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The Trophy – (part one)

This is a short story about one of my most memorable hunting and outdoor adventures from September of 1999, and thought it might be worth sharing here.  The scenery was breathtaking, the journey unforgettable and the outcome was so much more than I expected.  It still impacts me today, 14 years later.  Hope you enjoy the ride.  (part one)

The Trophy

By Joe Cundiff

Part One

After spending the better part of a day on an airplane, and then another three hours riding in the cab of a pick-up truck, my journey had yet to begin. Traveling from Eastern to Mountain Time zones did not provide any advantage as I managed only a few hours of sleep before we were up again and on our way to meet the outfitters. The sun was still a long way from peaking over the towering ridges, but it was light enough for me to realize that this was unlike any place I had ever seen. Everything seemed bigger and the land was more rugged than what I was used to. The winding road cut a path through the canyon high above the river. My coffee was cold by the time the unmarked pavement became a dirt road. At the end of a long and bumpy ride we finally arrived at the remote trailhead.

Our hosts greeted us kindly, but the scene was all business as the guides immediately went to work packing our gear and saddling horses. I was still a bit groggy from the jet lag and was happy to find a warm pot of coffee to refill my mug. Darl and Kari Allred are the owners of the Sawtooth Wilderness Outfitters and during the fall they live in a camper near the stables at the trailhead. Though I wanted to pitch in, I quickly realized it was best to stay out of the way. There was nothing I could contribute to the packing process. It was not the first rodeo for these cowboys. Their methodical system of packing was impressive and it was fun to watch as they hog tied one canvas wrap after another. I learned that a well-balanced pack mule makes for a happier ride for everyone, especially the mule.

Two hundred and fifty square miles of raw land awaited us. Placing one boot in the stirrup I grabbed the saddle horn and mounted my horse like I had done it a hundred times before. In the midst of all those cowboys I did not want look like a rookie, so I was relived to land in the saddle on one hop. The sun had climbed above the distant ridges into a clear sky. It was an ideal September morning, perfect for a horseback ride deep into Idaho’s Rocky Mountains. As we disappeared into the towering pines, I realized we would range well beyond the reach of the average weekend hunter. The horses meandered along the narrow trail ascending higher with each step, and I contemplated the week ahead; we would spend seven frigid nights in a canvas tent, rise before light to mount the horses and not return until dark, forfeit bathing, clean clothes and the comforts of home, all for one objective; a trophy elk.

The majesty of the vast surroundings was more than I imagined it would be. The sparse jagged contour offered one amazing view after another. Scattered clusters of fir trees decorated the many shades of brown and gray, quite a contrast from the lush greenery of the hardwood

Appalachian Mountains, which I call home. The slow and steady gait of my horse allowed time to breathe in the thinning air. It had not rained for weeks, maybe months, and the rhythmic thumping of hooves in our convoy stirred a cloud of thick dry dust. A gentle wind pushed the floating earth down the mountain, and the remaining air was clean and clear. With the crest of each ridge came a grander view, more astounding than the last. A pool of smoke rising in a distant valley revealed a forest fire still burning, but too far to threaten us. Beyond the haze, I could see the towering toothed edges that stretched for miles across the distant sky like an angry saw blade. That ominous mountain range undoubtedly inspired the name Sawtooth Wilderness. We had yet to begin our hunt and I was envious of my guide, for this was his office.

Two long-time friends, Mike and Frank, joined me on this expedition. Mike and I were college roommates a decade prior, and we have hunted together ever since. Although we live many miles apart and our days at that small southern Virginia college are distant memories, each year we manage to tackle another hunting adventure. Frank and I met only a few years back when we worked in the same office in Memphis, Tennessee. Somehow we managed to escape the city on the weekends in pursuit of whitetails or green winged teal.

It had been nine months since Mike had convinced Frank and me to make the westward journey, not that we needed much persuasion. The three of us had been duck hunting in Arkansas when Mike recounted the thrill of calling a six-by-six elk within range of a bow hunter. Mike’s pictures and stories were enough motivation, and we booked a trip to Idaho. Mike would be our guide in pursuit of a trophy elk, or two.

