Elk hunting with a bow is something I enjoy immensely for a variety of reasons. I love getting away from it all, enjoying the mountains, relaxing and most of all the chance to chase bugling bull elk. As many of you who have hunted elk know, seldom do things go as planned.
This year, my elk hunt was no exception. The cast of characters for this year’s adventure includes me, who works behind a desk as a banker, my friend Jason, who is a firefighter/paramedic, and my fiancées son, Jesse, who is a high school junior and aspiring bow hunter. Also included were my four horses; Dixie, Bill, Belle and Hank. This hunt takes place in a wilderness area in Montana.
This year, we decided we would take off on Friday so we could get the wall tent up and get settled and then start hunting on Saturday. We just wanted a day to get in and relax and maybe fish a little. We arrived at the trailhead and there were only three or four other horse trailers which we took as a good sign and figured most of them were rifle hunters taking advantage of the early rifle season. For some reason, I rarely see bow hunters using horses but in Montana many people use their horses for rifle hunting.
As we got our camp set up, a pack string came out of the hills. We visited briefly as they loaded up. These gentlemen had been rifle hunting 17 miles in and had taken one bull between 6 hunters over 10 days. After they left, there were only a couple remaining trailers. We were happy about this because it increased the odds of us having the hunting grounds to ourselves. Our plan was to set up a base camp at the trailhead and then ride out daily until we found elk. We would then put a spike camp in closer to the elk to avoid wearing ourselves and our horses out. We had 8 days to hunt and were thrilled as the weather was beautiful.
That evening after the chores were done, we headed out to fly fish on a nearby river. The water was extremely low and it appeared the trout didn’t get an invitation to the party. I am sure they were there, be we weren’t finding them. Finally, we all converged on a run that had a single rising fish. My partners couldn’t reach him as they didn’t have waders. I could, though, because I had worn my rubber boots and could wade a little. I tried the drift from where I was, but could not get it drag free so I told them I could catch that fish if I just waded across the river and got a better angle. They rolled their eyes, but agreed they would serve as my audience while I let that fish make a fool of me. So, I crossed the river and got directly upstream from the fish, which looked to be about a 16” cutthroat and proceeded to make a downstream presentation. He took my fly on the second or third drift and I flat pulled it out of his mouth. They guys were getting hungry and they said, “Okay you got him to bite, now let’s go eat”. I said that I was sure he didn’t feel steel and that I could get him to take it again. Being used to my persistence, they just stood there with expectant looks on their faces that said “get to it then, we’re hungry”. I waited until he got rising good again, and then made another presentation. This time he ate the fly and I hesitated just a little before setting up on him. Sure enough, I stuck him good. As I looked back at my friends with a smug look on my face, he came unbuttoned and they both found that quite hilarious. Jason comforted me with the fact that they are hard to hook from upstream. We all had a good laugh and took off for camp.
Dinner was fajitas and after a couple rounds of BV-Cokes, we were off to bed by about 11:30 or so. We were all really excited and it was hard to sleep. Eventually, we all drifted off. I had the alarm set for 3:30 am because I knew we had nearly a two hour ride in the morning. By the time we got up, made coffee, ate and saddled the horses it would be 5:00 and that would leave us plenty of time to get to our hunting grounds and tied up by shooting hours. At 3:00 am, I woke up, looked at the clock and thought, “you’ve got to be kidding me! I tried to go back to sleep, but was way too pumped, so I just laid there being mad for cheating myself out of a half an hour of sleep. Finally at about 3:15 I couldn’t take it anymore and I got up and got dressed and also made a bunch of noise which woke up my peacefully sleeping partners. I told them we were late and they jumped up going three different directions trying to get dressed and their gear together. After I got done laughing at their Keystone Cops routine, I calmly informed them that not only were we not late, we were early as I couldn’t sleep so I thought we should all get up a little earlier. After being called a few choice names, everyone was up and around. We got the coffee on and breakfast made and all of the horses saddled. By 5:00 am we were ready to go and we stuck Hank in the horse trailer because he couldn’t go and we didn’t want to risk him breaking his lead rope and trying to come find us. Hank is the youngest, least experienced horse and he was primarily there for packing duty. As we rode away, he pitched quite a fit, but I knew that being in the horse trailer was the safest place for him and that he would quiet down shortly.
