“See those mountains up there with the snow on them?” I asked Dad as I pointed to the peaks in our windshield.
He leaned forward a bit and scanned the horizon. “They all have snow on them,” he replied with a chuckle.
He had a point. They all had snow on them from the last storm that had been through this area in the days before our arrival.
“Right. But, the peaks that look like they are getting snow right now. That’s where we are headed…”
A few months before, when the Nevada hunt results were announced, I got a phone call from Dad. He wanted to know the perks of hunting with the local guide service that Husbeast works for. I explained that basically all he would have to do is get on a horse, they’d point him at the elk of his choice and he’d pull the trigger. They would do the rest and he’d be fed well, three meals a day. It was enough to convince him to go through with it.
When his hunt came closer I learned that my brother wasn’t going to be able to go with him like we originally thought. I cleared it with all the right people and asked Dad if I could tag along.
Once the wheels were in motion, we made plans to meet my husband at the wilderness boundary where they would pick us up with our horses and pack our gear in.
We left my house in the afternoon with an hour or so drive ahead of us. We chatted the whole way, me pointing out various things and him asking questions. The drive was slow and bumpy but the sun was out and the windows were down. As we neared the boundary, the weather changed. Snow started falling when we parked the truck. No one was there to meet us so we stayed inside where the last warmth from the heater kept us comfortable.
We waited and chatted, both wondering at our luck in the change of the weather. I was running through all the clothes I’d packed and planning how much I’d layer up when it was time to face the elements. After about half an hour, two riders appear in the distance. They were coming through the snow at a trot with 9 horses in tow.
I saddled my horse and another then helped as much as I could with the other loads that would go back in to camp. Dad and I mostly stayed out of the way while Husbeast and Jason, the other guide, sorted, weighed, loaded and lashed loads down. Within the hour, we were all covered in snow, but it was time to head for camp. We scrambled aboard our horses; no small task with long johns, jeans, wool bibs, heavy boots and several layers of coats on. The sneakers I’d worn to the boundary were long forgotten as was the warmth from the sun.
Jason took the lead with his pack string and another guest behind him. I followed with Dad and Husbeast bringing up the rear. When we strung out single file across the flat, the wind howled and blew snow into our ears and plastered our clothing. Our horses tried to turn their tails to the wind and walk sideways to avoid the snow that was blowing in their ears and eyes. The first patch of pine trees we came to brought relief from the wind. I realized then, that I was wet, but not cold. “I can do this,” I thought to myself. Camp was only an hour away and we had already covered a quarter of that when we came to the next open part of the trail. Once again our horses braced themselves against the snow being blown into their ears. I shrugged my shoulders up and tilted my head into the wind, trying to keep the snow from filling my ear as well. I reached for the pocket where my phone was, thinking I would get a picture, but my scarf hung over the buttons and was heavy and plastered with snow. It wasn’t worth documenting if it meant I emptied that scarf into my coat. We took a trail down the edge of the mountain that dropped us onto an open pass. For several more minutes we hunkered down against the blowing snow. The closer we got to camp, the more trees we were able to ride through, calming the winds. The snow began to turn to smaller flakes that resembled pellets and for the last few minutes of our trip I saw blue sky and the last rays of the sun fading in the west.
We were pointed in the direction of our tents and our gear was sorted for us to claim. Dinner was served when the last guest was in the cook tent. There were 20 of us inside that night, eating, visiting and listening to the snow turn to rain. We all fell asleep that night to the pitter-patter of rain on canvas and the whooshing gusts of wind that made the tents pop and branches creak in the tops of the trees.
The wake-up call came early. The only lights we could see came from the guides headlamps as they saddled horses for themselves and guests and pack horses that would accompany hopeful hunters. We rode out of camp after breakfast with just enough light to see. We’d follow another guide until the point we split off to find Dad’s elk. We rode in silence, with just the sound of the horses’ hooves in the rocks and the occasional neigh of the follower, breaking the silence. I looked up often, making a conscience effort to notice my surroundings. Behind me, in the east, the sunrise stretched across the sky in pinks, reds, and orange. Most of the sky was clear behind us. In front of me, dark sky was made gloomier by the skeletons of trees burned in a forest fire several years ago. The wind once again forced me to tuck my face deep into my scarf and wiggle my fingers to ward off the frost.