A few years earlier Mike had packed away his MBA diploma and headed west. The company he helped start was bought out and the proceeds gave him options. So he strapped the canoe atop his truck and hitched up an old camper. Virginia quickly faded in the rear view mirror and he roamed about carefree for a year, exploring Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, camping and fly fishing. Somehow Mike found his way to Idaho and landed a job as a professional hunting guide with the Sawtooth Wilderness Outfitters. Once again he was quick to succeed, and became skilled at hunting and tracking mule deer, elk, bear and mountain lions. Living in the high country for a week or two at a time, he led clients on successful hunts. Working from dark until dark, the work was tough, but he enjoyed it.

Also along on the trip were Shane, another guide and Bob our cook. Normally, there are more than two hunters per camp, but Frank and I were the only ones to book for the week. As we neared the campsite the horses showed no signs of wearing down. Their pace was steady and it seemed they could go on for miles. Riding a horse through the majestic Rocky Mountains is a dream shared by many, and when that dream became a reality for me I tried to soak it in. The scenery was truley breathtaking, but after four plus hours bouncing in a saddle I was never so happy to get off a horse.

The rock wall towered at least a hundred feet above a natural shelf and provided relief from the swirling winds. Water pooled in a nearby spring before trickling across ancient stones and descending into the canyon below. I refilled my bottle and gulped the purity than can only be found at the top of the world, or at 8,600 feet in elevation according to Frank’s GPS. It was an easy choice for a campsite and would be our home for the week. We stowed our gear in the big canvas tents that had been set weeks ago, and changed into hunting clothes. It was time to hunt.

We had cause to celebrate during our first evening’s meal at camp. Frank shot a nice black bear that afternoon. We were there to hunt elk, but bear and mule deer were also in season, so Frank and I bought additional tags. Bear and mule deer were supposed to be secondary options in case we got lucky and took a nice bull early in the week. But Shane spotted a nice black bear on the ride out. It was an opportunity Frank could not pass up. It was his first bear, so we all shared in the joy of his success and deemed it a good sign of things to come.

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Deuce and I

Deuce was my ride for the week and we became friends. The next morning we were up and out way before light and I gained new respect for my horse. At times the trails went from a narrow pass to a ledge so thin I would have been uneasy walking across. Sitting high atop the horse I felt helpless knowing that one slipped hoof could have an unthinkable outcome. So I tried not to think about it. Deuce was more than casual though, plodding along without fear or concern. Eventually I found comfort in his confidence and loosened my grip on the reins. We rode further away from camp and higher up the mountain. Just before the sun peeked over the distant ridgeline, the sky filled with a golden burst and cast a glow across an infinite landscape. I would have made the trip just to see the sunrise.

After dismounting we secured the horses to trees. Then we walked. Mike and Shane had been trudging across the rugged terrain for months and were well acclimated to the thin brisk air. Frank and I were in pretty good shape, and up for the challenge, but the altitude had an effect and we struggled to keep up those first few days. Frank is from the Mississippi Delta and my home in the Blue Ridge Mountains is much higher in elevation, yet it fails to compare to the domineering heights of the Rocky Mountains. Our guides were always several steps ahead of us, but Frank and I were determined to keep up, though often short of breath. Lugging our weapons and backpacks full of gear did not help. By day’s end we were tired and sore. We slept well despite the frigid cold knowing our efforts would be rewarded. Mike said later that we hunted harder and kept up better than any of his previous clients.

We spotted a few elk, but the first three days of hunting did not produce an opportunity to shoot. Since Frank and I were intent on taking an Elk, his big black bear seemed, at the time, merely a bonus. Bob said that he had spotted several mule deer near camp while out clearing trails, so Mike asked if I wanted to change focus and try for a buck. Though tempting, I had my sights set on finding a trophy elk.

