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Written by Texas Outdoors   
Saturday, 08 September 2012 12:07

This is part 1 of 4 of another masterpiece of storytelling by Bear Claw. Be sure to come back soon to read the rest of the story!!




What was it they told us last month in Hunter Ed class? Oh yeah, don't panic!! The clouds were opening up nicely, and the sun was beginning to make bright sparkles on the snow piled on the branches of the evergreens on the mountain around me. I had begun to notice some of the ice under my head was melting and beginning to wet my collar.

I was flat on my back, on a solid sheet of snow crusted ice which sloped downward at about 30 degrees. The narrow branch which I was hanging onto was growing straight from the base of a pine tree two feet above me and three feet behind. It was apparent that if I had attempted to pull the branch in any direction except straight in the direction from which it had grown, it would snap like the twig it was.

In spite of my situation, I really didn't feel especially worried. I was on vacation, right? I guess my worst fear at the moment was that I might someday be lying in a nice warm coffin somewhere back home, with my friends standing around saying, "He did WHAT? That figures, he was always getting in over his head." Anyway, I really expected that I would survive the inevitable fall, but getting off of this mountain on horseback with whatever broken limbs resulted did promise to be painful. I reflected on the events which had started eight weeks before.

"WHATCHAGOT on your schedule next month?" my friend and coworker, Gale, asked me one bright September afternoon as I sat puzzling over a computer problem. I wasn't sure how to respond. Gale had this impish gleam buried under his beard that meant that something was up. Gale is a bit higher up the corporate food chain than I am. I never know if his cheerful inquiries mean a little recreation after work or a 6 month assignment on some project I haven't even heard about. Gale takes on all challenges equally cheerfully.

I, on the other hand, was extra hesitant at this point. As Fall approached, I didn't want to get tied up into anything that would cut into the small amount of time that I could sift out of family and other obligations for my hunting. "Oh, its not nearly as packed as I expected it to be. What's your drift?"

"You know I'm buying a condo at Pagosa Springs. This is the first year we'll get to use it. The only time we could schedule with the management was the end of October and the beginning of November, and my wife and kids can't be out of school then. I thought maybe you might have an extra rifle. If I supply the place and you supply some equipment, I thought we might try an elk hunt."

An elk hunt! I had spent lots of time hunting Texas whitetail. I had read lots of articles about elk hunting. In fact I had been to Colorado during the previous summer with my son's scout troop, and picked up a hunting proclamation. I had pored over the proclamation, daydreaming about hunting there. But I never thought that I would get to chase these magnificent beasts, not so soon, anyway. The logistics of this type of hunt were also well in my mind.

"This sounds terrific! But the last week of October, that's just a little less than 8 weeks away. There's no way we could be ready," I protested weakly.

Gale ignored my protests, as usual, "Gee, I thought we'd just pack up and go. What's the problem?"

"Well first off, I'm not in shape for this type of trip." In spite of my weak protestations, we spent the next few weeks climbing stairs in the 30 story building we worked in bacl then on breaks, and trying out equipment for the trip.

Somehow, in my idle dreams of an assault on Elk Country, the term "condominium" had never come up. I always envisioned myself a "mountain man" type at heart, although a bit on the overweight side (maybe, truthfully,l WAYYYY on the overweight side!) Maybe on horseback with a bearskin over my shoulders like in the movie "Jeremiah Johnson". Or with my bow and elk bugle, working in some big bull with lust on his mind through a tangle of underbrush to my waiting arrow.

Then again, that nice warm bath sounded pretty good in contrast to the melting snow soaking through my collar.

I tried to regain my feet, even turn over, but the slope which held me offered no traction. I decided to stop for a moment and survey my position. My tightened sling had kept my rifle on my arm, and other than a coat of ice and snow, it seemed to be alright. I was too, at least nothing broken or bleeding. Other than the utter frustration of so suddenly going from arch predator to helpless slug, and a brief battering from the initial fall, I was apparently alright.

First, I unloaded my rifle, and secured the cartridges in my flap pocket with my free hand. I was about 2 miles from my day camp, and I knew that Gary, our guide would be coming back in about an hour or so, and would be able to follow my tracks to this place easily, so I knew that I wouldn't be left here to die, as well.

