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Mountain Grit

By Joe Lewis

Its 2am: dark, damp, and cold. Strobes of lightning reveal rocky cliffs, soggy alpine tundra, and me, hunched up under my poncho tarp watching my sleeping pad float in a puddle of knuckle-deep water. It rarely rains this hard in September, yet here I am, with my summer hunting gear, in the middle of my third consecutive night of rain. I pack light and move often, rarely sleeping in the same place twice, but as night fell I found myself near a nice little camp I’d made with my girlfriend on her first wilderness hunt. A bit sentimental, I retreated here for the night not really thinking things trough – I should have thought things through.

I’m totally exposed. The wind whips through the trees beside me, picking up water as it passes through dripping pine needles, and sprays my face. The rain is loud on my tarp and the puddles around it. The thunder rumbles just overhead, literally, as they are low and I’m as high up this mountain as I can find a flat spot for a bed. My gear is soaked, and I’m not sure I can hold out till sunrise.  

The truck is over ten miles away: the first 5 miles is off-trail and the second a dizzying 2500’ descent of switchbacks. I don’t typically mind the hike, I’ve hiked it many times before, but in this rain I’d never warm up. It would be a miserable hike. Not just because It’s 2 am and freezing cold, but because just over the cliffs to the north is a traditional summer paradise for big old bucks, and I don’t know what I’d be turning my back on exactly as I hadn’t gotten to glass it yesterday. There could be a giant buck over there, maybe the biggest I’d ever seen. 

The water continues to rise - up to my cold bare ankle now. And my 8 oz poncho tarp sags under the weight of the rain. I inventory my gear and body. My odds of survival are good, I’ve been through worse. But come sunrise, my odds of killing a smart old buck with my bow are slim. I’m damn good at stalking bucks on hot sunny days when they are relaxed, and lethargic, and predictable. But as the weather veers further and further from predictable, so do bucks.

When the clouds drown out the sun and the air is cool, bucks don’t seek out the shade at the base of cliffs or trees, and they often don’t remain bedded long enough for a stalk. When the earth is wet their scent trails are easier for predators to follow, and bucks are more vigilant. The ground would be soft at lower elevations but up here there is only rock, which the rain does nothing to quiet and everything to make slick.

The thunder rumbling through the clouds taunts me as I slowly and painfully convince myself it’s not worth it. I shoulder my pack and cut the strings on my poncho-tarp as I slip my head into the hood... and walk off into the storm. Only now, ironically, the storm is tiring out. I can’t believe it. The rain is tapering off and the lightning bolts are dancing their way to the south. I look up and can see a few stars through the thinning clouds. I’m smiling because I LOVE this. I know what I have to do. I have to finish the hunt. Without taking another step, I unroll my down sleeping bag and fall asleep, soggy but warm enough.

 Raindrops sprinkle my cool cheeks and forehead as I wake up. Nothing better than yesterday, I tell myself, other that this even fiercer desire to find and kill a big buck. I grab a pemmican bar from my pack and have it half-way down my throat before I can gather the few things I will need for the hunt. Leaving my pack behind I climb to a good vantage point - a single white-bark pine tree perched on the ridgeline. On the other side of the ridge are sheer cliffs and below them meadows of alpine knotweed where four bucks take turns feeding and looking out for danger. I am that danger.

I know these cliffs well, and over the years have found just a few routs to the bottom that don’t require climbing gear.  The rock is more slick than usual though, and I have to get creative to find foot and leg holds and lean my body into the rock to create friction and slow the force of gravity. The wind and rain are picking up again and I use it to my advantage now to mask my noise. As I reach what could be called the base of the cliffs, just one cirque over from the bucks, I quickly drop down to their elevation and then side-hill towards them. 

Cresting the divider between my cirque and theirs, I’m cut off by cliffs. This is where I planned to set my ambush, but these cliffs are higher than they looked. I spot the bucks through the fog, just for an instant, not a worry in their step, and the fog swallows them up. Hopefully the bucks will come to bed below me at the base of this cliff like they do on sunny days.