We hunted hard those first three days and covered more ground by foot than I thought possible. I found out that locating a bull can be an arduous task. Elk have keen senses and excellent eyesight. We moved carefully from one cluster of timbers to the next. It would have been easier walking across the ridge tops, but an Elk can see the silhouette from miles away. So instead we slipped and staggered along the steep sides just below the crest.

Every so often we paused as Mike and Shane demonstrated their collective skills on the bugle call imitating a wild bull elk. As the trumpeting sounds echoed for miles deep into the valleys below, Frank and I relished a few moments of rest. More often than not, the calling would yield no reply. But on occasion the response of a live bull resounded from the depths, dissipating the pent frustration. Before the bellowing had tapered off into a piercing screech, my legs were rejuvenated and ready to go again. Shouldering our packs we tried to close the gap, hoping for a chance to shoot. Most of the time we were high above the responding bulls, so moving closer required us to scale down the steep embankments. We performed the ritual several times during the first three days and each attempt produced the same outcome, a grueling climb back to the horses, and a long ride back to camp with no Elk.

We had all hunted together the first half of the week. To cover more ground, Mike suggested that we split up for the next few days. Mike had success in Ten Mile Canyon on previous hunts so he and I decided to head down into the canyon, while Frank and Shane hunted new areas in the highlands. Ten Mile Canyon was another two hours horse ride deeper into the Sawtooth Wilderness. None of the previous groups had camped there, but prior to our arrival Mike and crew had set up an additional campsite in the basin. Camping in the canyon would eliminate the two-hour ride in and out each morning and evening, allowing us to venture further into pristine territory. Never wanting to waste a moment of opportunity, Mike suggested that he and I hunt our way down on foot. Bob agreed to lead a packhorse down to the campsite with enough food and gear for us to get by for three days.

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The hike in was grueling. As we crested the rim of the canyon, Mike pointed down to the valley below. “Our new camp is down there” he said. Seemingly miles away, I could see nothing but trees and a vast expanse tapering off into more mountains. The trees in the canyon’s base seemed mere twigs from where we stood. “If you say so,” I replied. Noting my skepticism, he assured me that a tent, cook stove and firewood awaited us.  The knee-twisting jaunt down the rocky ledge was long and hard.  We scanned the valley for any signs, but didn’t hear or see a bull the trek in.  Maybe it was just the excitement of something new, but I was optimistic about our chances in Ten Mile Canyon.

Massive rock walls towered along either side of the lush basin. A constant swirl of wind wisped sedately through the towering evergreens. I had never felt so far removed. Mike had not lied and I dropped my pack next to the tent. Bob had delivered our gear and was long gone by the time we got to our new campsite. I managed to wrap my arms only halfway around one of the trees that had appeared so small from the rim of the canyon. We took a quick break to eat a sandwich then set out on foot once again, heading deeper into the canyon. The open valley narrowed and then rounded to the right, extending well beyond our vision. The subtle drop in elevation was deceiving, and later would torment me on our return to camp after dark. By mid-afternoon the clear skies had warmed the day. Another two hours of steadfast hiking in warm sun forced us to shed the fleece jackets.

The trail cut through the timbers and banked along a narrow pass. A massive rock slide many years ago scattered large and small gray stones randomly against the steep incline. As we trudged across the rocks I glanced down to my left to the small stream several hundred feet below. The water flowed across the fallen stones and continued down a seemingly endless ravine. I found the weather as unpredictable as the terrain. In a matter of seconds the sun faded behind grey clouds and snow began to fall. We stopped long enough to pull the fleece jackets from our packs.

In a clearing straight across the canyon a black bear was lounging next to a fallen timber. We paused to get a better look and realized that he was eating something. Even from a distance we could feel the force of his power as he ripped and clawed his prey apart. But the bear was not alone. Adding to the scene, a frustrated coyote was perched some twenty-feet away. The coyote began to pace back and forth looking for an angle to get in. The bear remained indifferent and unwilling to share.

