I thought this Great photo by Brent Paull deserved a caption. Check out his other work at http://www.amwestphoto.com/index.htm
I thought this Great photo by Brent Paull deserved a caption. Check out his other work at http://www.amwestphoto.com/index.htm
I remember being chided by an Idaho acquaintance as to if I was “Western Enough” to hang with their cowboy crew. My retort was “I’d say if I can see the ocean while I gather cows I’m probably more Western than you!”
While chatting with a 4th generation Californio from the hills of the East Bay, he took it a step further. He called the Rocky Mountain Cowboys “Midwesterners”, then expounded upon the “East”, “Middle East” and “Far East”
So I will concede to all you Hawaiian Paniolos, and Alaskan Bush Cowboys, you guys are MORE WESTERN than I…
The story of course starts with drawing a coveted tag like all hunting fairytales do. But along the way, I met a princess of my own. I’d found an adventurous soul who was willing to sleep on the ground in a tent, camp and cook in the rain, and enjoyed fitness and outdoor adventures. When I asked her to join me on a late summer scouting trip she jumped at the chance.
Over four days we drove the unit, glassed and camped and hiked. When we jumped a herd of elk in thick timber, I reveled at the look on her face as they crashed through the downfall. The excitement had her. Glassing a herd of elk a mile away and hearing the mews and chirps of cows and calves through the clear morning mountain air, she proclaimed “John, you look like a kid in a candy store. I see why you love this so much!”
In the following months life had its ups and downs for both of us. She was a steadying influence on my nerves and always reminded me of the great hunt I had coming up in October. Time after time, she expressed how she would love to be in elk camp with me during the hunt. But her career had her pinned down during that time period and it wasn’t in the cards for her to make the trip. She would root me on from afar, awaiting my call that I had succeeded in my quest.
While we were scouting, I was introduced to George Rael. He was a local outfitter the same age as I. We instantly bonded as Elk Junkies, and he marveled at my luck drawing the tag. I told him that I was not going to have my usual contingent of family, (Father and Uncle) with whom to camp and handle horses. He immediately offered me his assistance, and I accepted the offer of packing services and saddle stock. While I would miss having my trusty steed Bob, in camp, it made the two day drive from California much simpler without having to haul stock. While I would camp solo, I’d have some local knowledge of the country and his energy to spur me on in the thin mountain air.
In October I made the drive over two days to the camp at the end of the road two days before the season. It was situated on the backside of a ridge that was the unit border and we had a mile and a half ride to reach our hunting zone. I visited with George at his home on my way to camp and saw the caliber of bulls he himself had killed and drooled at the possibility of putting a tag on what could be the biggest bull of my lifetime.
When opening day came we rode out under the rapidly filling moon, so bright, it cast shadows as we rode along the trail. In addition the wind howled with gusts and swirled unpredictably. At First Light we spotted a herd of elk far below us out of my effective range. We watched them head over the hill and heard the bulls bugling. The rest of the morning we chased bugles along the ridges until they clammed up at about 10:00 am. I remember being determined to keep up with my acclimated local as I gulped the thin air at 10,000 feet, and tested my legs endurance up and down the fingers and ridges.
We napped through the midday, alternately glassing the ridges and valleys below. As the sun began to drop, we headed down toward the creek in the direction the elk had gone that morning. Soon two bulls stepped out of the trees across the canyon. A six point and a five point. They cautiously made their way to the creek and I positioned myself on shooting sticks and held my crosshairs on the six point at 350 yards. After the big bull we had seen that morning I couldn’t bring myself to pull the trigger and end my hunt on Day One. We rode back to camp arriving after dark.
The second morning we were out again before light. More close calls with vocal elk in the morning. A rope burn from a hesitant mule the day before nagged at me. Each little ridge and valley seemed to have its own little pocket of elk and the switching winds kept giving us away. We were in them though. Later that morning we bumped a lone bull bedded high on the main ridge as we rode along. Just enough of a glimpse to see he was a nice bull, but not enough time to get off for a shot.
That afternoon we trekked to the far reaches of the public land in the unit and played cat and mouse with a bull in the timber. He had cows and we circled him trying to get in his path of travel before dark. After a couple times back and forth we got to an opening where he showed himself in range uphill. I took a rest on shooting sticks but had to crouch while standing to see the bull in my crosshairs. My tired legs trembled and I rushed the shot, missing cleanly.
