As September 10th slowly approaches, you will hear every man, woman and child tell you all about the alpine mule deer hunt they are planning. There is no denying the romance that is attached to the idea of packing into the most beautiful terrain around, finding that big buck and then packing your camp and deer back to your truck.
Prepping for the backpack hunt had awoken from a deep slumber, a primal instinct I never knew existed. The adventure that lay ahead made me feel uncomfortable, challenged and left me restless on most nights. I’m addicted to the adrenaline, the uncertainty, and the challenge of it all. Reconnecting with the source of my food; fur, bones, guts and all has been the most liberating adventure I’ve pursued.
Peeking down on the rams at a mere 200 yards, we surveyed the situation. In total, twelve of them lounged around the slope below us, but one stood out. I eased up my big 500 mm lens and snapped a couple of photos as he laid there, oblivious to our presence. He stood out enough that I decided I’d be happy to tag him. Unfortunately, I had a couple of issues to debate on. To shoot him in his bed would be risky, as he was partially hidden by the rocks around him. However, if I waited for him to stand, a couple short steps would take him out of sight.
Mountain hunters understand and accept the inherent perils of their pastime. When getting to the mountains is more dangerous than hunting in them, it’s not so acceptable. Given the option of riding “shotgun” I gladly accepted, avoiding cramped 3-wide seating in the rear of the American-made Toyota 4-Runner. The broken front seatbelt was a minor concern at the outset, but that quickly changed. Kyrgyz drivers make their own travel lanes despite painted delineators, and passing blindly is engaged like it’s a sporting event. Speed sometimes doubled the posted limit – a fact that did not go unnoticed by traffic authorities. We were stopped twice, and these were the shortest duration traffic stops I have ever witnessed. The “fines” were paid in a matter of seconds with pre-counted bundles of cash, and no paperwork. Additional stops for food and fuel and camp supplies and “rest” for our drivers made the 12-hour trip drag on, and on…
There are few things in life more satisfying than setting a lofty goal and then achieving it through hard work and sacrifice. Honestly, I’m not sure what motivates a man in his Medicare years to attempt a notoriously difficult hunt in some of the highest and most rugged mountains on Earth. The progression from young and invincible to aged and vulnerable is slow and often laced with mental anguish – particularly when contemplating physical limitations imposed by Father Time. Taking a mature bull elk at 9,200 feet with a well-placed arrow while hunting solo the previous year in Arizona may have extended the window, but there were times when it seemed to be closing quickly. That hunt clearly infused some confidence. Nevertheless, uncertainty loomed… did this old graybeard, now sporting multiple shades, have one more mountain hunt left in him?
As many guides know it is hard to find a balance between work and play. The season is only so long, and sacrificing a week or two for some personal time in the field can be a difficult decision financially speaking. Last season, I managed to take off a few weeks at the end of the rifle season here in Montana as I had some new guiding opportunities open up in Sonora, Mexico that would make up for the lost wages. To be honest, I needed the break, and was excited to get some personal time on the mountain, to hunt how and where I wanted, and not be held back by anything or anyone.
It was September, and the mountains stood perfectly calm around us. The silence broken only by the intermittent croak of a ptarmigan. A ceiling of light clouds hovered above us in the brisk morning air. As I rolled up the tent, I continued to take stock of our surroundings. The snow that had welcomed us three days prior had receded generously toward the peaks. I shifted my vision to the east just in time to catch Emery emerging out of the narrow creek valley with a full bottle of water in each fist.
At some point you leave the nest. In my case, it was post-college, after I took a teaching job in California. When I say leaving the nest, I don’t mean in the traditional sense — moving away from home, making my own way. No, leaving the nest for me meant giving up the safety blanket of hunting with others. I had no one else to go with me, but my drive was there so I hiked the mountain to hunt alone.