Inching closer and closer the coyote crouched low in the tall grass. The big bear remained stoic until the coyote was only a few feet away. All of a sudden the bear burst around with uncanny quickness and lunged at the coyote. His wide swooping front paw thrust the coyote sideways in the air. The coyote rolled to his feet and scampered out of reach. The bear stood aggressively as if to say ‘don’t try it again’. The coyote shunned the warning and was already contemplating his next move. The bear turned and meandered back to his meal, while Mike and

I sat in the distance viewing the brutal spectacle. The two hungry animals repeated the caustic ritual several times, reminding us of the strong’s advantage in the struggle to survive.

Thirty-minutes deeper into the canyon and we stopped to call again. I stretched out on the cold hard ground, while Mike trumpeted on the bugle call. Again, there was no rebuttal. After four days of extreme hiking, my muscles ached and frustration began to build. My grand expectations diminished with each passing minute. I could tell that Mike was beginning to get frustrated as well, because his calling kept getting louder. But he kept calling. Perhaps it was all the built up angst that caused him to belt out one long exasperated bugle. The bellowing sound reverberated high into the air, sending a message of anger and agitation. As the battle cry faded into the distant mountains, I was summoned to my feet by the response we had long-awaited. “We need to move closer,” Mike said. I was already up and shouldering my pack.

The bull was close. A newfound adrenaline cast aside cold and fatigue. Mike and I searched for an angle to move up the mountain towards an aggressive sounding bull. Pausing at the base of a narrow opening, Mike removed his pack and kneeled on the ground. While he searched his bag for a cow call, I began climbing, trying to get closer. I had not gone far when my heartbeat changed rhythm, not from the strenuous climb, but because of what I saw. Locked in an awkward stance, I peered through the sparse timbers. I knew the bull was close, but did not expect to see him so soon. My eyes grew wide as I focused on the object of our journey. I guessed that he was 150 yards out. Even at that distance the sheer size of the animal was intimidating. The bull moved cautiously through the distant timbers, not affording me a clear look, but I was certain of one thing; we had found our trophy.

Slowly, I settled to my knees searching for any cover. It was not an ideal place to set-up for a shot. After I was certain the elk had not seen me, I slipped off my backpack and glanced back for my guide. Mike had been waiting for me to turn. He could not see the bull, but knew I had seen it. We have hunted together for so long that few words, if any, are needed to communicate.

Prior to the trip and even while sitting by the fire each night at camp, we talked about potential situations, and how we might respond. But you just cannot plan for everything. Events always seem to unfold unexpectedly. “Just be ready” Mike had said. Those words seemed obvious at the time, yet nothing we anticipated resembled the scene in Ten Mile Canyon. We finally had a bull primed for a fight, and I was nowhere near ready.

Crouched close to the ground with my knees tucked against my chest, I kept movement to a minimum.  Though I was hiding in the brush in full camouflage, I know the slightest motion might spook my prey.  Shielding my hand behind my body, I held up two fingers.  Mike was out of sight of the bull so he could be more animated. I read his lips as he mouthed, ‘one bull, one cow?’ I gave a slight downward nod. Mike needed to know what I saw. A lone bull is hard enough to call, and attempting to call one away from a cow during the rut only intensified the challenge. Next I extended one finger, then all five, then cupped my hand to form a zero. Mike calmly nodded then dropped down out of sight. He knew the bull was approximately one hundred fifty yards from me. Mike disappeared into the cluster of evergreens and I realized that I was on my own. He would soon be back there trying to lure the bull closer, and I needed to get ready. And there was much to do.

Taking a deep breath, I rolled my head back around, my face was inches from the ground. Peeking up through the brush, I could see the bull. He was closer. Mike bugled from behind and the bull elk above reared his head back and roared. I could see his breath rising in the air as he bellowed out in anger. My heart was thumping so loud I feared it might give me away.

