Friday, October 28th, 2016, at 10:00pm I was startled awake as my lovely wife Ali bailed out of bed in a mad dash for the phone. We are early to rise, early to bed folks and our friends generally are afraid to call after about 7:30pm; therefore, we instinctively assume that late night phone calls are emergency related and most likely regard our families back in Virginia. As Ali’s tone of voice changed from nervous to confused, then relieved, I realized no one was dead or dying and I was delighted to hear my friend Larry Lamb’s voice on the other end when she handed me the phone.
“What are you doing tomorrow?” Larry asked.
“I was planning to take the setters out for a pheasant hunt in the morning.” I replied. “What are you doing?”
“You want to go on an adventure?”
Anyone living in elk country during an elk season knows that when a friend with a pack string calls in what you regard as the middle of the night to ask if you want to go on “adventure” before dawn the next morning, there is likely to be a significant, and possibly unpleasant amount of labor involved.
“Sure, Larry. What’s the game plan?”
“Aaron has a bull down in the Wenaha and asked if I could help him pack it out. Not gonna lie, it’s down in a hell hole and we could really use another back for packing. Still interested?”
“Sure, Larry. What’s the game plan?” I replied, un-flapped.
“Be at the house at 6:00am to help catch the animals and saddle and load ‘em up.”
“Yes sir. See you in the morning.”
Aaron Anderson is one of Larry’s longtime hunting buddies, and one heck of a good guy. I met him for the first time a month prior on our 2016 Wyoming pronghorn adventure. For the second time in four years he drew a Wenaha Wilderness branch antler bull elk tag in southeast Washington, and luckily tagged out earlier that morning on a dandy 7X7 bull. The Wenahas are a rugged area of the Blue Mountain range between Oregon and Washington. It does not compare to the Rockies in regard to elevation and high mountain cragginess, but make no mistake, the few thousand feet elevation difference between creek bottom and ridgeline characterize the Wenaha with steep, exposed, rocky slopes, sheer cliff outcrops, and deep, dank, brushy draw bottoms fit only for the wild animals that inhabit them; hence, a 350” class bull in this country is not uncommon. Also, with an over-the-counter elk tag you can only hunt spike bulls or cows in southeast Washington (depending on weapon choice), so there are many branch-antlered and mature bulls to be had.
I have lived in Washington for a little over five years now, and have only begun to hunt elk. Unfortunately, friends like Larry have been hunting elk their entire lives, but never ask a portly Virginia boy to join the hunting party or assist with a pack-out. I love horses, have plenty of experience caring for horses, and formal English riding experience, but little saddle time overall. I understand horse demeanor and am confident in the saddle, but my eastern upbringing must make me a liability in elk country, which justified my suspicion that I was a last-on-the-list, much needed back for a painful, and likely frightening pack out as I hung up the phone.
Jumping out of bed, I headed down to my “deer room” in the basement to gather my frame pack, head lamp, knives, and water bottles. I didn’t want to risk forgetting something in the morning, but once back in bed, I barely slept throughout the night. My stomach flipped and my mind raced with excitement and anxiety, running scenarios of pack string wrecks, cliff scaling, and wishing I was dead while scrambling up an 87-degree scree slope with 100 pounds of elk on my back. I suspected by this time the following night (if I survived), I would know 100% if I really had what it takes to hunt elk; something I desperately needed to find out.
I awoke with a start twenty minutes before the alarm at 4:43am, literally rolled out of bed, hit the “on” button on the coffee pot, and slipped into my boots. I let the setters out for a quick morning pee, threw some cream and sugar in a travel mug full of fresh brew, and headed to the truck. My Tundra roared to life and I flipped on the fog lights for the forty-minute drive to Larry’s. Making a hard-right off Highway 12 onto Sapolil Road, I then swung the left into Larry’s driveway and rolled down to the barn where Larry had the trailer hitched and was waiting for me to help catch the pack team.