I was furious with myself. All this way, all this time, all this effort to miss! Now we were 10 miles from camp, it was getting dark and we still had two miles to hike back to the horses. I’d been up since 4:00 am, and now it was 7:00 pm. My foul mood did not go unnoticed as later that night George exclaimed to the rest of the crew “Damn dude, he was PISSED!”
I was not looking forward to the two hour ride back over the ridge to camp. Even the horses were dragging. But as the full moon rose and bugles echoed throughout the valley, my tired eyes gazed on the shadows of the trees in the moonlight and it was etched in my memory as a bittersweet occasion.
I arrived back to camp a couple hours after dark and collapsed in my bed after a quickly reheated meal. Doubts crept in about my endurance and shooting ability. After all I had done to prepare, this hunt was kicking my ass. I was exhausted physically and mentally. The missed opportunities weighed on my mind along with the visions of heavy horned mountain monarchs trotting off into the timber unscathed. It was a fitful night of sleep, and morning came too early once again.
That morning we rode up in the dark as before and tied up near where we had begun on opening morning. The wind had calmed some and we could hear a bull moving his cows up the draw to our left. We circled around to peer down in the draw expecting him to be on the ridge we started on, then back to near where we started. We saw his cows filtering through the trees below us and he just appeared on the open hillside 150 yards away, bugling like a dunghill rooster. After the evening before’s shooting foul up, I felt I needed to take the next branch antlered bull I could get in my crosshairs. I could see he was a good sized 5x with broken points and decided I was ready to be done hunting.
I steadied the crosshairs on his left shoulder as he was quartering to me and his cows continued to filter through the trees below us. I squeezed the trigger and saw the bullet hit as he reacted, packing a limp front left shoulder down the hill. I reloaded but he entered the trees and disappeared from sight before I could follow up. I had feelings of misgivings as his cows streamed over the hill across the draw. I was worried the bullet had not entered the chest cavity with the quartering angle. We cut across the draw looking for blood, and George went downstream in case he had made tracks down low. I worked back up to the site of the shot, picking up a small shed antler just before finding him expired under a small dead tree his death tumble had uprooted. I hollered out to George that I’d found him. He made it back to me in about 10 minutes, and we admired the warrior’s broken rack before hiking back to the horses to retrieve the kill.
Those mountain horses earned their keep as we each led a pack horse down the steep ridge to where my bull lay. We each readied our knives and made quick work of breaking down the bull. We bagged the hams, shoulders, loins and tenderloins in game bags and loaded them on two pack horses. The skull and antlers rode on top for the 7 mile trip back to camp.
It was nice to ride along the ridge I’d only seen in the dark and see the surrounding mountain ranges in the distance. We even had a few photo ops as we toasted the bull with the flask reserved for the occasion. We arrived in camp a little before lunch, and hung the quarters in the shade before relaxing with a cold beer and chips and salsa. The horses rolled and enjoyed their early respite and fed on a bale of hay.
That morning George had mentioned to one of the other guys that the wood pile was getting low. In my quest for good karma I’d made the statement “If I kill today, I’ll cut your wood”. So that afternoon we felled standing dead trees, limbed and split stove length logs. My successful hunt adrenaline kept me hustling as we made a sizeable stack. We continued the celebration into the evening, and I retold the tale of the shot throughout the night.
The next morning I packed up my gear and meat and made the drive to Flagstaff Arizona for the night. The next day I made it all the way to home and delivered the meat to Bud’s Meats, my favorite cut and wrap butcher. Thanks to dry ice and coolers some pieces were frozen, and all of it was cool. A week later, my freezer was filled with white paper wrapped roasts, and a month later, 60 pounds of sausage was added to the larder.
My bull’s bleached skull and antlers now adorn the wall in my bedroom. The small shed antler I found while searching for my downed bull has “VV 2016” inscribed in it resides with my princess. I am constantly reminded of the luck that I must have been blessed with to draw such a great tag, and meet a woman who has been so supportive of my love for the hunt.
Things have been quiet here for the last year or two but life has been going on. Since my last entry I’ve scouted and hunted Elk in New Mexico, run a couple of trail races, remodeled a house (ok, still in process), and shuffled around some things in my personal life.
Maybe getting back into the swing of writing will help me pick up where I left off. Kind of a fresh start I guess!
The following words were written after a rainy trail run on Taylor Mountain, a 2.4 mile ascent gaining 1152 feet to the summit. It is a run I like to do weekly on Tuesday mornings. The time I began running it coincided with my divorce. In fact the first ascent I made was the morning after I’d filed the paperwork at the county courthouse. Each time I do this run I think about how it is the perfect metaphor for the challenges we each face in life.
