Pat’s barn was full of hanging meet

A number of years ago I wrote the following article and submitted it to several outdoor magazines.  It was a writing project that I did just for the heck of it. Recently I came upon it and thought I may as well post it on the Timber Butte site. Since Nancy and I have been developing Timber Butte as a sustainable homestead I have hunted much less, not because I don’t still enjoy it, but because our need to fill the freezer with organic meat has been drastically reduced.  I still enjoy hanging out with Pat Armstrong in the mountains however, and hope I never get too old to enjoy wilderness adventures. This story took place nearly twenty years ago.

Pat and I have been close friends for over forty years; years that have been filled with the memories of adventures and tales of experiences in primitive and wild country.  Through the years our times in the mountains have given us a repertoire of tales of mishaps with pack animals, waiting out bad weather in remote camps and big game hunts that oftentimes turned out well.  Our adventures together started in our early 20′s and have now followed us into our 60′s.  We’ve never seen ourselves as great hunters and we’re always surprised when, at the end of the season, the barn is full of hanging quarters of mule deer and elk meat.  Every hunt has given us wonderful memories together, but I’ll never forget the first year Pat and I both managed to get our first big elk bulls together on the same evening.

In many parts of Idaho, elk season begins as deer season ends.  We’d been hunting deer for a couple of days and had finally gotten into some big mule bucks nearly on top of an 8,000 ft. mountain.  We got lucky and both managed to make good shots among a bunch of windblown pines.  We had made a high mountain dry camp earlier that afternoon expecting to spend the night there after an evening hunt. But, because we sensed a storm coming in we decided to skin and hang our meat in a tree, hike out of the mountains that night, and bring Pat’s mules back in a day or two to retrieve it.  As we guessed, it dumped snow all night making us feel fortunate to be back at Pat’s ranch for a hot meal and a warm bed.  The next morning was the opening of elk season so we decided to retrieve our bucks later and spend the day hunting a different area for elk.

Several hours before daylight, in about six inches of fresh new snow, we saddled our horses, loaded the trailer and headed back into the mountains.  We had ridden about six miles up a river drainage when the sun began to cast its first light through the stormy skies. We continued to ride through the morning hours on up through the timbered drainage, which occasionally broke out into open meadows giving us views of descending hillsides laden with stands of birch and aspen.  It was perfect elk country and a beautiful morning.  Every new opening gave us a sense of expectancy as our horses plodded on into the day.  Our plan was to keep riding until we either happened upon an unsuspecting herd, or cut a track worth following.  All too soon it was about three o’clock and neither had happened.

In this area where Pat and I have been hunting the past few years we had rarely seen any other hunters. About 3:30 that afternoon while climbing up a ridge, we ran into two guys on foot who looked all done in.  After a short visit we discovered that they’d been following a wounded bull for over eight miles since early morning.  He had led them on a wild goose chase up and down canyons for the better part of the day taking them deeper and deeper into some really rugged country.   They had no horses and realized that even now they wouldn’t be able to get back to their camp by dark. They believed the bull was barely hurt due to the fact that it continued to run up and down hills without tiring. They were convinced that he would survive whatever minor damage they had inflicted.

When they disappeared over the rise, Pat turned to me and suggested that we return to our horses and back track these boys until we cut that old bull’s tracks.  We decided, if need be we could follow him all night unless it started to snow again and cover over his trail. We hated the thought of leaving a wounded animal to suffer.  And so, without hesitation, we made our way down the mountain to our animals and back-tracked their Sorel boot tracks until we spotted a large bull track near a small icy creek bottom.  After securely tying my horse to pine tree I began scrambling through my saddle bags for a rolled up day pack which I quickly filled with matches, a flashlight, extra batteries, some dried meat, and a few other odds and ends.  I’d hung out with Pat long enough to know that we could very well be on this trail for a long time – and I knew we were a long way from any place that was warm.

It was about two hours before sunset when we came upon a fresh elk bed in the snow.  Sure enough, there as a small spot of blood about two inches wide which assured us that it was indeed the same elk those hunters had been following.  We were encouraged and, although most experienced hunters would counsel differently, we picked up the pace to just short of a jog.  Half a mile later we came to another spot where he had laid down for a breather among some deadfalls.

We were entering a stand of alder when I touched Pat’s shoulder telling him that I was sure I could smell him.  I have a good nose for that and I felt sure we were getting close.  Alder is the worst stuff to negotiate, especially on steep snowy hillsides, and if he didn’t know we were following him before, he surely knew it now.  We fumbled on for a hundred yards until we broke out in an open timbered area that was again littered with deadfalls.  It was there that we got our first glimpse of his rump disappearing through the distant forest some two-hundred yards away.  There was no chance for a shot, but at least we now knew he wasn’t a ghost and really existed.  We were amazed to see that he ran with ease as if in perfect condition.

We walked on, one behind the other.   We had decided that Pat would concentrate on the tracks while I would look at the distant landscape in hopes of getting another glimpse or even a shot.

Another half hour passed and because we were in a densely wooded area we were beginning to lose daylight. We had been traversing the forested hillside for some time when all at once the track abruptly turned down the slope towards the creek bottom.  It was getting on into dusk and after miles of scrambling through the brush and trees I wasn’t at all sure where we were.  I had the distinct feeling that we’d somehow been led in a huge circle.   It wasn’t long before we again approached the creek we had crossed an hour before.  As we did I looked to the other side of the snowy draw to see if I could spot tracks ascending the opposite slope.  There were none that I could see. I reached out to touch Pat’s shoulder to alert him to my discovery just as we were rounding a huge Ponderosa Pine at the creek’s edge.  All at once that old bull was standing right in front of us with his teeth glaring and the whites of his eyes looking angry and mean.  He lowered his six-point rack and charged us, quickly making the hunters the hunted.

It all happened pretty fast, too fast to think if we should run or shoot.  We both shot at the same moment, not even having time to raise our rifles to our shoulders. For a minute it sounded like the Mexican revolution as Winchesters pumped brass into a heap where we stood on that creek banks edge.

The next half hour was spent pulling and pushing our first bull elk out of the frozen creek and up onto dry land and field dressing him before it was too dark to see.  While Pat finished up with the elk I took off and located the horses.  I figured they were somewhere down the drainage but had no idea how far.  I was shocked to discover they were standing where we left them only about two hundred feet away.  We had made a huge circle ending up right where we started.

Wanting to get down the long valley while we still had light we left the bull and started to ride out of the canyon the way we had come.  We would return with the pack animals the next day.  To our great amazement we rounded a corner into an area that exposed an open hillside riding right into a small heard of elk. We leaped off our horses and managed to shoot a second bull that same evening in another fiasco of blazing guns.  In the excitement and confusion our horses ran off with tails in the air, heading for Pat’s trailer some six miles away.  In the end it turned out to be a long day but the barn was full of meat again, and more stories were added to our repertoire of tales that would be remembered and shared by two old friends around many campfires to come.