With head-lamps ablaze, we strolled down to the paddock where Larry had erected a nice chute down to the run-in shed where he feeds. All the animals were finishing breakfast as we opened the top end gate for our initial approach. Most of the team is well seasoned as Maggie and Bubbles are about thirty- and forty-year-old mules, respectively. Larry buckled the halter and lead rope on Maggie, who is slow, steady, and mountain savvy. I led Maggie to the trailer to tie her off for saddling while Larry followed up with Katie, a squatty and portly blonde mule with a barrel twice the girth of her body length. I chuckled as she waddled up to the trailer with a disinterested look, ears laid back in disgust, although calm and gentle as could be. On our second approach, Larry handed me the lead rope hooked to Freckles. Freckles is a large brown and white, dappled paint gelding who would serve as my trail coach this day. Freckles and I have a past ride together under our belts and I trust this horse with every step. Freckles, similar to Maggie, is a seasoned packing and riding horse in his mid-twenties, and big enough to handle a behemoth like me. Larry followed with Riley, a medium sized chestnut gelding with a gorgeous white blaze down his nose. Riley is the squirrely bastard of the bunch, flinching and jerking with every move Larry made. I was glad Larry would be the one to steer him, but Larry has a long history with pack horses and is fit for the task. With the string all tied off to the trailer, we saddled them, loaded them up, threw the panniers into the forward tack room, fired up the diesel and turned toward the mountains.
It was a gorgeous October morning with a slight cloud cover, but early morning sun broke through with the promise of a perfect ride out the mountain top to our descent “trail”. Unfortunately, the forecast was calling for rain by 2:00pm in the Walla Walla Valley, which we all knew would hit us in the higher elevations sooner as the moist air condensed against the western slope. We cruised the hour and forty minutes into the trailhead with ease and gawked in awe (at least I did) at the volume of campers and pickups that choked the parking areas and camp sites along the road in the Umatilla National Forest. It was opening day of the general elk firearm season, so the masses had descended to battle over the eleven spike bulls that can legally be killed in the immediate 600,000 acre area (that may a bit of an exaggeration on the acreage). At the trailhead, we spun a u-turn and pulled up next to a twenty-four-foot travel trailer that Aaron called base camp for nine days prior. Although we were there to fulfill a taxing chore, our “hellos” were heartfelt and we shared a moment of jealousy and congratulations while ogling the beautiful, heavy, chocolate rack with sweeping tines, ivory tips, and beams that could seemingly have stretch back to the bull’s tail. The top of the beam between the G5 and the split crown had a unique swoop to it where the antler arched down on both sides. I wanted my own set immediately. Then, just as quickly as we caught up, we climbed into the saddle and set out across the ridge spine for the hour and a half ride to the top of the draw where the bull lay a thousand feet below.
The ride out was amazing to say the least. The trail was easy with little elevation change, few windfalls, and no creek or cliff crossings, just beautiful views of deep canyons, rock outcrops, the fall greening of the open slopes, and the golden hue of larch scattered among the evergreens. I was reminded of a line I read in a book titled The Greatest Hunting Stories Ever Told. In his chapter, Spirit of the North, Thomas McIntyre wrote about larch while on a Canadian moose hunt.
While the needles of the tamaracks died off in their own fiery-yellow manner, the always dark spruce stood reservedly back from it all, looking down on this spectacle of deciduousness and having none of it.
I enjoyed the ride immensely and relaxed in tune with Freckles’ rhythm, but nearing the end of the mountain, I looked down the canyons where the finger ridges and walls above the creeks dropped sharply and abruptly into the thick, black bottoms, and my anxiety of what lay ahead jarred me back into an unfamiliar, but comprehendible reality. A quarter mile from our tie-up, Aaron led Maggie over to the east side of the ridge in a meadow. Larry and I followed, and as he turned to us, he pointed down the creek bottom at a cluster of glowing yellow larch. “There he is”, he exclaimed. I could feel my thighs burning already.
While tying up, the wind picked up, so we wound the string up into the trees where we could shelter them and stow some gear that we needed to keep warm and dry for our ride out in the looming thirty-four-degree rain. I shed my tee shirt and stowed it in a saddle bag, and stowed my heavy jacket in a pannier that we would later fill with the bounty won through God’s grace, the life the bull gave for Aaron’s perseverance, and the intense work that we were about to endure. Wriggling back into my sweatshirt, I donned my frame pack with a bottle of water stashed on the shelf, took a GPS point of the pack string location, and dropped off the side of the mountain. Beginning our initial descent, Aaron looked back with a smile. “How do you guys feel about cliffs?” He asked.