I sat in the warm cab as the rain beat down on the windshield. A hot cup of coffee sat in the console and I knew my work colleagues were either still in bed or just getting up. I was at the trail head, it was 5:45 am, nearly 2 hours before official sunrise, and I had 2.4 miles of vertical trail I would cover twice taunting me to come out and meet it’s challenge.
As I exited the truck and shrugged into my hard shell rain coat in the downpour, I briefly questioned why I was putting myself through this. Before I could talk myself out of it my feet began pulling me up the mountain. Truth was I didn’t have to be out here. No one was depending on me to go out in the storm and perform some heroic measure. But it was the vision of what lay ahead that drew me up the mountain.
Despite the knowledge that I was going to be cold, wet, muddy and tired, I knew this was an investment in my future. Fourteen weeks away from a trail race with 300 other hardy souls, Eight months from a high mountain elk hunt that would test my lungs and legs and extract a hefty sum from my fitness bank account. Today was about making a deposit in that account. The deposit slip would detail the sum of vertical ascent, viscious weather, missteps and mudslides. Like pennies, nickles and dimes, they added up to a paltry sum at the moment, but I was depending on frequent deposits in the upcoming days, and the compounding interest of early saving to be my solution when the mountain and its four footed collection agents handed me the bill.
As I picked up my stride and found my pace with the wind pelting me with raindrops, I thought how this climb seemed to mirror my last year in its challenge. Not happy to sit idle out of the weather in a 20 year marriage, I kicked open the door and took on the elements and rooted rocky trail that is divorce proceedings. At first the residual warmth from my stored up heat kept me comfortable, but that faded with time. The effort of propelling myself forward though kicked up my internal furnace, and as the chill of the first mile crept in, my internal core pushed back the cold.
While the dark was daunting, my headlamp cut through to illuminate the trail ahead. Just far enough to plan my next few strides. Some puddles and rocks showed in the meager light, but others became only obvious under my feet, requiring a path adjustment and a shortening of stride. Much the same way that letters from opposing lawyers, court orders, and legal bills were obstacles in my path. I continued onward as the trail steepened and became rougher. I looked ahead and saw the trail flattened as it passed through a grove of oaks. I imagined the trees would provide some relief from the wind and rain, and my stride lengthened as I entered the cover of the forest. But the trees merely concentrated the precipitation into big soggy drops that found their way down my collar and challenged the heat from my core. What I thought was a haven from the storm was merely a different challenge to my resolve. Shocking at first, the drops mingled with my sweat and equalized the temperature and I soon relished the cool dampness.
“Relentless Forward Progress” I told myself. “As long as you are moving forward, you are making progress. The summit will still be there, whether you are walking or running.” I let my breath become ragged gasps, reminding me to moderate my pace on the steep pitches and pick it up on the more level sections. Pitches and benches, ruts, rocks, roots, and down branches. Each step was challenged, then rewarded with progress. Even the slick muddy section took away progress as a foothold gaveway but my fingers grabbed the turf and pulled me back to my feet. Rocks that were once obstacles became footholds as I scaled the steepest and most treacherous section.
Once I’d reached the bench the narrow singletrack that skirted the hillside gave me firmer traction and I picked up pace despite the rain clouds and fog that obscured the trail ahead. This was the final pitch that would take me to the summit, a quarter mile of treacherous trail that came to a stop at a bench at the summit. There a rock cairn greeted me. A sign that others had been here before me, and the stack of igneous stones stood as testament that I was following a path blazed by many before me. I could ascend no higher.
As the wind drove the rain into my exposed skin there at the summit and my heat rose out of my scalp as steam, I shouted to the gods of weather, light, fog and darkness to let them know I’d penetrated their defenses. That they could not hold me back, like so many other home snug in their beds who wouldn’t even challenge their reign. For a brief moment the wind and rain surged in defiance then slackened as if to acknowledge my claim.
As I began my descent, I knew that the same trail sections that challenged my climb lay in wait to trip me or slip my feet out from under me, and my vigilance was heightened. My destination was the trail head below, and I had to negotiate those sections with care. Where I’d slipped climbing up before, my feet quickly went out from under me and I slid on my hip, negotiating the rocks as I slid. Like the new relationship that took me by surprise, I was getting where I was going faster than I’d intended. Despite the startling fall, I steered my way to my feet, and continued the descent, each time falling, sustaining a minor scrape, but continuing down the path to the ultimate goal.
