Dosewallips River Bull
In April of 1968, my tour of duty ended on my boat, USS James Madison SSB(N) 627 and the Navy gave me my first choice of duty stations at the Polaris Missile Facility, Pacific which was located on the Naval Ammunition Depot at Bangor, Washington. I had served on board for five years and it was time to move on now. When I first boarded her in the shipyards at Newport News, Virginia, she had 2X12’s for decks. She was a hull sitting in the water with only some of her equipment installed. I was part of that crew that made her ready to go to sea and make that first dive… always a nerve wracking time. Six patrols later, I was leaving her.
I drove from our homeport in Charleston, South Carolina to my home in Sonoma, California and began enjoying thirty days of hard earned leave. I was in a situation where I had accumulated so much leave, if I didn’t take it, I was going to lose it, so a vacation at home seemed the thing to do. My young family was, of course, with me for the trip and traveling in my new Chevy Impala SS the trip was made in quick time… slowed but once by an interview with a rather intense California Highway Patrolman… he was somewhat exorcised over my wife’s insistence at traveling in excess of eighty miles per hour on US Hwy 99 in the San Joaquin Valley. A short conversation with him in which he learned that I was in the Navy and we were headed home on leave served to mollify him enough that the let her off with an “If I EVER…” and we were gone again…albeit at a somewhat lesser rate of speed… for a time…
While home, we got the idea to make the more than eight hundred mile trip to Bremerton, Washington to secure a place to live prior to our actual arrival. We did have to wait for our furniture and effects that were enroute to us from our former home in Charleston. We knew it would take them several weeks to arrive and felt it might be prudent to have a place for them to land.
On arrival in Bremerton, our first move was to retrieve a newspaper and check for rentals in the general area of NAD Bangor. The headline blared, “HOUSING SHORTAGE MOST CRITICAL SINCE WW II”.
I don’t know why I was not upset or worried by this. I guess I just knew something would happen for us… either that or I just wasn’t too bright… I’m not sure which! Actually, one could have probably gotten pretty good odds on either way he chose to bet.
For several days, we searched high and low… we drove the backroads and main streets looking for something… anything in which to house ourselves… and our efforts yielded a single one-bedroom apartment in a nearby town. I was dismayed. There really was nothing available to rent on the entire Kitsap Peninsula!
In the seven years I had been in the Navy, I had scrupulously avoided Navy Housing. It was a warren… a tenement of the most severe degree. The problem was mainly caused by the fact that ALL of the tenants were young married couples with the average age being under twenty five years. Couple with this the fact that there was a very high percentage of females left to themselves when the male in the family shipped out. One of the things I had found that Navy families did best was produce children! The result was a crowded warren of children rich Peyton Place. I wanted no part of that.
The fact was, however, I had no choice. There was NOTHING available off base so we made the trek to the housing office and laid out our plight… only to find out that they had no vacancies either! The civilian shortage had the trickle up effect that those others who were, like me were being forced to utilize the housing system causing it to be well overstocked! In our dilemma of talking to the housing office and brainstorming to find possible solutions, they realized that we did not need housing immediately. I still had over three weeks leave to spend before we would be moving in. Further, our furniture was not expected to arrive for at least another month so there was time. He then said, “I don’t know how you’d feel about this, but we have some houses on the Depot Annex at Indian Island about an hour or so to the north of the base. A shuttle is run morning and night from there to Bangor so you would not have to drive. One of those is coming vacant and could be ready for you by the middle of May.”
The main advantage to this was the fact that the Navy paid the toll for us in crossing the Hood Canal Bridge, a quite expensive venture in the 1960s. As we were in no position to be overly choosy, we gave a tentative yes contingent on our reaction on seeing the houses available. He explained that they were of pre-war construction and I had visions of the Quonset hut type of houses the Navy had in some of their older bases. My sister and brother in law had such a unit when he was stationed at the Naval Shipyards at Hunter’s Point in San Francisco and I was not impressed.
