Until the Lord intervenes in my ALS deterioration, this will be the last fall I will be physically able to hunt. This year I went in with several other guys to obtain a cow elk permit. We are hunting the coveted area 45, on the western edge of the Big Horn Mountains, northeast of Hyatville, Wyoming. My fishing partner, Fred, is the driving force behind all this, because he has hunted this area over a nine year stretch. He and I set his trailer up back in August, because Fred wanted to bow hunt an elk in September, so that he could focus on guiding the rest of us. A week before archery season he was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Two surgeries and biopsies later, the doctors say the cancer has not spread, and that he faces some treatment in the future just to be certain. We make quite a team – a guy slowed down by ALS with a guy slowed down by cancer surgeries. Opening day was Saturday October 15.
There were a few inches of snow at our camp, and fairly cool when we got there Friday evening. Along with unpacking and getting the trailer up and running, we put chains all around on the truck. Fred insisted that it would get mucky and that we would need them. The higher peaks to the east had heavy snow on them, but down below us, in the canyon where we would be hunting, most of the snow was gone. Before dinner we crossed the road to the edge of the canyon to glass for elk across the way on Cement Mountain. We had heard that a day or two before there had been a fair sized herd over there. We didn’t see a thing before it got dark. There were three horse trailers parked over there, and one big camp. There was another two trailers, on either side of ours, and the meadow back behind us had one big elaborate camp, and one smaller one. Fred said he had never seen so many hunters up there before. The plan is for us to take his ATV down into the canyon tomorrow morning, turn north at the first bridge, follow the road to its end, then hike a mile or so into Grizzly Park, arriving there about the time legal shooting hours begin (one half hour before sunrise), around 6:50.
5:00 am The heat and coffee get turned on, with cinnamon rolls for breakfast. We want to be on the quad runner, going down the hill by 6:20.
6:30 Fred’s quad is fairly old, so it has a million gears, but is small and underpowered by today’s standards. We did this little exertion in August, so I know that riding on the back of it is a strenuous activity. I’m wedged between Fred and our two packs that are lashed on the back. My rifle is slung awkwardly across my back. We begin the descent down the road, which is largely frozen.
About 7:00 We arrive at the end of the road, pull our gear together, and start up the hill. Obviously we’re later than we thought we would be. We hear shots shortly after we start hiking, and sound like they’re from the back side of Cement Mountain. We take a lot time glassing the lines of travel on our side of the mountain, hoping we might see elk being driven up and over the mountain towards us. Probably hear 7-8 shots by the time we get to Grizzly Park.
About 8:00 – 3:00 We cross the creek, walk through the narrow strip of timber and
ease into Grizzly Park. Yikes! There’s a hunter to the left standing next to a dead aspen snag. Fred bugles at him to announce our presence. The look on the hunter’s face when he whips around, wondering what the hell he’d just heard, is priceless. He doesn’t look pleased to see us standing there though, and heads into the timber off to the left. We ease around to the right and move up the east side of the park. We end up sitting on a bench at the top of the park that Fred made last year from aspen deadfalls; very comfy and cozy among the rocks and sage. We have a great view of the whole park, and our side of Cement Mountain. We watch a hunter come down through the middle of the park from up above us, just strolling through, on his way to somewhere. Sheesh. We keep hearing shots from Cement Mountain, some of them sound like they are on our side of the mountain, but we don’t see anything. We become abruptly aware of the weak point of our outpost when we hear a gunshot to our right, and see a hunter 80 yards away next to a rock, pointing his rifle back behind us. What the…???? We never thought there would be anything coming down behind us! We watch as he starts searching the sage brush behind us in wider and wider circles. At some point we lose track of him. Obviously he: 1) missed; 2) wounded an animal; 3)was shooting at a phantom elk. We don’t know which way he went. Walking through that area later we don’t find any signs of blood.
Eventually we leave Grizzly Park and move upwards, take our pictures next to one of several waterfalls, and end up on a big rock outcropping that looks down on Grizzly Park. The breeze is a little chilly, but we eat lunch and try to figure out what’s next. Fred decides he wants to go back to the Grizzly park-bench and wait for elk to come in for their evening feed. We leave the overlook, and find a spot to “cache up” at for the afternoon. We both snooze until about 3:00.
3:00 – 7:00 We gear back up, but as we head back down to the bench, Fred realizes
that our two other hunting companions are supposed to have come up today, and we need to get back to camp to unlock the trailer for them. We hike on out to the quad. By this time we’ve heard 16 shots, but nothing for several hours. We haven’t seen any elk, but have seen tons of tracks and sign from that morning. Outside of that one weird shot behind us, any elk in the Grizzly Park area haven’t been pushed today.
We get back down to the quad, both of us pretty worn out, facing the ATV ride back up. The day has been warm, so everything is thawed out and a mess.
This “road” comes off the top where we are camped in a series of three or four steep pitches through heavy timber, which produces virtual layers of fallen trees and logs that have been cleared off the road, in many places just wide enough for a vehicle to pass through. Once out of the timber the road drops down to the first switch back, travels along the first bench, and then pitches sharply, as in incredibly steep, down over boulder cobbles the size of computer printers and up, the largest being the size of refrigerator freezer compartments that are partially buried. It flattens out a little after the second hairpin along the second bench, but large boulders continue to strew the road.
