One last Hunt in the North Malheur

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Three years ago, my friend David Lane and I decided to do our own elk camp. The idea was to hunt for cow elk to put some meat in our freezers and limit our reliance on store-bought meat.

Evening of the first day. Just about the time the coyote chorus begins.

That first year we borrowed a friend’s wall tent and set up camp in the absolute worst spot a person (me) could possibly pick. The spot was in the bottom of a canyon that saw just a bit of sunlight each day and seemed to concentrate the cold each night. We didn’t see a single elk that year.

We stayed in a hotel in Burns the second year. My two boys joined us for that hunt. We’d get up early, drag our gear to David’s truck and head for the hills with some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in our packs and some beer in the coolers. The weather was far more conducive to camping that second year, with temperatures in 60 and clear, sunny views for days. My son Cole managed to surprise a cow elk, or vice versa, and she ran away unscathed. The rest of us saw no elk that year.

This year we stayed in an Air B&B. Mostly because I wanted to support the local economy in these rough times but also because our hunt was shortened by everyone’s work schedules. This year was an in-between year, with cool, mostly clear weather but a lot of snow left on the ground from a big fall storm a few weeks previous. We saw no elk this year.

Scouting for signs of elk.

To answer the obvious question, we keep going back year after year because we really like the area. It just so happens that we really struggle to get to where the elk are. Last year 35 elk were harvested in that unit with tags going to more than 300 hunters. That’s not great percentages, but theoretically elk are present in the unit.

The first year I went with David, I was 44 and starting to feel the aches and pains of not taking good care of myself. My weight had ballooned to 247 on a 5’ 5” frame in 2017, and I was only starting to back down from that precipice. My blood pressure was a mess, my fitness overall was not great. But I had walked, hiked, planked and willed myself to get ready to hunt elk with my much-more-fit friend and did not want to let him down.

A flat-tire and not knowing the unit very well meant that first year was spent mostly in the truck or waiting on top of mountains for elk to move.

Last year I was in even worse shape, being unable to really get any kind of workout in consistently before leaving for the season. My oldest son, a successful college cross country runner, was raring to get out into the woods and really cover some ground. My other son had a wicked head cold. I opted to save face by offering to hang back with the sick one and let David and Cole go in search of elk.

Not the ladies we’re looking for.

I reminded them not to shoot anything if they were more than six miles out, as the rest of us probably weren’t in the best shape to really help them pack anything out.

When Covid really hit home last March, I had a lot of nightmares about carrying big risk factors for dying of complications from the virus. I started walking a lot, often covering five to six miles per day. I tried running a few times but found my knees unable to really support me emotionally or physically.

By June, I was up to seven miles per day, and then my wife and kids got me an Apple Watch for Father’s Day. That watch changed my life.

I became obsessed with the data it collected by the end of the first week of wearing it, and I liked competing against myself to close my rings each day. I gradually increased my move goal, which counts calories burned through strenuous activities like working out as well as normal calories burned throughout a day.

By August I was down 20 pounds with another 10 lost in October. By hunting season, I had lost 36 pounds, I could walk six miles without resting, and my blood pressure and resting hear rate had dropped considerably.

One secret to my success was riding my bike to get a better workout than walking alone was providing. By riding my bike 12 miles per day, I was burning enough calories to offset what I was eating in order to lose a pound or two per week. Slow and steady weight loss is more effective at keeping it off than fast drops, or so my doctor told me.

This truck goes anywhere. Literally anywhere.

This hunting season turned out to be a bit different in spite of Covid-19. David Lane’s partner had a baby this year, so he graciously bowed out to stay at home and be a dad to a future hunting partner. And a Covid scare forced my younger son Carson to quarantine in his room for 14 days leading up to hunting season. Having lost so many days of work, he opted to skip out on hunting this year.

It was going to just be Cole and I off for elk camp this year, but I decided it wasn’t fair for Cole to have drag his old man around the woods with him, so I invited a good friend, Marcus, who happens to be in fantastic shape and who loves to schlep a big backpack around the woods whenever he can.

But being in the best shape I’d been in since my early 30s, I was planning on giving it a real go this year and putting some miles on the elk boots.

The day before we left to go scouting, two days before the season began, I stupidly decided to keep my exercise routine in full swing instead of tapering a bit in anticipation of some high-elevation hiking.

Upon my return from a 12-mile bike ride, in front of several families on our block and a flagger on the road in front of our house and at least 15 vehicles piled up waiting for their turn to go through a construction zone, I peddled up to the garage and suddenly could not remove my left foot from the clipless pedal that held my foot to the bike.

As if in slow motion, I lost momentum and tried in vain to twist the shoe loose all while falling to my left side with a thunderous crash. My left knee took the brunt of the fall, and the shock of pain reverberated through me while I lay there still trying to unclip myself.

A nice Air B&B to call home

Finally, my right foot twisted free, and I angrily kicked the bike away while trying to scramble into the side door while dragging the bike with my left foot. The heat of embarrassment washed over me as I lay panting beside our garbage cans but out of sight of the cars, the flagger lady and my neighbors.

Cursing, I managed to get my other shoe unclipped and stumbled into the garage in quite a rage only to find my daughter standing at the garage fridge looking for a soda. She gave me one of those looks she reserves for only the oddest behavior.

My knee was horribly bruised, and somehow, inexplicably, I had a massive bruise across my chest. I hobbled to the shower and assessed the situation. My goal of being able to hike 10-miles and haul an elk out of the deepest, darkest ravines in the North Malheur River Unit was not going to happen.