If it was cold, I did not notice. If it was still snowing, I don’t recall. He was moving within range and I was nowhere near ready to draw my bow, which was lying on the ground beside me. Notching an arrow is ordinarily such an easy task, but I was not standing in the back yard taking aim at a stuffed burlap sack. Each movement would require fluid, silent motion. Peering through the corner of one eye, my head tilted sideways, I waited for just the right moment to move. As the bull cut an angle down the mountain, the facing trees momentarily shielded me from his sight. Without looking I reached for my quiver that was attached to my pack and retrieved an arrow. Remaining crouched tight to the ground intensified the strain. Keeping an eye on the bull, I was often forced to pause, waiting for the next opportunity to continue.

What should have been a simple procedure had become a laborious, physically draining task. After countless moments of awkward struggle, the arrow was notched and the release clamped. The bow was ready to be drawn, but I hunkered down on the ground. The bull was almost in range when he suddenly stopped. Mike hit the bugle call again. The bull was really getting mad and I feared he might make a charge. He could not find another bull to fight, so a young fir tree became the victim of his violently raging rack. My fears turned to terror as he ripped into the tree. Branches the size of my femur snapped like popsicle sticks. I could no longer watch and scratched my face in the underbrush as I turned away. His obvious act of intimidation did not help my already fragile nerves. I waited for the echo of splintering wood to fade.

A new dilemma emerged. I could not feel my feet. Nearly a half an hour had passed since I tucked into a ball on the ground. All the weight pressing down on my knees had cut off the blood flow. My lower extremities became a three-ring circus of stinging nerves, exploding joints and an unbearable numbing sensation.  The clock was ticking, each second more vital than the last and I could not move.  I struggled to not panic.  Subtly shifting my body I craved any relief.

Given the circumstances, taking an accurate shot was bordering on impossible. For the moment I tried to forget about the approaching bull. I needed to relax and get the blood flowing in my legs, so I focused on breathing, taking long deep breaths. I needed to roll over and stretch out my legs, but any abrupt movements could have ended the hunt. With my eyes closed I leaned forward and inhaled deeply. Upon exhalation I gradually transferred my weight and flexed my leg muscles. Repeating the exercise three or four times I was soon able to move my creaking ankles. The brief meditation induced calm and began to sooth my shattered nerves.

Then calm was short-lived as the bull burst into another raging roar. It was so loud I thought his next step might be on my head. If it had been gun season a high-powered riffle would have dropped the bull forty-five minutes earlier. At the moment the thought almost seemed too easy. But I did not have a gun. After what seemed like hours, the bull was within range of my bow. Slowly I looked up again and found him. Earlier I had estimated a rock at forty yards and a tree at thirty. He was moving between them.

Thousands of practice shots the summer before had manifested into absolute confidence. I knew that I could make the shot in spite of the impending duress. The four prongs of my sights mounted just above the handgrip of my bow marked ten yard intervals, the upper one denoting twenty, and the lower one marked fifty. With a steady hand and clear focus, I could stick and arrow inside a five inch circle at any range, a pattern tight enough to end an elk’s life. I hoped my estimation of the rock and tree was accurate. Even with a steady shot, the slightest miscalculation of distance could result in a miss, or worse, a wounded animal.

I had a front row seat of a dominant bull seeking to protect his domain. Nearly an hour had passed since I first spotted the bull, and I remained tucked and hidden in the sparse brush. Much had transpired and the critical moment was upon me. I would either somehow find a way to rise up and take a shot, or the bull would simply move out of range. After all the effort, it could end in an instant and my trophy could walk away. He moved closer and my heart raced as seconds pounded into minutes. The weight of battle became unsettling.

Anger and frustration resounded in thunderous vibrations as the bull stomped his front hoof into the hard ground, sending a cloud of dust into the air. The enormity of the moment ripened upon realization that my role as predator was vastly overshadowed by the weight of my prey. He was at least a thousand pounds and towered above me. I had yet to count the points on his rack, deferring that task until my trophy lay dormant on the ground.