During our ride in that morning, we had elk bugling around us off and on the whole way. Everyone was getting pretty pumped as this is what we had been anticipating for the last year. We were finally doing it again after all of the dreaming and planning. As we arrived at our chosen spot, it was just breaking light and we began seeing elk right away. We rode the horses right into a small herd, but they moved off and we didn’t really get a good look as it was still pretty dark. Our spirits were pretty high as we tied up our horses and headed up the hill. We hadn’t hiked 10 minutes when everyone agreed we were over-bundled and that now would be a good time to shed some layers. As we were taking off our coats, I grabbed my cow call and let out a couple of cow calls. Immediately an elk bugled about 100 yards up the hill from us. Talk about pandemonium again! Everyone was half in and half out of their coats and we had a bull coming down the hill at us right now. Quickly everyone got it together; facemasks pulled up and backed against a tree. We could see the bull coming right at us down through the trees. He was coming on a string and I continued to cow call and he just zeroed in on me. As he came into the clear I noticed he was a spike which was not legal in this area. I turned around and mouthed to Jesse not to shoot as it was a spike and I wasn’t sure if he remembered we were in a brow tine only area. He nodded and we sat there and watched as this little guy came to within about 7-8 yards of me. He looked and looked for those cows but couldn’t see any. He was so close; I could see his nose running just like a little kid. He stood there for a while and then eventually just turned and headed up the hill and out of our lives. We all agreed that this one encounter was enough to make the day regardless of what happened for the remainder of the day. Little did I know…
So, we headed up the hill, because we could hear a couple of bulls bugling far above us. There was also a bull bugling below us, but I was convinced that he would be heading up the mountain pretty soon anyway and that we would be better off being above him than vice versa.
Now, I was really pumped and all of that running I did last summer was paying off as I was making time up the mountain trying to gain on the elk I knew were just ahead. Jesse and Jason did not like my pace very much as they were still in too many clothes. They wanted to slow down and I wanted to speed up. We ended up fanning out a little as we worked our way up the mountain. Jason and Jesse were to my right and I was focusing on a bull that was off to the left. They were chasing another bull they could hear straight up from where they were. The wind was blowing directly downhill, so I started circling below this bull to get the wind, when another bull started going off above me. I decided that he was in a better spot to kill as the wind was more favorable so I started trudging up the hill after him. The country we were in was steep to say the least, and I felt like I had been on the stair-master for an hour and a half, but so far my legs were holding up. I couldn’t believe how much the hill running I had done last summer was helping. This was really the first year I had trained specifically for elk hunting and it was really paying off.
I was squeezing my smoke in a bottle compulsively as I knew I had an awesome set up going and if I kept the wind I might have a chance. By this time, both Jason and Jesse were quite a ways away and below me. I was a little worried about Jesse as this was his first real elk hunt, but I could hear him and Jason cow calling back and forth and was pretty sure they would re-group at some point. I knew they had no idea where I had gone, but I was into elk and at the moment I had to get after it.
I got directly below the second bull I heard and began working toward him as he continually bugled. He seemed to be getting farther up the hill, so I redoubled my efforts and began to really hump it up the hill. Finally, I felt myself closing the gap. The bull had holed up on a little timbered bench and was bugling. About that time another bull began bugling even closer to me and a little to the left of the other one. I’d say he was probably within 150 yards or closer. Prior to that, I had been unaware of this elk and I had not been calling at all. Well, I felt like I had a pretty good set up going, so I waited for the bull on the left to bugle and then I let one rip right over the top of him. Oh, man, that really angered him. I heard him thrashing a tree and I could tell he was fired up. As soon as he bugled again, I bugled right over the top of him and here he came. I saw him running down the hill and go into a ravine. I hustled up to get a little closer and hopefully to surprise him when he crested the hill. Well, he decided that coming in with the wind directly at his back wasn’t probably a good idea and he began to circle me. He came around and was directly cross wind on a ridge above me and he looked like he wasn’t going to stop. He was about 45 yards away and things were kind of coming undone at that point, so I bleated at him like a deer and he hit the brakes and looked my way. Well, now I was rattled as this was easily a bull in the 320-330 range and he was alert and probably going to bust out of there any second. I had drawn my bow when he was still walking and after I stopped him, I dropped the pins and shot. I knew I had rushed the shot as I was a little amped, but it was looking pretty good until an unseen lodgepole jumped in front of my arrow and stopped it in its tracks. The arrow made a loud crack and the bull jumped a little and went over the hill and out of sight. I immediately ran up the hill and sneaked over the top and the bull was no more than 70 yards away looking back toward where he had just come from. I cautiously cow called to him and he looked my way and took a couple of steps toward me, stopped and then proceeded to bark at me. I knew he hadn’t winded me as we had a strong cross wind, but I was pretty sure he knew something was up. I cow called to him a couple of times and he tentatively took a few steps toward me and I thought I might get another chance. But, he just barked a couple of times and then turned and sulked off like I had somehow hurt his feelings. About that time, another bull began furiously bugling right where the last one had come from. With nothing to lose, I got in position and waited for him to bugle and then I insulted him immediately by bugling over him. This bull was in no mood for anything of the sort and I immediately saw him come running down the hill. I switched to cow calls as I was hoping he wouldn’t try to circle me like the last one did. He didn’t and he made a beeline right for me.
