Heart of the Wilderness

Heart of the Wilderness

“When I first learned about Pete's surgery, it didn't really connect with me how serious this might be. Even up to the point when I learned that he was going in for open-heart surgery I didn't really think that this was a life-or-death situation. Maybe it was just surreal or maybe I was in denial. When I saw some of the post-surgery pictures on Facebook, I couldn't help but wonder if this was the end of Pete's elk hunting career. However, Pete insisted that he was going to go hunting.” -Bryce Purtzer

Wind and chilled precipitation hammered against my bedroom window as a spring storm refused to give up its wintery grip. My phone rang and the caller ID read Portland, Ore.  It was our Western hunting partner, Bryce. Hours earlier, as a family we’d watched my father skim the line between life and death. Fighting misdiagnosed symptoms for three months, he’d entered the hospital with five fully clogged heart arteries and awoke in the Cardiac ICU to give us the thumbs-up after undergoing quintuple bypass surgery. The only aspect of the conversation I remember was promising Bryce that we would make it for our annual public land elk hunt that was only five months away.

Hunting is a trivial matter when compared to the magnitude of dealing with a health problem—especially a cardiac issue. However, it does serve as a great motivator when your back is against the wall. In my father’s case, recovering from a surgery where the doctors literally crack your chest open required every ounce of motivation. The morning of surgery I sat with him and my mother in the ICU waiting for his number to be called. Dad and I both smiled, recognizing the challenge of making the trip in just five months. My eyes welled with tears as I left the pre-op area knowing the dangerous situation my favorite hunting partner faced.

For a month Dad laid on the couch battling scorching pain. He needed help with everything from getting his socks on to getting off the couch. After a month we began walking down the road for about a mile to work on his walking pace. Three weeks before the hunt, doctors finally cleared him to draw his bow. During open-heart surgery, the surgeons wire the sternum into place after removing the bone to operate on the exposed organ. As Dad drew his bow in the archery shop that first time, I cringed. Would the pressure pull his chest apart? He succeeded by shooting much lighter poundage.

Just shooting was a victory. We watched his journey from shooting five arrows to 10 and then 20 each night. The magnitude of the hunt was setting in. Yet it was when I received a call from Dad in early August and he said our wilderness wrangler would not be able to take us to our hunting area on horseback the day we arrived that our concern increased.

“Mountain bikes?  Really? Are you sure?” I asked. Dad just laughed, making it sound like the least our worries. Dad’s surgery had been only five months and week earlier—Apr. 1, 2016—yet he was suggesting we ride mountain bikes for 15 miles. The only people who believed we could pull it off were the two of us. Bryce had made the ride in to set up camp several times that summer and realized just how difficult it would be.

“There was always a bit of anxiety going into this hunt,” Dad said. “What if one of my bypasses came loose from exertion?  What if my body was truly just not ready for this??

As the plane hit the runway of PDX (Portland International Airport) we gave each other a look that said, “I hope we’re ready for this.”

As the sun crested the parking lot, Dad, Bryce and I joined hands as Bryce offered prayers of thanksgiving and strength. Through the tremor of my father’s hands I could feel the magnitude of his journey. We all knew he should not have been there. After a six-hour ride, and one broken bike sprocket, we left the camp for the evening hunt. I choked back tears as I checked behind me, glad to see him still there.

"Experiencing the wild is a powerful force we cannot explain, only live."Trying to kill a bull elk without being able to dive into the dark pockets where they hide would be a challenge. Heavy wolf and general hunting pressure mixed with ample feed kept the elk scattered among the bottoms of the drainages. The previous year had spoiled us perhaps as we killed bulls in relatively flat areas. Making matters more difficult, the elk were incredibly wary of the calls. Public-land bowhunting is all part of the incredible challenge. For my father, shot opportunities would be limited. To compound things, a side-effect of open-heart surgery was anxiety attacks.

“I used to revel in the sound of silence and the expanse of the wilderness, but now the vastness brought anxiety and it is tough to want to move,” Dad told me later.  One morning he had to lie down and sleep to ward off an anxiety attack.

“I heard these footsteps getting closer and closer to where I was laying. Jumping up, I scared the daylights out of two cow elk only 20 yards away and on a line to step right on me,” he said. While we laughed, the odds were stacked against us.

To increase our chances of success I hunted solo when Dad needed to nap or when he hunted with Bryce. I explored the bottoms of canyons I’d scouted via Bing Maps all summer. I came to understand the feeling of absolute insignificance amongst the endless peaks and valleys of unforgiving country. Multiple times I inched close to animals but never got a shot. Even with off-season training, my daily treks to the bottoms of steep drainages wore on my body. By the middle of the week I talked with Bryce about the prospect of not tagging an animal. His response put me in my place and reminded me of why we hunt.

“You would really trade a kill for this experience?” he asked, pointing to the distant snow-covered peaks. “Remember to enjoy the fact your Dad is still here to hunt with us.”

In my youthful zeal I’d let fatigue muddy the waters of enjoying the experience. As we sat on a log eating trail mix and jerky, I realized as hunters we pit ourselves against the wild in order to experience it in ways we otherwise never would. After mentally shaping up to finish the hunt strong, I found Dad and we developed one more game plan.

With two days left, we combined our abilities. Dropping into a deep canyon well before sunrise, I wanted to get closer to where I thought elk might be without being seen. Dad sat on the ridge above me to glass. At first light he spotted a bull and cows at the far end of the canyon. The only problem was that two other hunters were riding their horses toward the bull on the opposite side. With valuable information from Dad’s elevated position, I got within 70 yards of the small bull. My exhausted legs inched up the hill gingerly only to move at the wrong time as he got within bow range. Truthfully, I was heart broken and felt like I’d let both of us down, yet we had done our best.

I don’t believe killing a bull would have done the story justice. I wanted Dad to get one and have the greatest hero story ever told. However, it would have taken away from the true meaning of the experience since hunting is always about more than the kill. It is about being present to enjoy the moment in which the Creator has given us. Experiencing the wild is a powerful force we cannot explain, only live. The vastness of the mountains causes discomfort in some and peace in others. To stand atop the drainages on public land once again was a victory for anyone. Yet to Pete, it was more. It was the license to live again.