Three or four elk hunting seasons ago, I guided Dave Brucken and Dr. Rance Gamblin on an Idaho archery elk hunt. Dave works for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and wrote a story about our little adventure that was later published in their Bugle Magazine. He and I have stayed in touch and he has given me permission to post his story here. Enjoy.
With apologies to Charles Dickens, it was the best of hunts, it was the worst of hunts. Dr. Rance Gamblin, Akron chapter chair, would be my elk hunting partner on one of the hardest, strangest hunts I’ve ever had.
Day One (Friday)
After barely escaping a potentially disastrous flight change by Delta, we arrived at the Cincinnati airport with time to spare. The Ohio airport isn’t even in Ohio, but rather in Kentucky, and only added to the list of strange occurrences to this hunt.
Arriving in Hailey, Idaho, we were met by our host and outfitter, George Peter. At forty two, fit, he was the typical image of an outdoors-man. An hour and half later, we were at Trapper’s Inn, our lodge and headquarters for the hunt. After the first of many delicious meals by cook Gail, we met our guides Travis and Tyler, shot our bows, drank a little Jameson and Jack Daniels, and retired to our log cabin for the night, totally oblivious to the disasters that would befall us the next few days.
Day Two (Saturday)
Awaking to the smell of hot coffee brought to us by Travis, Rance and I arose at five AM and partook of a fantastic breakfast in the lodge before loading up in a pick up and heading for Bear Creek, some forty five minutes away. Once off the public roads, we traversed creeks and rocky trails by four wheel drive, until finally arriving at our destination: which I later named hell.
Other than a three hour late morning lunch and rest, we walked on the sides of steep rocky slopes from six AM until almost ten PM, looking for the elusive elk, finding none. The landscape was extremely harsh and unforgiving, and if you failed to plant your feet before shifting your weight, the mountain gleefully, almost sadistically caused you to slide several unsettling feet before grabbing onto a sagebrush or jutting rock. Being quiet and sneaking up on the game was out of the question. We would see no elk, we would hear no bugling, we would find little sign, despite our efforts and hours spent hiking over the roughest, slipperiest terrain imaginable.
Travis and I split up from Tyler and Rance, and we explored yet another hillside. A light rain blew in, and when I was about ready to concede defeat, Travis spotted a very nice muley buck some 500 yards below us. As the intensity of the rain increased, we fought nearly unnavigable shale, thick sagebrush, and rock slides, in a foolish attempt to stalk the big buck. I wanted to stop and photograph a rainbow, but was too tired to retrieve my camera from the backpack. Two hours later, about 7 PM. we gave up and headed for the truck. About this time I was thinking, where’s the helicopter?
At over 10,000 feet elevation, I was already done in, surrendering to my fatigue and inability to overcome the lack of sufficient oxygen needed for my “flatlander” lungs. After many excruciating hours of clinging to and crawling/sliding along the steep hillside, my feet and knees were begging me to give up, surrender, and just crawl up in a little ball and fall asleep. Or die.
Little did I know the nightmare was just beginning.
Day Two, continued…
The walkie talkie crackled to life: “Travis, Tyler here. We’re at the truck, tell me where you’re coming down, and we’ll meet you at the bottom.“ Ten minutes later, we could see the truck a mile below us, lights on in the now-darkness.
“Twenty minutes, top,“Travis estimated, “and we’ll be in the nice dry truck, heading for a hot cup of coffee and a great dinner.”
I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I can honestly say, the next two hours were the toughest of my entire life. Never have I experienced such a demoralizing time. Several times, I was quite prepared for death, for a fatal plunge down the slope, even for one of the ever-present mountain lions or wolf packs to swoop in and take me.
I didn’t care if they did. We began our descent in total pitch blackness, save our meager little cap-lights. Travis had never been on this particular ridge, and so he was as ignorant as I of the difficulties that lay between us and the truck.