On leaving the Bangor Housing Office, we drove immediately to Indian Island to inspect the houses… and were astounded! They were very neat, very trim two-bedroom houses, not apartments… there were only eight of them on the entire island. We called back immediately and said a resounding YES! Since there was about ten days between the time I had to report on board my duty station and the time this house would be available to us, I asked the housing officer if he had any suggestions for us.
“Actually,” he stated, “I do. We can put you up in temporary quarters until it opens for you and your furniture arrives. We have a contract with a motel here in town to do that for us. They have a housekeeping suite that will be available to you for the time it is needed.”
With all settled, we returned to California and enjoyed the rest of our leave time, then returned in time to report to my station and it was not long until we were moved into our home on the island… a circumstance, I was soon to find, that was akin to having our own private estate readied for us. The waters around us teemed with salmon… the beaches with clams and oysters. The woods were home to a multitude of deer and no one but those few of us who lived there partook of it. The navy maintained a boat for our use to fish from… they paid half the cost if we wanted to charter a trip… it was an absolutely magical time!
One of the serendipities of life on the far northeastern corner of the Olympic Peninsula was the people who lived there. It did not take long to meet some people I fit in with very well. They were elk hunters! In the entire world, hunters seem to stand out from the crown in general, and elk hunters definitely stand out from the crowd of hunters. One has to be just a bit off plumb to even consider the rigors of hunting elk in this land of outrageous rainfall, huge timber and thick underbrush. The hills are steep… the foliage wet and the footing treacherous but the elk are huge and plentiful.
Hunting the Roosevelt Elk of the Olympic Peninsula is unique. The physical conditions as described create a set of conditions that only the intrepid will brave… the rest are content to sit in the warm and dry confines of their pick-up trucks and drive the roads endlessly in hopes that they can encounter a really dumb elk who is willing to commit suicide by coming near any of these roads. Most of these are but a single lane of rough gravel, many over gown with such brushy trees as immature alder, Alnus rubra, salal brush, Galtheria shallon and blackberry, Rubus ursinus. These traces are often the cause of the loss of outside mirrors off trucks but people persist. Many of these trails are so crowded with people that you have to take a number and wait in line to cross! The one advantage this traffic does afford is that we who did venture into the timber, only to come out far away from our own vehicle had no trouble hitching a ride back! It saved a lot of walking along dangerously over trafficked roads!
I must say, once one left the overcrowded thoroughfares and got into the timber, he was alone. I could count on one hand the number of times I encountered another hunter. This made for a unique situation… one not quickly learned for a novice, but having met the likes of Greg, Adam, Larry, Jim and Bob, I was saved this long learning curve. An evening of conversation with this bunch and it was like we had all known one another for our entire life. These guys were the salt of the earth!
I had never been exposed to the system of lottery drawings for tags to special hunts so Greg took the time and effort necessary to explain the system to me and even helped my fill out my application for a very special hunt close to home. The entire center of the Olympic Peninsula is the home of Olympic National Park. As such, hunting is strictly prohibited in all forms so when the herds dwelling therein become too large for the land to sustain, the state will issue so many tags in an area adjacent to the park with the aim of reducing the herd size. Usually this meant a hunt after the general season was over and the snow level had come low enough to force a significant number of animals out of the park and onto land open to hunting. So it was this year. One hundred tags were to be issued in an area roughly bounded by the Dosewallips River on the north, the Duckabush River on the south and west of US Highway 101 to the park boundary. This hunt was to run the entire month of January, 1969 and we could take any elk. It did not have to be a bull, a cow was fine. Of our group, Adam, Jim and I drew a tag in this unit.
Of course, this being my first year of hunting for these critters, my goal was for a nice bull. One of the first things I learned about hunting when a youngster, if my goal was for a mature animal, I could not be taking the first I saw. I had to have patience and pass on the smaller ones and wait for a larger one to appear. So it was with this hunt. Of course I was there for the opener… and every day I could be afield. I saw and passed on innumerable cows and young bulls while waiting for the ONE I wanted… Normally, I hunted in company with one of the other two of the group but when the season got late, I decided it was time to lower my requirements some.
