searched for my Benadryl and spent the rest of the night in alternate phases of agony and itching.
Chucka awoke that morning and found me a mess. We tried to go out and glass for moose, but passing a kidney stone took some of the fun out of hunting. Plus, my vomiting had returned. After lunch and some soul searching, Chucka decided to pull stakes and deliver me back to base camp.
But shortly after we’d started back, three cows and a bull moose gradually appeared at the base of a steep hill. We dismounted, grabbed our binoculars and crawled 100 yards closer. After glassing the bull, Chucka decided he was a shooter and said we needed to cut the distance even more.
Finally, there was only short grass between us and the moose. Chucka judged the distance at a little more than 300 yards, which was the maximum distance I was prepared to shoot with my rifle. I gauged the wind to be of minimal effect, aimed high on the bull’s shoulder and squeezed the trigger. As usual, the rifle report was negligible but immediately reminded me my shoulder was still partly out of joint. The pain brought tears to my eyes as Chucka hissed that the bull was down. I tried to keep the scope on the bull as I watched him stand back up. My next shot kicked up dirt under and past the bull. I was perplexed, but figured compensating for my injured shoulder made me shoot low. I aimed over the bull’s back with my third shot and put him down for good. I was thrilled, teary-eyed and in incredible pain.
As we packed meat and tied off the cape and antlers, the wind picked up and snow flurries turned into a snowstorm. Chucka, concerned about my shoulder and health in general, suggested continuing on to base camp, instead of backtracking to spike camp. “The trail isn’t difficult, and the snow cover will help us see during the night,” he said. “I can have you at base camp for a late supper.”
Base camp came into view at 3 a.m. The mountain pass had been almost impossible to cross because of drifting snow and poor visibility. One of the packhorses had panicked and kicked off panniers of meat, Chucka’s fingers were mildly frost bitten, and we were both wet and exhausted. Some of my gear was lost in the storm, including two rolls of film taken of my moose.
A ranch hand took care of our gear, meat and horses, and the camp cook greeted us with a smile and coffee. I stumbled to bed, but my thoughts kept me awake for some time. “Am I having fun, or is this a hunter’s version of Hell?” I asked myself. During the past few days I’d fallen into a ravine, dislocated my shoulder, suffered altitude sickness, passed a kidney stone and had a reaction to medication. We’d ridden through a midnight snowstorm, lost horses, walked to exhaustion and slept under the stars. The mountains were beautiful, but they’d beaten me to a pulp.
The next morning, the head guide decided we shouldn’t be making any more trips to spike camp and that we’d have to make do hunting out of the base camp. I was disappointed, but believed it was a wise decision. And Chucka was still confident about our chances for an elk so we made plans to renew hunting.
As we headed into the surrounding hills, I was considerably depressed and believed my health and poor physical conditioning had irreversibly harmed my chances for an elk. Soon, however, we spotted a promising herd high on a mountain slope.
Even without a spotting scope, I could tell one of the bulls was a 6x6. Chucka and I plowed through thick evergreens to reach the next ravine and cut off the bull’s descent. As we belly crawled over a rocky outcropping we could see the bull 300 yards below us, walking away. I needed to wait for the elk to stop, but he never did.
The disappointed look in Chucka’s eyes must have mirrored mine. Chucka, persistent to a fault, wanted to cross a couple more ravines and see if the big 6x6 was still around. I agreed and we left our horses to graze on the hillside.
The hike took us a mile or so up one hill and across a ravine before Chucka hissed that he’d seen the bull. He asked if I could I run 200 yards to the next ledge. I gritted my teeth, determined not to fail this time.
Our sprint left me out of breath and unsure whether I could steady my rifle for a shot. Chucka whispered that the elk would most likely pop up on the other side of a distant ravine, another 200 yards away. I took off my coat to use as a gun rest, turned the scope to 9x, tried to slow my breathing and inched forward for a better view.
Just then, antler tips appeared right in front of me! The bull was using the ravine to cross in front and below us, not 30 yards away! There was no way to get a shot without him spotting me so Chucka urged me to stand up and shoot before the bull bolted. I turned my scope down to 3x, flipped the safety off and shouldered my rifle while crouched. My mind screamed, “Ready, set, go!”
The Ruger bucked hard into my sore shoulder, and the bull spun and fled. I chambered another shell, but the bull collapsed as I prepared to shoot again. We whooped and hollered and hugged each other in relief and gladness. I promptly vomited from the exertion, but by now Chucka was accustomed to my antics. He offered to retrieve the horses while I took pictures and savored the moment.
My emotions ran from exhilaration over our success, to awed respect for Chucka’s persistence. The snow-covered mountain peaks were crystal clear in the evening sky, and I could smell elk scent mixed with blood and snow. My muscles trembled, and my shoulder throbbed.
My bulls won’t make the record books, but to me each represents the essence of a true trophy, because they were earned through difficulty, skill, hardship and an adventure I can be proud of.
Editor’s note: To book a hunt with Prophet Muskwa Outfitters, contact owner Kevin Olmstead at: Prophet Muskwa Outfitters, Dept. NAH, Box 6677, Fort St. John, BC Canada V1J 4J1; (250) 789-3282; www.prophetmuskwa.com; firstname.lastname@example.org