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. These events occurred October 21-23, 2011.
Chapter 1: Shots Fired
We drive up Friday evening after Fred gets done with work. Many of the hunting camps along the road from last weekend are gone, but there are still plenty of hunters. Fortunately, the roads are much dryer, and we won’t need to put chains on the truck. We do our S.O.P. (standard operating procedure) of glassing the near side of Cement Mountain before driving over to Freeze Out. Once again all we do is carry out a ritual, rather than actually learn anything. Fred’s plan for tomorrow is to drive the quad runner down to the bottom, cross the first bridge, and go around to the backside of Cement Mountain.
Saturday: 5:00-8:00 a.m.
We rise and stumble at the usual 5 a.m. time. The temperature inside the trailer is in the forties, so the furnace feels really good even fully dressed for hunting. After last week’s muddy fiasco I have a large stuff sack to protect my pack from sloppy trail conditions while on the quad.
Fred is driving conservatively this morning. Last week, when we got down to the first bench, he was running through the gears like he was racing at La Mans, quick up-shifts and brick-wall hard down shifts. Today, however, is not the day for the little quad runner.
First, I hear my shooting sticks slip off the back and hit the road. We have to stop as I go back and try to find them in the dark. We only lose a couple of minutes, and quickly travel the worst parts of the road, cross the bridge, and start around the south end of Cement Mountain. Our second mishap is slightly more serious when we hit a big bog hole in the road and – bog down. Fortunately, Fred gets it started easily; we walk it back, sort of like a motorcyclist walking his bike backwards, and make a successful second attempt. The third incident happens too fast to think about, but it could have been deadly. On the very southern end of Cement Mountain the road cants downhill, with a steep slope stretching toward the distant creek below it. I’m leaning to the uphill side as hard as I can when the outside wheels of the quad slip on the very edge of the road. I can feel the ATV beginning to tip over; Fred is being tossed to the downhill side of the quad like I am. As I fight to get back to the uphill side I push Fred’s shoulder over with my right arm. By the time he shouts, “Lean left!” we are back on the road. We just side stepped a serious accident by a narrow margin, but it happened too quickly to register. The final quad runner incident will occur on our trip back to camp. The last stretch to the top of the road may be the steepest and slipperiest stretch on Forest Service road 349. The poor over loaded ATV will do its best imitation of The Little Engine That Could. Unfortunately, The Little Quad That Couldn’t will huff and puff, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can! … Oops … I can’t!” The simple solution will be for me to hop off and walk the last leg, and it will be pulled off safely despite the steep and slippery slope.
We arrive at the end of the road, get off the quad, gear up, and hit the trail according to schedule-that’s the first good sign of the day. The trail is steep, gradually climbing along a series of rock outcroppings parallel to the back side of Cement Mountain. To the left is a deepening gully that separates us from the mountain itself, to our right, more rocks that form a small basin, which then drop off into the creek, above which looms the next ridge to the east. The gully on our left used to be heavily timbered. Now it is a
monument to the freak power of nature; every tree in the gully has been flattened, the timber stacked four or five trees deep. Trees on the sides of the gully were not touched.
Fred takes lots of stops along the way. I would rather take a steady pace and stop less often. However, I stop grumbling to myself when I realize that I am thinking like I’m still 30, not 53 and suffering from ALS. I need these stops if I’m going to make it through the day. The trail tops out in a narrow band of trees, as it passes through a gap in an old buck and rail fence. It’s now 8:00 a.m.
