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Bonding in the High Country

Bonding in the High Country

No. 90038 flashed on the “In Surgery” screen. Looking down at my laptop, no words or ideas could flow. As I looked at my mother sitting across from me in the waiting room, I thought she was the calmest I had ever seen her. No. 90038 flashed across the screen again. It was my father’s number, and he was in the middle of quintuple bypass surgery. We'd almost lost him in the weeks leading up to April 1, 2016, when our family history had caught up to him just weeks before his 50th birthday. In my near paralyzed state of thought, I realized it was not the weeks of symptoms that had caused me to cringe. It was where my father and I and our hunting partner, Bryce, were prior to the beginning of his heart disease symptoms only a few months earlier: bowhunting elk in the heart of the remote Oregon wilderness.

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Just three and a half months earlier, we were 15 miles from the truck and it was another 25 miles from there to pavement. We were hunting 2 miles from camp on the first of 10 go-for-broke-days, surveying the bottoms of a canyon system. I cringed for a reason. We arrived at a glassing point just after daybreak where we had left a big bull the previous night. A small bull tailing four cows a mile to our south on the canyon wall kept us from wasting breath on bugling and sent us toward a section of east-facing timber where the elk were moving. My father slowed us to a still pace.  Despite him being primarily an eastern whitetail hunter, Do-It-Yourself elk hunting is now one of his specialties. With the 6 a.m. wind still dropping off and into the bottom of the small drainage, we held our excitement in check and laid off the calls. Two bulls lit up the canyon but Dad kept us quiet and we trailed just far enough behind the herd to keep from blowing it out. Moving at a snail's pace, we inched our way into bow range of two cows. When they bailed off the side to join the herd at the top of the next finger ridge, we knew it was safe to follow.

I regretted the number of miles I hadn’t run over the summer while moving through the canyon. After stopping to catch our breath, just below the top of the ridge a bull bugled less than 100 yards in front of us. He wasn't the big guy, but I’d spent six years waiting to get back to elk country and size was of little difference. Dad stayed below the lip of the ridge and let out one cow call. Like a kaleidoscope, the sun bounced of the tan hide of the young bull walking back through the timber at 8 a.m. I picked my spot on his hide, but knew I was going to be unable to draw. He stopped and stared at me.  I’d seen enough elk hunts on TV to know when a gig was about to be blown. However, the sun shined right in his face and he carried continued. Once his vision was blocked by the tree in front of me, my string found its familiar anchor point as he took those final few steps. The arrow hit high on the front shoulder as he dropped, wheeled and ran back to from where he came. My adrenaline rushed and I started to lose control of my thoughts. I put my bow on the ground as Dad walked toward me. Burying my face in his shoulder, I let the completion of a highly anticipated moment run its full course. The all-telling crash of 700 pounds of mountain muscle landing on the ground marked the end of a journey.

“Dude, he’s right there!” Dad said, smacking me on the shoulder as I looked at the ground for blood.  Not 30 yards from the shot he died and our work began. His beat-up rag horn 5-point rack may as well have been bigger in my eyes that day then in the way we ended. Two cut fingers and a makeshift game pole later, we were heading back to camp to call the packer. Hiking up the side of a canyon to reach camp with the head of my bull crudely strapped into my pack was like a snapshot from a dream. My passion for these animals and the country they live in only compounds my respect for them. Having to claw our way to the top of the canyon carrying one out was the pinnacle of my young life. Even my mom was choked up on the phone when we called.

I’ll save you the painful details of trying to get a hold of a wilderness guide who does not own a satellite phone or GPS. Three days later, the meat was finally pulled from the tops of the chilled North Timber we’d stashed it in and was bouncing down the trail on the backs of mules. I once read that the sight of meat being pulled out on stock from the backcountry was a heartwarming sight. I finally understood that when my last 250 pounds of elk meat was heading down the trail. While making one final hike off the face of the finger ridge, Dad spotted two elk right where we had been three days earlier.

“Holy Smokes," Dad said. He is hard to impress when it comes to bucks or bulls so I knew he'd seen something good.  Rumors had trickled out of the backcountry of an exceptionally large bull patrolling these canyons, and I was sure we were watching him. I raised my optics and saw the bull sported long sweeping beams and monster splits in addition to the 350 pounds of prime cuts of meat he carried. This was a once-in-a-lifetime bull. I wondered aloud, “This is huge country, can we find him again?” We had seven days left to focus on getting Dad an animal.

Those seven days with my father in the wilderness were far from easy. After our good fortune the first three days, the elk seemed to disappear.  Our hunting partner had to leave camp early to attend a family funeral which left my father and me alone.

Maybe one reason more people don’t hunt is because they don’t want to have to feel "real." The raw feeling of my soul melding with the wilderness after just five days was nearly spooky. To have this authentic experience alongside the person who taught me to hunt only strengthened our bond. The wilderness is difficult. To break it down to less than 50 yards to get in range with a bow is an even more difficult task that builds resilience. We hunted dark-to-dark each day, but we still did not find more elk until the very end of our hunt."

"To have this authentic experience alongside the person who taught me to hunt only strengthened our bond."Our final morning was a Sunday and we planned to spend the day packing the camp to get ready for the wrangler to pick us up the following day. But we decided to take one last walk to the meadows above our camp.  Three hours later, we closed in on two elk, a hot cow and the bull from the third evening. Our wind kept blowing each stalk but because they were heavily distracted, the pair wouldn't run more than 100 yards before stopping. As the bull stepped through the timber, I couldn’t help feeling like a little kid again as I watched Dad stay collected and take his shot. Just as he did for me a week earlier, I hugged my father as tears welled in his eyes and, for the first time in my life, I actually felt like I was doing something significant in return for what he had given to me through the years: being there with him in this moment of pure reverence.

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Looking into the ICU room, I saw pain but life in his eyes. I knew my role was again to just be there in the delicate weeks after such an operation. For those who do not hunt, I almost feel bad knowing they cannot feel the same connection to friend or kin in the way hunters do. Because of the enormous challenges we work to overcome in such awe-inspiring country, you cannot help but become fiercely loyal to each other, the animals and the wilderness in which you share.

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