I had plans to hunt the 25th, 26th and 27th of January, and after that, things were nebulous. I was still in the Navy and it seems they had some plans made for me for late January that did not coincide with my hunting plans, so, I didn’t know for sure if I would be able to hunt any more on this tag after the 27th. Because of this, I had decided it was time to fill my freezer for the winter and, “if it was brown, it was down…” so to speak!
As fate would have it, no one else was available to go with me on the 25th, so I determined to drive up the Dosewallips River as far as the road was open, park there and hike on up the road on the snow. It had been snowing heavily for several days, but I knew the county maintained that road to the last house. I could leave my truck there and could hunt the flats along the river that had been a haven for elk the entire month of this special season. I had talked to the game warden the previous time out and he had told me that there were only a few tags left unfilled as most holders were happy to take a cow after the first couple of days of the season. Truth told, the meat from a young cow would be superior to the animal I wanted anyway, so I was not to fault their decision.
It was a lonely prospect sitting there in my truck awaiting the arrival of daylight. The snow was falling but lightly now, but it and been a veritable blizzard before I got into the river canyon. I had to keep reminding myself why I was doing this just now… alone… in the snow… and dark. I didn’t trust my judgement of the time of day because of the brightness of the snow, so kept a close look-out on my pocket watch until I was within fifteen minutes of legal hunting time. At that time, I put away my coffee thermos and climbed out of the warm cab. It was a struggle to convince myself that this was prudent and, failing that, I just determined to go anyway My first dismay occurred when getting into my snowshoes, I broke a strap on my right shoe… and no replacement with me. I was frustrated and gave serious consideration to just abandoning the hunt for today, but, as today, getting up at four am was not something to be squandered needlessly. I was here, so I would use the time for what I had contemplated. Snowshoe or none, I would go as far as I could and then just come back. At no time did I think I would be more than two miles from my truck.
Where the snowplow stopped his work, there was a vertical bank four feet high. Just getting onto that level was difficult but with some perseverance and a bit of dumb luck, I got there and was upright. Movement was difficult but not impossible. I labored badly in the deep snow, but I was young and strong and… most of all, determined. I knew it wasn’t all that far to where I wanted to get, so ignored the fact that I was sinking into the snow to mid-thigh with each step. As I moved very slowly while still hunting anyway, I was not doing badly… two steps then stop… three steps then stop… the stops entailed periods of looking and listening… of identifying everything within my range of vision before that next step. Since my range of vision here was not excessive, I was able to move on slowly but steadily toward my goal. A hundred yards took a half hour to cover but I knew there were no animals anywhere within my range of sight.
Two hundred yards and an hour had passed since leaving the truck. I had seen two deer, one young buck with but one antler left, the other shed sometime recently, most likely. Since deer were not my quarry, on I moved. I was getting used to my pace. The effort it took was enormous but I did hope that it would be worth it. At this point, I came to vertical rock wall on the north side of the road that had liquid water running from its face. The warmer water coming from underground had melted the snow back from the rock face for a space of about eighteen inches leaving a very serviceable pathway for another two hundred and fifty yards or so before I had to labor my way back through the snow. While I could not see the near (north) River bank well, I could see across the river into the alder flats there and continue my hunt that way. It was this inability to see the river from my vantage point during this segment of my hike that was to cause me so much misery later in this adventure. I knew there was an area of flat ground between the road and the river but was not aware of its nature or extent at this time.
As I cleared the area of the vertical rock wall, the north ridge opened significantly and the south ridge moved even further back, creating very open area for the road and the river. While this allowed the river to broaden between retreating banks and the road to no longer be just a bench cut out of a rock wall, it exposed the entire area to the weather. Snowfall that had been a minor inconvenience to this point now became torrential. In nearly white-out conditions, I continued my struggle until I was in snow that came well over my waist as I hiked through it. I would have not have exerted this much energy in the effort if it had not been for the fact that I had not yet gotten to a point where I could look back down the river and see what I had missed in not working my way along the road next to the drop off to the river. I was getting very, very tired by this point, even moving forward at a snail’s pace.