The fog is moving fast enough to make me dizzy if I stare at it too long. I’m too high above the meadow; the shot angle would be steep and borderline unethical. I creep down the cliff face as far as my nerves will let me.  After slithering down a steep crack in the rocks I found a small cubby just big enough to kneel within. I crane my neck back and can’t see to the top of the cliff.

Everything I know about mule deer behavior keeps me from truly believing the bucks will come my way. They have no reason to leave the safety of the wide open meadow, and no need for the shade of this north facing cliff today. But I keep forcing it. I cling to my hope that the bucks will do something out of character. That they will deviate from the norm and a personality quirk of one of the bucks will lead them within range of my arrow. It’s a slim chance, but it’s all I got.  

Four hours later the sky is dark with thick clouds and low fog, and the bucks are still out in the meadow. They must be enjoying the wet vegetation after long, dry summer… I’m not. The rain and wind are relentless, and the cold is seeping through my soggy down jacket. I resist giving up as long as I can, I want success so badly after all I’ve been through already, but it’s just not going to happen.  Eventually I come to terms with the situation and decide to save these bucks for a better day. Mule deer have a small summer home-range and these bucks wouldn’t be difficult to relocate.

I climb up the mountain and over the upper cliffs, a difficult task with cold bones and bucks in the rearview mirror, and then drop down the other side to retrieve my pack. It must be early afternoon. I would be hiking into the night to reach my truck. I dig through my pack and eat any remaining food (a half bag of nuts and a granola bar), before sliding the wet straps over my shoulders and heading towards the trailhead.

After walking only a couple of hundred yards the clouds break and the sun shines down on me. “You have to be kidding me!” I scoffed. I stop and contemplate going back after the four bucks over the hill. Realizing that I’m standing in a nice little cove for calling elk and I mew on a diaphragm call while I decide what to do.

In everyday life I hardly notice the impact of every decision, but out here, in a world without words, without distraction, I hang on every word and idea that passes through my own mind; So many ideas but which one to act on, which one will lead me to my prey. Is there any way to salvage this hunt? …Any way to kill a buck right now in this weather? There are no books to refer to, no hunting partners to fall back on, and no one to guide me to success or to blame for my failures. The pressure is numbing. I stand still, sorting through my options, occasionally casting the sounds of a hot cow elk into the timber below.

I feel strong physically; I could make another pass at those bucks, but is it worth it, what are the odds that I actually get an arrow in one of those deer today, in these conditions? I have no more food so whatever I do better be worth the hunger pains. The sun is holding ground against the forbidding clouds, but I can’t imagine it will last long. By the time I get back to those bucks it will rain again. That’s just my luck right now. And I should go back to the truck, wait out the weather, and come back later. Coming to terms with my situation, I turn to walk off the mountain. But when I turn I spot a big crown of elk tines floating over an eager and rutted up bull elk that was coming into my elk calls.

I crouch and knock an arrow at the same time. The bull is only 20 yards away so I draw back and rise up. He walks out into plain sight – broadside. His body is huge. He stands there staring at me; head hung low, mouth cracked open, hoping I was a hot cow. I tense up and let an arrow fly, but so excited I miss by at least 4 feet. He spins around and trots downhill but I call out to him with a desperate mew, stopping him at 60 yards. Now relaxing my shoulders I throw another arrow. It dips in just behind his shoulder!

I lay down to let the jitters wear off, and wait for my bull to pass out. I look up at the giant gap in the dark clouds and can feel the sun on my face.  I can hardly believe what just happened. As I was running around in circles in my mind, uncertain of what or what not to do, while my body was hunting out of instinct and calling in a bull. I’m glad I didn’t push those bucks. I’ll come back for them after I pack this bull off the mountain. Thirty minutes go by rather quickly and I retrieve my bull; a nice 6 point with enough meat to make the ten mile pack out more than casual, but I’m happy to do it.