When he was about fifty to sixty yards away, he went down in a little ravine and I wasn’t sure if he was still coming. Then, just a few seconds later I saw his antler tops appear over the little ridge I was behind. He was coming at a steady walk. I drew my bow and aimed where I thought he would appear. In no more time than it takes to tell, he was filling up my sight picture, but was quartering toward me as he crested the hill. I just held on him and hoped he would take a couple steps or turn so I could have a clear shot. Well, he paused when he crested the ridge and looked right at me from only about 8 yards and absolutely did not recognize what he was looking at. I was at full draw and perfectly still. In the few seconds that passed I noticed three things. First, he was smaller than the last bull I just missed which somehow comforted me. I think I thought I’d be more likely to hold it together on a smaller bull, so I relaxed a little. I also noticed that he was covered in mud and dripping snot out of his nose. He did not look very happy. In fact, he kind of looked like he had been on a bender and was in a pretty bad mood. Well, he finally took a step and turned and I drilled him right in the lungs and he took off down the ridge in that blind, just saw the Devil run they do when they are well hit. He was mowing down trees and even got hung up in a deadfall and fell down. Then he got up and ran up over the hill and out of sight. I marked the last place I saw him and decided to take off my pack and check the time. It was 10:05 am. I couldn’t believe that bull had come in with the wind directly at his back. I had been elk hunting for 3 hours and was already done. I decided to go up the hill and get my other arrow out of the tree it had parked itself in. When I got up there, I had to chuckle because the arrow was about 10 feet up in a tree sticking straight out of the trunk. Because I was below the first bull and I was shooting up at him, the arrow struck the tree nearly level with the bull that was on the ridge, but high above the ground where the tree was growing. I momentarily considered climbing the tree, but it had no branches so I abandoned the idea thinking someday someone will come up here and get a good laugh at my expense.
I always wait at least a half an hour before looking for any animal I hit, so I went back to my pack and sat down and had a sandwich. I was getting a kick out of the whole ordeal because the only camo I was wearing was my pants and my facemask. I had plaid wool shirt on and a wool hat I had bought at the store the day before. My fiancée even went so far as to say that the hat looks like it was made from her grandma’s couch.
So, I waited my thirty minutes and then began looking for blood. I couldn’t find one drop of blood. I couldn’t figure it out as I knew that bull was double lunged. I went back to where the elk was standing and tried to visualize the path he took down through the ravine and up the other side. I tried to follow his tracks, but there were elk tracks everywhere so that didn’t help much. Finally, I found the fletching end of my arrow broken off about two-thirds of the way up and it was covered with blood nearly up to the fletching. Still, there was no blood trail. I decided to just go to where I saw him last and look for blood there. When I got up to the other side, there was an elk trail that looked like a horse trail. It went straight down the top of a knife ridge. I figured the bull would have just run straight down that trail. I didn’t think he would have bailed off either side as it was pretty thick and I doubted he would pick a more difficult path. So, with nothing more than intuition to go on, I headed down the trail watching all around for a dead elk. I went about seventy five yards down the trail and I spotted an antler sticking up from the grass about twenty five or thirty yards away. Sure enough, my bull had died mid flight right on the trail. I hurried down there to check him out and was very pleased as he was a pretty respectable six by six. It was 11:00 am.
By 1 pm I had him totally skinned and quartered and hauled down the hill about a hundred and fifty yards. I wanted to get the meat away from the carcass because of the abundance of grizzly bears in the area. I lost a quarter to bear last year and I was hoping not to repeat that this year. I then began my descent back to where we left the horses. While slowly making my way down the hill and I ran into a herd of cows with a bull that was an absolute monster. I watched them for about 20 minutes as I didn’t want to disturb them so we could come back up again and give them a try. I enjoyed my walk out although I was pretty tired and was relieved when I saw the horses right where we left them. I got back to the horses around 2:30 pm. I found a shady spot and went to sleep waiting for my partners to show up.
