When my great-grandfather was on his deathbed at 96 years old, his eyes were closed and, with his hands, he quietly acted out the motions of fly fishing and smoking. He was no longer confined to a bed, attached to monitors and unable to walk or use the bathroom on his own. His hands went through the motions of gently casting a dry fly on to a Montana river and I imagined him watching the sun shimmer off the waves and seeing the wisps of smoke rise from his unfiltered Camel cigarette. He lived his life hunting and fishing in the mountains and it still makes me happy to know that he was able to escape his suffering at the end and return to the place that brought him so much joy. I always hope to live my life in a way that will give me these sorts of memories, adventures that I will remember until the end.
When my hunting partner, Jonathan, and I were standing on the shore of the famous Tuchodi River and we watched the jetboat race away downstream after dropping us off, I knew that I was about to embark on just such an adventure.
“It’s hard to believe that we are actually here,” Jonathan mentioned as we both looked at the magnificent surroundings.
I agreed. After 2 years of planning, 22 hours of driving north from our home in Nelson, British Columbia, and a 3 hour jetboat trip upriver, we were finally ready to begin. Now it was just the two of us, standing by ourselves in some of the most remote country I’ve ever experienced. We were drawn north, away from the excellent elk hunting that we have available locally because we’d heard stories of the beautiful surroundings, and legendary numbers of elk on the Tuchodi River. The air was crisp and the leaves were just starting to turn yellow on the aspens. The only sound now was the rushing water of the river, which was teeming with Arctic Grayling and Bull Trout.
After taking a minute to soak it all in and appreciate the fact that all the planning was behind us and the adventure still lay ahead, we quickly set up Jonathan’s Kifaru teepee and woodstove. Once our base camp was set up on the river, we packed our backpacks and surveyed our maps for a good location to set up a spike camp off the river. With fourteen days of hunting ahead of us, it seemed like we had all the time in the world, but we knew it would go quickly and we were not about to waste a minute of it.
The next morning we set off early, trying to hike up to a hanging valley that we imagined to be infested with elk. Despite the fact that it was early September, we had been caught in a blizzard on the drive to Fort Nelson and the air was unseasonably cold. We were hopeful that this would get the elk fired up and kick-start the rut. After a long day of bushwhacking and following a maze of old game trails, we finally made it to our destination. What we thought would be a beautiful grassy valley turned out to be a giant marsh, with half frozen tufts of grass making it
impossible to camp. After hours of frustration, we finally found a flat and dry area next to a small slough, just big enough to set up our shelters.
To our dismay, we came across almost no elk sign all day and, after an evening of bugling and cow calling from the edge of the timber, we heard only wolves howling in the distance. There was not enough snow to melt for water, so our only remaining option was the swampy water from the slough near our campsite. Our overwhelming enthusiasm of the morning was starting to disintegrate as we sat in the freezing cold, drinking greenish water that smelled remarkably similar to compost. We knew, however, that this was but one little valley in a huge expanse of wilderness and, after reviewing the maps by headlamp, we decided we would pack up in the morning and hike up the ridge to our south to find more productive ground.
After all the exertions of the day, I was sleeping very soundly when, at about 1:00 a.m., I was awoken by the unmistakable sound of a bull elk bugle. At first I thought maybe I was dreaming, but there it was again, getting louder and louder. Then I heard the mewing of a cow elk over and over. Adrenaline kept me awake most of the night, but I faded in and out between the loud screams of the bull.
The next morning we both woke up before dawn. Jonathan said through the tent, “You heard those elk last night, didn’t you?” I think he wanted to make sure that he didn’t just dream it all up.
I reassured him that I too had heard the symphony of elk through the night, only realizing after the fact that I blew a perfect opportunity to make him really question his sanity.
We set out first thing and, of course, by then the elk had gone completely silent. There were no sounds except the echoes of our own bugling. We attempted to follow some tracks, but they were quickly lost in the patchy snow and hummocky grass. Despite the nighttime bugling, we still decided that we should continue to explore new territory where we would hopefully find more elk.
After a huge slog up a steep slope through dense timber, we emerged onto a breathtaking ridgeline. There was elk sign everywhere and there were great views of the surrounding area. To our south, golden grassy slopes descended down to another marshy valley below us, and, to our north, lay the densely timbered face that we had hiked up. This pattern repeated ridge after ridge and we could see the snowy, alpine peaks rising above them in the distance. We decided that this ridge would be an excellent place to set up camp, but the cold snap was rapidly changing to warm sunny weather and melting all the snow that we would need for a water source. After setting up camp, we began collecting snow and piling it in the shade. We were like a couple of kids making a giant snowman. Sweaty, stinky kids wearing camo, but after a short while, we had our water supply.