So, driving up it that evening, besides the usual challenge of not gutting the quad runner on big rocks, there are now inches of mud in spots. The worst is the last section before the top, through the heavy timber. The mud is slop, and the ruts (where the muck isn’t in pools) are easily a foot deep. Fred gives the little overloaded quad all its got, but it begins to bog down right at the top. Mud flies everywhere along with the curses, and somehow the little quad that could surges to the top.
Physically, that wasn’t fun at all at the end of an already strenuous day. Fred gets a little prissy that I left mud on the seat as I got off, and I lose my cool because my gear that was strapped on the back is dripping with layers of muck. I get to cleaning, and Fred fires up the generator. Later we drive up to “Freeze Out” a spot on the rim further up from us overlooking Eidleman Park, somewhere Fred is considering for tomorrow. Besides the view, the side trip is only noteworthy for the mind-numbing miles of roads that are axle deep in slop. Looks like war torn Europe in the winter of 1944. I now understand why Fred placed so much importance on putting on the chains yesterday.
5:00 a.m. The plan is to go back to Grizzly, making sure we get there before shooting hours. Fred has decided to take his truck down there this time. He hasn’t done that for a number of years, since he ruined a set of tires driving what I’m coming to think of as “Hell’s Sleigh Ride”. Coffee and the heat get turned on. The temperature inside the trailer is about 48 degrees. Somehow, getting ready goes smoother this morning, and we’re out the door.
6:00 When we get in the truck, fog has moved in, very thick fog. We appear to be the only ones who are out and moving. The drive down isn’t as bad as either of us anticipate, although the fog definitely ratchets up the tension. Once again, we’re the only vehicle at the end of the road.
6:30 – 1:00 It’s dark and foggy, but our hike in is much faster, no stopping to glass the hillsides. We’re getting close to the creek crossing, and I stop to adjust gear and catch my breath. Fred takes the lead and points us to a break in the trees along the creek. But in the gloom, we become disoriented; this isn’t the right spot. Finally we figure out we are too far down and eventually find our crossing spot. Our time table has been thrown off, and we get into Grizzly not too much earlier than yesterday. It’s lighter, but the fog is hanging in as we repeat yesterday’s approach around the eastern edge of the park. We find plenty of tracks from earlier in the morning, all headed east out of the park towards the creek. We spend some time on the bench, waiting for the fog to lift. It takes about half an hour, but it eventually does. We head up the draw that feeds into the upper western corner of the park, up through the timber. We see plenty of fresh sign, but everything is heading downhill. Finally, after a mid-morning break, Fred finds some fresh tracks headed up hill – looks like a cow and calf and maybe two other mature animals. We follow the tracks up into a patch of thick timber, and I’m anticipating we will find the elk bedded down in there. Nope. The tracks go through the timber, then up into the very steep rocks and fallen timber that lead over the top of a major ridge. Only the chronically insane would shoot an elk up here. We quit, eat lunch, and back track to our overlook from yesterday.
1:00 – 5:00 The sun has never really broken through today, and fog keeps drifting through. We cache up at the overlook and snooze for awhile. Fred wants to be back at the bench watching Grizzly for any early evening elk movement. As we head down that way it begins to drizzle lightly off and on. We stop under a big pine to wait it out for awhile. All the tracks we’ve seen today are headed away from Grizzly, and my hunch is that they are leaving the Grizzly Park area. On the other hand, this is one corner of the larger area where we have really been the only hunters, and these elk haven’t been shot at. Maybe the park will feel like a safe place for them. Before we make our final move to the bench, I suggest that I stay on the bench looking down the park, and that Fred position himself off to the right of the bench looking back up, so that he covers our blind spot. If he sees anything he can bugle at me.
5:00 – 6:30 The drizzle keeps picking up. I hear Fred bugle and stand up. He walks down to the bench. It’s starting to rain a little harder and he asks whether I want to stick it out, or head back. I figure we are where we wanted to be, at the time we wanted to be, so we might as well stick it out. We break out rain gear and sit down on the bench, but five minutes later it’s raining really hard and obviously isn’t going to stop. Gutting out an elk in cold rain as it gets even darker is not something I want to do. We start back to the truck at 5:15. Suddenly, driving the truck down this morning seems like the smartest decision we’ve made all weekend.
The drive up isn’t all that bad – until we get to the last section through the heavy timber. What was a mess yesterday is now beyond description with all the rain. While I never wear a seatbelt off road, I struggle to get strapped in before we hit the worst of it. Fred is in four-low, low gear, chains on all four tires, driving peddle to the metal, blasting through and over everything. I’ve got my eyes closed, and hanging on with everything I’ve got, the seatbelt nearly cutting me in two, but keeping me from flying around the cab. Like yesterday, on the last stretch to the top, we start bogging down. If we lose traction and slip here, it could be life threatening. Fortunately, the truck keeps clawing and we make it. We decide that tomorrow, we aren’t hunting down there. We never heard a shot all day.
We get up late, drink coffee, and then do a little road hunting just to say we hunted today. It’s low 20’s and there was a skiff of snow overnight. We watch the parade of ATVs and trucks headed down into the canyon. Yesterday we were all alone down there. Fair weather hunters … not hard core like we were!
Our hunt continues this coming weekend.