It's been said that there is joy in the journey. A true statement, but while you are in the middle of the story, there are times when it's easy to get lost in the struggle. Lactic acid builds up in the muscles and momentary pain gives the sojourner a short-lived amnesia, forgetting the reason they came. Soreness clouds the vision, bringing with it a temptation to give in ... dismissing the fact that the pain is temporary. Oh. My. Aching muscles! The thought of climbing up and down a mountain again, had us thinking twice about whether or not we left our sanity down in that hole yesterday. Once again, Rudy, Troy and I found ourselves at the top rim, packs fully loaded for a day of chasing after the bulls in the bottom. This time, we were going to take our time, locate the elk and then go on attack late afternoon.
The sun broke through late morning, and we sat comfortably on a berm as we glassed the elk haven, just across the way. Banana chips, swedish fish, and a cup of coffee were consumed as we verified where the elk were hanging out. Spread across an open section of the mountain, scattered with rocks and pines, this berm provided the perfect cover as we peered down. The warmth of the sun was welcomed as it heated the rocks around us and continued to dry out the saturated ground. I picked up a stick and began to draw in the dirt, then proceeded to braid grass and create a bracelet for my wrist. Rudy and Troy compared GPS data. We were passing the time, waiting for the right moment to advance further down. As the sun crept higher in the sky, the elk slipped into the shelter of the pines. We decided it was time to sneak down to the bottom section.
Taking caution to stay in the shadows, we moved down. A few more hundred yards down and we were now level with the entrance to the elk haven. All that needed to be done was navigate across the beaver dams, and we would be in a good position for the afternoon hunt. However, it was still a little early to move across and take a chance of prematurely waking a sleeping bull, or two.
Finally, it was time to navigate through the beaver dams. The trick we discovered was to find the game trail. It still isn't the easiest of paths, but there is definitely an advantage. Now familiar with the drill ... Up and down we went. It felt like dejavu, a reoccurring dream, or something that had been previously rehearsed. However, if yesterday's hunt was the dress-rehearsal, the opening curtain was about to be lifted.
Periodically, we'd let out a bugle, and receive a response that echoed back to us. We were now playing a game of Marco Polo with a bull in nasty territory, his back yard. So far he was winning, but we were closing the distance. Knowing the general area of where he was located, we decided to go in quiet and set up before giving away our location. This time, I chose the high spot, 50 yards above where Rudy and Troy were situated in front of a huge pine. In front of us were 30-40 yard lanes, then a ditch that contained a small grove of aspens that blended into the steep terrain on the other side. An incline, held together by pines reaching upwards to the ridge above, contained a bull who was destroying trees in a display of dominance. With a Heads-Up decoy pinned to a branch behind me, our set up seemed perfect.
I let out a couple cow calls, signaling to the guys below that I was ready. Troy challenged the bull above with a bugle, and the games began! I saw a flash of brown, as the bull ran through the pines on the ridge. Back and forth, from one side of the ridge to the other, he would slip in and out of view. Bow at the ready, I was sure at any moment, I might have an opportunity to release an arrow. Then silence. These are what I like to call "adrenaline confused" moments ... with all your might, you try and constrain the adrenaline rush that is about to surge through your body, but some of the pre-adrenaline sneaks through and you are on high alert, red bull status. If you could bottle this, it would put all energy drinks out of business.
Then from down by Troy and Rudy ~ a warning bark broke the silence!
It was close. Really close. What I couldn't see from my vantage point, was a spike elk that had snuck up on the guys below, and was about to give away our location. Troy and Rudy were pinned down, and couldn't get the curious fellow to leave them alone. Knowing that a bigger bull was on the heels of the spike, Rudy told Troy, "Just bugle as loud as you can at the spike." Troy ripped of one of the most gnarly bugles I've ever heard. I thought it was the bull!
The challenge worked! The spike tucked his tail, left without spooking the other elk, and the bigger bull was drawn in, like a moth to a flame. Seeing the bull come in, down and up the drainage, Rudy began to give Troy a play-by-play. "Here he comes, stop him. Troy, call. Stop him." However, Troy, quickly responded with, "Not yet. I'll stop him when I'm ready." The bull continued past the pine tree, forty yards in front of Troy, and a single cow-call escaped from Troy's lips, stopping the bull in his tracks.
Not seeing any of this from my vantage point, I was up above still thinking the bull was in the ditch below. Then I heard the familiar sound .... THAWK!! I knew that sound immediately. I began to cow call and sat down with a big old grin on my face. We were going to be packing an elk up this mountain tonight.
While we waited, we practiced our cow calling and quietly formulated a plan on the best way to carry the elk up the mountain. Maybe it would be best to go straight up and try to find the trail from our FUNT several nights ago. We appeared to be just below that area, and it would mean shaving off 1/2 a mile. A short distance on flat ground, but a world of difference when carrying an elk UP a mountain.
When Troy could no longer take the torture of waiting, he slowly began to follow the blood trail down the ditch. Just as we were about to make our way out into an open section, Rudy's eyes got big and he waved us over. "Elk!" There was a bull nonchalantly grazing just below us. Troy and I both simultaneously told Rudy, "Get your bow!" As Rudy advanced down the hill in stealth-mode, I somehow found myself holding his camera, and motioning for Troy to bugle. The bull seemed to care less that another bull was above him making a commotion. Troy would run back a hundred yards, bugle and cow call and then make his way back down to me. Several times, I'd motion Troy back with the instruction, "Keep calling - He's still down there." The bull wasn't interested in fighting, or talking. He was simply hungry, and if there was a bull with cows up above, that was cool with him. He'd come up when he was done.
Rudy sat patiently waiting. Finally, this bull decided he better make his way up the hill and see what all the fuss was about. Troy was doing a great job of sounding like a herd of elk! As the bull broke through a section of pines, Rudy had a perfect fifty yard shot. THAWK! The arrow found it's mark. The bull pin-wheeled and was dead thirty yards from where the arrow sliced through both lungs.
We now had two dead bulls within a hundred yards of each other!
Troy came over the hill, not knowing what happened, and wondering if I was going to motion him back again. This time, I had the front-row seat, and somehow managed to capture it on Rudy's fully manual camera. As we sat in disbelief at what just unfolded, I asked the guys, "Do you feel better now?" Rudy's response ... "Yah, let's get some pancakes!"
That evening we deboned two bull elk in the back country via moonlight, hung all the meat securely in the trees, and spent the next day carrying our precious cargo up the mountainside. The three of us walked up and down that mountain twice the following day, with loaded down packs. If you ask us, we will still recall how painful that was, but ultimately ... there is joy in the journey, especially when it results in a freezer full of meat. A few of the footsteps permanently burned in the hillside are from us, and if you listen closely, the sound of "elk steak, elk steak" still echoes through the pines down in the DMZ.