The Flying Kayak

Hunting, Fishing, Rambling, and Complete Outdoor Hilarity

How to Elk

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They should be right up ahead…. Just over this rise. I hope Cody’s in position…

Ducking and weaving, I made my way through the low Junipers on the hillside. It was midday, and the snow clumps that had settled in the branches from the previous storm were just beginning to melt. The occasional “thwump” from a falling clump of snow would send me into high alert each time, convinced that it was an Elk. The terrain was difficult to say the least. Mud  caked boots provided little to no traction on the melting hill face and each step threatened to send me tumbling down the hill. That couldn’t happen. For this to work, we needed to be quiet. Surprise was the only way we’d pull this off.

With my radio in hand, I tried Cody again.

“Cody…” I whispered, “You ready man?”

I was answered with nothing but the crackle of radio silence.

“Piece of shit radio”, I muttered to myself as I shoved it back into the ALICE pack. Quietly, I got back to my feet and stared down the hill. Somewhere, in the Juniper thicket below were Elk. How many, I hadn’t a clue. But there was no where else for them to go. They HAD to be here. “…Showtime”

Silently I worked my way down the hill and into the thicket. With my head on a swivel, I kept my eyes peeled for any movement. I made it about fifty yards in and suddenly….

Elk! Two of them, in fact. A cow and calf about 60 yards away on a small rise. They hadn’t noticed me yet, so I took a step further. A twig snapped up the hill in front of me and I spotted another about 80 yards away. Another step and I hear snow crunch to my left. A spike. This one just 5 yards away, casually chewing cud and staring at me. The whole situation was odd. Save for the strong breeze and the spike chewing his food, it was pretty silent. Serene, even. Nature at its finest.

Then my phone went off. On loud.

—————–

Elk on Elk on Elk

It had been an insane Elk season so far. By the final day, most of our hunters had already tagged out and were busy drinking whiskey and telling tales around the lodge. The other guides and I, however, were functioning on very little sleep and energy drinks to make sure our last few hunters filled their tags. For the past 4 days we’d been going balls to the wall. Elk down all over the place. Spotting, tracking, recovering elk. All day. Every day. But there were still a few tags to be filled, and we’d be damned if we didn’t give those hunters the best chance.

We were hunting a slightly different area than last year. And since we were blessed with snow a few days prior, the Elk had been all over the place. Snow equals Elk, and this was obvious by the hundreds that were being seen every day. That ridge a few miles away? Elk. The ravine leading up that mountain? Elk. Crossing the road in front of us? Elk. Elk in the ditch. Elk in the bed of the truck. Elk riding shotgun. Bumping into Elk. Elk watching you pee. Tripping over Elk. Elk…Everywhere.

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In the brief periods of time where I wasn’t helping recover Elk, I spent it on a hill called “The Kitchen”. From this hill, most of the valley could be seen. To the east was a long ridge line that followed a flat valley, and that ridge line is where we placed most of our hunters. We’d see Elk every day down in the valley, and it was around this area where most of our kills had been. A few unlucky Elk were the ones who’d ventured just a tad too close to the western ridge of the valley.

The rest of the herd? Oh, we watched them. Trust me. All day long, all the way across the valley on a Juniper covered hill called “Yellowstone”. It was on this hill that the Elk felt safe. They rarely left during the daylight hours. The problem with hunting Yellowstone? It’s essentially an island in the middle of the valley. There isn’t a real good way into or out of Yellowstone without being spotted by the herd.

It was frustrating, to be honest. Seeing Elk all day, but not being able to do a thing about it. It’s sorta like being able to see fish, but not being able to hook them. And those are the kind of things I lose sleep over. But we had a few tags left, we knew where the Elk were, and it was the end of the season. Time to make some moves.

The Push for Yellowstone

By the last day of the season, the guide’s bunk room was looking a little rough. Filthy, mud and blood  covered clothes lay strewn about. Spent brass rolled around on the floor, fluorescent orange apparel was scattered about, and wet boots sat near the door, complete with their wet socks. The guides themselves didn’t look much better actually. Nick looked like he’d had “that 2:30 feeling” for the past 3 days. Cody would occasionally zone out and give the 1000 yard stare mid sentence.  Aaron had developed a weird tic a few days ago and would occasionally mutter something Elk related in his sleep. I had actually begun to devolve as a person, slowly becoming more and more Elk like. My speech had begun to slowly turn more and more into grunts and clicks. My clothes smelled just like them. Hell, -I- smelled just like them.  And if you’ve never smelled an Elk before…It’s not exactly great. We were in rough shape.