The rush of such excitement seduced me. The seemingly eternal strain was nearly over. My eyes watered with anticipation and my teeth clenched, fighting off a delighted grin. I succumbed to the moment and my subconscious mind took charge, racing through the details in light speed. My body responded in a semi trance. Failure was not an option and I never considered that I might miss. All the work, all the time, and all the money, it all came down to one shot. I had to make the shot.

Adrenaline surged blood through my veins and the rush challenged my hard-fought composure. The bull moved left to right approaching the tree at thirty yards. I would need to focus on the red pin of my sights. The bull never stopped or even slowed his prance. I studied the rhythm of his trot and like clockwork, moved in unison. As he passed behind the tree, I arose in fluid motion. As I lifted to my knees my left arm extended the bow counter-clockwise until upright. My right hand gripped the release and pulled the bowstring taut as the arrow slid into place. The back of my hand pressed against my cheek and the arrow fletching touched the corner of my mouth like it had a thousand times before. The sights were aligned.

In all the hours of practice, I had not attempted a shot that remotely resembled the one I was getting ready to take. My knees dug into the earth and innately my upper body leaned forward to compensate for the steep angle of the sloping hillside. Oblivious to the obstacles, instinct prevailed. Peering through the peephole sight, I found the bull. He walked past the tree and stopped. The trophy stood thirty-two yards away, broadside and unobstructed. By the time he walked out into the open I was again motionless, but was upright and clearly within his view. Sensing something out of place, his monumental rack swiveled like the rotating of the earth and he turned his head toward me.

It was too late. He could not outrun the arrow. I would have taken a deep breath, but I could not breathe. Instead I focused on the red pin. In my backyard I had created this exact image hundreds of times. That illusion had transformed a battered old feed sack target into a huge elk, and the center circle became a spot just behind his shoulder. I found that spot once more and steadied the bow. My finger slid across the release and slowly pressed against the trigger. The recoil jerked my body back as the bow strand propelled the arrow forward with 72 pounds of force, sending the tri-blade razor-sharp broad-head spiraling through the air with deadly intent.

Few words were spoken during the hike back to camp on the evening of our fourth day in the Sawtooth Wilderness. Before heading back Mike and I located the blood trail, but the impending darkness deprived us of time for a search. Mike remained calm, but I could see that he was excited by what he had just witnessed. “That was a nice bull, a definite shooter!” he said.

Watching the bull through his binoculars, Mike had been able to count the points of the bull’s rack. On my first attempt ever at elk hunting, I had tagged a six-by-six trophy with a bow and arrow. The bases of his tines were thick and we estimated a forty-eight inch span between the outer points, maybe more. “He might not break any records, but that bull will score high,” Mike added. I could only imagine how the sprawling rack was going to look hanging on my wall, and perhaps my name on the Pope & Young list. However, tracking the bull would have to wait for the light of another day. We marked our location with orange ribbon and Mike asked detailed questions. “Where did you hit him?” Closing my eyes, I relived the vision of my bull rumbling through the ravine with an arrow protruding from his side.

The three-hour trek that night was long and grueling. The temperature was steadily dropping and I was tired and hungry, but returning to camp was the last thing I wanted to do. As the bull staggered south, we trudged north, each step pushing us further apart. I knew searching at night would be impossible, but it felt like leaving the theater two minutes before the final curtain. Darkness had once again changed the landscape as the outer world closed in around me, and the gradual uphill climb was exhausting.

There was neither a hot stove nor a warm dinner awaiting us. I knew that Frank and Shane returned to a warm tent and that Bob would have a hot pot roast ready to eat. Our tent was cold and we would have to prepare our own. We lit fire in the cook stove and waited for the water to boil. Mike found a signal on the radio and gave Shane and update on our day. Shane would later radio Darl back at base camp. Mike and I were too far out to reach them. Before he signed off with us, Shane indicated that he and Frank had not located any game, but congratulated us on our success. That six-by-six rack was still out there, so I was not ready to claim success.

(to be continued…)   https://cundiff.inetdemo.com/the-trophy-part-two/

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