Elk in the Abyss

Published as a series in the Milton-Freewater Valley Herald, August 9th and August 16th, 2019

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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 typically don’t 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. When she handed over the phone, I was delighted to hear the voice of my friend, Larry Lamb, on the other end.

               “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 knows that when a friend with a pack string calls during elk season 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 level of effort 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. I won’t 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 repeated, unflapped.

“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 Tucannon-Wenaha Wilderness branch-antler bull elk tag in southeast Washington, and luckily tagged out earlier that morning on a dandy old 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-inch bull in this country is not uncommon. What’s more, an over-the-counter elk tag only allows spike bulls or cows in southeast Washington (depending on weapon choice), making the wilderness a prime trophy area for Aaron’s tag.

Having lived in Washington since 2011, I have only dabbled in elk hunting. I prefer early archery season for a cows in September, but generally failed to spot any elk among the approximately 53,142 other elk hunters in this small corner of the state. 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 and have plenty of experience caring for horses, but little saddle time overall. I understand horses and am confident in the saddle, but my eastern upbringing must make me a liability in elk country. This logic justified my suspicion that I am the last-on-the-list, much needed back for a painful and likely frightening pack out.

Dropping the phone, I jumped out of bed and 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 never had a real elk hunting experience, but that was about to change. I suspected by this time the following night, if I survived, I would know 100% if I really had the grit to hunt elk; something I desperately needed to find out.

 I awoke with a start twenty minutes before the alarm at 4:43am. Rolling out of bed, I hit the “on” button on the coffee pot, and slipped into my boots. I let the setters out for a quick morning pee, filled a travel mug full of freshly brewed Rey’s Roast from Dayton, WA, and headed to the truck. The Tundra roared to life and I flipped on the fog lights for the 40-minute drive to Larry’s through an annoying fog. Swinging into Larry’s driveway, I 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 30- and 40-year-old black mules, respectively. Larry buckled the halter and lead rope to 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 hoof 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. 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, threw the saddle bags and panniers into the forward tack compartment, fired up the diesel and turned the heavy-duty Chevy 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 tie-off and 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 firearms 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’s likely a gross overestimate of the number of spike bulls in this unit of southeast WA.)

At the trailhead, we spun a u-turn, then pulled up next to a 24-foot travel trailer that Aaron called base camp for nine days prior. Although our goal was to fulfill a taxing chore, our “hellos” were heartfelt and Larry and I 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 moose hunt in Canada.

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.

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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 into the thick, black bottoms, and my anxiety of what lay ahead jarred me back into an unfamiliar, but comprehensible reality. A quarter-mile from our tie-up, Aaron led Maggie over to the east side of the ridge in a large meadow. Larry and I followed. Arron then turned to us, pointing down into a wilderness abyss to the creek bottom at a cluster of glowing yellow larch. “There he is.” Aaron exclaimed. I could feel my thighs begin to burn.

While tying up, the wind picked up, so we wound the string into the trees where we could shelter them and stow some gear for a warm, dry ride out in the looming 34-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 sheer 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 my mental anguish, intensifying the anxiety of making the ascent with a loaded pack. If there was ever a time consciously swear off elk hunting for life, this was it.

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Finally, just after noon, we arrived at the elk. And as perfect as timing can be, the chill-to-the-bone rain set in on cue. 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 the following day. 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 the brutality of the ascent. Our packs averaged somewhere between 60 and 80 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 during the archery season.

As quickly as we dropped into the hell hole, we turned around to begin the ascent, praying (at least I did) along the way for strength and sure footing. Our steps were short and deliberate and our progress slow and unsteady for those menacing 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 there, but there was nothing easy about it.

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.

Down-ridge about 20 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. We clambered and clawed our way up one handhold or foothold at a time. Most footholds were the backsides of grass clumps where long, slender-bladed grass as dark as the shadowing evergreens held itself firmly to the mountain side, determined to keep the light soil layer and other vegetation intact.

Elk in the Abyss (5)

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 ok, 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 the struggle on hands and knees for another approximately 20 to 30 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 with renewed drive. The worst was over.

We could see the high mountain meadow on the ridgeline to the north and we bore north-northeast toward the light. 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 spikey evergreen logs as we side-hilled around the finger ridge rim.  With a short push through elderberry saplings, we broke into the bottom edge of the meadow and my right thigh began to cramp just above the knee. Impeccable timing.

We quickly 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. Pulling out rain gear, we 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, stinging with the near freezing needle pricks of late fall.

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Mounting up, I settled into the saddle, resting my hands across the 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. The ride out was quiet, aside from a little encouragement for the stock.

The horses were eager to get back and Freckles knew the trail fairly well as he had hoofed it all week, not just this day. 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 to 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 Freckles 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 fizzled our spirits.

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 where 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 very 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 could hack it as 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 next summer.

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