We reached the snow line and our hoof prints no longer rang out against the silence. The guide leading us rode to a ridge and left his horses in order to glass the deep canyons to the north. In silence, we sat and waited for the body language that meant elk had been found, or the signal that we’d ride on.
Few words were spoken by anyone for fear of breaking the silence. The wind howled through the trees and over the ridges, blowing snow and making drifts across our trail. Still we rode on quietly. When we reached the upper most point of the ridge-line, our guides motioned that they would be glassing down into the next draw. Dad and I huddle nearby as the wind pushed us back a step. There was no shelter to be found, so we eased our way back to our horses to wait. Three elk had been spotted; then 3 turned to 30. Our initial plan to split off changed because, as they say, “elk do what elk do” and they had all showed up in one place together. We all remounted and huddle into ourselves to ride against the wind just long enough to start the steep descent into the draw.
One guide led us down in a zig-zag fashion to make the drop easier on the horses that carried us. We made switchback after switchback, staying nose to tail until we reached the creek at the bottom. We had to climb to the top of the next ridge in a similar fashion, over snow covered ground that was just as steep. Our horses scrambled up the bank, metal shod hooves sliding on the frozen ground, scrambling to rebalance and making a lunging step that took us further up and further in to the forest. We leveled out about half way up and the path, though still covered in snow, became easier.
We rode to the east then turned and made our way west again along the top of the ridge. I looked to my left and the drop from our ridge-line to the river bottom below, made me reach for my saddle horn for balance. As my dad would put it later, the second step off of that ridge was a 4000 foot drop. I turned again to look between my horse’s ears and let my stomach settle. The guide in front of us, tied his horses up and gathered gear for his hunter. Husbeast grabbed Dad’s rifle from the scabbard on the pack horse, handed me his pack to wear and we quietly walked on to look for elk. The guides and the hunters took the lead while I and two others stayed behind.
All at once, the lead guide spun toward us and pointed to his eyes and then in the direction we were going. He motioned to his hunter and pointed for us to drop to the ground. I dropped to the snow and leaned back against the backpack I was wearing. I put my fingers to my ears to muffle the shot I anticipated. I could see nothing yet, but within the next few seconds it became clear why we dropped. An elk topped out right in front of us, not 30 yards away. He stopped and raised his head and I swear he looked right at me. For what seemed like minutes, but could only have been a few seconds, I froze. I didn’t blink, I didn’t breathe and I darn sure didn’t move. A second bull came up behind him and they spooked at any number of things and took off, downhill, at a run. The first hunter took a shot, then two, then three and I lost count. The elk disappeared into the trees below us. Dad hadn’t fired a shot, so a new plan would soon form.
Dad and Husbeast stood at the top of the ridge, whispering over their plans. The other guide got his hunter and guest mounted and they started to ride off to look for tracks. I had walked down toward our horses and had turned to see what Dad and Husbeast were doing, when a small bull elk popped up over the ridge, saw me and the horses and spun away again. I looked at Dad, Husbeast and the other hunters. None of them had seen him. I hiked back up to Dad and whispered “an elk just popped up over the ridge.” At that moment, on the same ridge, three more elk came over the top and ran away from us to the east. They were too far away and at a high trot when they disappeared into the trees. We all sat still where we were, not sure what to think next, when yet another group of bulls sauntered over the ridge. These were oblivious to our existence and turned back toward us walking and trotting in our direction. One young bull playfully hooked the bull next to him with his antlers, throwing him off course. Just then the group stopped as one and noticed that something wasn’t right in their world. They spun and ran off in the same direction the others had gone.