To appreciate what happens next, you need to know about L.U. (as in, Long Ugly) Mauser, my rifle. For years I had carried my dad’s 03-A3 30-06. The 03-A3 was the WW II version of the Springfield rifle from the First World War. Dad had bought it in the late 1950’s, and converted it to a civilian hunting rifle by hand. When we moved to Worland he wanted it back because according to him, “I have too much of myself in that rifle to let it go”. Fortunately, our church in Worland has a number a gun guys, including Carl; one of the first things I learned about Carl was that he worked with a local gunsmith refurbishing old Mauser rifles. Last December, at the church’s Christmas Bazaar, Carl stopped me and said ominously, “come outside with me, I need to show you something”. Outside, Carl reached into his truck and pulled out an extremely long rifle (by modern standards) with a beat up, original military stock. He handed it to me and said, “Here. This is yours, because you need an elk gun.” L.U. is a Turkish style Mauser, probably manufactured in the 1930s, and shoots 8mm ammunition. According to Carl, Mauser 8mm ammo is about 90% of the American classic 30-06 (thirty-aught-six). The 30-06 cartridge is no longer the preferred ammunition for elk hunting and by modern standards is merely adequate. That makes the 8mm cartridge 90% of merely adequate (by modern standards), but I know that 90% of merely adequate will still kill elk. The outside of the barrel is heavily
pitted in places, and any bluing has worn away; the original military for-stock has been shortened, a coat of varnish from its past is badly worn, and the wood is severely battered. Yet L.U. is a “shooter”. That means that at the rifle range it will shoot m.o.a. (minute of angle) at 100 yards, which is gun-speak for “those shots fit inside one square inch”. For a hunting rifle of any kind, especially a beat up old antique like L.U. Mauser, that’s pretty accurate. The result is I’m confident about my rifle, and don’t worry about the abuse it will endure while hunting in elk country.
Just beyond the buck and rail fence Fred has stopped for another breather, and I’m not complaining. As we catch our breath, I scan the pieces of Cement Mountain I can see through gaps in the branches. Up towards the top my eye catches a color that’s out of place. The sun is up by this time, but overcast keeps everything gloomy and I can’t tell for sure. “No”, I’m thinking, “can’t be an elk, must be another stump that is fooling me.” I bring my binoculars up for a glance. Wait a second – that IS an elk, and another one right at the crest. I drop down, open up my shooting sticks and prop my binos on them for a good steady look. Yes! Two elk, and maybe a third in the timber right on top.
Fred senses I’m on to something, and finds them for himself. I swap my binos for my rifle on the shooting sticks, and Fred pulls out his range finder and tries to get a range reading. While I don’t know the exact distance, it’s obvious that it will be a long shot, but I have confidence in my rifle. Fred can’t get a reading because the range finding laser is reflecting off nearby tree branches. I try to line up on the animal to the far right, but branches are in my way too. I move to a different spot, but the view through my scope is even worse. The elk haven’t spotted us yet, so we decide to go farther up the trail where an outcropping of rocks will offer a clear and closer field of fire.
As we move up the trail, I’m not feeling any heightened excitement. For whatever reason, I’ve never suffered from “buck fever”, that big surge of adrenaline that disconnects the brain of a lot of hunters. Right now I’m trying to balance hurrying with keeping my cardio-pulmonary rates as low as I can. This will be a tough shot even if my breathing and heart rates were normal.
We get to the rocks and start climbing to the left. Suddenly, at the top of the rocks, we have a clear view. One elk is on the crest at the edge of the timber, the other is lower and to the far right. I get down, set up my shooting sticks, and lay my rifle across them. I decide to take the animal on the right because it is the closest – still a very long shot. As I put my scope on the elk, Fred has his range finder out, trying to get a reading. But a tree screens Fred’s view of the elk I’m aiming at – all he can see is the one on the mountain’s crest. Once I have my elk in the scope I have to wait a moment before it moves to give me a shot. It’s quartering away slightly, it’s head to the left slightly up hill of its body. I’m taking as big of breaths as my ALS weakened diaphragm will allow, trying to slow my heart rate – it doesn’t seem to be helping because the cross hairs are wobbling like a sailor on shore leave. Still, I squeeze off a shot – Ka BOOM. Nothing. Both elk stay put, and look completely oblivious as I rack in the second round. I get on the cross hairs again, trying to aim high, center mass and hope for the best – as wobbly as I am that’s the best I can do. Ka BOOM … Did I hear a whump? That’s the distinctive sound of a bullet striking home. At this distance, with the slow (by modern standards) 8mm ammo, any sound coming back seems to take forever. But I don’t see the elk even flinch. Now it trots to the left along the slope. I follow it the best I can; it disappears behind a tree, and fortunately reappears on the other side and stands still – perfectly broadside. I put the cross hairs on it again and squeeze. Ka BOOM … this time I’m sure I heard a returning whump, but the animal is still standing. Through all of this Fred has been telling me to aim high, aim high, and still thinks I’m shooting at the elk at the top. I line up shot number four, and I’m trying to aim high. Ka BOOM … Fred shifts left just enough and finally sees my elk just as it goes down like a sack of potatoes … I hear an unmistakable whump and see it drop. I rack in my last round and keep my scope on it. Fred is assuring me, “It’s down! It’s down!”, but I want to make sure it doesn’t pop back up. It takes a moment or two before I believe Fred, that my elk is down and out. I take my cheek off the stock and get a fist bump from a grinning Fred. I look at my watch – 8:10, exactly one hour since we left the quad runner.
