This is a true story, told slightly tongue-in-cheek, about the realities of packin elk in Idaho's high country.
There is a persistent misconception, especially among the uninitiated, that the elk hunting adventure ends with the echo of a well placed shot. However, as Gershwin said in a lyrical way: "... it ain't necessarily so". Carrying home a brace of game birds or a cotton tail stuffed in the back of your hunting coat is a far different logistics problem than trying to maneuver 600 lbs of elk through high altitude mountain terrain.
Three of my hunting buddies and I have, for the past several years, been successful in drawing cow elk permits in the Fish & Game's lottery system for a hunting unit near Salmon,Idaho. This year, however, only Ned and I were lucky. Steve and Dell came anyway, just for the fun of it. The hunt began way before dawn in the traditional setting: a rustic cabin with one large room and a path. Steve stoked the wood stove to take the chill off and I fired the propane griddle to sizzle the turkey bacon and egg substitute. Hey, it is the new age and I’ve noticed that my buddies hardly fit the front seat of a pickup these days.
The first light of sunrise found us at the end of a log road which traversed the mountain side at about 8000ft. We paused to admire the origin of our state's name: EE-DA-HOW which was the Indian equivalent of "sun coming down the mountain" and that's exactly what those morning rays do in a dramatic blue, purple and gold cascade. The setting for the hunt was a real life rendition of the outdoor magazine stereotype. There really was a beautiful, clear, blue October sky and the air was brisk at about 25 F and there was just a skiff of snow. A more perfect day for elk hunting had never been made. After Ned loaded his .270 and I did the same with my .338, we started the two mile walk to No-Tell-Um Ridge which we knew to be a morning route for elk heading back to the thick timber of the mountain after a night feeding in the valley below. The mileage those critters cover in an evening is hard to believe. We moved in silence and at a good pace to be sure that the elk didn't beat us to the crossing. Even so, we almost didn't make it in time. While still a half mile from where we wanted to be, Steve hissed, "There they are." On our right, coming up the ridge line from the valley we could occasionally catch glimpses of the large shapes moving through the trees. They were just walking but elk walk fast so Ned and I took off at a dog trot to intercept. Dell and Steve stayed behind to watch from a distance and not spook the elk. After the first hundred yards, I knew exactly why they stayed behind. Thank goodness for that low cholesterol breakfast, my arteries were pumping freely, damned freely. We had gone as far as I could and saw that the elk were coming on a level with us and would soon disappear into thicker timber above. I plopped into a modified sitting position and Ned dropped to one knee.
The custom dot reticle looked small. In fact, it looked like an overactive fly buzzing all around the lead elk and only occasionally lighting near the shoulder. As the elk was about to step into the trees, I took a gasp of the thin air and clenched my teeth. The fly paused on the shoulder and recoil rocked the scope skyward as the 275 grain slug was launched. To my right, Ned's .270 cracked and grey/brown shapes melted into the screen of trees. Then, all was quiet. Well, almost quiet. There was a loud pneumatic sound which is best described as a hand pump trying to inflate a torn inner tube. Clouds of exhaled vapor surrounded me and I noticed the same was true of Ned.
Steve and Dell caught up to us and we paced two hundred yards to where the elk were last seen. My elk had whirled and made one jump down the mountain and must have died in mid flight for it lay on its back with all four feet in the air. Fifty yards further down the mountain Ned administered the coup-de-grace to his. These were large, fat elk which would make fine eating for the year to come. They were so large that the chore of wrestling them around for field dressing was a very strenuous workout. It was apparent that my hunting partners were getting older and I was struck with the discomforting thought that if I got hurt in this rough country there was no way they could pack me out whole.
Clearly, we would need help to get these elk across the two miles back to the truck and so the adventure began. At this point, it was only 8:00 am and we had visions of elk hanging at the cabin by noon. We drove to the nearby town of Leadore, population 74, to look for someone with horses to retain. That should have been an easy proposition considering that there are more livestock than people in this area. There was only one catch. Everyone with horses had gone hunting on them. After the discouragement of canvassing most of the town we decided to go back to the cabin, wash the elk blood off our arms, have brunch and develop a plan. We didn't get that far, because a most amazing thing happened as we turned into the lane leading to the cabin. A real live cowboy was feeding horses practically in our front yard.