But we awoke the morning of the last day with a refreshed, caffeinated energy and were excited to finish out the season. Before leaving the lodge, we all got the run down of the day ahead. The lead guide explained to us what was going to happen. We were pushing them off of Yellowstone around noon. Aaron, Nick, and some of the other guides would help get the hunters in position. Cody and I would do a walking drive and push them toward everyone else. Once all the hunters were in position, the guide spotting on The Kitchen would give Cody and I the signal to start pushing.

Excited to see how this all played out, we got dressed, geared up, and ready to go.

I should note my hatred of snow. I despise being cold and it’s just a giant white nightmare. But since Elk like it, and by this point I’m practically half-Elk, I suppose it isn’t that bad. In the mornings, however,  I can never tell if I’m shaking from the cold, or the Monster Energy that I just chugged. Regardless, Cody, Nick, Aaron and I loaded into the freezing cold Can Am, and hauled ass to The Kitchen to wait on the sunrise.

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One Elk was shot that morning before the push. The other hunters held tight. They’d been briefed on what was going to take place, so they patiently waited until mid-day for the show to begin. A little bit before noon, Cody and I hopped back in the Can Am, and drove around to the far side of the valley. From there we parked and began to hike up the backside of Yellowstone. This is where we had to be careful. We needed to split up, but still be in contact so Cody handed me a radio. Once we were in position and got the signal, we’d make our move. But first we had to actually -get- into position. Quietly we weaved our way through the Junipers and got closer to our destination.

It wasn’t exactly hard to tell Elk had been nearby.

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It’s a good thing I smelled like an Elk, because the whole backside of the hill reeked of them. There were obvious spots where they’d been feeding, bedding, everything. The place must’ve been crawling with them. As accustomed to the high-altitude as my Elk-Lungs had become, I was still at least a quarter human. So I stopped to take a drink of water. I also realized that I was drenched in sweat. Amazingly enough, the only thing I was wearing was a long jon top and some camo pants. But even with all the snow on the ground, I was about to keel over. So I took off my shirt and stuffed it into my pack, then wore my fluorescent orange mesh vest haphazardly over my shirtless body. It looked odd, but no one aside my Elk brothers would see me. My looks didn’t matter.

I Am The Elk

Fast forward 30 minutes and I’m now standing face to face with a spike elk, calmly staring at me and chewing his food.

This isn’t what’s supposed to happen. They’re supposed to run.

I took another step, then it happened. My cell phone started ringing.

God forbid Verizon give me -any- signal around the ranch. Seriously. Close to 200,000 acres and I can’t get a damn bar of signal on any of it.

Well…99% of it. Apparently Yellowstone gets great reception. Maybe that’s why the Elk all congregate there. They’ve got 4G.

I winced and fumbled around in my pocket for the phone. Max volume, and the highest pitched, most obnoxious ringtone echoed through Yellowstone. I look at the name on the phone: Roscoe.

Roscoe’s the senior guide who was sitting a couple miles away spotting for me on The Kitchen. He’d apparently lost sight of me and decided to give me a call. My spike friend had now stopped chewing his food, and was simply staring at me with that look you give someone in a movie theater when they forget to put their phone on vibrate. Calmly I answered the phone.

“Hey Roscoe”, I whispered.

“DIDJA STORT POOSHIN’ YIT”, he replied with an incredibly thick South Carolina accent.

Pausing to look at the Spike right next to me, I answered

“I’m uhh…I’m workin’ on it”.

“AIGHT WAIL YOO N’ CODY STORT. WEIR REDDY”

And with that I hung up the phone with Roscoe, turned my phone on silent, and put it back in my pocket. The Elk was still just standing there, glaring at me. Actually, upon looking around, all of them were. They were all just listening to my conversation with Roscoe.

Why aren’t they running? It’s like…It’s like….No. It can’t be…Can it?

The transformation was complete. With the last shred of my sanity gone, it was apparent. I’d been accepted as one of their own. I was in the herd.

I am the Elk.