I was now wet and chilled and a new prudence would dictate that my hunt was soon to be terminated… When I turned one more time to look back down the river to the bend that defined the flat below me… and saw an animal…
There, standing in a nook that had been carved out by the river digging into and undercutting the bank stood an elk well protected from the weather in a natural barn! I could not see this animal’s head, only its body. That really made no difference to me as I had already determined that if it was an elk and I had a shot, it was going home with me. The range was between one hundred seventy five and two hundred yards but even at this distance the animal’s body appeared huge! I was sure that it was a bull… and a large one at that, but I was not yet sure and I didn’t take time to determine for a certainty. This animal was oriented in such a position that I had a perfect view of the vital area. The entire body was exposed and he was angled just a bit forward so my shot could be placed behind the front leg on the near side and it would angle forward through both lungs and exit, if it did exit adjacent to the offside front leg. I could not have asked for a better shot picture. Slowly, but without wasted motion or effort my Remington Model 700 .30’06 came to my shoulder and the cross hairs of my scope settled exactly where I wanted the bullet to go as I was sighted in for two hundred yards so knew my bullet would impact within an inch of where the crosshairs were placed.
In with a full breath… out with half of it… squeeze… did not year the shot… but I sure saw the result. He stepped backwards two or three steps… and reared onto his hind legs with what appeared to be this gigantic set of antlers reaching fully skyward. He took another two steps back while at full stretch up, placing him well into the river itself. Slowly, he began to topple backward staggering a bit further into the river before landing with a major splash. He rolled over so that he appeared to be resting comfortably. His head was erect but he was making no effort to move. I had put the 165 grain Speer Match boattail bullet directly into his boiler room and he was not going anywhere. If I had thought about it, I would have known he was not ever going to rise from that spot again, but he was my first big bull and I was going to make sure of that fact. I put another one as close to the first one as I could get it under the conditions and saw the hair jump as the bullet went home… he flinched, but did not succumb. I decided at this point to put one into his neck as he was in an orientation where his head was looking directly away from me… I was a bit hurried on this third shot and he jerked his head just as the rifle went off… and I saw the bullet hit the water in front of him… so I calmed and repeated the process… this time placing the shot right at the base of his skull dropping him in instantly. I looked at my watch and it read 9:15 am (0915). There was no movement whatsoever. He was done, I was sure, but to be certain, I sat in the snow and just watched him. When fifteen minutes had passed with no movement, I was sure he was not going to ever move again.
Slowly, I moved back down the road to a point where I could get off the road and down onto the level of the river. What I eventually found was an old elk trail coming up from the river bottom to cross the road and climb the less steep hillside that was here on the north side of the road. The snow was especially deep as I made my way down the bank to the flat below and I was somewhat concerned by what I would see when I got there.
Actually, the reality turned out to be far worse than the fates I had imagined! As I reached the point where I was closest to the bull, I was standing just about where this photo was snapped and if one could imagine this scene with four to five feet of snow on the ground and the river a bit lower because the run off was minimal in these temperatures… then place twelve hundred pounds of dead elk in the middle of this shallow riffle and that would give some idea of the scene before me… and the reason I was standing here saying to myself, “Why the HELL didn’t you just play golf today?”
I had no choice at this point. He was where he was, in the condition he was in because of me. It was, therefore, up to me to do what was necessary to convert this bulk to venison in my freezer… and the several steps in between. As it was obvious he was not going to move further, that he had fully expired as his muzzle was under water, I shucked my rifle and my backpack. I took off my heavy outer coat and replaced my hunter orange cap with a knitted wool one from my pack. From my pack, I took my tools and items I’d need to make him ready for transport and I then stepped gingerly into the water to wade to the downed animal. My boots had a ten inch top on them and the sole was about three quarters of an inch thick giving me a freeboard to the top of my boots of nearly eleven inches. The water, I learned, was about ten and a half inches deep so if I was VERY careful, I could maneuver without flooding my boots with thirty degree water…barely. With great care, I inched my way to him… and was amazed how he was growing in stature the closer I approached him. By the time I could place a hand on him, I was in a real panic. I was big and strong… six feet four inches and about two hundred ten pounds at this time but I was nothing beside what I was dealing with. At this moment, I really had no idea how I was even going to move him to open him up. I was about to find out…
The very first thing to do, I did. I placed my hand on his head and thanked him for his sacrifice that I might have meat. I told him to return to the Great Spirit with a message of thanks from me for allowing this member of his kingdom to be allowed to fulfill the measure of his creation by living on after his death by allowing others to live in his place.