I lost no time in striking up a conversation with Slim who had been born and raised in the area and looked for all the world like he had just walked off the set of Lonesome Dove. When I mentioned that we had two elk "down" and money, Slim's eyes grew round and I suspected correctly that paydays were few and far between for real cowboys. Slim said that he had packed in all the surrounding mountains and had stout, sure footed pack horses. He agreed to pack our elk out for a very reasonable fee and then added some stipulations: we had to split the elk lengthwise down the backbone; help with the lifting; gas & oil for his truck, and help load the horses in his truck. I was curious about the elk splitting and Slim explained that he had a technique for draping half an elk from the saddle horn on each side of a horse which enabled him to pack meat without panniers or sawbucks. All we had to do was use a hatchet to split the elk. That sounded good to me and I looked around to see who was going to get the hatchet and who was going to help Slim wrangle the horses into the stockrack on the pickup. I found that I was standing alone with Slim as my partners had quickly gone in search of a hatchet.
Slim's Roan horse was high spirited but loaded fairly easily and I could see that this project was going to go smoothly. I was surprised when he closed the gate with only one horse loaded and asked what he was doing. He replied that the other horses were not his and he was just looking after them. His other horse he said was at a different pasture. My partners had materialized after the horse was loaded and it was decided that I would go with Slim and bring the horses while they hiked back to the elk and did the splitting and waited for us. The sun was high in the sky and pleasantly warm so we all left our coats at the cabin.
Slim drove to a nearby pasture that I first thought was empty. Then, I saw the horse. It was backed into the far fence corner facing us a quarter mile away. Slim took a long lead rope and bucket of oats and told me to wait, saying that the Warbitch was a little skittish. Warbitch? What an odd name for a faithfull, surefooted pack horse. Before long Slim came back leading a stocky black and white horse. Trying to be helpful, I opened the pasture gate. When the Warbitch was 20 feet from me, she stiffened into a point that would have done an Irish Setter proud. As she stared at me, her ears came forward, nostrils flared, and eyes bulged. Then she did an acrobatic maneuver similar to something I once saw on TV coverage of the Olympics. The whine of the long lead rope smoking through Slim's's ungloved hands was soon replaced with Slim's very vocal opinion of all horses and one in particular, who had resumed her defensive position in the far corner of the pasture. Now, I don't claim to be handsome but the sight of my naked face has never before stampeded the livestock. Of course, it never entered my mind that just maybe the problem was connected to the elk blood on my arms from the field dressing a few hours before. After all, who would take a green horse that spooks from the smell of elk blood to pack out elk?
Slim allowed that it was going to be hard to catch her now so he unloaded his first horse for the chore. When I opened the gate for the Roan, the reaction was similar to that of the Warbitch except that this horse crashed through the pole fence to the right of me and the gate with Slim aboard. Slim suggested that after rebuilding the fence, I hide and not let the horses see me. I was well hid when Slim returned with the horses and started loading. The first horse again loaded easy but there was no way the Warbitch was going to get up into that truck. I knew the answer to the problem and simply stepped into view behind her. She took one look back over her shoulder and vaulted into the truck and started climbing out over the front of the stock rack. Slim managed to get her back down into the truck by swatting her in the face with his hat and we were ready to roll, or so I thought.
I figured by now the elk were split and the boys were taking a noon-time siesta. That is if they could keep from freezing. Temperature can and does change rapidly and erratically at high altitude and leaving the coats at the cabin had been a mistake. I'm sure they were expecting us to arrive at any moment like the Cavalry and I was also sure that they were in for a disappointment. Here we were, still in town, and Slim dropped the next surprise. He only had one saddle. No problem, I thought, because the cabin we were staying in belongs to an old time friend and he has a saddle in his shed. Slim stammered around for a minute and then confessed that he had already borrowed that saddle and had left it in Salmon. I couldn't help but wonder if Salmon still had a pawn shop.