We hunted this ridge hard, but without success. We didn’t see, or hear any elk, but we did find dozens of shed antlers. We found some beautiful specimens, but we decided that we were too far back to pack them out. The thought arose that if we were hunting elk in an area that was too far back to pack out antlers, what would we do with an entire bull elk? We tried to quickly push the thought out of our minds.
Finally, while sitting and glassing on a sun-drenched slope, Jonathan spotted an elk way up the main valley in a large open patch in the timber. Such a well-circumscribed opening was definitely man-made, and we figured it was probably an old burn made by outfitters years ago. This burn was likely a habitat improvement from the past, a remnant of the old days before jetboats when it would take several days for outfitters to pack their hunters in on horseback. After doing a reconnaissance mission to the burn and finding a place nearby to camp, we returned to the main camp on the river to resupply.
After several nights in our small tents, the teepee seemed like a palace. With the woodstove crackling, we cooked up a good meal and got our boots drying.
Although our accommodations were first-rate, our peaceful sleeping was disturbed by the pitter-patter of tiny feet rummaging through our belongings and running over our sleeping bags. We had been discovered by at least one mouse, and after going to work on our toilet paper supply, he set out to execute his diabolical plan of keeping us up all night. We vowed that we would never again be caught without a mousetrap.
The next day, after a long hike up the main valley, we arrived at the spot we had planned on camping. As we set our packs down, we noticed grizzly tracks all over in the fine dust under our boots, and we realized that the spot that we were planning to camp was at a natural bottleneck in the valley bottom. Any grizzlies walking up or down the creek would have no choice but to be funneled right into our camp. It was time for plan B. We found a spot that we hoped was a little further away from the grizzly highway and we set up our spike camp. That evening we had a close encounter with a herd of cows and a small 3‐point bull, which were the first elk we’d seen up close the entire trip. This got us really excited for the next morning and we returned to camp as the sun dipped behind the peaks.
The country was spectacular and when we got back to camp we sipped some whiskey around the campfire. Dusk turned to dark and, without the lights of civilization, the stars put on an amazing show. Eventually the conversation drifted to our motivations for hunting and Jonathan said, “It isn’t about the killing, which I think is what most non‐hunters think it’s about. If it was just about killing, I could go work in a slaughterhouse.” He went on to describe the challenge, the beautiful country and the fact that humans have been hunting for as long as there have been humans.
I agreed with everything Jonathan said and added that part of the appeal to me is that hunting gives me an incredible goal to work towards. Even though most days when I’m hunting I never achieve the goal of taking an animal, it is always motivating every decision I make. When on a hunt like this, from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep, I am focused solely on hunting elk.
I also added that it is refreshing to be doing something that has real consequences. The decisions that we make in remote country like this actually matter in a way that they don’t in normal life. Back home I have to make countless decisions every day, but the basic necessities such as food, water, shelter and security are never really in doubt. That’s a good thing most of the time, but living out of a backpack in truly wild country makes you become self-sufficient in a way that you can’t experience with electricity and running water. After our campfire slowly turned from flames into embers, we retired to our sleeping bags, hopeful about what the morning might bring.
The next morning we were on the move before dawn, hiking up the hill toward the burn in the timber that we were hopeful would hold elk. Already at this pre-dawn hour, the air was hot and it felt more like July than September. It was hard to believe that this was the same trip as the one that provided such a freezing snowy experience the first couple nights. As we crept up to the edge of the burn, it was just starting to get light out, and we let off a bugle. Then, to our surprise… nothing. We waited and tried another bugle. Nothing. The nice grassy opening that was provided by this burn was such prime habitat, and the fact that we were so far from the main river and other hunters, we were certain we would find something here.
Jonathan started to quietly walk further into the burn, cow calling as he went. All of a sudden he froze and his eyes lit up. He swung around and motioned for me to get my bow ready. The trees at the edge of the clearing obstructed my view, but I could tell that something was coming in. Jonathan backed up and crouched behind cover as he held up four fingers and mouthed the word “Four.” Since the 4-pointer wasn’t legal with his rifle, which are restricted to 6 point or bigger, it meant that it was up to me and my bow. He kept cow calling and I could hear the bull closing in. Jonathan positioned himself so that he would draw the bull in broadside to me. I had my arrow nocked and my release hooked on the string when I finally saw the bull through the timber. He had to go about 10 more feet before I could get an open shot and, just as I was about to draw back on my bow, the bull stopped and looked at me.
