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>> Give Away Bull! :: By Marshall Stanton on 2001-02-06
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Back in the fall of '96 winter came fast and hard to the North Idaho Panhandle.  We set up our elk camp at 6200 feet elevation in the Coeur d'Alene National Forest, in our customary camping site at a balmy seventy two degrees on the fourteenth of October that year.  This was at about two o'clock in the afternoon.  By the time we had pitched camp, set up the awning off the camp trailer, garnered some firewood and set up a tent for miscellaneous storage, the temperature had dropped to thirty degrees, and at around four in the afternoon it began snowing big, goose-feather snowflakes.  

Season was already open for bull elk, and either sex deer, and the following morning either sex elk season opened for five days.   John Zieske, my hunting partner and I decided to go for a drive to see if we could cut some fresh elk tracks in the falling snow, to get an idea where some cows would be for opening morning.  We had scarcely gone more than half a mile from camp, and I spotted a very nice, heavy beamed whitetail buck feeding on some brush.   Within just a few minutes we were dragging my trophy to the road to load into the Suburban.  When we arrived back at camp we had nearly two inches of fresh snow, and by the time I had skinned that big boy and had him dressed on the meat pole, we had close to five inches of the white fluffy stuff on the ground.

After a full afternoon of setting camp, and then dressing out a rather oversize whitetail buck, we were ready to eat a good hot meal, and get a good long night's sleep to recharge for the big day tomorrow.  After eating a quick supper, we turned in, rather early even for us!  About four in the morning we had a tremendous crash, and shaking of our camp trailer!  I awoke to John poking his head out the door of the trailer with a flashlight and announcing that we had over two feet of snow!  

Indeed it was the case, the heavy snow had broken down the awning attached to the trailer, and collapsed our storage tent!  And it was still snowing hard!  We managed to pick up most of our gear and get it stowed either inside the Burb, or the camp trailer.  Upon checking our resources, I found I had only packed one set of chains for the four wheel drive Suburban, and none for the camp trailer.   Knowing that some friends of mine were camped down at the 2200 foot level along the  North Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River, we headed down without the trailer, knowing that without chains to go all the way around on everything we would lose both the trailer and the Burb over the edge on the steep mountain roads leading down to the river level.   Even though it was opening day of cow season, Bill and Hank were both still in camp at daylight when we arrived, and very graciously volunteered to help us get packed up and off the mountain.  They had an extra set of chains that fit the Suburban, but none for the trailer... we would have to chance it.

By the time we arrived back at our trailer on top of the mountain, another six to eight inches of fresh snow had fallen since we had left earlier.   We chained up, and headed out.  About three miles from camp John, my partner got out of the vehicle, because he said he didn't want to ride with me through that section of narrow road... the drop-off on the North side was perhaps a hundred feet nearly straight down, and the road a very narrow single lane.  I nearly lost the whole shebang right there when the trailer slid and started jackknifing on me!

After a grueling two hours we finally made it the twelve miles to our friend's camp along the river bottom.  At the bottom there was only about six inches of new snow, but later, the next day I hiked back to our camp site, and found well over three feet of snow, and two other camps that had been abandoned and their trailers left until spring!

This was the beginning of our '96 elk hunt!  From a nice Indian Summer day of seventy degrees, to three and a half feet of snow in a twenty-four hour span of time!  The drainage we customarily hunted was full of animals that had been pushed down by the sudden weather change, and every day we were in animals, but none that offered an opportunity of harvest.  