Slim was full of confident assurances and said that he had been born and raised here, knew everyone in town, and would soon have us a saddle. What Slim said was true. He did know everyone but it was equally true that they also knew him and no saddle could be found. Finally Slim pulled up in front of the local bar and I had some misgivings when he disappeared inside saying that he would surely get us a saddle now. My job was to sit astride the rail of the stockrack and try to keep the horses from dismantling it. They were quite determined and without my interference would have reduced it to kindling wood in short order. I would cajole, kick and swat with my hat as needed while perched on that narrow slat that was trying to work its way up to my navel. The only way things could have gotten worse would have been for me to fall into the stockrack with those two pets. I was wrong. After forever, Slim came out of the bar, not with a saddle but with two women. He jumped into a pickup truck with them and, as they drove off, he yelled out the window that he would be right back. I wondered if I could convince a judge that temporary insanity caused the death of two horses and one real cowboy.
After another eternity Slim returned with the women and truck which now pulled a horse trailer. He explained that he received a small remuneration from the out-of-town woman for watching her horses and thus felt obliged to help her load her horse trailer. We still had no second saddle and I remembered that my friend had an antique U.S.Cavalry saddle in his shed. Although it can't be proven, I suspect some of the scars on that old McClellan came from the Little Bighorn. Slim didn't like the idea of using a non-cowboy type saddle with no saddle horn but I insisted and we were finally on our way, a mere three hours after my used-to-be friends had left.
I should have known better but I naively thought that things would go smoothly now. There is a single blacktop highway which heads west out of town toward the mountains for a way and then turns to gravel. We had gone down this road for a couple of miles when we encountered a solid roadblock of cattle. It seems a local rancher was moving his stock to a feed lot for the winter on this particular day at this particular time. Furthermore, he knew Slim and asked for his help. Without hesitation, Slim abandoned the truck in the middle of the highway and went bouncing down the borrow pit like a giant whooping crane. I know John Wayne didn't do it that way and can only assume its the way real cowboys herd cattle when they're not on horseback. Slim bounded along behind the cattle flapping his arms up and down at his sides while yelling "Yooou Heee".
There is absolutely no way to accurately describe it and I didn't have a camcorder, so suffice it to say, the cattle wanted no part of him and moved off quickly. I got behind the wheel and drove along behind until the cattle were through the gate of the feed lot a half hour later.
There is a point in life experiences, such as hypothermia or battle fatigue, where one accepts one's inevitable fate and lapses into a state of serenity. I didn't realize it at the time but now know that a similar phenomena can occur in "packin elk". I rode the remainder of the trip to the road’s end in numb silence and vaguely wondered if we would pass the other guys coming out. I do remember a comment by Slim that didn't fully register until later, to the effect that his horses were Mustangs.
The truck was backed into the side of the mountain for unloading beside a beautiful creek that flows from a trout filled ice cold bowl of a lake and act two of this tragedy was about to begin. The Roan unloaded OK but then it was time for the Warbitch. The lead rope was long, maybe too long, and its end tied to the stockrack. You wouldn't believe how fast that horse came out backwards and owing to the long rope had plenty of momentum when the rope ran out. It was a strong rope and a stronger halter and so the stockrack was nearly jerked off the truck. She finally settled down enough for Slim to untie the rope and retie it short on the side of the truck.
Slim cinched up the Roan and then approached the Warbitch with a blanket. When the blanket touched her back all hell broke loose and Slim barely evaded being stomped. I've seen horses throw tantrums but never like this. She bucked and snorted and crashed into the truck; working herself into such a frenzy that she fell down. That little show made a believer out of me and there was no way I would saddle that horse let alone ride it. My respect for Slim's courage jumped a big notch when he gathered up the blanket and headed back for another try. Then, I noticed something that sent a chill through me. Warbitch fixed Slim with a stare and calmed down. Whereas her previous temper tantrum had been random hostility, she was now focused and watched Slim's every move. Here was an animal with a purpose. I've seen that look on men's faces and know that it means trouble. She stood still, watching for the right moment, while Slim put on the blanket and saddle. He got the breast strap buckled across her chest and bent down to reach under the belly for the cinch. That's when she made her move. With speed and power she pivoted so as to slam Slim against the truck. The initial blow had to feel like being tackled by a 250 lb linebacker on a roid rage. Once she had him against the truck, she proceeded to grind her shoulder into him trying to smear him into the paint. Slim proved that he had the grit to back up his courage and began bringing his knees up hard into her belly while punching with his fists and cursing like blue lightning. His efforts bought him a small opening or else she merely backed off for another slam. Anyway, there was enough room between horse and truck for him to make a run for it. He almost made it but Warbitch was alert to his every move and looking back over her shoulder, she centered him with a vicious kick. This all took place much faster than it can be told but I still have a clear mental picture of Slim disappearing airborne behind the truck.