At 4:00 I woke up hotter than heck as the sun had moved and my formerly shady spot was now right in the sun. I had grasshoppers perched all over my pants and I was seriously parched. For some reason, I had left my water filter back at camp and I was getting pretty low on water. I got up and went back over to the horses and had my other sandwich and found another shady spot and began to wait for my friends. I was beginning to get a little concerned because I was worried that Jesse had not gotten back with Jason and my imagination began to get the better of me. I knew, though, that I had heard them cow calling to each other earlier and I felt pretty good that they were together. Sure enough, around 4:30 pm I saw them coming through the river bottom and I could tell by the way they were walking; they were also out of water. They were both smiling ear to ear as they relayed to me their day. They spent the entire day into elk and had several chances, but just couldn’t seal the deal. Jason saw the look on my face, grinning like I knew the secrets of the universe, and he said, “you shot one, didn’t you?” I allowed that I had in fact gotten myself a bull. When Jason asked me if it was very big, I said, “nah, just a six point”. He then called me a name or two and gave me a high five. Jason is still waiting to get his first bull with a bow and he really, really wanted to kill an elk.
We all mounted up and took off down the trail toward camp. We were all feeling pretty good so we kicked the horses up a little and did a little loping. Well, I got a little excited and got Dixie running pretty good and I smoked past Jason on Belle and Jesse was somewhere behind on Bill. Pretty soon I heard some yelling behind me and I stopped and Jesse was a little upset because he had lost his hat, his beef jerky, and had also blown a stirrup. Jason lost his coffee thermos out of the horn bag water bottle holder and not everyone was having as good of time as I was. In the moment, I had kind of forgotten that I ride horses 3-4 times a week and that these guys don’t. I was having the time of my life letting my thoroughbred stretch out a little and they were terrified and losing gear left and right. Once we all got stopped and the boys’ heart rate slowed down, I loped back down the trail and got Jesse’s hat and beef jerky and Jason’s coffee thermos. We were soon on our way again, a little slower this time and in a couple hours we were back to camp.
Everyone was in a good mood and we had a great dinner of fried elk tenderloin along with onions and seasoned potatoes. We toasted our good luck with a couple BV-Cokes and turned in by 11:00 pm or so because we knew we had a long day ahead of us the next day. The following morning we were up and moving down the trail by 7:00 a.m. and we left Jesse in camp to rest because we needed Bill to be a pack horse that day. I was riding Dixie and pulling Hank behind me with a pack saddle on and Jason was riding Belle and pulling Bill. The pack out was relatively uneventful other than it was a long day with a lot of horse riding over some really tough terrain. We made it in and out in about 8 hours and we were back to camp by around 3:00 pm. I think we did around 17 or 18 miles that day over 8 hours. I was pretty ready to get off the horse by the time we got back.
We decided that the next day we would head in to our spot again and that I would pack Hank up with our other tent and our sleeping bags and a cooler of food and go set up a spike camp so we wouldn’t have to ride so far in and out each day. So, after dinner, I rushed around finding all the stuff I would need for the spike camp and I got a cooler packed and the other supplies needed for a couple of days in the back country. By this time, I was getting pretty tired, but I was still elated about everything, so I just pushed through the tiredness and got everything ready while the boys relaxed and got themselves organized for another day of hunting. Jason was pretty tired, too, but Jesse felt great because he had slept until noon that day. By 10:30 or 11:00 we were all ready and turned in. I remember thinking, “boy am I tired…” and that was it, I was sawing logs. 3:30 am came pretty quick and we were all up getting the horses saddled and packing up the rest of the things we would need for a couple of days in-country. I was feeling pretty whipped, so I had a 5 hour energy. For anyone unfamiliar with these little wonders, I highly recommend them. They pep you up significantly and don’t do anything to your stomach like coffee sometimes does. The last thing I need at 5 in the morning riding down a horse trail in the pitch dark is a case of loose bowels!
We made it to our hunting grounds right around 7:00 and the plan was that Jesse and Jason would tie up their horses and I would continue down the valley and find a good place to set up camp. I had a place in mind as I had been there before, but couldn’t remember exactly where it was other than it was somewhere down the valley along one of the channels of the river. I said goodbye to my friends and just as I was leaving, Jason handed me a two way radio and said, “Come back and get us at 3:00 and if we’re not here, turn on the radio to channel 4.1 and we’ll let you know what’s up”. I said sure thing and rode off down the river. Little did I know how important that little radio would become in the coming hours. I stuck it in my horn bag and rode away, not giving it another thought. It is amazing how one little thing can make such an amazing difference to the outcome of a trip.