Twenty minutes later, Travis’ estimate of reaching the truck, we were no closer. Time and time again, we attempted to descend, only to be turned back and forced to climb again to seek another route. At least twenty times, I went down hard, victim to the sliding shale which resembled loose driveway rock at a near vertical pitch. Fingers and palms were bleeding from grabbing the sharp rocks and anything else that might keep me from sliding uncontrollably to places I only had to climb back up from. We would shine our lights downward, or throw rocks, only to hear a disheartening thump so far down, we had no clue which way to go.
My knees ached and burned miserably from the scar tissue from my many reconstructive surgeries and injuries suffered years earlier. My infected big toe, and blood blisters on the other foot were unrelenting and begging me to give up. My lungs were on fire, and the sweat was making my forty pound backpack a wet debilitating weight on not only my back, but my mental state, as well.
And then, it got worse.
Travis decided to wade into a thicket of willows. These seemingly tranquil little trees morphed into life threatening weavings of pulling, trapping, and grasping branches and limbs of treachery. The ground would give way without warning to deep ravines, far too deep to reach by stretching out for firm footing. By my cap light, I could see firm footing just a few feet to the left, yet we couldn’t get there. My bow got caught up in the branches, and in my exhaustion, my utter surrender, I could not free it. The many twigs and limbs had interlaced themselves into the strings, cables, and cams, and I totally gave up. My strength was gone, my resolve was nowhere apparent, and I sank to the ground a beaten man. My thoughts turned to spending the night trapped in these god-forsaken willows, waiting for the wolves to find me, unable to even raise my arms in a feeble attempt to ward them off.
I couldn’t care less. I was beaten, defeated. Death didn’t seem all that bad. If I haven’t adequately conveyed my abject depression by now, I can only state that I have never in my entire life felt so tired, so totally bereft of strength, resolve, or determination. Trapped both physically and mentally by the willows, tormented by the sights of the lights on the trucks below, I gave up. I told Travis to go on, I would get down somehow in the morning. He of course refused.
Travis is a young man, only thirty or so. I know he could have abandoned me, made his way to the truck somehow, and returned in the morning to retrieve his client, or what was left of him, from the clutches of the willows. At six feet two, barely 170 pounds, he was built for this altitude, used to the rare air, but still struggled almost as much as I through these cursed saplings that clung to us like an unemployed relative.
When you are thirty (or so), whatever life throws at you is just a test, an adventure to experience, and no thought is given to the possibility of defeat. Though he was himself near exhaustion, the confidence ( or ignorance) of youth gave Travis encouragement he would eventually find his way down, and of course he was correct. Two hours later, my entire body and mind a mass of jelly-like rubbish, we reached the truck, and I collapsed into the back seat of the warm truck, unable or unwilling to participate in the banter and conversation going on around me. I wondered idly if I could maybe strangle Travis in his sleep, so I wouldn’t have to go back up the hill tomorrow.
Little did I know that I would recover from this near-total collapse of mind and spirit, and go on to experience one of the greatest adventures of my life-to-date.
Having suffered his own agonies of the day, Rance agreed with me that we would take Sunday morning off, rest up, and hit it again that afternoon. What a huge, monumental decision that turned out to be!
Day three (Sunday)
Arising surprisingly early the next morning, we soon regained our strength and resolve to return to the mountains. Rance shot his bow, to reassure himself that his equipment was still in readiness. I then took my place and pulled the bow back, only to hear a sickening “crack”, as one of the limbs of my new Bowtech Equalizer splintered, threatening to shatter in a dozen or so potentially disfiguring pieces. Carefully I lowered the string to its resting position and examined the eight inch sliver of carbon jutting from the curved shape of the top limb. I think I said something like “Darn it to heck“, but it may have been a little more expressive than that.
“I’m done,” I told Rance disheartedly. That wasn’t quiet true. After several phone calls to BowTech, Sportsman’s Warehouse, and every independent archery shop in a hundred miles, I was able to get the bow repaired the following day in time to hunt that evening, Monday to be exact. So I lost only a day and a half of hunting, but that was twenty percent of my hunt, so did I miss out on a big bull? We would never know. I did have a great cup of Starbuck’s coffee while in town, so I guess that equaled everything out, I don’t know.