It won’t be until late the next day that I can piece together what happened. The first shot was a clean miss. The second struck right behind the ribs, and most likely sent the elk moving. The third struck low in the brisket, angled up and shattered the right front shoulder. The fourth and fatal shot hit it high in the neck. Using Fred’s range finder we will estimate the distance to have been at least 350 yards, perhaps as much as 370. I’m glad Fred never gave me an accurate range reading as I was getting ready to shoot! Magazine writers suggest that the 30-06 is reliable on elk out to 250 yards. My 8mm, therefore, being 90% of adequate, would be reliable out to 225 yards. However, I am be confident that a 30-06 would get the job done out to 300. I assumed the same thing about my 8mm L.U. Mauser. But 370 yards is really pushing the envelope! Scoring three out of four in the body is a testament to good ol’ L.U. But the modern gun guys would point out the poor old 8mm performance was less than desired, that even shattering the front shoulder didn’t make the animal flinch. A more powerful cartridge may have knocked it down with shot number two, the shot to the ribs.
Modern gun guys? Thbbbbbbbpt to you! Because when we got up to the elk – I had no idea that slope was THAT steep – it was lying on its back, four hooves in the air, stone dead. My confidence in L.U. Mauser was vindicated.
Chapter 2: After the Shots Reality Check
The wonderful thing about optics is they compress distance. As we start hiking over and up to my elk I begin to realize how far away it actually is. We have to drop into a heavily timbered gully to get over to the slope of the ridge, which rises up like a wall. I’m trying to keep from overloading my ALS weakened diaphragm muscles by climbing as slowly as I can, and maintaining the shallowest angle of ascent that I can. I keep moving to the left to avoid having to climb up shelves of rock. Even so, I’m severely winded before I get to the top and my legs hurt.
This is not a good sign for what lies ahead of us. The old adage of hunting says the fun stops after you squeeze the trigger, and the hard work begins. If I’m feeling all done in now, I don’t know how I will make it through the rest of the day.
When we reach the elk it is stone cold dead, lying on its back, a pool of blood on the ground. I knew that beat up ol’ Mauser rifle could get ‘er done! There is a saying that you only find trout in gorgeous country. The same could be said of elk, with the addendum, in amazingly rugged country. The view from elk ground zero is amazing. I soak it all in as I try to catch my breath and consume a Power Bar gel-pack. In a small way I’m also procrastinating getting to work on the elk because I’m not confident about my ability to get it gutted. I made a mess out of the deer I gutted a week ago. I decide that I just need to man up, grab my knives – and admit to Fred that I’m not very good at this. I write a little note, “How do you like to start? I’m not very good at this”. He’s a little surprised: “you’ve never shot an elk before?” I shake my head. Fred lights up and seems to be even more honored to be here for my first elk.
The teacher in him comes out, as I get my knives, and he begins to instruct me on a method he likes to use. The first step is to get the head up hill, belly up. The standard method starts at the bottom and moves up. Fred likes to start in the middle. You find the bottom of the sternum, slit the hide, continue slitting the hide almost to the chin, then cut through the sternum with a saw, and open the throat all the way up. Then you open up the body cavity, and progress from there.