I tried to analyze the consequences if I just went ahead and let go. I would slide about 30 yards to the edge of the slope, and then drop off into the stream bed below. That was the worrisome part. From the pine trees that grew up from the streambed, I guessed that might have been about a 10 to 15 foot drop, but onto what? Just standing up was out of the question, since there was no traction. In fact, rolling over and getting off of my back was impossible. Above my head, just out of reach of my free arm at the edge of the trail, was a small tree with a trunk that split just where it came out of the ground. That might be the ticket!

As I tried to reach the trunk, I only slid more. I tried pulling myself up the small branch that I clung on to, but I could feel its grain pulling from the tree every time I added more pressure. This was a job which was going to require patience!

By gradually pulling myself toward the base of the branch, moving little by little, I finally got close enough to the split trunk to wedge my rifle stock behind the split, and then using the leather sling, I was able to pull myself back toward the trail. It took about half an hour, but I was back on the trail.

When I was on my feet, I took a quick damage census. I was wet, but the activity had kept me from being cold. My rifle bore was packed with ice, so it would be unwise to take up the trail, which was by now cold in every sense. Back to camp!!! As I walked back, I continued remembering the events that got me up so high on a snowy November.

I had visited a mountain condo, the same establishment Gale had bought in, once on a summer family vacation. It was really very pleasant. But people who were staying in the condos wore low top shoes, and pants with neat creases. Very few of the folks I saw at the condo had belt knives on. I even noted that most of condo folks shaved regularly and brought combs along on their vacations. This was the type of behavior I went on vacation to avoid. Certainly these were not the mountain men types I had envisioned at an elk camp!

Calls to the customer service desk at the condo offices resulted in recommendations for a local guide service that provided day hunts on horseback. I could handle that. I had grown up on a farm on the Texas South Plains with horses (flat land horses, anyway). Although I rode often back then, I had eventually reached a point in life where I had seen just about every square inch of land around my home, and had quit riding. But I liked the idea of a horseback trip. At least then I would be working out a part of my body that my desk job kept toughened up! Or so I thought.

We contacted our guide by phone to get information on the services available. A one family operation, he had an opening the last rifle season, when we would be in Colorado. In fact, he preferred to take hunters on day hunts for the last season, since he had been hard pressed to retrieve people, equipment, and horses from drop camps in the last few years, due to high mountain blizzards.

BLIZZARDS! Well, maybe this condo stuff sounded better after all. Our plans began to take shape. We were going to leave at noon on Friday, the end of October, and camp in my truck the night before we could check into the condo. Elk and deer seasons would both begin on Saturday morning after we got there. We would have the first day to acclimate ourselves, by doing some easy stalking and light hiking on our own, in some of the public land near Pagosa Springs. We could meet our guide for final preparation and move into the condo Saturday afternoon.

We were fortunate to work in an office with a couple of men who each had several years' experience guiding elk hunters and managing elk hunting on private ranches. Discussions with both of these experts made us feel that the trip was possible, and that we were on the right track. Elk hunting is elk hunting, right?

In late September, we managed to get into a two weekend Hunter Safety class. We sent off for our bull elk and buck deer permits the first week of October, and a 50% deposit to our guide, with a pleasant letter telling him our needs and what condition we were in. And a notice that I weighed about 250 pounds and we needed big horses. When I sent off my money, I felt COMMITTED. I knew we were going, at last.

We got the rifles sighted in for 200 yards with 180 grain factory loads in the '06 and 175 grain factory loads in the 7mm. Sighting in was done by firing 3 and 5 shot groups from the bench, allowing a few minutes to cool down the barrels between each shot. Each session involved finishing up by shooting from a standing position at the 200 yard bull's eye until we felt we could reliably hit an elk or deer at that range. We carefully cleaned rifles following each session.


Our guide supplied horses, tack, and expertise. We had to bring along all equipment and food. We prepared packs with basic survival gear, compasses, tools for field dressing large animals, food for several days, and small pack stoves. We also had first aid equipment, extra ammo and cold weather clothes, and rain gear. We were also certain that we had the required hunter orange clothes for the trip. We had acquired 7.5 minute USGS maps of the area we expected to hunt, as well. I carried my small pack around doing yard work for a couple of weekends to get the equipment comfortably arranged and be certain that equipment was accessible and the pack would hold up.