My sleep-addled brain woke slowly as I removed my earplugs in time to hear Ron say, "He sure is asleep." I mumbled in response, "Not anymore," but then came bolt upright in my cot because of the terrified whinnying of the horse outside our tent caused by the complex chorus of wolf howls from nearby.
I grew up in West Texas and am accustomed to the sound of coyotes yapping at the moon, but this was not mere yapping, but a rich cacophony of baritone and bass voices announcing the demise of an unfortunate elk, moose or deer. Like the unseasonably warm weather, the wolves were an unrequested and unwanted addition to our hunt. But even though both represented obstacles that were conspiring against our attempts to take home a trophy elk, they could not dampen the joy of being in the imposing mountains that two centuries before had formed so ominous a barrier for Lewis and Clarke.
Several days earlier, as the twin-engine Britain Islander plane alternately skimmed across the rugged hilltops and sailed over the intervening chasms of the Salmon River Mountains, my mind had begun to ponder Lewis and Clarke's Herculean feat. The flight from Salmon, Idaho to the grass airstrip was smooth, and as we bumped gently to earth I was certain that another trip-of-a-lifetime had begun. I was confident because I had hunted this region once before with the same outfitter. On that first hunt, I fulfilled a lifelong goal of taking a wilderness hunt, and in the process, collected a trophy black bear. This second trip would consist of the same key ingredients; high quality guides, a great base camp and an extremely remote hunting area with only horses, mules and our own feet and backs to find and bring back the game. Though we were carrying deer and bear tags, Ron Differ, my brother Randy and I had come primarily for the chance to hunt elk during the bugle season. Idaho provides a rifle season coincident with the period that should include the elk rut (i.e., mid-September to mid-October). Elk, however, don't always decide to bugle during this time, especially (as in the fall of 2003) when the temperature is high enough to roast a chicken on an exposed rock.
Being a relative neophyte to elk hunting, and never having hunted the bugle season, I was blissfully unaware of the steep odds against our hunting party as we made the five-hour ride from the airstrip to our alpine meadow base camp. As we began the final, steep descent into the 6,500 foot elevation meadow, we were met first by the wind chime noise of the bells hanging around the necks of the grazing horses and mules; then by the warm, golden glow of the lantern light through the sides of the cook tent; and finally by the smell of wood smoke from the camp stove. Randy was to comment in the middle of our hunt that this combination of sounds, sights and smells was unbelievably welcoming at the end of the long, exhausting trial.
Our first hunting day was typical of our outfitter's program: a predawn waking by a guide lighting our tent's lantern and stove, a hot breakfast, a several mile ride or walk into the surrounding country, still hunting throughout the morning, a so-called "elk nap" in the middle of the day, glassing the afternoon away, traveling back to base camp in the dark, a hot dinner eaten in an exhaustion induced, semi-daze and a final grateful collapse onto the camp cot. The only discordant note from this first day came from the lack of animals spotted by our three, two-man teams.
For our guide Gary Gingerich and I, the second day was much the same, except that we found elk tracks on top or our previous day's horse tracks on the main trail to camp. I was also thrilled when we still-hunted to within 40 yards of a mule deer doe, two fawns, two young bucks and a 2-½ year old four pointer. Nowadays I live in Georgia and I regularly see white-tailed deer, but mule deer always elevate my heart rate. To me, their ears appear to be two feet long and completely full of thick, soft hair. These six deer inspected us nervously and then moved slowly down the slope and out of sight. Though fulfilling, seeing the mule deer could not remove the nagging worry that hot weather and wolf packs might foil our search for elk. That night the same story was repeated as the other hunters and guides drifted back into camp – they too had seen plenty of heat, dust and flies, but no elk.
Like the two before it, day three dawned bright, dry and with the threat of building temperatures. However, this morning Randy, his guide Dave, Gary and I had risen and left the camp even earlier so we could reach a distant ridge near the headwaters of Bear Creek. Gary and I left Randy and Dave just short of the ridgeline that would mark the boundary between our respective hunting areas. We continued to the ridge where we unbridled our horses just before 8 a.m., tethering them with their halters to trees in an island of young pines. We had traveled no more than 50 yards from the glade when I thought I heard a distant bugle. Gary looked at me doubtfully when I told him what I had heard. His skepticism had been well earned by my repeated attempts to turn braying mules, singing birds and creaking trees into bugling elk. However, the bull almost immediately sounded off again. This time the elk's clear notes seemed to match the dry, crisp, alpine coolness.