I told Cole and Marcus, and they agreed they would give it their best go while I hunted less treacherous terrain.

We scouted half of Friday before opening day, my knee absolutely throbbing as a reminder that making plans is futile when you don’t also take precautions like tempting fate.

That night we decided to get the famous drunken noodles from the local Thai place as takeout and eat them at the Air B&B. Another costly mistake that would wreak havoc on our digestive systems for the better part of two days.

Though he wasn’t hunting, Marcus was able to carry extra provisions and spent all of opening day on a stellar 12-mile walkabout with Cole that produced no elk but great adventure stories.

Meanwhile, we had driven into an area with muddy roads frozen solid in the early morning chill. But by midday, not able to contact Marcus and Cole, the roads had thawed into an incredible mess. I had to retreat to an area with a lot of gravel in the ground to avoid getting stuck in muddy patches that came up to the frame on the Toyota truck I was driving.

Desert sunsets are unbeatable.

I hunted that area, alternately walking and glassing the hillsides for several hours through the heat of the day.

In one area, I could hear a scratching sound around me but saw nothing move. I took a few steps forward, and suddenly a Great Horned owl exploded out of a snag, its wings breaking dry branches off above me causing a shower of splintered wood to fall on my face.

Late in the afternoon, at about the warmest temperatures we’d see that day, I got a text from Marcus’ In-Reach satellite communications device saying they’d meet me at the agreed-upon place within the hour.

I texted them back saying there was absolutely no way I could get back to that spot with roads in their current condition.

So, we waited for the sun to go behind he hills and the cold to settle back onto the ground, the slow process of re-freezing the roads so we could pass over them again.

It was about 4:30 when I noticed the ground around me was starting to harden up with ice crystals forming in the puddles around me.

I hopped back in the truck and started warming it up.

I was in the only spot where I had cell service and was hesitant to leave it to go and try to find them, but I knew they were going to be exhausted, and saving them an additional three-mile walk would be the decent thing to do.

The first part of the road was not nearly as slick as it had been just an hour ago, and I made good time down the hill and through some flats before coming to some massive puddles that now had a thin layer of ice over them.

I put the truck in low-four and marched through them like a Sherman tank. Then things got really bad. The entire road ahead of me was one giant pool of water for maybe 200 yards. I got about twenty yards in and started to bog down.

I finally managed to get the truck up an onto a flat, sage-covered area where I could reassess my situation. It as just at that moment I happened to look back over my shoulder and see Marcus and Cole traipsing down a different road. They had taken a short-cut, and we would have otherwise missed each other like ships passing in that night.

I managed to back up to a wide spot in the road that was fairly muddy but not deep, and they put on warmer layers while I handed out beers. We waited there until we were sure the roads would be much firmer before trying to drive out.

We spent that evening eating some steaks that we cooked on the little grill on the deck of the Air B&B and talking politics, oddly enough.

Politics is the last thing you want to discuss at elk camp, but I’m discovering that when your entire world is influenced by politics, from family relationships to your job, things always tend to come back around to politics.

I also learned that as much as I’d hoped that my son and I wouldn’t disagree about politics as much as my dad and I do, some things are inevitable. The key is being able to dialogue about it. And sometimes it’s hashing out the boundaries of that in the evenings at elk camp in a basement Air B&B in Burns, Oregon.

After three years of hunting the North Malheur River Unit, we’re going to try some other opportunities in the coast range as well as in Wyoming. I’m going to miss spending the third weekend of November in the high desert and the mountains around Burns. I’ll even miss that small town a bit.

Burns was always an interesting stop off for me. I’d often find myself at the Pine Room at night listening to local folks talk about life in parts of the state I love to spend time in. I had my fair share of run-ins with folks about my employer, which was always ironic, because most of them also worked for the government.

But hunting is a way of life for people there, not just a weekend getaway, so I always understood their passion and where it was rooted.

Frozen beards are part of the deal in the high desert.

Being concerned about Covid, we chose to try to stay away from folks as much as possible, especially with cases rising locally. But it was tough to walk into the grocery store at night to get another six pack or some salad kits and have folks blatantly disregard the mask requirement.

I don’t blame them for feeling pinched. A lot of these folks live rurally because they choose to live a life with a lot more freedom if fewer amenities. But I feel sorry for them too. I looked into the eyes of some of the old ranchers and wondered if they’d live to see Christmas, believing the whole time that the virus is a hoax.

Marcus took off early Monday morning to try and catch a half-a-day with his wife who had the day off work from our local hospital, and Cole and I made our way back home slowly, taking in the desert views along the five-hour drive knowing that this time next year we’ll be hunting in a rainforest with views that stretch maybe 25 feet into a forested backdrop.

I will miss hunting the North Malheur River Unit. I’ll miss Burns. I’ll miss the rough-legged hawks on telephone poles and the rude waitress at the Thai place with amazing food. I’ll miss the friendly gas station attendants and the Starbucks baristas asking how the hunting was going on with the knowing smile of somebody who also hunts the North Malheur.

Building new traditions is a weird business. The evolution happens faster than you might imagine, and things aren’t as steeped in repetitiveness as you think they might be. Rather it’s the way relationships evolve along the way, the push and pull of time on whatever age you are experiencing. For David, Marcus and I, these are mid-life tides, strong with meaning and a sense of purpose. For Cole and Carson, these are adventurous tides, fair winds and an urge to launch out and sail far.

I look forward to hunting with my crew again in the years ahead, wherever that may be.

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