With a great deal of strain… using legs for levers and inventing several new words for an already well stocked cupboard of Navy trained enhanced profanity, and applying brute strength and main force, I wrestled him onto his back. His antlers were a major hindrance in this effort, but I finally managed to find a position where I could work on him. I had to align his body with the flow of the river so as to not create a damming effect that would raise the water level above the level of my boots. Already I had experienced a time or two of an overlap and the resulting trickle of ice into my boots was NOT a welcome thing.
As soon as I could, I began dressing him out. I opened his body cavity from anal vent all the way to his ribs using my four inch Buck Knife I carried for just this purpose. This, as it turned out, was the easy part. By brute force, I wrestled the entrails from inside his body cavity and let them flow away with the current as I really had no other choice. I, of course, saved the heart and the liver, placing them into the bag I carried in my pack for this purpose. Once I had this task complete, I split the diaphragm and was immediately inundated in his blood. I hated this part, but it was a necessary step in getting the lungs out. Fortunately, the one commodity I had in abundance was water, so washing him was not a great problem. What that water was doing to my poor, unprotected hands was a total other story, however.
Once I had him cleaned out, I started on the next task. I had wanted to keep his hide intact and convert it into leather at some later point but, due to the situation, I could see that was not going to be possible. I could not stay in that river long enough to skin him in the manner necessary to effect that outcome, so I set out to simply butcher him into pieces I could handle. First, I had to get that head and antlers out of my way, so taking my larger Buck, I cut through his flesh and hide to his neckbone just below where my bullet had lodged on my final shot. When I had this done, I used my tiny bone saw to sever the neck and free the head and horns at the point that can be seen in the photograph. Just his head and antlers weighed approximately one hundred and fifty pounds.
The next step was fairly easy in comparison to what I had already accomplished. I removed all four limbs from the carcass. Of course the front legs were very simply removed as there is no bone that connects them to the main body. The hind legs are a bit more difficult, especially in the environment where I was working, but finding the hip socket was not terribly difficult as one could just start at the inside and cut to separate the leg muscles from the main carcass and let the weight of that leg pull it out and down, continuing to cut until the socket was exposed… it was a simple matter at this point to sever the remaining flesh and let the leg fall away.
With all four legs removed and the head and antlers gone, all that remained was for me to split the body cavity into two pieces. I found the spot just ahead of the sixth rib from the last and, using the knife, cut my way done to bone all the way around the spine as well as separating the ribs on both sides of the spine. I then used the saw to cut the spine and I now had six pieces of elk weighing from eighty five or ninety pounds to about one hundred and fifty pounds each. These I could manage… and did so. Again with a great deal of care I got all the pieces out of the water and onto the snowy bank… wading the freezing liquid with the greatest of care. By the time I had those six pieces on the bank, I was exhausted. It was well past noon and the snow that had been only filtering down lightly all day was busily working its way into a genuine frenzy. Looking up toward the road did not fill me with any kind of warm feeling. The snow was falling so thickly that I couldn’t see the road…
I checked the time and was not reassured. I knew that I could not get this critter out today, but I was not overly worried about that. I had no concerns about it being too warm and spoiling in the heat. Generally speaking an elk must be skinned very soon after his demise because his hairs are hollow which serves two purposes. First, it provides excellent insulation for them in weather like we were now experiencing. It is very efficient in keeping body warmth in and cold out. Second, it is TERRIBLE on knife blades. I am a person who is meticulous about the sharpness and condition of his knives and typically, an elk will require three to five sharpenings to skin. Cutting through those hollow hairs is worse on the edge than cutting paper! In this temperature, under these conditions, cooling him out was not a concern. Looking up into that snowy gloaming I made a decision that I hoped was not going to come back and bite me in the butt… I decided that, since the river was so low and there was a pretty fair amount of beach along the edge that I could follow the river around this curve I was on and would end up right at my truck.