I ended up riding down the river about another 20 minutes and I found my spot. The first order of business was to unpack and unsaddle the horses and then get the portable corral set up. We use a battery powered fence charger and nylon fencing wire that is infused with strands of wire. We use little insulators that screw into trees and then string the wire around the trees and that creates an area the horses can graze in, but prevents them from wandering off. We usually hobble them in the corral because although they respect the wire, if they are sufficiently motivated (think bear), they will run right through it. At least if they are hobbled, you have a chance to catch them before they get back to the horse trailer. I got the corral set up in the lush river bottom; put Hank and Dixie in there for some much needed rest and then proceeded to set up the tent. My plan was to take a nap. then go fishing and then go get the boys at three. The temperature was climbing dramatically and my thermometer said it was 78 degrees by 10:00. I tried my best to sleep for a while, but I think I was only able to drift in an out for about 2 and a half hours or so. I think I tried to lay there for a little while longer, but the temperature had soared to 92 degrees in the tent and 86 degrees outside. It was just too darn hot for sleeping. I didn’t even have a pair of shorts and the pants I had were made for hunting in October, not July. So, I took out a brand new pair of slick pants I had along and proceeded to make them shorts with my Buck knife. I was sitting around in the shade drinking coke and admiring my new shorts and how they looked with my Danner Pronghorns. I thought about how ridiculous I must have looked and how funny it would be if someone had ridden into camp.
At 2:30 I went down and caught the horses and saddled Dixie and we took off for the spot where I left Jason and Jesse about 8 hours before. When I got back to the other horses, the boys were nowhere to be found, so I took out the radio and turned it on. I pushed the call button and immediately Jason was there. I wasn’t even sure those things would work back there, but there he was, clear as a bell. I asked them where they were and he said a long ways from the horses and that Jesse had just shot a nice bull a few minutes before. He said they were still waiting to go track it and that they felt it was a pretty good hit, so they were confident they would find the elk. I started to tell him that if they found the bull to just field dress it and that we would go up the next day and cut it up. I was concerned that they might not get it done before dark and considering the fact that this country is full of grizzly bears I thought they should definitely get out of there before dark. When I tried to relay that message to Jason, he said I was breaking up and to repeat myself. I just said, “never mind, I’ll call you back at 5:00”. He said 10-4 and “out”. I turned my horses back toward camp and was there in no time. I unsaddled the horses and decided to go fish for a little bit. I walked down river and found a pretty deep run that was shaded and I cast a parachute hopper right in there and on the second drift, I caught a nice trout. I was getting hungry and was not really into fishing as I was still pretty exhausted from the lack of sleep. So, I whacked the trout on the head and walked back to the tent and fried up my trout as a little snack. It was pretty good and by the time I was done, it was getting pretty close to 5:00. I got out the radio again and when 5 got there, I turned it on and called for Jason. He answered right away and I asked him if they found Jesse’s bull. He said they had, but that there was a problem. I asked what was going on and Jason told me that there had been an accident. While he was helping Jesse cut up his bull, he slipped with his knife and stabbed himself in the calf all the way up to the handle. He instinctively pulled the knife out and he was gushing blood and it appeared to be arterial in origin. He immediately sat down and applied direct pressure to get the bleeding stopped and was able to slow it significantly in about 10 minutes. Jason told Jesse that he would have to just field dress the bull as they were going to have to get down off that mountain. I asked Jason if he thought he would be able to hobble back to his horses and if I could just come get him and bring him to camp until morning when we could ride out and get him to the hospital. He said he would try to walk down to his horse and that I should call him at 5:30. I agreed and turned off the radio to save batteries. At the time, I was not aware of the severity of his injury so I wasn’t too worried because I knew it was all down hill from where they were or where I thought they were. I read my novel and basically just sat there in the heat waiting for 5:30 to roll around.
When 5:30 finally arrived, I turned on the radio and sent out the call signal. Jason immediately responded and I could tell by the tone of his voice that things were not going well. I asked him how far he had gotten and he said about a third of a mile. I asked him if he thought he could make it out and he said he was going to try, but he had lost a lot of blood and wasn’t feeling too hot. I knew that time was not on our side and that it was crucial he got off that mountain before dark. I had no idea where they were other than “somewhere up there”. We agreed to talk again in 15 minutes. At 5:45 I again sent out the call signal and Jason responded immediately and his voice sounded funny and I knew we had a problem. I asked him what was going on and he said that he had to stop because he was getting light headed and every time he flexed his foot, the cut started bleeding again. He advised me that he wasn’t going to be able to walk out and that he was going to need me to come get him. He also told me that he was going to need medical attention that night and that it wouldn’t be feasible for him to spend a night in spike camp. I told him that I would pack up most of camp, ride back to the horses and get his saddle horse and leave Hank tied to a tree packed. I told him to give me about 45 minutes and that I would call him at 6:30.