Last Call

Try as I did, the Elk never full broke me. I remembered what I’d come there to do. It was go time. But there was one slight issue:

They wouldn’t move.

I tried hitting a Juniper to make noise. All they did was watch me. I jogged forward. Still nothing.

What the hell?

Up ahead I could see more of the herd. They were swarming inside Yellowstone. And amongst them all, I saw him. An absolute monster Bull. The biggest I’ve ever seen by far. I got just a quick glance before he ducked behind some trees ahead. But still, the majority of the herd was just watching me. I, however, had finally seen enough. It was long past time. I’d lost contact with Cody a while ago. It was time to really start pushing. So I did the only thing I could think of…

I sprinted straight at the nearest cow and calf. To add to the display I began screaming jibberish and waving my hand above the air like a madman.

“LAST CALL $%&#ER’S!!! EVERYBODY OUT!! GET! BE GONE!! WOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!” followed by a series of hollers and a colorful line of profanity as I tripped down the hill.

It was like roaches scattering after turning on the light. Elk practically exploded. They were coming out of the woodwork. From behind boulders, underneath trees, everywhere. The herd was MUCH bigger than I originally thought. Getting back to my feet, I kept sprinting down the hill toward them. Limbs snapped of Junipers as the Elk scattered. Rocks skittered down the hill face as they tried to get traction in the muddy snow. And amidst my heavy breathing and violent cussing, the steady rumble of trampling hooves could be heard.

Just a few yards away a cow and calf darted out in front of me. Suddenly from my right, another spike broke through a Juniper, nearly crashing into me. The Elk was so close I seriously could have slapped him on the ass as he went by. I watched the bulk of the herd disappear over the next hill, and head straight for my hunters. But there was a small problem. About 1/6th of the herd broke left, and were going the wrong direction toward a slightly smaller hill to the south called “Little Yellowstone” (creative, I know).

I couldn’t let that happen, so I gave chase. Jumping over rocks and logs, slipping through the snow and mud, I raced to cut off the rest of them before they reached Little Yellowstone. Fun fact about Elk: They’re stupid fast. Ridiculously quick, in fact. I had no chance in hell to catch them. But for whatever reason, the herd actually turned. Maybe it was because they shirtless, screaming maniac was still running right where they were planning to go. Maybe it was because of the rifle shots I could now hear echoing through the valley. Who knows? But the important part was that they were well on their way to the hunters, and the crack of rifles in the distance meant that my journey to become full Elk had not been in vain.  I got a quick picture of the herd just after they turned. Sadly I wasn’t wearing my GoPro for the moments just prior.

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Lee’s Monster

I eventually gathered myself and worked my way back to the Can Am to meet with Cody. We drove back to The Kitchen and caught up with what was happening on that side of the valley.

Elk were down, and from the sounds of it, almost everyone had filled their tag. All the guides split up and began running around recovering animals. One hunter actually joined Cody and I in the Can Am and while driving to track someone else’s Bull, we spotted out a legal bull and our hunter was able to fill his tag.

The next few hours were a blur as hunters continued to fill out tags, and I lost count how many animals I field dressed. As the sun was beginning to dip low on the western horizon, I ran into Aaron and Nick again.

“Everybody good?” I asked as we pulled up next to them.

“Oh yeah. Dude…Lee shot a monster”, replied Aaron.

“Really? Like, how big?”

Nick’s eyes got all wide and he just shook his head. “Big…We’re going to go get it in a minute”

Eventually we got all of our hunters loaded up, Elk ready to roll back to the skinning shed, and our gear put away. It was about that time that the other truck came rolling up with Lee’s bull.

“Holy shit…”, was pretty much everyone’s response. It was massive. And to make it even sweeter? That was the bull I’d  gotten a glimpse of on Yellowstone. Lee was grinning from ear to ear and everyone took the time to congratulate him on the bull of a lifetime. Hero pictures all around, and by far, the best way to end a season that I can think of.

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For information on hunting on the ranch or with me, please visit their website at http://www.rrranchco.com/

Note: My apologies for taking such a hiatus in my writing the past couple of months. I was absurdly busy in the Everglades and just couldn’t find the time to write during 70+ hour work weeks. Good news is that I’ve now moved and am in prime fishing habitat in a new part of the state. Looking forward to the coming stories. Thanks for reading!!