When Gary unleashed his first response bugle, the elk gave an immediate answering grunt. We moved further along the ridge while waiting for another call. We did not have to wait long as we carefully picked our way along the ridge. Yet, this next call sounded closer and was not a grunt, but a full-blooded bugle. We would conclude later that we were actually working (or rather being worked by!) two bulls on that morning, but at the time we thought it to be one – very talented – performer. For the next hour and a half our hunt followed a scripted pattern, one that hunting video producers, I am sure, wish they could capture: Gary called > the elk responded with grunts and complex bugles > we moved slowly and carefully along the ridge before answering > Gary called again > after a brief pause, the elk responded. Forty-five minutes of the hour and a half passed and Gary had to decide whether to go after the bull, or try to set up and entice him to us. After a short discussion, we chose to set up just below the ridgeline.
Gary motioned to the tree he wanted me to sit beneath and whispered, "I'll stay behind and to your right to try and draw the bull's attention away from you." Our stand appeared to be nearly perfect; the wind was in our faces, coming from the direction of the bugling bull, and we had a good view of the valley below and the slope opposite us. However, calling elk is a fluid process. After only 15 minutes on our stand, Gary joined me to say that, because the steadily lessening volume of the bull's grunts suggested he was moving away from us, we might have to go after him. Gary gave another blast from his camouflaged tube and my heart skipped a beat because the answering call seemed to be right on top of us. Gary switched to a cow call and then followed up immediately with a bugle. The elk answered and Gary whispered urgently, "There he is, he's a six-point!" and then, because I was looking at the opposite slope, he asked, "Can you see him?" I answered "No," but then a golden flash in the valley bottom made me glance in that direction. I raised my rifle just as the elk moved behind a stand of fire-killed trees. The bull stretched out his neck and let out a mosaic of sounds. Gary cow-called and then bugled, and the bull responded immediately. More cow calls emanated from Gary and as I watched through my scope, the bull turned and faced our position. Though he remained screened I could just make out the curve of his barrel-like ribcage. As he turned in our direction, he began a series of frustration/question barks. Each time he barked his ribcage gave a sudden jerk due to the violent expulsion of air. In answer to the barks, Gary bugled long and loud and then mewed through his cow call. I slowly raised my right leg so that the tree and both legs would brace me. But as I slid my right elbow onto my raised knee, my right leg began to tremble uncontrollably. I thought, "I don't think so!" and lowered it back to the ground and rested my supporting hand across my still steady, left knee.
After an eternity, I watched through my scope as the bull slowly swiveled to his right. First, his nose inched out from the screen of trees. As Gary and the bull continued to exchange insults, his eye appeared, then the base of his antlers, followed by his impossibly thick neck and finally, ever so slowly, his should slid into view. The recoil from my rifle rocked me back a fraction of a second after the crosshairs rested behind his shoulder. As I worked the bolt of my rifle, the elk froze and then turned slowly to trot into the stand of dead pines that occupied the valley floor. "Hit him again!" urged Gary, "And again!" as I worked the bolt a second time. The faint rattling of the elk's feet among the timber followed the third shot. As I stumbled to my feet, Gary threw his arm around my shoulders and exclaimed, "Now, was that worth the price of admission?" All I could muster was, "Unbelievable, absolutely unbelievable."
The next moment Gary asked the million-dollar question, "How did your first shot feel?" I hesitated, then answered slowly, "My sight picture was just behind his shoulder, so I think it was solid." Gary too felt the shot was good because the bull had froze, rather than flying immediately out of the valley. He also thought he had seen the flash of antlers as if the bull had fallen somewhere in the timber. Then he spoke the words I hate the most, "We'll just wait and give him time to die or lie down." No matter how sensible the advice, I have no patience for waiting to see if I messed up a shot. But we waited. And then after 10 minutes or so, and with me muttering a prayer under my breath, we slowly made our way down the slope. When we reached the spot where the elk had stood when I first fired, we found no blood. We cast out further, but still did not find any blood. And then, 50 yards to our left, the bull thrashed on the other side of a downed tree. I threw up my rifle and aimed, but Gary stopped me with the words "Wait, but if he gets up, hit him until he goes down again." I needn't have worried, the elk was ours and after a five-minute wait we approached the ultimate symbol of a wilderness hunt in western North America.
As I ran my hands through his luxurious mane and down his golden back, I marveled that the combination of lousy weather and hungry wolves had done their worst and yet still had not defeated Gary and me. I then ran my hands over the long and massive, pine pitch stained antlers, and savored the sweet, musky smell that I remembered from my only other elk. This time though, I was not gratefully contemplating an immature raghorn, but instead a monarch who had seen many winters, who had avoided numerous hunters and who had likely fathered several successors. I was deeply grateful for this magnificent animal. In the years to come, this trophy would be the spark to rekindle memories of long trails that weave along mountain ridges, that pass through mountain forests and finally, as darkness falls, that end with the wind chime sound of horse bells, the golden light from the cook tent and the wood smoke that hovers over frosted ground.