It’s time to drag the hind quarters and get back to the quad runner. Fred takes the drag rope on front, and I grab the back. Damn it’s heavy and awkward! Even worse, the slope is terribly steep and there’s danger of having it role into our legs. Our primary concern with this method is to protect the meat from dirt and damage. Suddenly, I lose my balance and pitch forward. I’m going down and I don’t have the strength to catch myself. My pack sends me tumbling backwards and I hit hard. ALS has weakened the muscles in the front of my neck, so that my head suffers a violent backwards whiplash. I come to a stop, stunned and laying on my left side. I try to get up, but I can’t. It takes me several moments to realize that the carcass has pinned my pack to the ground.
Fred roles the hind quarters off, and I struggle to get up. My head wants to tip back, and it takes a major effort to pull it up. My hat is several feet below me to the right. I am sitting on a flat slab of red sandstone. Later, when I have time to analyze what happened, I will realize that the elk carcass did me a huge favor. If I had rolled off that slab of rock, I would have dropped eighteen inches, suffered another whiplash jolt, and been bouncing down slope until I crashed into a tree.
I stand up, retrieve my hat and sit back down on the rock. I’m feeling angry, afraid, and embarrassed. I can’t remember feeling this defeated by the outdoors in a very long time. I’m angry that ALS has weakened me to the point where I can’t keep myself from falling; I’m afraid because I don’t see how I can do what needs to be done, and I’m embarrassed because just squeezing the trigger doesn’t make you an elk hunter – elk hunting is also getting the animal out. I’ve always wanted to be an elk hunter, but now I don’t have what it takes.
I begin to cry – ALS can weaken the ability to suppress emotions – which only makes everything worse. To paraphrase Tom Hanks, “there’s no crying in elk hunting!” Fred thinks I must be upset with him somehow. I keep shaking my head “no”. I can’t get at my note pad to explain because I stuck it somewhere in my pack. I don’t know what to do. Fred decides we will just let the carcass tumble down hill. That doesn’t sound right to me, but he assures me that it won’t hurt the meat. I pull myself together and help him. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a couple hundred pounds of elk carcass bounding down a ridge! I’m cringing the whole time. It finally comes to rest under a big fir tree at the top of the gully. We peer around trying to decide which direction to go from there and spot the skeletal remains of another elk someone has cut all the meat from – instead of trying to take the carcass out they just removed the meat. There’s a patch of snow next to it, so we decide that’s as good of a spot as any to leave the hind quarters.
Psychologically, I’m feeling lighter as we leave the carcass behind and hike back down the trail to the quad. Fortunately, it’s all downhill from there. We make it back to camp. I send a text message to my family saying I have an elk and crawl into the trailer. Fred comes in a little later with a big smile. “Good news”, he says, “Joe is bringing his horses up tomorrow morning”. That’s the best news I’ve had since I heard the whump of my fourth shot slamming into the neck of the elk. There is a festive atmosphere in the trailer that night, but for me, it’s tempered by feeling completely overwhelmed about hiking back, and hauling out the elk tomorrow.
Chapter 3: Vague Embarrassment Blooms
No 5:00 a.m. this morning! Joe and his horses will be here around 10:00, and Fred wants to be down by the Forest Service boundary by 9:00, in case Joe is early, to guide him up here. I feel uneasy because sleep last night didn’t restore my strength. My legs feel just as weak as they did last night. Perhaps not eating enough yesterday is making itself felt.
About 8:30 I feel the call of nature, so I take my TP and trowel and go out to find a quiet spot in the woods. Fred’s trailer has a toilet, but the threat of freezing keeps the water, drainage, and waste systems off line. I dig a little hole, and get my pants down around my ankles. The need to go is th
ere, but nothing happens. I keep trying. Still nothing. I glance at my watch, and now there is a tick-tock factor; Fred will be ready to leave soon. I hike my trousers back up and take a little walk around the area hoping that will loosen things up. I try again; tick-tock, tick-tock, bing! I hear Fred yelling for me. I haul my britches back up. This is awkward. I didn’t bring my note pad with me because I didn’t anticipate having a conversation out here. I don’t have any way to communicate with him – not that I know what I would say. Fortunately, when he sees me standing there, Fred seems to understand my predicament. He heads off to meet the horses and I go back to finishing business.