 

 

 

 

Partly Cloudy With a Chance of Elk

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Slowly but surely, the sun was beginning to work its way lower and lower toward the western horizon. Its evening rays lit the frozen, snow covered landscape in a pinkish orange glow, interrupted only by the dark green branches of scattered Junipers. Each boot step across this frozen terrain gave a satisfying crunch and on occasion a slip as hurried steps found the sticky, slick mud beneath the snow. The footsteps, however, came to an abrupt end at the edge of a 150ft cliff. And that’s where I stood with another guide, both of us looking down to the bottom in the dying Colorado light.

“Well…Shit..”, I muttered, peering down the incline.

“He’s right down there at the bottom!”, yelled one of my hunters from the truck. “I hung my hat right where he’s at!”

Far below, I could see a  bright fluorescent orange sock hat hanging gingerly in a patch of  junipers. And I knew somewhere underneath those trees was my hunter’s dead Elk. Getting down there by foot wasn’t the problem. Nor was getting back up, for that matter. The issue? Getting back up with the Elk in tow.

“Shit…”

———

“…said that Elk had a really long tail. And he goes That’s because it was my horse!”

Laughter erupted around the long dinner table at the punchline of one of many horribly inappropriate jokes for the evening. Silverware clanked while the mix of 25 hunters and guides told bad jokes, tall tales, and BS stories around the table. I, however, happily sat in silence, chewing my food and trying to listen to just one story or joke amongst the clamor of the dining room. I practically live for dumb stories. And whether it’s telling stories around the campfire with friends, at a bar over a beer, or with guests down in the Everglades, at the end of the day it’s always ME telling the stories. And I’ve heard my tales once or twice. So I enjoy listening.

It’d been a fairly long day. I’d woken up around 11am after a full night of driving through a blizzard. I made my way out to do a little spotting in the afternoon but to no real avail. Hunter’s that were out all day (not the ones I drove with the night before) had seen some Elk, but all too far away to make moves on. Good news? They were at least -seeing- Elk. The poor weather we’d had at R R Ranch last year meant that almost no Elk were moving at all. And by poor weather, I mean great weather. 65 and sunny is fantastic for us. But Elk?

Elk are horrible creatures. Originally from the ice planet Hoth, Elk are unsatisfied with any weather above -60 degrees. Comfortable weather for us means that Elk sit high up in the mountains in a vain attempt to get as close as they can to their home planet and stay cool. When horrible weather rolls in (blizzards), Elk get confused as to where they are and venture down from the mountains in search of Tauntauns to prey on. Naturally they use their canine teeth (seriously, google “Elk Canines”) to pull an unsuspecting Tauntaun to the ground where they will trample and later gorge themselves on these Snow Lizards in an order to get enough nutrients to survive the eternal winter. Varying reports say that a mature bull will sometimes use his antlers to actually fight Wampa’s off their kills. They are, indeed, the terror of the snow plains.

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At least back home they are. Here they just eat grass and stuff.

But the good news for us this year was that the lovely blizzard had coated the entire landscape with about 8 inches of that white nightmare you northerners call “snow”. This is exactly what the Elk need to get them to move, and the forecast remained cold for the rest of the week, so spirits were high around the dinner table that we may have a very successful hunt this year.

The next morning started around 4 am. I groggily put on almost every article of clothing I brought with me, and got ready to hunt. There was, of course, a minor problem with me hunting this day: My rifle was still in Denver. Since the planes weren’t flying thanks to the blizzard, my checked bag (rifle) was still sitting somewhere in Denver Airport. It felt a little odd going hunting without a gun, but at the end of the day, the hunt really isn’t for me. It’s for my hunters. So with that in mind, I stepped out into the cold to see what the day had in store for us.

Mornings for the guides are generally controlled chaos. We try and gather our hunters, make sure everything good to go, and with all our T’s dotted and i’s crossed, we head out in the ranch trucks. Where we planned to hunt this year was about a 40 minute drive across the ranch in a pickup. So with the trucks filled to the brim with hunters and gear, they took off. Myself, however, along with three other guides, Nick, Aaron, and Cody, couldn’t fit into the available trucks. So we got the next best thing; The Can Am.

