It’s 95 degrees, the air is thick, and I’m hoping I can make it to the restroom before I pass out. Tunnel vision sets in as I navigate a busy courtyard in the drab concrete facility, while third world smells and jet lag punish my senses. I manage to keep from going black, and eventually wobble back in to our appointment to finalize the overseas adoption we’d been working towards for years. As a pale, mountain-town dweller, I took solace in knowing my nauseated complexion wasn’t too many shades whiter than usual.
During the frequent waits between paperwork and yet more appointments, I can’t help but look at the photo gallery on my phone, especially the recent ones with me sitting behind a 190” mule deer. The contrast between where I sat at that moment and where I’d been in those pictures was almost too much to comprehend. Just ten days before, I was 7,000 miles away in the mountains of Wyoming, living out of a backpack, feeling as much at home as anywhere…
Leading up to the mule deer season, I’d had high hopes for a mature animal. The area I was hunting has a somewhat struggling population but great genetics and the potential for truly memorable bucks. I often tell new hunters about units like this: you don’t have to find all the animals, just the one you want to bring home.
I’d hunted this particular suite of alpine basins two years ago, misplaying a chance at a fantastic animal, and had seen enough quality to make another visit. In just one day I’d seen 14 bucks, three of which were mature and well-antlered. With poor weather in the forecast and a known heavy winter loss, I expected even fewer hunters than normal. As it turned out I wouldn’t see another human until I got back to the trailhead.
I hustled up the mountain on day one to set up camp and do what glassing I could before the weather moved in and saw a small handful of bucks but nothing of the caliber I was after. Settling for the night, I felt well-armed for a solo hunt with some audio to pass the time—this was getting to be quite a few trips alone over the years. Rain turned to slush through the night and I woke to what I expected: no visibility.
I tucked my tarp under some fir at a forward glassing point and waited to see if I could catch a glimpse of some buck habitat. Breaks in the weather were few and far between that day. I spotted just one buck through the fog and drank a week’s allotment of tea.
Moving between clumps of trees, I stumbled across an intact bison skull at over 10,000’ feet. It was likely the remnant of any number of small, migratory, native bison herds that would graze subalpine summer range in centuries past. A competing theory suggests that these high-country bison were pushed out of the sagebrush steppe by human settlement into a final, undisturbed corner of their world. It’s the second bison skull I’ve found at high elevation, in places you’d never expect to see such a thing. Both were embedded in the land itself; poignant snapshots of another time.
The next day came with no change in the weather, but a forecasted breakup was on the way. I tossed a few extra calories in my pack for a full day on the go and set out. As the clouds moved out, heavy winds followed the high front. Consistent 30 mph currents had me looking for shelter between stretches of hiking. Working a high ridge, I couldn’t glass without some cover; too much air movement around my eyes made it tough to get steady for longer range observation.
I canvassed some midday bedding locations as best I could, and the wind tapered to strong-but-tolerable levels. A couple of text messages worth of cell service came and I found out I would likely be leaving the country within the week to complete our international adoption. I was equal parts excited and focused, knowing I needed to make the most of this hunt.
Heading to my highest vantage point, I settled in to glass, with an expansive view of some terrain that looked perfectly suited to spotting a buck in his bed or moving out to feed later in the day. Within a minute I spotted the lower third of a mule deer body at 250 yards. His body color off just enough from the rest of nature to catch my eye. Focusing the spotting scope, I made out just a spindly back fork; but I was encouraged.
I continued picking apart the nearby terrain, looking for his partners. Soon after, two bucks casually fed into view, one small 4×4 and a large-framed 3×3. Not what I came for. But very shortly the largest of their cohort materialized as mature mountain animals do. With the spotter already up, I got a far better look and his frame was striking. Huge fronts, good back forks, and unique character. A few small strips of velvet hung on otherwise hard antler, and his body size compared to the other deer was distinct. All that added up to the chance to take a trophy mountain buck in his realm.
With the wind still gusting I couldn’t get steady enough to take a seated shot. Despite their proximity, I knew I had scent and sound in my favor and took the chance to get prone for the rest I needed. I held just a few inches back to account for wind and already had the elevation dialed. I will never forget the view through the scope—the buck craning his neck and looking my way as I squeezed the trigger. The shot felt good, but the animals immediately bounced from view. I waited a few minutes and made my way down the wilting wildflower hill, thankful to find him expired near an old bed. Animal beds are a welcome place to do some butchering on an otherwise 40-degree slope.
After a few pictures I did my cutting and set out for camp, stopping for a celebratory hot meal along the way. The next morning was casual and afforded some extra rest before the long pack out. As many readers know, the painful miles under a full load are much more tolerable with a deep experience in hand.
The next few days flew by. Logistics for getting work, family, and life in general organized before leaving the country took up every waking moment. Long plane rides, immersion in a foreign culture, millions of people, and travel sickness followed. We survived it all and made it home in one piece with a new child to care for.
I almost can’t imagine two more starkly different journeys stacked so closely together. While on different planes of significance, it was a contrast in the fullest sense.
What a gift to have these experiences linked by time, when space and similarity never could have done so.
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