I fell asleep on a horse last fall, an event that’s significant for two reasons. First, I am of Midwestern Norwegian stock; my forebears weren’t cowboys, but people who believed the best use of a horse was to pull plows, tote buggies and at life’s end, provide the family with shoe leather. Second, my mount was a slightly nervous creature that had, only the day before, nearly ground my kneecap into oatmeal by ramming his saddle—with me aboard—into a spruce tree.
Still, I liked Cortez, accepted his shortcomings (he didn’t like anything coming near his right ear, for example) and didn’t take the knee-capping thing personally. Cortez had been taking me elk hunting every morning and getting me back to camp safely every night, his sure feet clopping down rock-strewn trails that would have freaked out a lesser pony. I learned to trust him completely, and returning to camp on the hunt’s third day, I simply dozed off in the saddle.
The easy assumption, of course, is I fell asleep out of sheer exhaustion. After all, mountain elk hunting consists of long days filled with endless hikes, all over barely horizontal ground. But something deeper than bone-tiredness was at work here. My best explanation is I was utterly content in my soul. I’d heard bugles from only three distant elk all day, and was hungry enough I could easily imagine the leather reins in my hands to be strips of beef jerky. But as Cortez followed the packstring in the pitch-black night, I had saddle leather and horse sweat in my nose, the September wind sang to me through the pines, and every now and then little sparks would jump from the trail when a horse in front of me kicked a rock. This wasn’t an elk hunt, it was an adventure … and I, for once, was living it.
I had NAHC Member Jack Kummet to thank for putting me here. I’d bowhunted for elk before—even been lucky enough to kill a bull—and was sorely afflicted with the wapiti bug. When Kummet, owner of Pony Creek Outfitters, and I had talked the previous winter about an Idaho elk hunt, he painted a picture that included horse-packing, remote tent camps and some of the most beautiful, rugged country in North America. I signed on instantly. Any elk hunt is heady adventure, but I’d been reading about pack trains, spike camps and bugling bulls since I was old enough to open a hunting magazine. Kummet said he could make my dreams a reality.
Welcome To Elk Camp
I arrived in western Idaho in early September to meet Kummet near his base camp. Spread across 210 square miles of near-wilderness in the Upper Salmon River, Kummet’s hunting area is a mosaic of lush pine forest, grassy openings, rock slides, creeks and burned timber. The steep mountains and dense forests are home to moose, mule deer, black bears, mountain lions and, of course, monster bull elk.
“Our tags are basically over-the-counter,” Kummet told me. “Hunters must apply for the limited permits, but in most units, the quotas are rarely met. This might be one of the true sleeper states for a trophy bull.”
Kummet, a Minnesota native and avid sportsman, came West as a young man and guided for several years before purchasing Pony Creek. His big game hunters have enjoyed enviable success rates ever since.
At noon, Jack and I met up with Patrick Warren, my guide for the week. Barely 25, Patrick wore the easy confidence and pleasant humor of a man twice his age. I’m just old enough to be picky about the character and demeanor of my hunting companions, especially on extended trips, yet I knew within minutes that Patrick and his brother Donny would be the perfect men to show me the ropes on mountain elk. While I readied my gear, Patrick and Donny saddled horses and began loading pack saddles, a process that seems equal parts physical strength, horse knowledge and just plain art.
It was a 3-hour ride to reach Patrick’s spike camp, nestled in a sheltered glade 8 miles from the nearest road. We arrived at the camp late in the afternoon, with plenty of time for me to unload gear, shoot my bow and meet Patrick and Donny’s step-mom Lorna, who would be our cook for the week. The camp was comfortable yet Spartan—one cook tent, one sleeping tent, a tack tent and an outhouse. The horses, which received the first and last attention of the day, stayed in a corral. After a hot and hearty supper, the four of us spent just enough time talking to get acquainted, then slipped gratefully into sleeping bags.
Most anyone who has read about bowhunting for elk has heard it compares to turkey hunting, and the analogy is largely correct. There is, however, one significant exception: almost no one would work that hard for a turkey. Our daily routine was numbingly simple: We’d leave the spike camp when stars winked from an onyx sky. After an hour-long ride, we’d tie the horses securely to trees and wouldn’t see them again until dusk. In between we’d cover literally miles of mountain, at times hunting according to Patrick’s plan, at others just following wherever a bugling bull led us. I’d been jogging back home in Minnesota since early spring to condition myself for this hunt, and by the end of the first day I?was grateful for every step.
The rewards for such effort were real and constant, however. After hopping off the horses the first morning, we saw a 5X5 mule deer that gave me a brief stalk but no shot. Less than 200 yards from the muley, Patrick spotted a bull moose—his velvet antlers spreading like a coffee table—drinking from a spring. After picking our way through a boulder field, we crept onto a ridge and heard our first bugle. I’ve bowhunted long enough that the mere assurance that animals are nearby is enough to motivate me for many hours, and that first bugle kept me high stepping most of the day.
“The bull is down low, off the tip of that ridge,” Patrick said, pointing to a timbered spine a mile off.