These things are a redneck’s dream come true. They’re essentially a four wheel drive golf cart on steroids. Topping out at 60mph in 4×4 high, it even comes with built in Oh-Shit handles for all passengers that look like joysticks in the center of the vehicle. Bottom line, the thing just looks like too much fun. Especially now that the roads were becoming muddy nightmares. The only problem? It was horribly cold outside and there certainly isn’t any heat in the Can Am. Thank god for windshields.

No one really stepped up and said they wanted to drive the thing, so I took advantage of their reluctancy and hopped into the driver’s seat.

Now, a wise old man that I used to work with named Stoney once told me “If it ain’t yers…Drive it like you stole it”. And I’ve taken that advice to heart over the years.

Ripping down the muddy back roads in the Can Am was exciting to say the least. Since the trucks had already made massive ruts, and the Can Am is about 1/2 as wide as a truck, that meant we spent 90% of the time tilted at a 45 degree angle as we tore down the road. But eventually, and after several moments that made the other guides grab their handles, we arrived on top of a barren hill called The Kitchen. It’s called that because apparently when Roosavelt came out for a mountain lion hunt, the camp’s kitchen was on this hill. At least that’s what I’m told. But today, it would be our observation post to glass over everything (including our hunters). It was still horribly cold, but we were at least greeted with an awesome sunrise.

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As the fog cleared, we began spotting out Elk. Some looked like they were getting close to a few hunters, others going the wrong direction. We’d occasionally radio in to the trucks, and try to coordinate who’s where and what’s going on. But eventually we all heard it…

A far off rifle shot echoed through the valley, immediately followed by a second, and then third. Moments later another from a different location. Then another. Soon more from other directions. Elk were moving, and lead was getting slung by our hunters before we even had a chance to do anything. The morning progressed and things gradually got more and more chaotic. Elk were down, several of them. And we had to coordinate the logistics of getting them gutted, dragged, loaded, tracked, etc. Meanwhile keeping our eyes on other groups that were making their way toward other hunters. It wasn’t long before Cody, Aaron, Nick and I all got split up and were running around like chickens with our heads cut off. By mid afternoon we’d switched between trucks and the Can Am so many times that we all had bits and pieces of gear in every vehicle out there. Hunters continued to shoot and down Elk over the course of the day and by one point I found myself back on the kitchen in a truck with two hunters. We sat there glassing and listening to radio chatter while other guides and hunters picked up downed animals. Suddenly I looked to my right and saw them. Elk. Within range.

I bailed out of the truck and grabbed one of my hunters (who was half asleep). With my binoculars I could see the group. 8 of them, running right toward us. One spike…six cows…And right in the middle was a shooter Bull. Definitely not the biggest bull in the world, but nice enough and pretty tall antler wise. The problem was that they were moving in on us fast. Like…REALLY fast. We had only moments to react. I positioned my hunter with his shooting sticks, and got ready. Unfortunately the Elk turned just before getting to the base of The Kitchen. Only about 80 yards down the hill the herd turned to skirt around the Junipers at the base. There was an opening in the trees though, and I could see them jogging through in a line. I knelt down in the mud and whispered to my hunter as I watched through my binoculars.

“The first three are cows…The fourth one…That’s the Bull we want…Just wait for it”, I quietly told him. He was lined up, rifle shouldered, and waiting.

“There’s one…two”, I whispered as they crossed our only opening for a clear shot. “…Three…This next one…this is him…”

Four.

And nothing. No shot rang out next to my head. Nothing.

I quickly stood back up and tried to reposition my hunter, but it was no use. The small group had managed to skirt around the backside of The Kitchen through the junipers and were already on their way off the property. We’d missed that chance.

In my hunter’s defense, he never saw the Bull. Plus the opening he had for a shot was very narrow and the animal was jogging. I certainly don’t blame him for not taking the shot. With how many Elk we’d been seeing, I was sure he’d be getting another chance.

Later on in the afternoon we’d heard that one of our hunters had downed a bull in a “difficult” spot. Just how difficult wasn’t exactly clear, so another hunter and I drove down to where the bull had been shot. Once there I met with the hunter who’d shot the bull and he described to me where it was. It was here that I walked to the edge of a giant cliff only to look down and see his fluorescent orange hat hanging in a tree.