Our descent was approximately an hour long down nearly vertical slopes, through numerous rock outcrops, along slick, muddy rims with loose granite shards, and through the dim, soupy draw bottoms thick with serviceberry. As for the cliffs, Aaron is afraid of heights, but not Larry or I. What I don’t like is trying to negotiate a cliff face. Luckily, we managed to avoid all sheer cliffs by scrambling around and down the bony ridge spines. The real challenge lay within the final approximately 200 feet to the elk, which fell just above the creek bottom. Here the terrain changed from painfully negotiable to seemingly impossible. We painstakingly placed each step to ensure that our footing would hold while using grass, evergreen roots, and serviceberry branches to maintain balance and distribute weight. Each step down increased mental anguish, intensifying the anxiety of making the ascent with a loaded pack. If there was ever a time to choose to swear off elk hunting for good, this was it.
Finally, just after noon, we arrived at the elk as the chill-to-the-bone rain set in. Aaron spent the day prior quartering and skinning out the skull for a shoulder mount, so the work to be done this trip was simply grab the back-straps and other loose cuts, and bone out and pack as many quarters as we could manage to carry. Larry and I clambered a bit further downhill to grab a couple quarter bags and a hind quarter Aaron had hung, while Aaron began boning out a shoulder under the shelter of a massive Doug fir (one of the few places to stay dry and work on three square feet of flat ground). We made a couple trips up to where Aaron was working, ending with the cape. Within an hour we had the shoulders, a hind quarter, and all the other loose meat split between the three of us, leaving only the cape and one hind quarter for tomorrow. None of us wanted to come back down here, but we decided it was better to leave a light load for a second day than take too heavy a load and risk injury. Besides, my thighs were burning by the time we arrived at the elk, and I silently wept inside imagining how the ascent was going to treat me. Our packs averaged somewhere between sixty and eighty pounds, and I estimated our total load weight to ballpark between 180-220 pounds. That’s plenty for a desk biologist who hadn’t hunted as hard as he should have the past archery season.
As quickly as we dropped into the abyss, we turned around to begin the ascent and prayed along the way for strength and sure footing. Our steps were short and deliberate, and our progress was slow and unsteady for the first couple hundred feet. I lead the team, clawing on hands and knees at times using anything anchored to the ground for stability and leverage. We all agreed to take it easy getting out of here, but there was nothing easy about this. In the draw bottoms, the downed serviceberry branches were slick and gummy from moss and years of grass decaying over them. On the ridge spine, bare soil was greasy from the rain. The soil was squishy and caked on our hands like pie crust dough with gritty, sandpaper-like granite shards. My cadence carried me five to ten feet where I could locate the next object or flat piece of soil large enough for a foothold. Most footholds were the backsides of grass clumps where long, slender-bladed grass as dark as the evergreens that it grows under held itself firmly to the mountain side, determined to keep the light soil layer and other vegetation intact. I stopped for a minute or two, calmed my breathing, and commenced the shuffle once more.
Down-ridge about twenty yards were Larry and Aaron, carefully picking their way up behind me as I relied on my GPS track log to keep me on-trail. Ascending the bottom quarter of the climb felt like climbing Satan’s staircase in an attempt to escape the clutches of a hell frozen over. The going was slow and I speculated it would take us about three hours to reach the pack string. Where the terrain was too steep to climb, I fell into the edge of the draw and used the serviceberry to my advantage where it was rooted deep enough to pull myself a little further up the mountain. Stopping for a break after another five feet of elevation gain, I heard Larry shriek below followed by a few muffled obscenities. Aaron asked if Larry was okay, to which he replied yes, but he nearly lost his place on the mountainside and was afraid he may take out Aaron in the tumble. We continued to struggle on hands and knees for another approximately twenty to thirty minutes, but it felt like an eternity. Finally, I picked up an elk trail and broke out across the face of Satan’s staircase, which ended as we weaved our way up through a rocky outcrop and stood firmly, without fear of a slip, on a slope that was still absurdly steep, but manageable. Breaking over the top of this vertical nightmare renewed our drive and we mounted the remaining mountain side with fresh confidence, and surprisingly strong legs.