“Well, let’s go to him,” I answered, glancing naively at the real estate. My guide smiled and started hiking, his feet dancing across rocks, dead logs, springs and ditches like he was padding across a kitchen floor in slippers. Had I not been wearing topnotch boots, I’d have twisted my ankle while trying to keep pace on the uneven terrain. I adjusted my speed to that of a 44-year old desk jockey and let Patrick run with the mountain goats.
The bull was silent by the time we arrived, the September sun already gathering power and driving him into dark timber. Patrick managed to pull a single bugle from the moody bull, but then the animal shut down for good. And so, initiating what would become routine for us, Patrick hiked to another drainage and called some more. When there was no response, we’d march again, pausing only if we heard an answer or if the growing heat demanded we rest and take on food and water.
And such was the drill for the next 21/2 days of midsummer weather. Though we received the occasional courtesy bugle and even set up on a few bulls, we were never seriously in the game. In hindsight, that was nice, as the long hours of inactivity gave Patrick, Donny and me a chance to get to know each other. They were fine young men, brothers who grew up with a love of hunting and were now making it a profession. It didn’t take much for me to recall a time in my life when I had similar dreams.
Winds Of Change
On the third afternoon, we received a much-needed break. Cool winds whipped in from the north, pushing dark clouds that eventually pelted us with light rain. As we watched the front roll in from a mountain top, Patrick turned to me with a sheepish grin on his face. “What would you think about quitting a little early tonight?” he asked. I could tell he hated making the suggestion, as if he was yelling “Uncle” before anyone had twisted his arm.
“No sense in sitting out here, getting soaked,” I shrugged. “Maybe Lorna will have supper ready early tonight.”
“I think we’re having pork chops,” Donny offered.
“Let’s saddle up, boys!” Patrick sang.
On the ride out, the wind whipped our faces and clouds danced on the treetops. But the ride to camp seemed to pass in minutes. And indeed, Lorna did have supper ready when we arrived, and for once we were in bed before the sky grew black.
The next morning the bulls bugled in earnest. We’d barely tethered the horses when we heard the first growling echo from a timbered canyon. We plodded toward it, sucking the now-brisk air into our nostrils. But the vocal bull soon faded off. While we quickly found other elk that morning, the hunting was far from easy. Bulls bugled but wouldn’t budge. Or—like turkeys—they’d approach in a lather, but hang up unseen. By noon we were tired and frustrated. The clock was ticking on my hunt, and Patrick, sensing the need for a mood-lifter, built a fire. While we dried our socks and damp layers over the flames, we snacked, drank and recharged our batteries with hunting tales.
That afternoon we came within inches of killing a bull. Patrick and I had just worked a monster 6X6 to within 50 yards and watched him thrash limbs and trees for several minutes, before the wind swirled and he took off. As we left that bull to meet up with Donny, Patrick cow-called once, and we heard an immediate, answering chuckle. I plucked an arrow from my quiver in time to see the high, arching tines of a 6X6 bull approaching. Though he waltzed past broadside at 25 steps, the dense cover prevented a lethal shot. I finally let down my draw as the bull winded us and trotted down the mountain.
I turned to apologize to my friends, but their broad grins proved no atonement was needed.
“I’m glad you didn’t shoot if you weren’t comfortable with it,” Patrick said, laughing. “Did you see that sucker? What a bull!”
“I’ve got a few hours to hunt tomorrow,” I said, my hands trembling. “But something pretty special would have to happen to top that.”
The next morning, that something special did occur. After working one hard-bugling-but-cowed-up bull at dawn, we were thinking of quitting when we heard a deep bugle. Our heads snapped around in unison, and within seconds we were hurdling downed timber toward the sound. Soon we’d wiggled onto a gentle saddle in a long, sloping ridge and were looking down a timbered canyon we knew had to hold the bull. Patrick mewed once on a cow call, and the bull’s response had us diving for cover.
Seconds after backing up to a log jam within shooting distance of the saddle, I spotted elk; first a cow, then a pair of calves, then a fine bull that busted past his companions, his long legs eating up the mountainside to reach us. The slope was steep enough that I lost sight of the bull for many seconds, though I could hear him rolling rocks as he approached. I drew my bow as soon as I spotted his antler tips beneath me, and when he stopped just below the saddle, he was 31 steps away and my sight pin was buried behind his shoulder.
A Storybook Ending
At the beginning of this adventure, I confessed that I’d always dreamed of horseback hunting for mountain elk. But I never said how that dream ended. So now I will. At the hunt’s ending, I’m riding my faithful pony, an animal that’s carried me safely through elk country for many days. The horse and I are bringing up the tail of a long packstring, a savvy, rawboned guide astride his horse now leading us down the mountain. Between my horse and my guide’s is a special pack mule, an animal bearing a canvas-covered manty saddle, and lashed to that load are the antlers of a bull elk I’d shot on the hunt.
That dream—in all its parts—became a full reality for me in Idaho last fall. I know it was a gorgeous September day when we rode off that mountain the next morning. And I’m sure I could have spotted an elk, or mule deer or even a bear as our horses found their way down to base camp. My eyes—and my head—could have easily wrapped themselves around such a task. Instead, they were too busy staring at the antlers of a fine 6X5 bull that had died within 80 steps of where I shot him.
I had come West to live out a dream, and I’ll be danged if that dream didn’t play out in near-exact detail. I’d waited some 30 years for it to happen … and it was worth every minute.