One evening on the way back to camp, Hank (one of our new campmates), spotted a nice herd cow across a tributary of the Coeur d'Alene River, and shot her just before dark.   This turned into quite an adventure, and involved crossing this "creek" in ice-cold chest high swift water to get to the elk.   The animal dropped about two hundred yards from the road, and weighed close to six hundred pounds.   We finally decided that the best plan of action was to get the elk into the water, float her as close to the road as possible, then pull her out of the drink with a rope affixed to the pickup.  I must tell you that it was a very, very cold black night, with a fifteen or twenty mile per hour wind and mid-teen temperatures.   I didn't relish ferrying this elk through the creek for a couple of hundred yards in the dark in an equally cold, dark creek!  All went well, until Hank stepped into a beaver hole, and he sunk totally out of sight, with only his hat floating on the water!  He has a bad back, and I was instantly worried for him, and let go of the cow, and went to Hank's aid in the strong current.  I too went past my neck into the swift ice water!  All the while, John, my partner is trying to hold this cow elk from being swept downstream by himself!  Finally we all got onto solid footing, and the elk to the north shore of the creek within a stone's throw of the nearest road.   Somehow, in the cold, the wind and the dark, we managed to get a rope on the elk, and snake her up onto the road with the aid of Hank's pickup.  Then, with a mighty effort, we loaded the front quarters and head of that elk into the back of the truck, and while Bill held a front leg and the rope around it's head, the three of us remaining managed to heave the rest of that big, wet, slippery, cold cow into the back of his truck whole!

That evening turned out to be VERY long!  We skinned and butchered elk until nearly midnight.  Exhausted we crawled into bed, and were asleep before our heads hit the pillow!  The following morning we slept in, and took stock of what we knew, and made plans for not only the evening hunt, but the next morning's hunt as well, since it was the last day of cow season, and our last day before returning home.   That evening we had a rather easy hunt, more or less scouting for the following morning.   We came back rather early, ate and turned in early in anticipation of the "last hurrah"!

It had once again snowed overnight, and there was a good four to six inches of new snow, and still lightly snowing at daybreak. John and I had slipped up a closed, gated logging road for about four miles in the dark, and sat waiting for daylight at the edge of a steep clear-cut timber unit near the top of a long high ridge.  Daylight came with nothing stirring but a few Canada Jays and Ravens.  Even the red squirrels were burrowed down where it was warm that morning.   We decided to work our way up the ridge, and then bail off to the south into the roadless drainage which lay below us over the ridge crest.  This ridge had held elk all season, and the fresh snow invigorated us, and lifted our hopes and spirits.  As we crept up to the ridge-trail that ran along the crest of this ridge, we came across some elk tracks that had been made during the night.   They were enormous, a single, solitary animal by itself wandering up the trail the same direction we were headed. 

I asked John if he wanted to take the lead, as we entered the heavy black timber that characterizes the virgin, uncut trees of this basin.   He declined, and told me to go ahead.   I was careful, picking my footing through the slickness of the wet snow on the steep trail ahead.  Slowly, I would take a step or two, and then stop, looking into the blackness of the timber that contrasted so starkly with the freshness of the new snow.  After several hundred slow yards, I spotted a strange looking branch sticking out from behind a big spruce  tree.  Everything had a fresh four inch layer of snow on it, and this branch didn't have any snow at all on it!  My reaction time wasn't quick enough!  The branch became two branches, then they moved in unison, attached to a chocolate brown head with a massive mane, followed by a huge buckskin yellow tan body!  The massive bull had been bedded down all night, and arose when he heard us slipping up his back-trail.

My rifle was up, the safety off, and the peep sights following a running, seemingly flowing bull elk of such magnificence that I didn't think to pull the trigger!  I simply followed him with my front sight trained on his shoulder as he ran broadside to me for perhaps forty yards before quartering away through the timber.  I was dumbfounded!  The last thing I had expected was to ever catch up to the bull that had made those tracks during the night!  John didn't even raise his rifle, because he said he had seen me flip off the safety of the old Springfield, and had him dead to rights... no doubt in his mind that the bull was as good as dead.  Going through the scene in my mind, as I stepped to one side of the huge spruce tree, I recalled seeing the bull looking straight at me, fully facing me, and as I looked at him over the sights, my front sight traveled from his brisket to his throat, then he bolted, and I just trained the front sight on him until he was out of sight!