I've been in a fair number of situations requiring immediate first aid so my mind clicked into overdrive and began assessing the situation and forming an emergency action plan. You need to understand that when a large horse kicks you, the result can easily be terminal. I figured we had fifteen miles of rough road to the highway and another forty five to the hospital. I would turn the horses loose and use the truck to haul Slim. My partners would eventually walk out and take care of them and I could care less what they did with the Warbitch. My emergency planing was interrupted as Slim exploded from the far side of the pickup doing his whooping crane imitation only this time he was on one leg and bounding higher. He was clutching his left thigh with both hands and making a loud "Ooooo" with each bounce. I threw my arm around his waist and helped him walk around for a minute. Once he settled down a bit, I checked for broken bones and fully expected to find the jagged end of his thigh bone sticking out. However, all I found was a perfect imprint of a horseshoe pressed into his jeans just below the hip pocket. Two inches to the right and his backbone would have been driven out the top of his skull. Slim was going to live but he was understandably in considerable pain and in no condition to ride.
Daylight was rapidly fading so I offered to ride in on the Roan and bring back the other guys. Slim would have none of it and could not be dissuaded. He kept saying, " I hired-on to bring them elk out and by hell I will." He mounted the Roan with difficulty and rode off with one leg sticking out like Chester from Gunsmoke. I'll have to admit that by now I was starting to admire the man. Whatever his faults, he had guts and determination. I wondered if my former hunting partners had frozen to death yet and, if not, would they ever believe this tale and forgive me for leaving them out in the cold.
I was waiting in the truck when they returned at dusk. Slim was limping in front of the Roan which carried an elk and the other three walked along behind like shivering refugees. I got out to greet them but no one was particularly jovial. I noticed that they exchanged glances and then looked at me so I figured they were a little upset. Oh well, it wasn't my fault and I'd explain it all back at the cabin. We unloaded the elk into the back on our truck and when Slim limped away with his horse, Dell whispered to me, "Why did he use his worst horse to pack with?" I was too dumbfounded to reply but thought, You ain't seen nothin yet.
After the Roan was loaded it was time for the Warbitch. The saddle blanket was on the ground but the antique McClellan saddle hung half on held there by the breast strap. When Slim approached her she jumped back and jerked her head up at the same time with such force that the chain link holding the rope to the halter straightened and let go. She was free and running. After circling the area, she stopped about fifty yards away and watched us as if to say, Just try and catch me. With a few choice words, Slim unloaded and cinched up the Roan and the rodeo was on.
The side of a steep mountain is no place to have a rodeo but that is what Slim did. The four of us jammed into the front seat of the pickup to share body heat and watch the show, fully expecting to see Slim crash and burn. He galloped back and forth across the steep side of the mountain amid rock and scrub sagebrush where a misstep could easily cripple both horse and rider trying vainly to lasso the Warbitch. During this time I heard the story of loading the elk.
Dell related that yes, they were half frozen by the time Slim arrived but soon forgot about it. It seems that when the Roan got within a few yards of the elk carcass it pulled Warbitch's acrobatics. It bucked, snorted and took off crashing through pine limbs. I asked, " How did Slim ever catch him?", to which Dell replied, "Catch him, hell he was on him." Steve said that he knew for sure things were bad when Slim snubbed the Roan up tight to a pine, matter of factly took out a pair of hobbles for the front legs, and then nonchalantly asked to borrow his shirt to blindfold the horse. They managed to load the elk on the prancing, blindfolded, hobbled horse without major hernias. Then, Slim untied the rope and removed the blindfold but left the hobbles until he was sure the Roan wouldn't buck the load off. It didn't. Instead, it did something they all agreed they had never seen. It climbed the tree using the hobbles like a telephone lineman. After a few tense minutes of getting the horse out of the tree, they started the uneventful walk out and asked each other if they remembered Slim having such a pronounced limp when they first met him back at the cabin.
