A good hunting partner is like a good bird dog…you’re lucky if you get one great one in a lifetime. For the hunting horseman, a great hunting partner who also knows how to pack with stock is priceless.
Each year of packing into the mountains and hunting elk is another great adventure. Fall of 2015 was no exception, starting with bowhunting in Montana’s Crazy Mountains and ending with a fun hunt and “meat bull” the week before Thanksgiving in the Madison Valley.
When you’re alone in the wilderness, there is a refreshing renewal of one’s self. The smells of damp earth, horse sweat, wet leather, campfire smoke, the sweet smells of the pines, and the distinct odor of elk bring back memories of hunts past and foster dreams of hunts in the future.
What the hunter seeks is complex indeed. We are there because of the elk, but that’s not all that we seek. We’re looking for freedom, peace, quiet, and the camaraderie that can only be found in the wilderness…in elk camp.
Throughout the fall, each trek into the backcountry came with its own special experiences, but this year a sadness loomed in my heart as I quietly rode my mule up the trail or climbed a ridge to peer into the next basin, listening for a bugle or scanning for elk. My mind kept circling back to Jerry Maring, one of my very best friends and hunting partner of more than 25 years, who had been diagnosed with an aggressive and rare cancer the previous July.
By now, it was late November in the Madison Valley. Early morning temperatures were well below zero as I reached my destination high on a ridge where I had found fresh elk sign in two feet of snow the evening prior. The sun was shining brightly and I just stood there quietly, looking out over the Madison Range, soaking up the sun and reflecting.
Although I was close to where the elk had been the night before, my thoughts kept drifting in and out to memories of Jerry and the times we had spent afield. I had just driven to Vancouver, Washington a week prior to say my final goodbye to him.
Over the years, I’ve shared my hunting camps with a number of individuals and close friends, each of whom, in their own ways, have contributed something special to camp because of their individual personalities, personal and professional experiences, enthusiasm, wit, general demeanor and the like. As the years pass and I reflect back upon these treks and those who have accompanied me, there are a few who stand out for one reason or another.
Jerry stood out not because of what he knew about packing and hunting, or specific skills he brought to camp. He stood out because he was unique. He was intellectually curious, serious, and most of all thoughtful and sincere.
I first met him when he was a young professor, newly recruited as a faculty member at Washington State University, where I was Dean of Students. He reached out to me shortly after he arrived when he learned that I was interested in hunting. He came into my office, introduced himself, and asked if I’d help him learn how to hunt pheasants, mule deer, and elk; he was that specific! I had never been approached by anyone who was so focused and sincere, but also naïve, even among the many students and faculty whom I mentored over the years.
We couldn’t have been more different, but as we got to know each other, we grew closer. Jerry was an outstanding professor, teacher, and mentor. As a hunter, he was a true novice, but he was eager to learn. We started with upland birds and I got him his first Brittany spaniel of many to follow. Next, I introduced him to backpack hunting for mule deer.
Learning to hunt mule deer was at the top of Jerry’s list when he first introduced himself to me. This buck was part of fulfilling his dream.
Finally, I introduced him to horses, packing with stock, and backcountry hunting for elk. He got several elk while hunting with me, including one exceptional bull. He wanted to get a big whitetail, but I’m not a whitetail guy, so I couldn’t help him with that one.
Jerry’s big bull was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for him, and his gratitude for me helping him get this great bull was ever-present, right up until he died.
He was eager to please, did his homework, and was kind, thoughtful, and generous. All of these attributes made him a wonderful hunting partner. When Jerry was successful, his entire body radiated his excitement. The excitement in his eyes and his smile when I was successful were even more special. I could feel his excitement and happiness for me.
As I quietly stood there with all of these thoughts, I remembered the knife I was carrying “for luck.” The prior Saturday while I visited him, he handed me his special hunting knife; one that he had carried most of the time I had known him. He was very weak and it was difficult for him to sit up, but he said, “I want you to have this knife to bring you good luck and to remember our special friendship, all that you have taught me over the years, and the special times we’ve had hunting together.” It was one of those times when you know something spiritual is going on without actually thinking about it.
By now, it was late November in the Madison Valley and the early morning temperature was well below zero.
An Unexpected but Pleasant Surprise
As I stood there, I was snapped back to reality by the distinct odor of elk. I slipped down through the timber and came face to face with a bull that had just stood up from his bed. He was on the edge of a small basin and was gone before I could shoot. As he moved through the broken timber, a shot rang out from somewhere above me.
My heart sank, but fortunately for me, the bull broke out into the open above me and didn’t show any signs of having been hit. As he approached timberline, I had a shot opportunity. It was true and the bull was down.