The bull wasn't overly spooked, and we could hear him settle to a fast walk after just a few yards of his crashing departure.  The snow was falling lightly, and his tracks were distinctly fresh in the newness of the snow.   Tracking him was easy, except for the near waist deep depth of the snow, and we kept dogging him up the ridge, then around, circling back on his track, then over the ridge, paralleling it for a distance and then climbing back over the north face once again and into a deep roadless north facing bowl of heavy black timber. We could tell by his tracks where he had paused for periods of time, watching his back trail, pawing and stomping, as he waited for us, to see if we were still following him.  Soon we began to lose the fervor of enthusiasm, as it became apparent that he knew full well we were there, and was toying with us.   Our hope was that he would become over confident, and we would catch him watching his back trail.  One thing in our favor, was that he didn't appear to want to leave the heavily timbered bowl he had sought refuge in, and given the size of the area, he didn't feel pressured.  Also, we hadn't cut another human track made in the snow since the day before.

KAWHAM!!  Then a rumbling series of echoes broke the absolute stillness of the morning!  One single shot from above us and slightly to the north.  We both felt it, as John and I looked at each other, we said, "Someone just shot our bull!"  We continued tracking our bull, but rather half-heartedly now, slipping as we climbed a steep face of the timbered bowl.   The timber canopy was thick, so it was dark there, but the canopy also shaded out all sunlight as well, so there was no underbrush to impede our travel, just the ever increasing snow, as it continued to fall, and as we continued to climb, ever higher and into deeper snow pack.  We both saw it at once, a huge tawny body, and an enormous set of antlers!  

Our bull lay motionless on a side-hill trail, his neck doubled back with his nose pointing towards his rump, antlers arrayed forward, and his body jammed into the base of a large hemlock tree.  As we cautiously approached the massive critter, the tracks in the snow told the whole story.  A single set of human tracks came up out of the bottom where a small creek ran, and alders choked the the little stream.   Those tracks led directly to the elk, and circled him once, to get to the uphill side.   On his antler was a clearly punched Idaho elk tag, wired securely to the main beam of his rack.  This bull's ivory teeth were worn down to mere coffee colored nubs, and his 7x8 massive rack loomed huge over the 1100 pound body.   A red Idaho Department of Fish & Game radio collar adorned the neck of this monarch, and his dark chocolate face was scarred from a couple of decades of fights, and his saucer sized hooves left tracks that rivaled those of a moose.

John and I stood silently surveying the scene, knowing full well that we had pushed this bull right to whoever killed it.  The hunter tagging the bull had left it in the snow where it had dropped, not even field dressing it.   We commented on that fact, then slowly, and quietly resigned ourselves to the twelve mile hike back to our vehicles.  We struggled uphill through the ever increasing snow, traveling north for about three miles until we cut the road that wound its way up to our original camp on the top of the mountain below the lookout.  Once on the road, we began the descent towards the trailhead, with the sting of knowing that I had that bull dead to rights if I had just pulled the trigger.  As we walked down the road, we met a four wheel drive import pickup with three guys in the front seat, and two in the back end.  They asked us if we had seen anything, and we merely replied that we had seen a big bull in the morning, and tracked it for three and a half grueling hours, to where someone had killed and tagged it!  The young man riding in the passenger side seat of the truck grinned from ear to ear.  "Yep, I killed that bull!  I kept falling on my keester down there next to the creek, and got tired of landing on my rump, so I just sat down and waited.   Hadn't sat there fifteen minutes when I hear this crashing, and look up and see this huge bull!  One shot from my .308 Winchester to his neck and he was down for the count!  Did you guys see that rack?  Go ahead tell them, wasn't it really a 7x8!"

This young man was from Post Falls, Idaho, at least he was a local, and it was his first year, first day elk hunting!  Unwittingly, and unknowingly, my hesitation, and lack of action several miles down the mountain had given this young man the experience of a lifetime!  Imagine topping that first hunt... ever in your life!

I've killed my share of game over the years, and the Lord allowed me the thrill of tracking that bull to his bed, actually drawing a bead on him,  and having the thrill of the hunt.   But at the same time the Lord also allowed a young man who had never had the experience of downing an elk to get the biggest thrill of his hunting life that day as well!  I'm always thankful for this hunt, and the memory it made that day, regardless of whether I pulled the trigger, it is a memory of a lifetime!  It is these memories that keep us going back into the woods year after year, and you know what, I don't even mind that I gave away a bull that day!  It was quite a way to end my elk hunt for that year, and a thrilling end to a very unusual season.


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