Slim eventually realized that it was useless to try and catch the Warbitch in this terrain and he rode back and tied the Roan to the truck. Warbitch stood fifty yards away staring at us with the old saddle still hanging half on. Slim retrieved his battered pre-64 model 70 .270 from the rifle rack and limped past us. He had lost his hat and sweat streaked his drawn, resolute face, a stark contrast to the four shivering pilgrims in the truck. He leveled the rifle in a classic off-hand stance revealing formal training and shot the Warbitch square between the eyes. As the report still echoed, Ned expressed the sentiment of us all with an exclamation of GOLLY (or words to that effect) and then added, "I sure hope he don't add that to the price of packin these elk."
We piled out of the truck as Slim replaced the rifle and walked with him to the deceased. He said several times that he had to do it to save the saddle. I recognized that he was doing what police officers do after a shooting, regardless of how correct it might have been. He was validating his action to himself more than us. Even in death, Warbitch had the last laugh. She fell on the saddle and by the time we got through pulling it out from under her it was truly antique looking.
As we walked back to the truck, I noticed a silent tear rolling down Slim's cheek so I threw in my two cents worth of philosophy. I told him that he had done the right thing without mentioning that I would have done it a lot sooner. After all that was one mean animal and it was bound to hurt him eventually and he couldn't sell it to someone else and have their injury on his conscience.
I rode back to town with Slim to keep him company and picked up a few interesting tidbits. For instance, his rifle had been passed down to him after a lifetime of use by his grandfather and thus was WWII vintage. Winchester can be proud of that one. He also mentioned that he was only a part owner of the recently deceased Warbitch and would have to explain the loss to the other owner. His first thought was to say that the Warbitch had thrown one of her well known tantrums and killed herself. Having a law enforcement bent, I pointed out a minor flaw in that story: namely the small round hole in the middle of the Warbitch's skull. Of course, it could make for an interesting suicide theory. I suggested a plausible alternative to the effect that the tantrum resulted in a broken leg thus necessitating the merciful hole in the head. Slim liked that story and I hope it worked for him.
We arrived at the cabin well after dark, and Slim's leg had stiffened up until he could barely get out of the truck and hobble inside. We lit the propane lanterns and found some Tylenol #4 to ease Slim's pain and Ned provided a healthy bourbon chaser. Slim vowed to be back at daylight to finish the elk packin chore and went on his way. After Slim left we all laughingly agree that Slim wouldn't wake up for a day or two considering the home remedy we had given him.
At daylight the next morning Slim was banging on the cabin door with two horses loaded and ready to go, despite a serious limp. We stuffed him full of oat bran pancakes and imitation sausage and were off. Despite my misgivings, everything went according to plan and the elk were packed out without incident. I did learn more about Slim in the process. Even when it goes right, elk packin is hard work and on the way out, leading the horses, I was getting mighty hungry and figured Slim must be also. I dug into my hunting coat and pulled out a bag of trail mix which I offered to him. He declined saying that he didn't have enough teeth left to chew nuts. I dug deeper and found a peanutbutter and jelly sandwich that Slim ate with gusto. I learned that he was thirty-seven and had worked for the various cattle ranches in the area on and off all his life, except for a hitch in the army. This meant frequent eighteen hour days, seven days a week for a $500 a month flat rate, no overtime, no medical benefits and no retirement. If you got sick you didn't get paid and if your teeth got bad, tough. Slim has had the opportunity to enjoy the Idaho wilderness to a degree that you and I never will but he has paid a high price for doing so. That sobering insight will forever temper my daydreams of running off to the wilderness. On the other hand, I'm more thankful than ever for the week or two each year of returning to the mountains to hunt with friends and, if lucky, to experience the adventure of packin elk. Oh, by the way, an unusual but prized trophy hangs in my shop: the bleached skull of a large herbivore with a small round hole between the eye sockets.
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