Dad lowered his rifle again and began to stand. I was sitting behind him in the snow and had started to move as well, when Husbeast, who stood to our right, said “Ernie. Shoot. The. Second. One.”
We couldn’t see what he meant, but from the rigid stance of his body, it was clear something was about to happen. Just then one bull popped out in front of us, followed by a bigger bull. They couldn’t have been 80 yards away, but they were moving quickly. Our horses down below them were all the reason they needed to get out of the area. Dad fired once as the group of bulls headed down to the trees and angled away from us. That was the only shot he took. In his mind, based on what he saw in the scope, that was all he needed. We didn’t question his choice because we were hopeful that his shot rang true.
We all sat where we were for a few moments. Nothing else came out of hiding and we watched elk disappear in the trees below us. Some of them still on the run, others comforted by the trees, walked deeper into their shelter. The other guide took his hunter and they continued on with their plan. Husbeast said, “we better see if we can cut tracks and look for blood.”
I headed for the tracks the elk had made in the snow and Dad came behind me. Husbeast went back for all of our horses.
We walked with our heads down analyzing every hoof print. Three bulls were in the group Dad had picked his out of. In places they took the same path, while in others they zig-zagged over one another’s tracks. We were careful not to miss the sign we hoped to see. After several minutes of tracking, I spotted a clump of snow that had been kicked up by a hoof. There was a drop of blood in it the size of a pencil eraser.
“I’ve got blood,” I said and pointed for confirmation from Dad. Husbeast had caught up to us and said, “there’s more there.”
I looked up ahead of us where he had pointed and saw a sign that promised we couldn’t be far from Dad’s bull.
We walked on watching tracks. Dad started to say that we should be looking ahead of us, when I looked up and saw his bull laying in the shadow of a tree.
Dad’s aim had been true. We found his bull 200 yards from where he first appeared. It was then, that Dad raised his hand to me. I high fived him and gave him a hug. He grinned and chuckled and we took a moment to celebrate the hunt.
We all set to work to do what needed to be done to get the bull home. In the shelter of the pines, we soaked in the sun and listened as the wind continued to blow over the trees and ridge-tops. Off in the distance a crow “ca-cawed” as he circled the trees and disappeared heading for the drop off to the river, miles below.
Dad looked up from his work and said “I wonder if those sunsabitches ever get air sick?” We all laughed and spent several minutes contemplating whether or not birds lose their stomachs the way we do when an airplane hits turbulence. It made perfect sense in that moment!
Our ride out would take a different path because our pack horses had heavy loads. Rosy packed the heaviest of the loads and a filly named Ruby (I cannot make this up) packed the horns and the lighter load. Husbeast giggled at that and said "that way we can say 'Rube packed Ern's bull out.'" He led us up the ridge with Dad following him and I brought up the rear. When we came to the top of the mountain we were at about 10,000 feet in elevation. Husbeast paused to show Dad where we were and I tried to take it all in. We rode a ridge line at that elevation for the better part of an hour. To our right the mountain disappeared in another several thousand foot drop that left us all resting just our toes in our stirrups, taking quick glances to admire the view, but holding our saddle horns to battle the vertigo we felt. The wind pushed against us toward the drop off none of us wanted to consider. The beauty of the mountains we rode, overshadowed our uneasiness at being so near the edge. Still we made the trip to camp in silence, but our faces wore the smiles of success, Dad’s being by far the biggest.
Camp that night was full of stories. Some were successful, some were less so, but the mood was light, the food was good and plans were set for the next day.
Our ride out of camp the next morning was more leisurely and we took our time building loads and making our way back to the boundary. The wind still blew, but the sun was shining. Dad’s hunt had been a success. For my part, I felt a mix of disappointment for the fact that my brother couldn’t be along for the hunt, but grateful that it happened the way it did, because I was able to go along. I know Dad hasn’t stopped grinning and I know we both have told the story to anyone willing to listen; sometimes twice.
The blowing snow, howling wind, and steep, rugged country made for an adventure, neither of us will soon forget.