The bull was just over 300 yards from me and the hillside was steep. There was two feet of snow in the basin, so I was pretty well spent when I reached him. I looked around for another hunter, but saw no one.
I tagged the bull and set my gear out of the way. Then I pondered the task of quartering the bull alone – a task that gets more difficult for me as the years go by! Wrestling a bull elk on a hillside and keeping the meat clean is the issue. There was a lot of snow, so the task wouldn’t be too bad.
I was bent over the bull and just beginning my initial cut down the spine when I heard the crunch of footsteps in the crusted snow. I looked up to see three strangers – two adults and a boy – coming toward me. They had big smiles on their faces and the first hunter to reach me said, “Can you use some help? That was quite a shot that you made! We were watching you from the other side of the basin and noticed that you had gray hair and figured you could use some help!”
I was really surprised, because in 50 years of hunting elk, the only stranger who has ever approached me at an elk kill has been someone who had taken a pot shot at it before I shot it and was there trying to claim the kill. So, I was delighted to see three enthusiastic guys – Scott McConnell, Jim Applebee, and Jim’s 13-year-old son, Jase – not far behind with sharp knives and great attitudes.
Jase is an amazing young man who was in his first year of hunting. He was excited to help work up the bull, and as we quartered it, I asked him a lot of questions – sort of an exam on hunting, rifles, ethics, etc. I was impressed, to say the least. His dad and Scott were the ultimate mentors for a bright, enthusiastic young man.
When the bull was quartered and bagged, Scott, Jim, and Jase bid me farewell and went on in search of an elk for Jase. I gathered my gear and began the long trek to camp to get my horse and mule to pack the bull off the mountain, again with time to reflect on special memories.
My bull was Jase’s first experience field dressing an elk, but a week later he got his own elk to work up – a nice fat cow! By the way, I never did learn where the shot I had heard came from or who fired it!
Jase’s dad, Jim Applebee had this to say about the day:
“It was a pleasure meeting you as well, and it was great for Jase to be able to get some butchering lessons from a real pro. I was happy for my son to meet such an outstanding sportsman in the field and I am grateful for the extra time you took to include him in the experience. Thanks for the pictures. Sounds like it was a busy day for you and the horses. You are an inspiration to be out there chasing those crazy elk for so many years.
Jase had a great season and, in total, shot an antelope buck, mule deer buck, and a cow elk the day before the season ended. He shot the cow lying in her bed at 426 yards and hit her perfectly and she went 35 yards and was down. It was amazing to spend so much time with him in the woods this year between archery and rifle season. I can’t remember a better season and I didn’t carry a weapon most of the year. I attached a few pictures for you of Jase’s first year highlights.”
Scott’s comments were:
It was our pleasure to help out. There was no question about our next move when we saw you walk up to your bull. Jim and I both know the feeling of having an elk down by yourself.
We certainly were not expecting anything out of it. But I guess I won’t complain about the subscription. I know it is a great magazine and show. It is very realistic with ethical hunters out West.
I am glad we got to meet, and thanks in advance for the magazine! Hope to maybe see you next year!
A Rare Gift
After we retired from WSU, I moved to Montana and Jerry to Woodland, Washington. We didn’t get to hunt together much for the next decade, but then in 2014 I invited him to our “Grouse Camp” in Montana. He had a new Brittany named Tia and this was her first real bird hunt. Similar to packing with stock and sharing the experience with your horses and mules, bird hunting is a special hunting experience when shared with a special dog and a special hunting partner.
I’ll never forget Jerry’s blind enthusiasm and surprise in his voice when his little Brittany pointed her first sharptails! It was such a magical hunt and I’ll never forget how happy and thankful Jerry was for that experience. It was our last hunt together; Jerry died the day after I killed the bull in the Madison Valley.
As I used to tell my graduate students and young faculty at WSU, “You’ll be fortunate to have one really great boss in your professional career. If you get two, you’ll be fortunate.” The same thing goes with hunting partners. Someone who shares in the overall experience and who is just as happy when you are successful as he or she is when they are successful is very special.
In addition to my dad, I’ve lost three long-time hunting partners and I still think about them often, most of all when I’m on the mountain. As my friend, Rich Landers (outdoor writer for the Spokesman Review in Spokane) reminded me when I related this experience to him, “A good hunting partner is like a good bird dog. You’re lucky if you get one great one in a lifetime.”
The only thing I can add to Rich’s quote is, “For the hunting horseman, a great hunting partner who also knows how to use and pack with stock is priceless.” Although Jerry’s horse skills were marginal, his friendship and thoughtfulness far outweighed what he lacked as a hunting horseman.