I knew I was not three quarters of a mile from my truck and I knew that this river ran within twenty feet of where I was parked. How could I not be able to get out of here more easily than climbing back up that snow choked trail to the road and fighting my way in waist deep snow to my truck? It was a cinch! I was sure I’d be back at my truck with the head and horns inside of thirty minutes… maybe inside of fifteen minutes even!
I had forgotten one thing… Murphy lives in the mountains too. And Murphy’s first law is “Anything that can go wrong WILL go wrong…” I was about to learn this in the harshest terms imaginable. That I was so cold, I wonder today if hypothermia might not have been part of that ill-fated decision. I knew that as fatigued as I was and as cold, wet and miserable as I was, one trip to my truck was all I was going to be able to manage. Once I got there and got the heat on, that would be it for today. With that in mind, I determined that if I took the head and antlers, my rifle and my pack, that would be more than sufficient for one day’s work.
I must say, the first eighth mile of that exit trek was as cool as any I’ve ever been on. The river actually had a path alongside of it that was total free of snow and ice with only the occasional stone to step over. I had my rifle slung across my front and the antlers were on my shoulders facing forward with the head resting on my back pack with all my butchering and safety gear in it. I was not moving rapidly, but I was moving steadily until I had gone around the curve in the river from my place of departure and there, directly in my path was a huge boulder that probably had a firm grip on the earth’s molten core… and the river disappeared in a deep froth around it… There was no way I could see to get around this roadblock so I knew my plan and come to a premature end.
And this is where I made my second gigantic mistake in judgement.
From where I stood, I now had two distinct choices. First, I could simply retreat to the point where I began this exodus from white oblivion and climb back up the trail to the road by the same route I had used in getting down to the river from the road or, second, I could strike out directly across the flat from where I was and hit the road without having to retrace my steps. It should be noted here that I have NEVER been one to retreat in any situation and I have multiple scars to prove that point! In my defense, I looked over option two very carefully and it seemed quite acceptable. It was not more than a hundred yards across that flat and the snow was smooth and unbroken the entire way. I had found the snow depth to be somewhat less here under the canopy of standing trees and had on reason to think it would be any different in crossing that flat. How difficult could it be, after all, to cross a hundred yards of flat terrain and climb up onto the road? Yes, there was a bit of a bank along here at the edge of the road, but I had made the descent from the road in good form when accessing my elk, so could this be worse? I would soon find the answers to both of those interrogatories to be strongly in the affirmative!
I had traveled no more than one or two rods into this flat when a terrible truth began to creep into my mind… there were no standing trees here… where were they? Most of the entire flat was covered with large Alder and Black Cottonwood trees such as are common in these riverine environments on the Pacific Slope in the Northwest. This area before me was bare of trees but that fact had not forced itself into my psyche before this moment. As I moved forward, mulling this point I ascended a slight rise in the terrain and what lay before me answered my question. What I saw was a flat area with the hummocks in the snow that indicated fallen trees covered in snow. While apprehensive, I moved forward cautiously until my way was blocked by one of these down trees, of course, covered deeply in snow. If one can pause a moment and look at the photo and imagine that area with about five feet of snow on top of it he would have an idea of what I was seeing. The main difference between this photo and the actual area was that the trees where I was were not nicely aligned as are those in the photo, but were jumbled and one laying atop another in a juxtaposed condition, much like one would see in a game of “Jackstraws”. It was precisely at this point that I made the decision that almost cost me my life. I went on.
Climbing onto one of the down trees, I felt I could walk along it carefully in the direction of my travel toward the bank and make decent time. If my brain had not been frost coated and freeze inhibited, I would never have opted for this course. My normal brain would have simply said, “retreat be damned, go back out the way you came in…” Alas, such was not the case.