I hurried down and got Dixie and Hank and saddled Dixie for the third time that day and Hank for the second. I packed our packs and loaded them on Hank and set off up river back to the other horses. I arrived just at 6:30 and I tied up Hank and grabbed Belle and started back toward where I had just come. I called Jason on the radio and he said he was stable and had gotten the bleeding to stop, but that he still felt pretty bad. Fortunately, Jesse was there to keep him company and I told them to sit tight as I would be there in a little while. I asked Jason if he could have Jesse touch off a round from his .44 mag so I could get a fix on their position and head there way. Jason agreed and after about 30 seconds, I said, “hey, have Jesse shoot your gun so I can figure out where you are”. Jason said with a ton of worry in his voice, “you didn’t hear that? Oh, no…” Immediately, I knew we had a much bigger problem than I thought. A big bore pistol is pretty loud and if I was far enough away that I couldn’t hear it, I knew I was going to have a hard time getting a horse up there and getting Jason out before we were swallowed up by darkness.
I asked him to describe the geographical features he could see across the valley from where he was and as he told me what he was seeing, I determined he must be to the north from my present location. I told Jason I was going to head north for a while and then have him shoot again to see if I could hear his shot that time. He agreed and we signed off. I rode to the north for about 15 minutes and then called him on the radio again. He had Jesse shoot the pistol again and he immediately asked, “Did you hear it that time?” with a definitive note of desperation in his voice. I told him that I hadn’t heard it, but that Dixie had and that she looked toward them when they shot. I told him I was going to ride the way she looked for a while and then have them shoot again. I was getting pretty worried because we were burning daylight and I really didn’t want to be coming off that mountain with a hurt man with no trail in the dark. Jason and I agreed to stay on the radio and we talked as I rode. I ended up getting in a boggy area that was really thick and tough going for me and my horses. I was riding through super thick trees with no trail in a virtual swamp. I got stabbed in the neck by an overhanging branch and I told Jason that unless I was going to also become a victim, I needed to get off the radio, ride my horse and get up on higher ground and then I would call him back. After several minutes of tricky riding, I was up on a ridge heading up hill in a little more open ground. I had been heading his way for about 15 minutes and I got on the radio and asked him to have Jesse shoot one more time. I knew we only had 6 shots total, so I wanted to make sure I was closer because if we ran out of cartridges and daylight, then we would really be screwed. Jesse lit one off and I heard it loud and clear. I let Jason know I had a good fix on his position and that I would be there in a few minutes. I headed there way and then after a few minutes, I asked him to have Jesse blow the bugle so I could really hone in on them. He did and I yelled, “Hey!” and Jesse hollered back and I was over to them in about a minute.
I can’t begin to describe the flood of emotion that came over me when I saw my friend sitting there with his back against a tree, his leg completely covered with blood from just below the knee down. This is a guy I walked through college graduation with and someone I care deeply for. There is no way I could have been a firefighter or paramedic like him as I am just not made of the stuff it takes to be a hero like those guys. I got my first aid kit out and with Jason’s direction, re-bandaged his leg and then I gave us both a lor-tab and all three of us a 5-hour energy. I was sore in all kinds of places and we weren’t even half way home. Jesse was going to have to walk and I wanted Jason alert because I didn’t want him falling off his horse. We started down the mountain and much to Jesse’s credit, he stayed right with the horses carrying both his and Jason’s pack and both their bows. We started down at about 7:30 and by 8:30 we were back at the other horses and Jesse mounted up and I grabbed Hank and away we went for the trailhead. At this point, it was pitch black and we had one big river crossing but beyond that it was a pretty easy trail. We got across the river okay and the 5-hour energy’s were working as we were all pretty chatty on the way out. It was so dark you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, but I knew Dixie knew her way home, so I just gave her her head and tried to relax. I was exhausted and tried to use this time to rest a little because I knew I still had a lot to do ahead of me. I had had very little sleep in the last three nights and it was starting to catch up with me.
We reached the trailhead around 10:15 pm and Jesse and I double timed unsaddling and feeding the horses. We loaded Jason up and headed for the nearest hospital 85 miles away. We arrived at the hospital a little after midnight and they admitted Jason and Jesse and I decided since we hadn’t had any supper, we would go eat somewhere and then come back and get Jason. We left and went to a casino that served food all night and I had chicken fried steak and Jesse had a hamburger. The food was pretty good considering it was after 1:00 am but I was almost too tired to eat it.