I know many of you reading this are saying “Well…Just quarter up the animal like everyone else does”. And that thought definitely went through our head. The only issue is that the ranch prefers we get all animals back whole. In fact, over the years the ranch has been running, they’ve only had to quarter up one animal. So we weren’t going to do that. But we couldn’t exactly get a truck down to this bull. So we came up with a game plan. Commence Operation Tug of War.

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A daring plan to say the least, Operation Tug of War was fairly simple at its core. The plan was to somehow get the Can Am to the bottom of this cliff, hook a strap to the Bull, and drag him out. Perfect. Sounds like a plan. First, we’ve gotta get that Can Am down there. How Jason managed to drive it down into the bottom of this canyon is classified information for Operation Tug of War. It will remain a mystery much like Machu Picchu or The Great Pyramids. But drive it down there he did and once there, we managed to hook a frozen tow strap to the back of the vehicle and the other end to the Bull. Now the tricky part.

We’re about 700lbs heavier than before, and the path taken down certainly wasn’t about to work on the way up. Our only option was the closest thing to a hill we could find. The slope was at about 75 degrees up, and about 60 yards to the top. But it as the best bet we had. After a lenghty discussion about how we wanted our funerals to be conducted, we set about performing the final stages of Operation Tug of War…

“FLOOR IT!”, I yelled as Jason put pedal to the metal and the Can Am roared toward the base of the hill, Elk in tow. Clutching onto the convenient Oh-Shit handle, I watched the speedometer as we gained speed. 25…30…35mph as we neared the base of the hill. I looked back to see Cody with a weird half-scared, half-excited grin on his face. Behind him, the Bull was acting like a snow plow while getting showered in the mud from the back tires. Then we hit the hill.

The engine began to roar even louder under the sudden strain, and we began to slow as we climbed.

For those of you who’ve ever ridden a roller coaster, and had to suffer through the painfully slow climb toward the top, it was something like that. And just like every roller coaster goer’s worst nightmare, we suddenly stopped.

We were now staring straight up into the evening sky. Completely stuck.

“Well…That’s as far as she’s gettin'”, said Jason as he practically stood on the brake. Operation Tug of War was threatening to be a complete failure. At least, until, we got another idea.

I bailed out of the vehicle and onto the near vertical slope, immediately falling into the mud and snow. On my hands and knees, I crawled/slipped my way to the top of the hill. That’s where I parked my truck. In the bed of the truck was a good 90 feet of tow strap. I unspooled it, hooked one end to the hitch, then tossed the other end down the hill. Cody was now crawling with the steel cable of the Can Am’s winch up the hill toward the truck. When he reached the end of the tow strap, he hooked the winch to it. It was then that the final stages of Operation Tug of War (AKA Pray this works) commenced. F250 in 4-low, tow strap hooked to the hitch, strap over the lip of the precipice and hooked to the winch, winch to the Can Am, Can Am in 4-Low, Can Am to the tow strap, and tow strap to the Elk, I yelled at Jason to hold on. Or at least something along those lines coupled with a string of expletives.

It was a spectacle to behold indeed, but my hunters watched as Operation Tug of War was executed flawlessly. The truck pulled the Can Am up and over the lip, followed closely by the Elk. Figures my GoPro was dead at the time.

The day had been a total blur. I lost count as to how many Elk I’d seen, gutted, dragged, whatever. We slowly drove down the muddy road and back to the lodge with Elk, hunters, and guides safely in tow while the sun dipped behind the mountains. And it was then that I realized something. I’d been working. ALL day. Since 4 am. But there hadn’t been a single moment during that day that I felt like I was AT work. Not once did I question anything I had to do, or feel the urge to complain. Or anything. It didn’t feel like work. It felt like fun. I was having fun with my hunters and other guides. I was excited to see them successful and even more excited to see THEM excited. It was an indescribable feeling and for the first time in my life I realized what work -should- be. It shouldn’t be “work”, it should be something you passionately enjoy. Of course I had to work hard. But that’s just part of it. And part of the fun. I love working with animals of course, and I love being in the field. Not in some office. But one of the main reasons I got into Wildlife to begin with (as do most others) was that I didn’t want to deal with people. Well I’ve sorta come full circle now. I actually kind of enjoy working with people, but with the right kind of people. People who are passionate about the same things I’m passionate about. People who get legitimately excited over things that you’re showing them or helping them with. That’s what made this day special and pretty eye opening. And that’s my goal for any future jobs I have. I believe it’s possible to have a job that you’re so passionate about, that it never feels like work.