Slowly I inched along the snow covered log until another crossed it athwart and I climbed over that one carefully and continued on… until I slipped off the log and fell into the snow below where I thought I would stop… but I did not stop! I fell down and down through the deep snow until I hit water. Beneath the snow was an area where liquid water flowed across semi-flooded soil. A matrix of down trees held the snow above this soil creating a cavern-like effect below the snow… it was into this cavern that I’d fallen. Of course, the snow above me had fallen in around me as I had crashed through this semi-frozen hell. I immediately began digging my way out of this white tomb with little positive effect. As I pulled snow from above me, more simply fell into the chasm I was creating. Underneath the snow, there was air… I didn’t know if I could breathe if I was above this tenuous cavern. Although I was near panic, I forced myself to calm and think. And my ice impaired brain responded with “use the log…” At first, I was not sure what this meant, but a moment’s contemplation told me that I needed to, basically, climb the log I’d fallen from to get out of this hole I was in.
While this sounded like a simple task, it has to be remembered that I was still encumbered with a hundred and fifty pounds of elk head and antlers, a rifle with scope and a backpack full of gear. It was not the work of moments, but eventually, I did scramble out of this white tomb and got back atop my log. I also decided it was time I leave my pack right here. It and I had come as far together this day as we were going to… our union was over. As I had removed the elk from my back in getting onto the log again, it was a small task to remove my pack and place it where it could be easily retrieved when I returned for the meat the next day. This accomplished, resumed my trek across the flat. I had given thought to retreat but felt I could do this now… again, a product of an ice riddled thinking process.
Twice more I fell through that ice mantle to the cavern below and twice more I dug my way out and climbed back on top of a log and kept on going to eventually attain the base of the bank that separated me from the road… and, damn, it was steep! And it was covered in snow. It appeared nearly impossible to climb, but I noticed hand hold here and a foot step there and figured I could do it… besides, there was no way in hell I was recrossing that blessed torture trap I’d just endured! So… there it was. I thought I’d just use the length of rope I always carried with me when elk hunting to tie onto the antlers and I could climb a ways with my rifle still slung to me though now across my back since the pack was gone… and that thought is what reminded me where my rope was… in my pack… back across that white hell… and I was NOT going back across there for any rope! I would make do with what I had or not. I was in for the run of show at this point and it may have been the bottom of the eighth with us behind by three but I’d been in worse situations… I mean, I must have been, hadn’t I?
It didn’t matter. I was going up that bank and my rifle and that elk were going with me! Since my line may just as well have been in Siberia for all the good it was going to do me, I decided on another course. My rifle had to stay where it was. That was a given… it was not moving from there. I knew I could not climb with that elk on my shoulders nor could I climb while carrying it in one hand so I decided to take off my belt and put that to use as well. With this being the way of it, I started up the bank. A step or two and reach behind me and grab the belt that I’d attached to one antler to leave the longest possible strap and lift it to a point I could brace it against something and stretch the belt strap as high as it could reach then I’d climb another step or two and repeat the process. On and on we went. Step after vicious step. Hand grip after toe hold… up two steps, slide back one, slowly we inched our way to the top. When finally we edged over the top, I felt that elk and I had become fast friends. Certainly, no other cross species relationship had shared as much torture and anguish as had ours!
How far did we climb up that bank that day? Not nearly so far as it felt at the time, but the distance was substantial. By the we had cleared that last berm, I thought we had scaled Mr. Everest. In vertical height, I had scaled perhaps seventy feet but it had been nearly vertical and the degree of difficulty was at least 3.4 and may have gone as high as 3.8! …and that is without the elk and the rifle!
When I finally was able to stand again, I was in real trouble and I knew it. I was so cold I had ceased shivering. Hypothermia was rampant. Daylight was disappearing and the temperature was nose diving as night approached. I looked back up the road in the direction where I had made my shots and realized I was less than a hundred feet from where I had left the road to descend to the river! My heart literally sunk as I realized I had just spent several hours in purgatory to save walking less than twenty paces! The dismay was strong but I knew where my truck was and I knew I had to get there soon or I could or I would not get there at all. My levis were absolutely frozen in place… My boots were chunks of ice and enough water had come over the side while I was in the river to have my feet soaked inside those iced boots.