Below, coming up the trail I could see headlamps bobbing, my fellow runners following the path I’d left. Their mountains were different, and they negotiated the obstacles in different manners and at different paces than I did. But we recognized the kinship in each other and greeted one another as brothers and sisters in arms. Nods, grunts, smiles and hand gestures were exchanged as we each continued along our respective paths. It wouldn’t be the first or last time we crossed paths in life and some meetings would be marked with a hug or handshake. And each time we met, we gave a little bit of ourselves and collected some from the other. Another Karmic exchange of goodwill.
As I dropped below the clouds, I didn’t seem to feel the wind and rain any more. Perhaps I’d become immune to it, or it had actually lessened. Morning twilight, muted by the iron grey sky, illuminated the trail slightly and my pace quickened as the trail smoothed and widened. I could see my finish ahead as I kicked up my pace and lengthened my stride. On the final flat section I found more endurance and sprinted to the gate, jubilant in the effort and result.
I’d done what I’d come here to do. To conquer the weather, the trail, the dark and the elevation. As I reached in my pocket I could almost feel the jingle of the coin of conditioning I’d collected, while the currency of confidence filled my other hip pocket. A few brief moments later savoring the hot shower with my warm comforting cup of coffee, I washed the mud of the mountain off my legs and watched my worries and troubles go down the drain. I emerged cleaned and happy and entered life with the rest of my colleagues though the door that morning with a spring in my step. Because I had conquered the mountain this morning. And they never knew what they missed…
After dinner one day with my uncle, my kids commented that Colby’s elk steak was nice and tender. I explained that the elk we were eating was a young bull. I then coined the term “Cash Money Bull” to denote a bull that is “Legal and Tender”.
Western Wyoming, September 2015. Transcribed from Colby’s tale…
In the late afternoon on our third day of hunting, Jace, Paul and I left camp and headed east up the creek basin to the southeast when we spotted a bull elk about a mile away up on the rocky face of the continental divide. Jace in his awesome hunting spirit decided to give him a bugle, just to see if he would hear it. First bugle…nothing; second bugle….I’ll be damned if a bull didn’t chuckle in the timber to our south about 500 yards away (guessing).
We immediately set up with Paul on the east side of a row of trees and Colby on the west side watching the back door. More of Jace’s bugles and the chuckler was moving west. Just before dusk, the elk started coming out about 400 yards away on the opposite side of the meadow……a cow, another cow, yearling, cows & calves, and three young bulls, the best of which turn about half way into the meadow and retreated to the timber.
Since the sun was setting in the west and I was scoping in that direction the sun blocked out my scope ever time I tried to get my sights on the bulls. By this time the elk made their way down toward the creek in behind a small stand of timber. Something spooked them at that point and back they went toward the dark timber. One young 3 x 4 bull stopped to take a look at the us across the meadow. His horns stood tall for a young bull.
Jace asked “Do you want him? He’s about 200 yards.”
“You bet” I responded as I rested my Model 70 against a small pine tree.
Just as he turned near broadside I squeezed the trigger….boom, good double lung shot just above the heart, but that didn’t stop him. Off he ran quartering away at about 250 yards. The second shot dropped him in his tracks. While there was some mild ground shrinkage as we came up to the downed bull, I recognized that I had some great eating elk steaks as no meat was spoiled by the shots.
The flask came out and we toasted the harvest of a majestic elk. The downed bull was only about a mile and a half from camp, so Jace went back to camp to get the pack horses while I dressed out my bull by using the gutless method under Paul’s supervision. It was late by the time we got back to camp, but the taking of an elk is every bit worth the effort and energy to hunt, field dress and packout a prized bull elk from the wilderness at over 10,000 feet…..spectacular country, spectacular elk.
Wyoming has been very good to me in regards to drawing elk tags and being successful on those hunts. Since 2007 I have drawn 7 elk tags with a maximum of 2 preference points. Up until the Fall of 2014 I was 100% on my success on branch antlered bulls in Wyoming. I knew that these streak was untenable and that October I was faced with my first skunk. It stung, and it has taken over a year an a half to talk about it publicly.
We had hunted beside the Morris family for the previous 3 years with them as our resident guides, and had some memorable close encounters with elk. In 2013 they began operating a lodge near a major trailhead into the wilderness some distance from our previous hunting country. Through the summer Wes, the eldest son, led pack trips into new country and found a basin with lots of elk sign. It was beautiful country with trees, large meadows and rugged topography.