After eating, we headed back to the hospital and they let us in to see Jason who was doing okay, but the only thing they had done so far was give him and IV and a tetanus shot. He told us to take his debit card and go to the hotel and that he would take a cab over after they fixed him up. I resisted the idea, but he insisted he would be okay, so I gave in and we left for the hotel. After the first hotel could not accommodate us, we found a room at the Comfort Inn and I called Jason and told him where we were. Jesse and I both took showers and fell into bed. It was about 3:00 am. Nearly 24 hours after I had gotten up the day before. We set the alarm for 9:00 am because we knew we had to go back up the mountain the next day and get Jesse’s bull.
Jason rolled in about 4:30 and I woke up and we visited a little and he too got in bed and fell right asleep. Nine o’clock came pretty quick and Jesse and I were up and on our way after eating a little breakfast in the hotel lobby. Jason was staying behind and his wife was going to drive over from their home and get him later that day. Jesse and I needed to stop and get a couple 40 gallon square trash cans to use to pack out his elk. We ended up going to 4 different places and none of them had what we were looking for. My square cans were filled with elk meat from my bull and packed with ice. We finally just bought a round can from Wal-Mart and decided we would unpack my bull and repack him in the round can so we could use the two square cans we already had to pack out Jesse’s bull. I was irritated at the time we had wasted because it was already 80 degrees by 11:00 and I felt we would be lucky if we would be able to salvage any of Jesse’s bull. We had to try, though, so we pressed on. About 30 miles outside of town, out in the complete middle of nowhere, we ran into of all things, road construction. The DOT was re-paving about a 1/8th mile stretch of road for no apparent reason. The road construction worker told me we would have to wait at least 20-25 minutes before we could proceed. I asked him if we could just go around in the barrow pit as I had a truck and it would be no problem. He said, “Absolutely not!” and I left it at that. I felt the odds were really stacked against us at this point. I sat in my truck with the motor off cooking under the Big Sky waiting for some guys to pave a stretch of road out in the middle of nowhere for no apparent reason. I resigned myself to the fact that we weren’t going to get there anytime soon, so I had a coke and some sunflower seeds. After a short eternity, we were again on our way. One stop in the last little Podunk town for ice and we were on our way back to the trailhead. We arrived at the trailhead by 2:00 pm and were saddled and down the trail at 3:00. I had no idea where Jesse’s bull was, but did have Jason’s GPS, which had the bull marked as a waypoint. I knew Jesse’s bull was farther up the basin than mine had been and across a huge ravine. I also knew it took 8 hours to get my bull out and it was already quartered. This told me we would be coming out down the hill on no trail in the dark. I didn’t really like the sound of that, but felt that I owed it to Jesse and to the bull to do my best to salvage what I could. We were tired, but again, I used the ride in as a time to try to relax and regain a little of my strength.
We rode all the way to the spike camp and then began heading uphill and I took periodic readings on the GPS to make sure we were headed in the right direction. I could tell my horse was starting to get pretty fatigued as well, because she is usually a horse that you can’t slow down and I was having to urge her quite a bit to climb the hill. This was her fourth trip in and third time up this God-awful mountain in the last three days and she had carried me well over 75 miles at this point. We continued up the mountain and finally it was getting so steep and the GPS was pointing across a deep raving toward Jesse’s bull a quarter mile away. I told Jesse we would park the saddle horses there and continue on foot leading the pack horses. The ravine was just too deep and steep to ask our already exhausted saddle horses to go down and through. The pack horses were empty, so they just followed us as we picked our way across the ravine. Jesse’s bull was in an area of deadfall that had no trails. It took us a while to get to his bull, but we eventually found it. We took some quick pictures because this was Jesse’s first bull and I knew he wanted to remember the occasion. The bull was a really nice 6 by 7 that looked a little longer and wider than mine. Jesse was pumped when I told him I thought his bull might be even bigger than mine.
I got out my knives and got to work, but it was evident we were too late. Jason had skinned one front quarter before the accident, and this meat was still okay. The hind quarters were both spoiled. I was able to save the back straps and the one front quarter. I had everything including the head skinned and packed on the horse by about 7:00. Jesse and I made our way carefully back to our saddle horses and we were headed down the mountain by about 7:30. It would be dark by 8 and I knew we were going to spend at least a half an hour coming down that mountain in the dark. I felt pretty confident because all of my horses get ridden a lot and they are good mountain horses. Dixie has an especially level head and I can always count on her to get me out of tough spots.
