Thursday, October 16, 2014

Lessons From a One-Legged Elk Hunter

Seasoned hunters learn to pack a few essentials: a good, sharp knife; long johns, hat and gloves;  toilet paper . . . that sort of thing. This year, Gary Edinger brought along a spare leg – one with a bugling bull elk painted on the knee.  

When I first met Gary ten years ago he had both of his legs (the ones he was born with) and he put them to good use, scrambling and traipsing through wild, remote country in pursuit of elk. Which is where I made his acquaintance. It was a warm September afternoon and I was hurrying down a gated, overgrown logging road-turned trail, toward the wilderness boundary where I planned to drop down into a narrow, granite-walled basin of spruce, fir and meadow to pursue elk with my bow. But before I reached the end of the road, I came across a hunter headed out. I was discouraged and selfishly bitter. I figured the tiny basin I was headed into wasn’t big enough for more than one ambitious bowhunter trying to fool rutting bulls—and now it was tainted. But it is public wilderness, belonging to us all, so I feigned a smile and greeted the man with my best attempt at pleasantries.

He was tall and lanky, perhaps in his late 50s, unshaven and sweating from a steep uphill climb. From his looks and the amount of gear he carried I figured he had been in the backcountry for weeks. The pack on his back was the size of a military footlocker, bulging at all sides as if it could burst open any moment, with a canvas tent the size of a duffle bag tied to the top. I’d be reluctant to burden a mule with the load he carried. But I’ve long had an aversion to heavy rucks, which is why I carried a backpack the size of a pillow, probably lighter than the full-sized axe and saw he had lashed to his pack frame.

To my initial chagrin, he was eager to drop his pack, take a break and chat. So I reluctantly obliged. And soon we were sitting on the ground swapping elk yarns, laughing and enjoying our shared passion for elk and wild country. He’s a logger from Wisconsin, travels West most years, packs in by himself, and enjoys the solitude of backcountry elk haunts. It seemed we share lots in common; except for our notion of elk camp.  

“You just out for the day?” he asked, looking inquisitively at my pack. “Five or six, depending on the elk,” I said. “And you? Have you been out here long?” “Four days,” he replied. We looked at each other as if we’d both met a fool.

He normally packs in with horses and mules. He likes comfort, he explained, returning each evening from a hard day’s hunt to a fire, a warm tent a hot meal. I don’t return anywhere, I told him, but sleep where I am—near the elk – sustained by energy bars, jerky and the hopes of fresh elk tenderloin.

We kept in touch, on and off, for several years, but he eventually faded to a distant memory. Until last September. He got my number from a friend and invited me to come along on an elk hunt. He needed help. Turns out he had recently lost his leg in a logging accident when a maple he was felling barber-chaired off its stump, violently jumped out and severed his left leg below the knee. He lost so much blood he barely survived, but managed to crawl to his skidder, drive his skidder to his truck, drive his truck to within cell phone range, and call 9-1-1. When the medical helicopter arrived he was unconscious. 

But now he was ready to get back into elk country, and wanted company and help. With not much else to do I decided to tag along and see what it would be like to do things his way – horses, mules, wall tent, wood stove and big, hot meals. So he picked me up in Missoula in a large truck, hauling a trailer full of stock, and we drove to a trailhead on the Idaho side of the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness where he had an early rifle-season tag.

It wasn’t as easy as I thought, packing and loading a half dozen mules and horses and riding for nearly 13 hours – much of it in the dark – at first on main trails, then off onto some outfitter trails, and eventually what seemed like bushwhacking – riding up the bottom of a creek through and over thick blowdown, stopping often to cut out trees and re-establishing an old trail Gary had helped cut out years before. Though I came to appreciate the skill, knowledge and traditions of horsepacking, it seemed a lot of work. I could have hiked in faster. Sure, you can carry a lot of comfort on the back of livestock, but is it worth it? 

I also struggled philosophically. I’ve often gotten angry when I discover cut-out trails in remote wildlands that – as the wilderness act succinctly puts it – should be “untrammeled” by man. I resented helping Gary cut a trail into such a wild canyon. I didn’t keep my thoughts to myself, and before we even arrived to camp we became irritated and frustrated with each other over differing values, principles, beliefs, and views on many things. Gary thinks wilderness should be less restrictive and more accessible; I think we need to keep some places as wild as we can. He thinks the wolves are eating most of the elk; I think the return of wolves is a wonderful success story in the restoration of wildness. He’s glad few if any grizzlies still roam the Selway; I wish they came back with the wolves. I’m not so sure we should be hunting elk with rifles during the rut when mature bulls can be overly-vulnerable; he was out there to bugle them into rifle range and thrilled to be doing so.  And so on.

In sum: he is a rather conservative logger from northern Wisconsin; I am a fairly liberal tree-hugger from Missoula, Montana. Let’s just say during eight long days sharing a small wall tent together, things got rather tense at times. I spent two long days by myself, roaming the mountains, just to get away from him. The weather was warm, the country was drought-like dry, and we found no fresh elk sign nor heard a bugle or a grunt for days. Gary blamed the wolves; I think the elk were hanging mostly on the Montana side of the divide where there was more moisture this year, and where smart bulls seem to learn there is no early rifle season. I even ventured to the Montana side one afternoon by myself, and got some elk talking to me around some lush, green, wet meadows.

Then one afternoon, after not even speaking to each other for hours, an elk answered one of my calls. It snapped us both out of our doldrums and we both got pretty excited. We spent the next hour or so playing cat and mouse with the bull, sometimes him moving towards us, sometimes us sneaking in closer, me staying several yards behind Gary bugling and grunting while he impressively and adeptly climbed up and over and around brush and blowdown, rifle at the ready, as gracefully as anyone with two legs could do.  We worked together well, bonded by our common passion for the adrenaline of the hunt. And it eventually all came together. The bull came in silently, wearing an impressive 6x6 rack, while Gary and I waited behind a big, thick spruce log maybe 40 yards away. For me, the hunt was tainted when Gary  wounded the bull. We had to track it down several times and it eventually took Gary six shots to kill the elk.

Soon after the kill we fell back to disagreement (Gary doesn't think animals suffer). But we made relatively smooth, quick work of the boning out and packing meat to camp, and I was happy for his success. Then I thought of this: Despite our differences; despite our lack of compatibility; despite our differing views of the world, we both love elk and elk country and the notion of securing our own meat from the wilds. Though Gary and I will unlikely spend time in the mountains again, I have tremendous respect for him.

I found the entire hunt symbolic of us hunters as a whole; we’re all different, of course, and we have what can sometimes be bitter, contentious disagreements. But when we need to, we come together for common causes. It’s what I love most about groups like the Montana Wildlife Federation and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, with their diverse membership interests. Yes, there’s sometimes tension and disagreement amongst us. But as we have proved over and over again, we work together when we need to, setting aside our differences to protect our common interests – a passion for the wildness, wildlife and the hunt.

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