I was still fairly well hidden in my camouflage and behind partial cover, so I just held still and waited. Eventually Jonathan’s cow calls proved to be too irresistible, and the bull continued on. As soon as he turned his head away from me, I drew my bow. My heart was pounding wildly, and I tried to remember the landmarks that I had zapped with my rangefinder to estimate his distance. When the bull was clear of the obstructions, Jonathan snapped a twig, and it worked perfectly to stop the bull in his tracks. It seemed like a long shot with my compound bow, but I put my pin on his chest and released my arrow.
I overestimated the distance, and the arrow sailed just over his back, missing cleanly and I heard a loud “whack” as it slammed into a tree stump behind the bull. I couldn’t believe it. All the practice I had put in before the season and I just had just blown my chance at a bull elk. The bull jumped and started to run, but another cow call stopped him just long enough for me to nock another arrow. This time I was not going to estimate anything. I put my laser rangefinder on him and it read 52 yards. A longer shot than I wanted to take, but I knew that this was my only chance. I released another arrow and this one landed.
The bull bolted across the burn, heading to the dark timber. Jonathan came running up. “Where did you hit him?” he asked. “More forward than I would like, hopefully not in the shoulder,” I replied anxiously. The euphoria I expected to feel at this moment was instead replaced by the worry that I may have inflicted a non‐fatal wound on this beautiful bull. We waited for what felt like forever, and then we went out searching for a blood trail. Once we came across blood, I was relieved to see that it was heavy and continual. The bull wouldn’t have gone far. Sure enough, within a hundred yards we spotted him piled up against some small spruce trees. It turned out that it wasn’t the shot placement that I intended, but a quick, ethical kill nonetheless. What a relief.
After some quick photos, we got to work. The realization of how far we had to pack this elk was starting to sink in. While keeping a close eye out for grizzlies, we hung and skinned the quarters, then boned the meat and stuffed our backpacks. Although it was a small bull, it still felt like a ridiculous amount of weight for two guys to pack for such a distance. Somehow we made it back to our base camp that evening, packing the elk out in one trip. I’m sure that experience will always remain etched in my memory as one of the most physically difficult days that I’ve ever had.
With the work behind us, I finally experienced some of the euphoria that I had expected to have earlier. I had just killed a bull elk with a bow for the first time and we had managed to get it packed all the way down to our camp on the river. It was hanging safely in the trees and our jetboat transporter was going to come pick it up in the morning to take it to a cooler. I rinsed off and took a well-deserved pull of whiskey from the bottle, smiling from ear to ear.
We still had a few more days to hunt, so after a day at basecamp to fish and rest our sore bodies, we headed back out to our spike camp to search for another bull for Jonathan. With our gear now thoroughly soaked in elk blood, we made an improvised perimeter around our camp with bailing twine and beer cans filled with pebbles. Who knows if it would actually warn us of a grizzly intrusion, but it helped us sleep a little more soundly. Plus, we were no longer drinking beer for mere pleasure, we were drinking with purpose. We hunted hard for the last couple days and heard some bugles, but never got lucky enough to come across a second bull.
We never experienced the massive numbers of elk that the Tuchodi River is famous for. Throughout the trip we went from theory to theory about why we weren’t seeing many elk: the unusual heat that we experienced after the initial cold weather, the wolves, we were too early in the season, too late in the season. We decided that what it really came down to was that we were hunting. There is never a sure thing in hunting, no matter how good you think your chances are. We both felt extremely lucky to be taking at least one bull elk back home with us.
After the long drive home, it was hard to believe that our big adventure was really over. As with any big trip I’ve taken, after planning and dreaming about it for so long, it felt like it was over in the blink of an eye. Although it was hard to drive away from the amazing country of Northern BC, I was overjoyed to see my wife and young son. I always find that hot showers and a soft bed are never more appreciated than after an extended trip in the mountains.
Hopefully life will have many more adventures in store for me, but either way, this will be an adventure that I’m sure I’ll always remember. When memories are reduced to a few of the most memorable snapshots of your life, what adventures will still be burned into your memory? There are many things that bring me great joy: my wonderful family, skiing deep powder and climbing big peaks, but there is a pretty good chance that when I am on my deathbed, I’ll be quietly stalking a majestic bull elk, trying to coax him in with the siren sound of a cow call, mewing and tempting him to ignore his uncertainties, and come just a little closer.