Day Four (Monday)
We had spent Sunday chasing down leads for possible repair shops. Travis had driven me nearly 100 miles, had arranged for one or two loaner bows, but knew full well I wouldn’t feel confident shooting someone else’s equipment. After several phone calls to BowTech, we arrived at Sportsman’s Warehouse in Twin Falls and had both limbs replaced. The bow’s limbs, not mine. It wasn’t until about noon Monday that we had the bow fixed and headed back.
By four PM Monday, I was hunting again. But once more, there were no bugles, no elk, only the occasional muley to tease me. Rance and his guide Tyler had walked on foot to a nearby hunting area, but other than two little does, they saw and heard nothing. I did stalk a blue grouse and took him with my bow, and we would later enjoy the pheasant-like taste of the wild bird in high camp. I shot it at 80 yards, on the fly, though Travis insists it was sitting stationery on the ground ten yards in front of me. Guides lie.
We gave in to the lure of a warm lodge, friendly puppies, great food, and good company.
Day five (Tuesday)
Tuesday I met my new friend Bud. Fourteen years old, Bud was a Paint, a strong and beautiful steed, taller than most horses and therefore being only 5’7″, difficult to mount. I managed to get aboard, somewhat unceremoniously usually, but Bud always stood patiently while my bow banged him in the head, or I struggled to throw my leg over his wide rump. I know I heard him snicker in a very derisive manner a time or two. They told me at first his name was Launch Pad, so I approached the whole riding thing as if I might not make it off the mountain.
Several times, I would tug on his reins to keep him moving with the other horses, and at some point I think he decided he liked me enough to allow me to be the boss. Having taken a refresher course the week before, I was able to impress him with my leg commands and adequate usage of the reins, to the point where he actually went where I wanted him to go, stopped when I wanted him to stop. Either that, or he was so amused by my inexperience, he just let me.
I am a cowboy, I thought. Except for the times Bud REALLY wanted to eat grass, drink, or wander to the left or right, or visit with one of the other horses. A couple of times, he would attempt a feeble buck, just to see if I was paying attention, but for the most part we worked well together. I soon learned to ignore his stumbling, his tripping in the creek, and his inability to refrain from lagging back then trotting to catch up with the other horses. Rance was faring equally well with Boots, his Appaloosa. My horse was much prettier than his.
Again, that day resulted in no elk spotted, no bugling, no muley. And so Tuesday passed, the first day of our trip without drama or disaster. It was decided that Wednesday morning we would head up to Johnson Lake and set up high camp, to hunt from there until time to return to the lodge at the end of our week. Things were looking up!
Day Six (Wednesday)
Today we met Cory, George’s partner and the nearest thing to a true mountain man still living today. Small built, Cory was barely five nine, 145 pounds at most, thirty-something years old. He was an interesting sort, having sold a web design business to revert to living the life of his dreams among the mountains of Idaho. He is married and has two young children (now three), but it appeared that his love for the outdoors caused little or no concern among his family.
Cory could ride a horse up the worst terrain bareback, which he did at one point, could nimbly scramble across the steepest, shaggiest terrain with ease (tho I did see him bust his ass a couple times), but was so at home with this extremely hostile landscape that he caused me to relax to the point where I was actually feeling much more accomplished than the days earlier.
Cory, Rance, and I rode off towards Johnson Lake, a six hour horse ride with unbelievable, Disney-like climbs, turns, near vertical trails and imagined or real dangers at every turn. Gail, Cory’s mother-in-law and camp cook, Tyler, James (the almost 20 year old newly hired wrangler) and Travis would follow with the tent and gear, and have it up by the time we returned from hunting. I was amazed at not only the ability of the horses to master the obstacles, but my own talents at not falling off the danged beast mid-crisis.