We trailered our saddle horses to meet them where they had their summer seasoned pack string at the ready. The thunderstorms followed us menacingly across the Nevada and Utah high desert. We rode in the day before opening day under mixed freezing rain and snow flurries.
The next two days it snowed. On opening morning we saw numerous tracks pointed downhill, and I caught a glimpse of an elk headed “down and out”. The rest of the hunt we never came across another elk or any fresh sign. We relocated lower, and found old sign, but no shot opportunities. The elk had outsmarted us.
Our application strategy for 2015 was to take the long shot chance and apply for a unit specific earlier season tag. Drawing that tag gave us a 5 day earlier opening day and more of a chance to get to the elk before Fall snow pushed them to lower ground. Sure enough, my father, uncle brother in law and I were drawn as a party. My brother in law, was delayed and wouldn’t be able to join us on opening day. He would come a week later.
We arrived in Wyoming a couple days early to news that the thunderstorm that had accompanied us had laid down a couple inches of snow in the high basin we had planned to hunt. The clouds had cleared though and snow was melting fast. We could see the snowline receding from the surrounding peaks, although crunchy snow still lingered in the shade.
We rode in under blue skies and finished setting up camp. The evening was eerily quiet, and not a single elk bugle was heard. Thoughts of the year prior were creeping in, despite the better weather. We made plans for the morning, watered horses an had a fitful, night before opening day sleep.
I’d been fighting a cold-turned respiratory infection before setting off on this trip. I had antibiotics at the ready, but my doctor wanted me to hold out until day 3 of my hunt before taking them. The combination of the high altitude, and sickness had me panting for air at the slightest exertion. I know it had my companions concerned as I hacked and coughed each morning. But I did my best to keep up with my acclimated Wyoming partners.
Day One was eventful as my father and Dee were able to have a bugle exchange with a bull up the draw. unfortunately it attracted the attention of some other hunters down slope and that distracted them from pursuing the real elk in the trees above. Wes and I circled the basin to a saddle that looked promising and the number of elk bones bore tribute to the volume of elk that met their demise there. We posted ourselves with a good view of the saddle, only to have the group from below walk through our setup. We spent the rest of the morning working through the trees, finding elk tracks and sign, but nothing live.
That afternoon we looped through the trees above camp. The elk sign was there in scat and tracks and trails. A few distant shots at dusk way down below had us thinking we might be above the elk.
Day Two was more of the same. Boot leather and unanswered bugles. As the sun set though we heard bugles in the dusk to the east. I thought to myself that another hunter had moved into the basin and was trying to locate a bull. We made plans to go the other way in the morning.
On the third morning I awoke wheezing and coughing and sore. Dee assured me we would work up the ridge slowly, calling through the trees. As grey dawn came we paused to readjust clothing and Dee made a few soft cow calls. As we continued along the game trail, I heard a grunt off to our left. We paused, then a squeal and hoofbeats. I motioned to the tree I was going to try to get behind while Dee hissed “don’t think you have time, he’s coming. ”
The tree was twenty yards away and I was ten when I saw the tan body of an elk flashing through the trees less than a football field away. I froze as Dee began his seductive cow calls, and the bull answered as he trotted from our left to right seventy yards away. I saw branched antlers and flipped off the safety. First elk of the hunt was ok with me.
As he cleared a tree I held the crosshairs behind his shoulder and fired. He flinched and jumped and turned, now coming from right to left. At fifty yards he stood there. I squeezed off a second shot, reloaded as he still stood there. A third shot didn’t seem to phase him, and I moved the crosshairs forward to the shoulder and shot number four folded him like a wet tent.
Dee’s whoops and hollers echoed through the basin as we made our way through the downfall to where the bull lay. Six tines to a side, dark with sap and bark, and ivory tips curling up at the ends. We just sat there in silence as the sun rose and filtered through the trees, and the jays began talking once more.
After telling each other our interpretation of the events, and our thoughts as they were happening, we got out the knives and skinned and quartered the bull in preparation for the packhorse, 1.3 miles away at camp. We bagged each quarter, tender loin, loin and neck meat in game bags as the flies began buzzing in the warming day, and positioned the bags in the shade for retrieval later that day.
With my bull back in camp the energy was one of renewed hope. Dee and I told the story with about three different variations. Suddenly my respiratory function was much better as I breathed a sigh of relief to have filled my elk tag.
There is more stories to come from our 2015 Elk hunt. Check back to read about Colby’s “Cash Money bull”, and Dad’s Skunk Breaker.