My mind focused on the rock wall over on the north side of the road so I set off with that goal in mind. I knew that getting there, I would at least be out of the miserable, life sucking snow for a bit and I could then decide what I was going to do to reach my truck. By the time I had gained the snow free walkway along that rock wall I was breathing in great gasps, sucking iced air directly into my tortured lungs. I knew I should be breathing through my nose but it was just not working for me. With great effort, I moved to the end of the wall nearest my truck, probably two hundred yards distant and leaned back against the rock and tried to regain some degree of strength in order to make the last surge to my truck and the heater waiting therein. I had made up my mind that the head and horns and I were going to undergo a legal separation at this point. My rifle was strapped to my back and I could manage with it, but I was not going to be able to lift that head again. Since emerging from the steep bank, I had only been dragging it along anyway as I had not been able to lift it even then.
Night was hard on me and survival was now my only concern when I heard a call in the night coming from the direction of the truck. I looked up to see a light bobbing in the night and was amazed by it. I wasn’t sure what was happening, but I called back and waited. What showed up a few moments later was the area game warden, Mike Reagan. He was on snowshoes as I should have been and he had that light! One more thing he had that thrilled me was a length of line and a willingness to help.
“Here,” he said after some small talk, “tie this rope around the antlers and you steer… I’ll pull and we’ll get him to your truck.”
“I saw your truck here this morning and when it was still here at dark I thought you had been successful and could probably use a hand. It appears I was right!”
I thanked him profusely and handed him my license and permit to allow him to check my bonafides while I just rested. Actually, I could have kissed him right in his mouth hole just now! I pulled out my pocket watch and it was exactly 5:15 pm (1715). It had taken me precisely eight hours to move three quarters of a mile from when that shot was fired until I was at my truck! As we chatted idly, he took several pictures of the big boy and congratulated me on taking such a fine animal. He said if I was up to it, the people in the house there had told him to tell me that the coffee would be on when we got back and we’d be welcome to come warm up. I was beyond exuberant in my appreciation.
The couple that lived in that house was a retired printer from the Seattle area with his wife. They were just so gracious. When I entered their small home, they immediately fed the wood stove to capacity and the room warmed to the point that, soon, needles started poking my hands and feet. Soon, I was melting down and dripping water everywhere. There was a sizeable puddle accumulating below me as I slowly felt life creeping back through my body. When I tried to apologize for draining onto their floors, the couple simply reassured me that they had all winter to clean that up. That I was to just sit there and get warm and enjoy the coffee… orders I most assuredly followed to the last degree. When at last I felt warm enough, I thanked the wonderful couple who had been my hosts, thanked Warden Reagan for his help and mounted my now warm truck and headed home.
I called around to Greg, Larry, and the others as soon as I got home and had a bite to eat and we made plans to return in the morning to retrieve the rest of the elk. I repaired my errant snowshoe and with those and the help of three others, that entire bull was in my truck in under an hour. The one remarkable event for this day occurred when I went to retrieve my back pack and gear… it was not there. My tracks were evident though partially covered in snow and there were no others. It was dark when I left the evening before and not long after light when I returned this morning. There were no other tracks in the snow beyond what I could account for from the day prior. The pack was gone! There was an impression in the snow where it had rested after I placed it there, but it was not there. I searched the area diligently as there was a significant amount of money represented in that bag. Two fine Buck Knives and two others of lesser quality. My saw and hand axe as well as line and other items of importance and it was all gone. No bird could have lifted it as it weighed in excess of forty pounds. To this day, I don’t know what happened to it. I returned to the spot after the snow was gone and searched diligently but no part of it was ever found again. The only thing I found there that had not been there the day before was a single, large, bare footprint in the sand and gravel between the river and the snow covered bank. I wondered about it at the time… could it have been there and I just missed it? No, it was over the top of one of my own tracks so it had to have been made after I was there. I knew, even then, what it was, but it didn’t really register on me the significance at that time.
It the many years I lived in that area, I met Warden Reagan many times and he never failed to mention that day and how tired I had looked to him. I told him that I was as close to being whipped that day as I have ever been in my life, before or since. He told me that my bull was the largest taken on the entire Olympic Peninsula that year and that made me feel good, but of more importance was that a creature of God had given himself to me that I and my family might eat that winter.