We crossed several creeks, but one in particular opened my eyes as to the wonders of the horse. We stayed in the saddle as each horse maneuvered across a rapidly running stream, big slippery boulders under water, causing our mounts to slip and stumble. Reaching the other bank, we faced an eight or nine foot, almost vertical rock-strewn cliff. Unbelievably, Bud made it up as all the horses did, fighting and struggling against my weight while I clung to the saddle horn like a terrified sissy. Cowboy, my ass. It was tough enough that one of the mules would not make it, and would force Tyler to return him to the lodge with a badly torn leg muscle.
We also had to navigate across a section of trail infested with ground hornets, and the horses paid the price, getting stung several times and threatening to buck us off. I never got stung, but Bud did and let me know he wasn’t happy about it. Hey, I told him, if you’d go the way I asked you to, we’d a gone around it.
Finally, knees crying out in pain and my butt cheeks burning with the intensity of a five alarm fire, we arrived, ate our sandwiches and candy bars, and slept for a few hours in the warm sunlit afternoon.
Heading out on foot about three PM, we hunted for the next couple of hours, fighting for footing on the slippery slopes once again. It was this afternoon that I would get my one chance at taking a great elk.
Cory was extremely good at elk calling, and thus by five thirty he had engaged a bull in bugling, and soon we were directed to take our positions. Rance and I moved a hundred yards apart, neither knowing where the bull would materialize. His last bugle was some 100 or so yards to the south, and he would not reveal himself again until he was only ninety feet in front of me, coming directly at me! A scant thirty yards from my position behind the big pine, he cut loose a mighty blast that shook me to my core, catching me completely off guard that he could be that close. I nearly dropped my bow. I did swallow my cow call.
From behind a wide tree, I leaned slowly to the right, then saw the great 5 by 5 coming right at me. I eased back behind the tree and took measure of my shot possibilities. There to my left, that open spot was about twenty yards. He was heading that way, so my pulse quickened even more as I realized I was about to have my shot.
I chanced a quick look again, and I realized he was now only fifteen yards away from me, still heading east. I drew back the bow and waited. Seconds later, the big bull reacted to another distant bull’s challenge, and trotted away from me. I eased the bow off, then whistled, and the bull stopped a short thirty five yards away, tantalizingly broadside to me, but protected by several strategically placed evergreen bushes.
I considered my options, then chose an opening ten yards in front of the bull, forty yards from me. I had practiced this distance so many times, I was confident I could place the arrow where it needed to go.
The bull hesitated, then peeled off over the hill, preventing me from taking a shot. I was extremely disappointed. He moved uphill, bugled once more, and disappeared. Rance was close enough that he could also see the bull, and was ready in case the elk came his way, but that didn’t happen either.
We straggled back to camp, exchanging “what if’s”, and found that our camp crew had only just arrived. We spent the remaining daylight and much of the early darkness erecting our tent. We collapsed into our sleeping bags after a meal of cold sandwiches and potato chips, and slept fitfully for the next few hours. I dreamed of elk so close I could reach out and touch them.
Day Seven (Thursday)
Another day of fruitless activity, with one great exception: The Brucken Breathing System. Up to this point, I was completely demoralized that I was unable to overcome the difficulties of breathing the thin air and keeping up with the young guides. It annoyed me no end to see the guides effortlessly outstep us, only to rest up for several minutes while we caught up with them, then move out without allowing us time to regain our breath. In our defense, we carried 40 pound backpacks and bows, while they had only a sack lunch, water bottle and probably a couple dirty magazines.
Finally, I paused and considered the possible solutions: quit, continue as is, or do something about it. I analyzed, and decided that I would begin breathing deeply from step one, exhaling just as deeply and deliver as much oxygen to my muscles as possible. I would also drink lots of water, after noticing how many times Travis went to his hydration tube, which undoubtedly was filled with an illegal substance that gave him extraordinary endurance.
It worked! Immediately, I noticed I no longer needed to rest before Travis did; I kept pace with him, rested with him, restarted with him. It was exhilarating, to say the least. He looked at me quizzically, wondering silently just how I could match his speed, when before he was constantly waiting on me to catch him. He would tell me later that he had clients half my age that couldn’t do what I had done. He was lying, but I loved hearing it.
I jokingly named it the Brucken Breathing System, threatened to do an info-mercial and make millions, and retire to Idaho to grow potatoes.