2015 is the sixth year that the Annadel Half Marathon has been in existence. Born out of a desire to showcase the park and raise funds for park improvements, it has become a running community rally point. The funds raised from the race have been directed to a number of projects, the most visible of which are trail improvements performed by the Sonoma County Trails Council. A boardwalk to protect a boggy area trail crossing, rock causeways in erosion prone areas, trails routed for better visibility and weather resistance, all are the result of funding from the race which has raised between 18 and 20 thousand dollars annually.
My connection to the race started in 2009 with my participation in the Fleet Feet Santa Rosa training group. I have been in the group, and entered the race every year since. In that time I’ve seen a range of finish times, with my Personal PR of 2:14:00 in 2013.
This year I was coming off of a six month lay off from running. In that time span I’d lost nearly all my fitness, and gained body mass in the process. Restarting the training runs in December was a daunting task, as I struggled to regain the frequency and distance of training I remembered from years prior. I found routes that in my memory were “easy runs” pushed my limits when I restarted the training process. As a result, I toned down my distances during my midweek runs, and my pace during long trail runs. Even then the motivation was hard to find when winter colds made running miserable. As a result my training mileage, from December thru race day, was a fraction of years prior. Looking at the numbers it was 25% less than I ran in 2014, and 70% less than 2013 when I had my Personal Record. With that in mind, I adopted my mantra of “Better Performance Through Lowered Expectations”.
As per my usual Annadel Race day procedure I arrived early to setup my 12×12 wall tent to serve as a first aid station. While the majority of the injuries treated are scrapes and sprains, it provides a place for privacy if needed. The activity of setting up the tent keeps my mind off of the upcoming race and butterflies to a minimum.
After opening remarks, the race began under clear skies and mid 40’s temperatures. I already had my race plan of walking all significant uphills. The trails were well packed from the rain the week earlier, and the 260 plus runners spread out as we climbed the first hill a mile into the race at Rough Go Trail. My race was uneventful from a running perspective. I made it a point to drink in the beauty of the park that I so often overlooked while negotiating the rocky trails in pursuit of a race pace. A sleek blacktail doe watched our multicolored line of runners ascend Rough Go as turkey gobbles echoed off the oak trees in the valley. I began seeing friends manning the course monitor positions and aid stations. Each one shouted encouragement and called me by name. After about the fourth one, the runners immediately in front of me commented about how everyone knew me by name, and I demurred saying that they were all people I had trained with.
We continued past the Live Oak aid station where I refilled about 12 oz. of water in my handheld, and followed a rolling trail for the next two miles through open meadows, and into a north facing shaded section before turning up North Burma and hitting the Richardson Fire road and the Third Aid Station. After a quarter mile we turned back onto the singletrack and began the mile and a half climb up the South Burma Trail crest. There I was greeted by our training group coach, Marc Strozyk as he shouted, encouraged, and cajoled runners with platitudes like “It’s all downhill from here!”, “Less than 5 and a half to the finish!”, “if you were a woman, you would be in 14th place!” etc….
At this point, I’d made a conscious effort to conserve my energy on the 1300 feet of climbing so far. In previous years, I would have turned on the jets and bombed the downhills. This year I found myself stiff and cautiously passing a few runners before the Buick Meadow Aid station. As we descended Marsh trail, and the ground became less technical, some of those cautious runners were able to gain ground. What years prior had been a stretch where I picked off other runners, I felt my endurance slipping. My stride was stiffer and shorter. Here was where I was going to pay the debit created by lack of deposits in my training miles account.
When the aid station attendant shouted “Just two and a half more miles!” when I turned onto the Canyon trail, I felt my inner motivation drain. I knew it was just under 3 miles. The last 2 miles we refer to as the “Fire Road of Despair”. After three and a half downhill miles on the twisty singletrack with ever changing visual horizons, the flat wide exposed stretch seems to drag by. This is where strong mental fortitude makes a difference for the runners who are racing for age group and over all placings. I was running against the demons in my mind telling me I wasn’t worthy of a good time, the demons in my stomach telling me I’d taken in too much water, and the very stark reality that I was writing the final chapter in what would be my slowest race in six years.
I slogged the final stretch conserving my energy to shout thank you’s to the Girls on the run group manning the aid station a mile from the finish. As runners passed me I remembered when it was I doing the passing in previous years. Nevertheless, as I rounded the final turn to make the last stretch across the grass to the finish chute I managed to smile, thankful that I was able to continue my 6 year streak of training for, and finishing the Annadel Half Marathon.