We made it almost all the way down to the river without any wrecks when Hank, who is six years old and the greenest of the bunch, got caught between two trees and kind of bulled his way between them. One of the packs came off and I had to stop and tie it back on. We tie those garbage cans on with a basket hitch which is designed to let the packs come off if a horse blows up or gets stuck. That way the packs don’t get all smashed up by a bucking or runaway horse. Hank stopped immediately when his pack came off and I just hopped off Dixie and quickly put the pack back up on Hank and cinched it down as tight as I could. I commented to Jesse that we were lucky that we’d made it that far without a bigger wreck than that. In hindsight, I probably should have kept my mouth shut on that one…
We continued on, but it was so dark, I had to turn on my headlamp, which is a catch 22 because it makes it harder for the horse to see, but I wasn’t about to come down a steep mountain, through a burn, on no trail without being able to see where I was going. The horse was just going to have to trust me. We rode for about another ten minutes when I felt Hank hang up behind me. I stopped Dixie and looked back just in time to see Hank get hung up on a downed tree that grabbed him and wouldn’t let go. He flipped a nut, jumped to his right about 10 feet, over a bank, fell down and slid a few feet down the hill before regaining his feet and stopping in his tracks. I immediately dismounted and climbed down to him to catch him and see if he was hurt. I looked him over pretty good and he seemed okay so I led him back up the hill to Dixie. The sky was blacker than sin and our packs were now scattered all over the place. Jesse dismounted and tied up his horses and helped me locate our packs and all of our stuff. I remember thinking to myself at the time, “wow, I think I’m getting pretty tired, here”. We found the packs but were unable to locate a backpack that had flown out during the melee. After some diligent searching with the headlamps, we found it next to a log 30 feet uphill from where I found Hank. Soon enough we were re-packed and mobile and we were able to make it back to the main trail without incident. We rode out the rest of the way in the dark. By the time we reached the trailhead it was around 10:30 or so. We got the horses unsaddled and fed and as I was checking on Hank, he whipped his head up and cracked me right on the jaw with his forehead. I have been cracked quite a few times in my life from punches and other things, but this one was one of the hardest. Jesse heard the smack and said, “Are you alright?” I just took a knee and sat there waiting for the stars to clear. In a minute or so, I was fine although I had a tender spot on my jaw for a while. I told Jesse that that was probably one of the harder shots I’d ever taken. We went back to the wall tent to change and think about dinner. To say I was fatigued would be the understatement of the year. My mind wanted to cook dinner and have a drink, but my body just wanted to sit there.
Eventually, I drug myself up and cooked us some dinner, had a drink and hit the sack. The next morning, Jesse and I got up and headed for home. Dixie’s back left leg was severely swollen and she had thrown a shoe on her rear right leg. She could hardly walk and I told Jesse I was afraid we would have a hard time getting her loaded into the trailer. We put all the other horses in and she hobbled over on three legs and jumped in. The amount of heart that horse has never ceases to amaze me. We left the wall tent up because I planned to come back on Friday night and ride in on Saturday to get my spike tent and corral and then break down the wall tent camp on Sunday and then go home.
We got home on Wednesday night, rested on Thursday and on Friday, Tanya (my fiancée) and I headed back with Hank, Belle and Bill. Dixie was on injured reserve and Jesse volunteered to stay home and soak her leg with cold well water and to give her some Bute as she needed some care and rest to bring the swelling down in her legs. Tanya and I stopped and had dinner and reached the trailhead around 11:00 pm. We turned in and slept like babies until early the next morning. We had a wonderful breakfast/brunch and left shortly after noon to go in to get the spike camp. I rode Hank and pulled Bill and Tanya rode Belle, who is her horse. We had a wonderful ride and I was thrilled to be able to share with my girl the beautiful scenery and colors that were in full effect. The weather was perfect around 75 degrees and we had a nice and uneventful ride in and out. When I showed Tanya where our elk were and where Jason was, all she said was, “You took our horses up there?” I told her not only did I take them up there; I did it three days in a row!
Dixie is now nearly fully recovered and Jason got 12 stitches and has been off work for 3 weeks and has two more weeks to go before he thinks he will be able to go back to work. He will remain on light duty for a while until his leg heals a little more. Part of the problem was that he cut it against the grain of the muscle, so it is healing slowly.
We are already planning our trip for next year and he promises to be more careful when cutting up either mine or Jesse’s bulls!
Jesse and I had been debating on who’s bull was bigger and when we went to the taxidermist he offered to settle our bet by measuring each head. I agreed and it came out that Jesse’s bull green scored around 290 and mine around 310. Thank God mine was a little bigger or I would have never heard the end of it! Jesse is already becoming quite the outdoorsman and Jason said he was a great young man that he would be happy to hunt with anytime. I am happy to be home and thrilled that we all made it out alive and safe with one more story for the grandkids.