I felt as if I had moved the clock back, and even when we came upon the “Cliffs of Death”, I felt totally confident.
So named by us because of the dangerous vertical slope, the Cliffs of Death were nothing of the sort, but nevertheless required great care and focus to navigate. It was necessary to chart foot and hand holds for several moves, lest you found yourself stuck and unable to move forward or backward. Even Travis and Cory required additional study to get across. A slip, and the potential was there to hurt yourself badly.
We made it across, high fiving each other, and continued on once more in quest of the elk. But we found none, heard nothing but silence, and headed to camp in the waning light.
If we thought the Cliffs of Death was daunting, we would have an awakening some time later in the dark.
Travis was leading us back to high camp on Johnson Lake, a somewhat difficult yet manageable trail down the hillside. But he missed his “exit”, and we went too far. It was now necessary to cross a section of vertical rock in the dark that made the Cliffs of Death seem like a walk in the park.
We slowly inched our way across, placing a toe on a meager inch or so of jutting rock, holding onto a sliver with our hands, all the while balancing our bow on our backs. Rance surrendered his bow to Travis, who lashed it to his backpack, but I stubbornly chose to carry my own bow, as a testament to my tenacity and resolve. Not to mention stupidity and senseless pride.
Halfway across in the darkness, Rance faced his own moment of crisis, not able to continue across the sheer rock cliff, as the perceived danger of his situation became quickly apparent. Short of precious oxygen, he could only say, “I can’t think, I don’t know what to do.“ We hung on to the side of the nearly vertical cliff, covered with loose shale and dirt, and waited. I noticed the stars were brilliantly on display, and I had never seen so many, or of such intensity.
Cory maneuvered himself below Rance, and I moved up behind him, and together we all moved to the next spot, then the next, and finally we were on solid if still steep ground.
The fire in the camp was only a couple of hundred feet below us, but we rested there for several minutes until everyone was ready, then we worked our way down the rest of the way without incident.
A half hour later, we were eating a hot supper and laughing about yet another “dance with the devil.” Rance would say, “Dear Diary, I almost died today,” and we would all laugh, no matter how many times he said it.
Day eight (Friday)
We saddled the horses and rode up and over the rise to the north, toward the area where James had seen lots of elk sign (poop). We hunted the morning, then ate our lunch and slept in the too-cool breeze that was ever-present at that altitude.
We finally encountered our second and third bulls on that hill, scattering for cover and a shooting position when we heard the second bull bugle. “He’s coming,” Cory whispered hoarsely, “take a spot!” He moved up the hill behind us, and bugled and cow-called to draw the bull even closer
Two minutes later, Cory was moving past me, gesturing back the other way and mouthing silently, â€œbig bull coming! Six by six! There were two bulls sandwiching us in, and Rance and I held our position, first looking one way, then back the other, unsure of what was going to happen.
Turns out, nothing happened. Either both bulls winded us, or they decided they weren’t really interested in fighting each other, because we never saw them, or heard them. They simply disappeared, each seven hundred pounds or so of ballerina-like stealth and balance.
It was now late afternoon Friday, our last full day of hunting. We planned to return to camp, eat a hearty supper, and hunt one last time Saturday morning before mounting up and riding the six hours back to the lodge.
But again, circumstances had created yet another crisis. When we returned to camp, we learned our horses had run off. If they had decided to return to the lodge without us, we were faced with a nineteen mile hike through the roughest terrain, spotted with rapidly flowing creeks, steep and dangerous hills, with the threat of wolves and mountain lions lurking in the backs of our minds. We would have to rise and leave before daylight, in order to arrive before dark.
James saddled up and looked for hours, finally locating the horses and driving them back to camp. That crisis resolved, we finally ate about 10 PM and huddled under our sleeping bags while the temperature continued to plunge to 20 degrees, then 10 degrees. We could see our breath in the tent, but we told jokes and continued to bond as more than client-guide, more like friends enjoying a camping trip.