After the race I was greeted by my friends with smiles and hugs. I soon found my way to the refreshment area and recovered with a complimentary finishers meal consisting of Lagunitas IPA, a plate of pasta, bread and salad. We recounted our races and enjoyed the sun and 70 degree temperatures as the final runners trickled across the finish. I was reminded of my ultimate running goal of a lifetime of being active as I got to watch my 74 year-old training mate Jerry Kibler win his age group , and local runner of reknown, 78 year old, Darryl Beardall cross the finish. At that point I reassured myself that if could just outlive my competition I too may see some age group awards…
If you want to read a story of pure toughness from this race, check out the Press Democrat coverage that mentions Al and Anna Myers. Anna finished the full course under her own power 10 weeks after sustaining a broken ankle. They are a couple I truly enjoy knowing and epitomize what is great about the running community in Sonoma County.
In May I learned I had drawn a Pronghorn tag for “Horns longer than ears” in the Northwest portion of Nevada. I was shocked because I thought it was a long shot tag that was statistically unlikely to draw. I immediately planned a scouting trip with my running buddy Leigh for the 4th of July Weekend.
Scouting the Unit
Over 3 days we covered the unit main roads to get a feel for the area. I was struck with the feeling that antelope densities were not high as I had experienced in Wyoming and Colorado. Many waterholes were dry, and the animals we saw were pretty skittish.
We were fortunate to make friends with a local cowboy who gave us names of landmarks to check out. This was the biggest part of why I chose my specific part of the unit. We only saw about 25 animals total and small bucks. It was then I decided I would need at least two full days of scouting before opening day.
Opening day was on Friday, August 22nd. On Tuesday, I took the kids to school and finished packing the truck for the trip to the Black Rock. After various stops along the way I was at my home on the range in an aspen patch just an hour before dark.
That night I could hear the rodents rustling all around the underbrush and edges of the tent….ALL NIGHT, rustle, rustle, rustle…They were bold. They would grab food off the table with you right there. I made sure to keep the tent zipped up and I was glad I had hard sided lockers for my dry food. A nearby camp caught 18 in traps one night resetting them. I watched one get caught 30 seconds after they set it.
Wednesday morning (Opening day -2)
I woke up after daybreak for my first day of scouting. I found a little buck right off the main road. About 3 more miles up the road along the Wilderness boundary, I found another better buck with 9 does. I watched him push them around the lower draws. I never did relocate them the rest of the trip.
Midday was uneventful on antelope sightings.
At 6:00 pm I started seeing antelope again. It was on a bench that had good grass, and the rancher was hauling water to cows on a 10 mile two track circuit. Saw total of 5 small bucks and 7 does and fawns before dark
Days total: 7 bucks, 16 does and fawns. Also saw a few Feral Horses.
Thursday morning, (opening day -1)
Woke up to find 3 mule deer bucks checking out my camp. Nothing monster, but I had heard them come down the trail and drink water behind my tent that night.
Drove to the area I had seen the majority of antelope and pushed into a wilderness access road. Right at the turn I found where the deer and the antelope play. There were 6 antelope does and fawns, and 4 mule deer bucks at 7:15 in the morning. Further along I saw a decent buck with 2 does , then I found a Spring 1 mile in from the road that had a good buck and his does at it, along with a herd of Feral Horses. I liked how he looked through the spotting scope and decided I would be there on opening morning. I hiked in a dead end road to look over some more big country in the wilderness. A decent buck and 2 does busted me 300 yards from the road end. Found their trickle of water and a huge roadless canyon that fed into the main canyon. It was pretty but I wrote it off as not good antelope country.
Napped through the midday at camp.
Went back to the cow trough circuit. Spotted a buck with does that I decided was my back up buck.
Further down the road just before dark, I watched a 70 inch buck chase off a rival from his does. Headed back to camp happy I had a plan for opening morning.
daily total: 7 mule deer bucks, 6 Antelope bucks (2 shooters), ~27 antelope does and fawns, More Feral Horses (quit counting and a lot of repeats)…
I headed out at 5:00 am for the hour drive to my spot and was near the springs at daybreak. In the Wilderness I saw one buck hightailing it over the ridge, and another with a doe out in a big open bowl that looked unstalkable. Neither was my target buck at the springs. I snuck around through the draws with the wind in my face and set up 80 yards from the springs with a commanding view of the basin for 3 miles in a 90 degree direction. Nothing moving except Feral Horses. Had a total of 40 of them come into the springs. They got as close as 35 yards but never spooked or showed any signs of seeing me. That grey sweatshirt was great camo.