The remainder of the climb was slow, but our progress was steady with better footing. We even managed some conversation along the way. I was enjoying the scenery again despite being soaked to the bone in sweat and rain. I always find it interesting how different a mountain looks while climbing up compared to shuffling down. Breaking down over the tops of the rocky outcrops pays a mountain little justice as looking over the top masks height and cragginess, but the outcrops and cliff faces loomed intimidatingly overhead on the ascent. About half- to two-thirds of the way up, the reality of how long and steep this climb was began to work on our mental status, but we were still going strong and the terrain only became more forgiving as we neared the crest.
Reaching the only small outcrop with a semi-flat top brought a sigh of relief. On the way down, we discussed walking the mules down to this spot which was about 300 yards from where the stock were tied. Without a word of dropping the packs and going for the stock, we boldly continued. The worst was over. We could see the high mountain meadow on the ridgeline to the north and we bore north-northeast toward the opening. Another blessing of the day was that an old burn that swept through this area left few windfalls, the majority of which were in this final stretch. Continuing on, we carefully stepped, hopped, crawled, and slipped across the decaying, charred, and spiky evergreen logs as we side-hilled around the finger ridge rim. With a short push through what appeared to be sumach saplings, we broke into the bottom edge of the meadow and my right thigh began to cramp just above the knee. Perfect timing.
We swiftly closed the gap to the stock and shed our packs, which made a solid thud as they connected with the soft ground. I made for Freckles and looked around to see that we all had one thing in mind. We pulled out our rain gear, shed our wet cloths, dried our heads and arms, and slipped into something more comfortable for the ride out. It was 3:30pm and we made haste in loading the bulging quarter bags into the panniers, hoisted and hooked the bags onto the packsaddle, and lashed down the empty pack frames on top.
The stock were sheltered nicely among the trees and we didn’t even notice the wind as we finished our hike up the mountain. However, as we untied and led the string out of the timber, the cold wind settled on our wet fingers and faces, and stung with the near-freezing needle pricks of late fall. Mounted up, I settled in and rested my hands across the saddle horn, completely at peace and feeling at home. Taking in the dreary grays of a low ceiling, the bright greens of freshly growing grasses and forbes that feverishly sprout with fall rain, and the calming dark green of the evergreen forest, I can understand how my grandpa and uncle must have felt when they entered the wilderness of Idaho for the first time. My uncle has yet to leave it, and I assumed that by now, my grandpa had returned for eternity.
Our ride out was a bit quieter than the ride in. The horses were eager to get back and Freckles knew the trail fairly well from former experience. I let him lead, and although I have the utmost confidence in him, I took notice of his curiosity and lack of attention to the trail at times. As we covered the mile back to the main trail, I gave Freckles a couple suggestions to either follow Aaron and Maggie, or choose another route that would reduce the potential for eye impalement or being swept off the saddle by a large, low-hanging branch. Freckles accepted my direction with aplomb and kept me unharmed, even comfortable while weaving through the timber and over the windfalls. Once back on the main trail I allowed him his complete freedom to roam and was amused at his desire to check out meadows, grab a yarrow snack, and basically meander across the mountain. Sometimes he even stepped slightly off trail on less traveled soil if he anticipated a slip in the mud. We plodded along in silence until the trailhead appeared, and while we had all enjoyed the experience, we had long passed the twelve-hour mark of this adventure, and the cold rain had our spirits fizzling.
Approaching camp, we carefully rode up to the trailer and tied off the critters. We made quick work unloading the elk and packs, then removed the harnesses and bridles and trailered up, leaving the saddles attached for warmth. Aaron invited us into the travel trailer and we shared a beer, some of Larry’s venison jerky, and a couple laughs, reminiscing of the day and Aaron’s hunt overall. It was an awesome experience with some great guys, and I dare say I plan to put in for this elk tag, now knowing the brutal physical demands and risks. Luckily, Aaron’s bull went down where it could be reached, but there is potential in this country to have one hell of predicament on your hands if a bull runs or takes a nasty tumble. This was my test to see if I have what it takes to be an elk hunter. I passed.
Larry, Aaron, and I shared a congratulatory and thank you man-hug, then Larry and I hit the road. I wouldn’t return tomorrow as Aaron had a replacement back lined up, but Larry and the stock would make a repeat performance. As we bounced down the mountain road toward home, my mind drifted off to my own challenging, successful hunts for mule deer, and the fire that burns so deep sparked to life. I will see this trail again in the coming summer.