Indeed, we had worked up quite a collection of jokes and gentle ribbing between us. I proclaimed Idaho the “F***ing Perpendicular State“ and Rance asked Cory “where the hell do they grow potatoes?”. Rance had created an entire mythology about the pika, or â€œIdaho Rock Rabbitâ€ as he named it, a tiny rabbit-like rodent that lived among the endless rock slides, complete with stories of how carnivorous they were, how they hunted in packs, preyed on helpless humans and were known locally as “Mountain Piranhas“. I think there is something wrong with Rance.
Cory brought everyone out of a deep sleep that morning, using his bugle tube to squash a “Tunneling Tent Mouse (Rance’s species-naming skills again). We laughed and told jokes late into the night, farting, and making gay references to one or the other (“Rance is touching me again!“Hey, James, want to cuddle?). We fell asleep that last night, much more comfortable with each other than we were with the dropping temperature.
Day nine (Saturday)
One last potential disaster greeted us at dawn. During the night, snow began to fall, no big deal, but most of the mules had decided to leave camp without us. We had only three mules left to haul all the gear down the mountain, and we spent several hours breaking camp while James looked for the mules.
Rance and I had planned to hunt that morning, but the snow became heavy and made hunting impossible. In the meantime, we fought the cold and snow and tried to stay warm while breaking camp, hoping James would find the mules.
After two hours, it became obvious the mules had headed for home without taking their load with them. We made choices, loaded the remaining mules with as much gear as possible, and left camp. We were cold, wet, starting to get hungry, and we had seven or eight hard hours of riding to get back to the trailhead.
Repeatedly, the loads on the mules would shift, and we would stop while Cory and Travis removed the huge packs and repositioned the gear on the pack saddles. It took us an hour to go half a mile. We still had the ground hornets to deal with and the wide creek with the vertical bank to negotiate. Next year I’m going to Key West, I decided. Little snow there, and a human can breathe normally.
Cory decided to try another route out, one which bypassed the creek, and we made it out in decent time. The temperature drop had reduced the hornets to no more than an irritation, and we left the snow and driving wind behind within an hour or two of breaking camp. The fugitive mules in fact did find their way home, and the last evening was spent enjoying another fine meal, beer, whiskey and great fellowship as each of us realized that our week together was nearly over.
I gave Travis a nice tip, plus two knives and my blow sling, but not before having a little fun. Travis had pretended to be aggravated with my inability to keep up with him when we traversed the landscape, and got on me about it often. When it came time to offer the traditional gratuity, I looked him in the eye and said, “Let’s see, hunting trip to Idaho, $3,000. Supplies and gear, $600. Not tipping my guide, guiltless!“ He was speechless till he saw the smile tugging at the corners of my mouth. Rance handsomely compensated his guides Cory and Tyler. Finally we retired to our cabin, immensely touched by our experiences and misadventures in Idaho, “The F***ing Perpendicular State“.
I came to realize I wouldn’t change anything about this trip, other than bringing home the big 5 by 5; The wolves had driven most of the elk to other areas, so I never felt the guides had let us down. I suffered more mentally and physically than I ever have, yet found that I could accomplish much more than I ever thought possible. I rode a horse where many could not, traveled terrain some would find impossible, and most importantly made several great friendships. I learned that I could overcome great obstacles and continue on, and that discovery, that confidence in yourself is priceless. Though I could have easily taken that nice elk and muley with a gun, I felt no disappointment for my choice of weapon. It seems I don’t want to just take an elk, I want to take an elk with my bow. Maybe next time.
by Dave Brucken
Well, it sounds bad I know, but we had a great time. It was one of those trips where if it could go wrong, it would. Murphy’s Law I guess. I always want my clients to harvest their game, but I especially wanted Rance and Dave to get theirs. But it wasn’t in the cards I guess.
Thanks for the great story Dave. Send us some more.
PS, if you have a hunt, artwork or anything els that you would like to donate to an RMEF banquet, send Dave an email. He’ll set you up and he’s great to work with. Our outfitters have donated a few elk hunts and several South Dakota Pheasant hunts over the years.