And making it home alive!
By Staci McBrayer
In my family, there is a certain time of the year that one should never have a wedding, birthday party, or funeral for that matter: hunting season. Depending on who has tags for what season, this could be mid-September (antelope season) thru the end of December (late season cow elk tags.) Hunting is that important. It is sustenance for our family steeped in tradition and memories.
It is hard for non-hunting individuals to grasp sheer importance of arranging one’s life around hunting season. It behooves one to marry a spouse that will, at minimum, support one’s hunting obsession. Marrying someone that will go with you is the next step up, but spending forever with someone who shares that same passion is the ticket. Or in my case, marrying someone who is an asset to your hunting is even better.
I married my husband because he was big enough to drag an elk out of the backcountry for me. Oh, and he hunted. It also helped that I was in love with him. On the practical side of things, I could hunt on my own, but needed help getting big game back to the truck. Joe fit the bill, and I lovingly refer to him as my “Sherpa.”
Till Death Do You Part?
Wedding vows for such a couple such go something like this:
“Do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife? Do you promise to hold her gun and step on the barb wire when she needs to cross a fence, drag her elk out of the wilderness areas where no motorized vehicles are allowed, and share your hunting snacks with her?”
“Do you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband? Do you promise to ensure that all tags are properly applied for every year, inventory and insure procurement of the necessary ammo for each caliber of gun, and set the coffeepot to start brewing in the pre-dawn hours during hunting season?”
The pre-nuptial agreement states that, should the marriage dissolve, each party will leave the marriage with all the hunting equipment (guns included) that each came into the marriage with. Everything else will be split down the middle.
A good rule of thumb in such a marriage is that if you buy a gun for yourself, you better be buy something of comparable value for your spouse. Same goes for binoculars, spotting scopes, and reloading equipment.
The First Year of Hunting
The first year my Sherpa and I went hunting together was in the Rio Grande Forest with cow elk tags. Pre-season scouting had revealed a small heard of elk out in a large opening that is referred to as “Halloween Park.” It would be a three-mile hike in. Before dawn the next morning, my dad drove my Sherpa and I in and dropped us off at the end of the drivable road. Loaded with gear and guns, we began hiking up the ridge.
Less than a half-mile from the truck, I heard the banging and crashing of elk moving in the bottom of the draw of the heavily forested dark timber ridge. Elk can be pretty swift and silent when they want to be, or they can move through the trees like herd of elephants. Unless there was a herd of pachyderms in that forest, I knew there was elk in the bottom.
I stopped dead in my tracks, tilted my head to listen better, and gave my Sherpa the eye. The “eye” is a look one hunter gives another to say silently, “Did you see or hear that?” He shook his head – he’d heard it, too.
The words that came out of his mouth next perplexed me. “There may be elk down in that draw, but we know there are elk up there,” he said pointing to the now two and half mile away Halloween Park. Apparently, he was not as convinced as I was that it was in fact, elk (not elephants) in the bottom of the draw just below where we were standing.
I did something totally out of character: I conceded without a fight. We hiked into Halloween Park though steep terrain on what seemed to be an endless march. We arrived just in time to find nothing. We sat on the ridgeline waiting to catch a glimpse of an elk moving in the timber or perhaps sneaking out into the opening.
We hiked back out with a feeling of frustration in our guts. Arriving at the truck, my dad said that a couple of hunters had pulled two cow elk out of the draw that was directly behind the truck first thing that morning. I shot my husband the “I told you so” look that every married couple knows. Married hunting life was off to a bad start.
Marital Spats in the Woods
A couple years later, having never forgot the lesson I learned that day, my Sherpa and I had cow tags for the same area. Hunting several ridges south of “Halloween Park,” we were in the process of hiking into large patch of aspen trees that spanned across a bowl shaped area that funneled down into a stand of dark timber. We had seen several elk through our binoculars earlier in the day on the north side of the aspen trees.
On the way up, my Sherpa and I had a little disagreement about the best way to approach the area. The little agreement turned in to a bigger disagreement, but never fully escalated into a fighting match simply because neither one of us wanted to spook any potential elk that might be in the area. Imagine, if you will, husband and wife dressed in camo and day-glo orange with rifles strapped to their backs silently fighting with one another in the middle of the forest. I am sure this paints a picture of the possible downfalls of hunting with your spouse.
I had seen elk in the past bed down in the dark timber patch the aspen trees funneled into where there was a spring in the bottom. I was sure a nice drink and a good nap are what these elk would be looking for that afternoon. My theory was they would be coming back out that same patch of dark timber in the afternoon to feed in the belly deep grass amongst the aspens. The best place to be would be just at the top of that dark timber for a clear view of the where I suspected they would come out. My Sherpa, however, theorized that we should walk the edges of the top of the bowl so we could watch the whole hillside, not just a little patch.
We split up and I parked myself about fifty yards above the dark timber. My Sherpa walked the ridgeline around the bowl. I hunkered down and waited out the afternoon, occasionally spying on my Sherpa’s movement through my binoculars. He had slowly worked his way around the bowl till he was directly across from me on my right as I watched the dark timber hole below me to my left.
And then he coughed.
I could tell that he had tried to suppress it as best as he could. But being he has a chest the size of a 55-gallon drum, the reverberation still carried my way.
And the elk heard him, too.
Several cows blew out of the black timber hole below me. I heard them before I saw them, and my heart jumped into my throat. The elk were running out of the timber right toward me. I pulled my rifle to my shoulder while resting against an aspen tree trunk, and a single cow stopped. She was trying to figure out what I was, and gave me just enough time to put my crosshairs on her.
A breath in and half a breath out, and I squeezed the trigger. She turned on her hindquarters and bolted with the rest of the herd across the bowl straight toward my Sherpa. As I stood up, I heard the familiar crack of my Sherpa’s 7mm rifle.
It had taken the elk literally seconds to run across the ridge to the opposite side where my Sherpa was. I, however, was not so fast. I hoofed it as best I could through several deep ravines tracking elk. I found blood drops amongst hoof prints, and worked my way until I saw my Sherpa standing on the ridge.
“Hurry up, we got work to do!” He yelled at me. We had each dropped a cow, and when all was said and done they lay within 40 yards of one another. His cough had spooked them out of the hole I had theorized they would be in, and my shot sent them across the ridge to him. Neither one of us would have gotten a shot at an elk without the other. Rolling up our sleeves, we grinned at each other thankful for the bounty.