Only I can’t. I’ve never had this problem. Yesterday’s vague embarrassment is in full bloom today. I’m still there when Joe and the horses arrive, and I’m still there when they are ready to leave. Fred says, “I know you want to come with us, but it’s ok. Just do what you have to and take care of yourself.” Off they go, and well, I still can’t.
I decide to quit trying to go, and will just wait until I get home. The wind is picking up and it is getting colder. I return to the trailer to wait.
The rest of the day is misery as pain and discomfort grows. Sitting begins to hurt, and I’m too uncomfortable to sleep. The only relief will be when I am able to go, but the pain is excruciating when I try.
At some point in this restless dis-ease, I stumble into a sadly clarifying thought. It isn’t one day in the mist shrouded future that ALS will render me incapable of hunting; it already has. Yes, I have known this will be my last season to hunt, but I have kept grief at bay by believing that it will be the gradual degeneration over the next year which will make next season impossible. The reality is that has already occurred. I was not capable of elk hunting on my own this year.
For me, big game hunting has been the greatest experience of freedom. Not merely political freedom, although the freedom to carry a high powered rifle is an important part of it. But Aldo Leupold said it well: “What avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?” Hunting deer and elk in the west have been important to me because it takes me to the blankest spots on the map. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of square miles where I have no need to ask permission or worry about fence boundaries; breath taking vistas of big, wild, empty country where the only limits are my physical strength. It’s freedom from the linear mindset of getting from point A to point B in the fastest amount of time; hunting has taken me off the roads and trails into the
topography. It has shifted my frame of mind from order and structure to flow and instinct. I see things and go places I would have no other reason to. I try to think as the game does, to see the sun and clouds, the ridge lines and draws, the breeze and temperature as the game does. This gives me a profound sense of being alive and free.
Sitting in the trailer, enduring a new indignity, I come to realize that ALS won’t clip my wings some day in the next year – it already has.
Fred and Joe, with two horses in tow, return about 4:00. The rest is anticlimactic. The horses are unloaded, cooled down, and loaded into their trailer. Fred and I get things packed into the truck and head down the hill for home. Fred’s hunt isn’t over yet, and I decide I have enough in me to come back and give him a hand. But as we begin the long down hill drive, I leave behind a major piece of who I am; a sense of freedom and life that I will never regain until I reach the other end of the Valley of the Shadow.
Fred and I returned to Cement Mountain the following two weekends but never saw another elk. The first weekend we returned to Grizzly Park only to find three other hunters there. We took the quad back around Cement Mountain to where we could climb the ridge to Long Park. However, we couldn’t find a good spot to ford the creek, and decided to just go explore. Fred lost his balance getting back on to the quad runner, and came down on the throttle lever with his full weight, sheering it off right at the cable. It was a long, tense trip back up to camp, with Fred doing his best trying to grab the small remains of the throttle with a pair of piers.
The following Saturday we went back to Long Park, and got across the creek with minimally wet feet. It snowed heavily off and on that morning, but the only tracks we found were twelve to twenty-four hours old. On the trip back to camp we had hit the bad part of the road when Fred drove up on the side cussing about something. The next thing I knew the front wheels came off the ground and I was sliding off the back and on the ground with the quad straight up in the air. For the first I few seconds I tried to keep Fred on the quad because I thought if he came off the whole thing would come over on me; then I realized I was in his way, and tried to get out of range – but it never fell over. The throttle had frozen open and the back wheels dug holes deep enough that the gas can and back gear rack kept it from falling over. I guess. It sobered both of us and took the fun out of any more hunting. Back at camp it began snowing heavily again, and Fred decided to pack it all up and get the trailer down the mountain. We managed to get packed up and hauled out of there without any (major) adventures.
What had begun in August, when we hauled the trailer up there and went fishing in the canyon, had come to an end. For me, it was time. But the memories remain, memories of the greatest hunting I will ever do. And ALS cannot take that from me.