That afternoon I had no action at the springs so after a walkabout (where I had a doe and 2 fawns at 108 yards), I went to my back up buck’s location to see if I could find him. I parked the truck by a draw and he and his does came out of the draw behind me at 300 yards on the skyline. No shot before they took off. I bumped them twice more and pretty much blew ’em out of the country. Spent the rest of the evening glassing in the wind and saw nothing….nada , zip , zilch. I was feeling pretty down.
Days total: 3 bucks, 8 does, 40 feral horses. One blown opportunity.
Opening Day +1
I decided to head back to the springs but vowed I would stalk any buck in a good position I found on the way. Right at daybreak I parked behind a rise and glassed the valley I would have to drive to to get to the trail that would take me to the spring. I found the unstalkable buck from the day before chasing a doe. I watched them feed around a big hill and then drove my truck down to a draw a little closer, by the Wilderness boundary and loaded my pack and flanked counter clockwise around the hill.
When I crested the hill I saw the antelope had moved another half mile to the next rolling finger. I backed back down the ridge and looped counter clockwise again for another mile around to the next saddle. The antelope had not moved through the saddle when I moved up to the crest, so I hugged the rim rock along the top, and peaked into the valley. I spotted three antelope does, as they saw me, and all looked in my direction. After a minute I finally located the buck 30 yards behind them quartering toward me at 311 yards. I took a rest over the rock and held the crosshairs at 7x just in front of his withers. At the shot he jumped and ran about 30 yards toward me and stopped broadside. I put the crosshairs on his neck and dropped him there. The .300 win mag 150 grain bullet had hit in front of the shoulder and exited in front of the hip. These critters are tough!
All this time I had an idea he was a mature buck , but when I walked up on him I was pleasantly surprised. I looked at my watch and it was 7:09 am. It took me an hour and a half to take pictures, and then break him down for the hike out to the truck.
Now that I have had time to reflect on the hunt, I’m glad I did this hunt solo. I put a lot of pressure on myself, but I found I was able to find more antelope during the hunt than during scouting. I also think that now I’m more comfortable with the area and terrain. I could enjoy taking someone else with that tag to that area.
Since 2011 my family and I have been honored to know the Morris Family. These folks have become an integral part of our Fall Hunting Trips to Western Wyoming.
This was the first year that all four Morris men had Wyoming General tags for Elk.
Wes was up with the first opportunity. On opening day they had a great deal of competition from other hunters. At one point they could hear someone talking not 100 yards from their setup. On Day Two, brother Jase was able to sweet talk this five by five bull into range, with brother Matt assisting.
Wes , Matt and Jase followed the bull and about 15 cows calling them along the way for about half a mile. Jase did the calling and the bull was very responsive turning back several times but not close enough to shoot. Finally at the dark timber line, the bull had enough and turned back to face the pesky young bull. Wes took him with one shot at 40 yards.
If that kind of Elk Hunting action is your cup of tea, I’d recommend you talk to my friends at the Big Sandy Lodge.
After packing the Bull back to civilization, It was a first come-first serve for the remaining elk tags amongst the clan. A couple days after Wes scored, Father Dee called this heavy, wide 5 point bull into rifle range and downed him on a bench on a ridgetop.
I was honored to be able to assist, with Mokie, my uncle’s 24 year old gelding who packed the hind quarters , and hide, while I packed the boned out loins, tenderloins, and trim meat in my Badlands 4500 internal frame pack. I joked that I “wouldn’t ask Mokie to do anything I wouldn’t do” as he jogged back to the ranch with a vigor that belied his age. Jase and Wes each carried a front quarter while Dee packed out the head and rack. Mama Kay even came out and packed rifles back up the treacherous trail. It was a true family affair
My family and I hit the road the next day , but I soon received notice from Matt that he had connected.
The message said:
5×5 at 401 yards
and then the picture loaded.
Awesome hunt. Not the bull we were after but he had about 40 cows with him. Jase is going back after the stud in the a.m. The two herds merged and put on a HELL of a screaming match.
Even 500 miles away I could feel the excitement that must have been felt in that household.
The next night I got the Update…
Any Action for Jase yet?
The Reply almost immediately was :
And I knew it was going to be good.
And the final Morris man to connect gets a heavy, symmetrical 6×6 bull. Earlier in the bowhunting season he had called in a 5×5 bull but passed. That discerning nature seems to have paid off.
All in all, the Morris Family has proven that the elk hunting gene runs strong. I know it has been my pleasure to be in the woods with them and that we share a kinship, that I have felt with few others.