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It wasn’t until we arrived at the cleaning shed that we tallied up the days harvest. We succeeded in taking thirteen Elk in a single day. A record for the ranch and definitely a sight to see. Our hunters were pleased beyond all belief and dinner that night had very few old jokes and tales. Instead it was story after story about the day everyone had just experienced. It’s days like this one that make stories. The stories that get told over and over around the campfire, over a beer, or at the lodge dinner table years down the road. I can only hope to one day get to sit silently again and listen to the jokes and stories, except the ones I helped create. And with any luck, continue to make new ones for others in years to come.

A Very Floridian Blizzard

“Dude I’m fixin to die. We gotta crank that AC”, I told my roommate as we sped away in his car on the way to the airport. “I’m melting”

It certainly wasn’t that hot outside. Especially for Florida. The problem? I wouldn’t be in Florida long, and I was decked from head to toe in winter clothes for the mountains. I was on my way to R & R Ranch in Colorado for the 2016 Elk hunting season to guide. Rather than try and shove all of my winter clothes into my carry on, I opted to just wear half of it. A decision that I was regretting at that very moment in time.

Cold weather hunting boots, thick wool socks, long johns, jeans, a fleece jacket, hunting backpack, and gun case in tow, I sorta stood out like a sore thumb upon arriving at Ft. Lauderdale airport. I’d once again drawn an elk tag this year. After failing to fill my tag during last year’s season, I was excited to give it another go. I’d be arriving just a little bit later in the year which meant more favorable weather and with any luck, better hunting.

With all my information ready, I walked up to the United Airlines counter to get my boarding pass and brace myself for what would surely be an unnecessarily difficult task of checking my rifle in with TSA. I showed the woman my information for my 11:15 departure flight and she began busily typing away before finally responding.

“Hmmm….”

“I’m sorry? Hmm? Everything ok?”, I asked, beginning to get slightly nervous.

“Yeahh….But you missed your flight”

In a state of wild confusion, I glanced at the time on my phone. 10:00.

“But…It’s only ten…”

“Yeahh…Your flight was actually rescheduled. It leaves in 5 minutes. You already missed boarding.”

“Wait…I was never notified of a schedule change…”

“Yeah…There should have been an email sent. But I’m sorry. You’ll need to get in contact with your connecting flight’s airlines to sort it out.”

Great. Fantastic. My plan HAD been to fly from Ft. Lauderdale to Orlando. Orlando to Denver. Denver to Hayden. Then drive from Hayden to the ranch. Now there was a massive wrench in my gears. I quickly got hold of the ranch and explained my situation. The best solution we could think of was to try and rent a car and haul ass to Orlando. It was 10:30 and I needed to be ready to go in Orlando airport at 1:30.

Challenge. Accepted.

Still wearing all my hunting gear and dragging a gun, I practically ran to the car rental area of the airport. During my last trip out west, I rented a car for the first time ever from National, and it was cheap. So I made my way to their counter. Sweating, I told the guy behind the desk that I needed a one way rental to Orlando and quick. Miraculously, it was quite possibly the easiest process I’ve ever gone through in my life. within about 45 seconds he handed me back my credit card and the slip to get into a car. It was that easy. I gathered my stuff and just before I made it through the door to the parking garage, the man noticed my bright orange hat.

“Colorado huh? Skiing?”

“Nope!”, I replied over my shoulder. “Elk hunting!”

The man let out a gasp. “Poor Elk”. Then he paused after I assume he saw the look on my face. “I mean…Good luck!”

Not having the time to even get into a conversation with the man, I thanked him and walked through the door into the parking garage. I was holding a slip of paper with some illegible writing on it that was supposed to point me in the direction of my car. Not knowing what I was doing or where I was going, I wandered over to the first person I could find with a green National vest on. She was an absolutely ENORMOUS black woman.

“Excuse me”, I began with a chuckle. “I’m…Totally lost” I handed her the slip of paper and she glanced over it.

“Mmmhmm…Mmmhmmm…Full size…Mmhmmm…Orlando….Okay baby I got you”, she responded. “Follow me”

“So you got a choice of the Malibu…The Taurus…” she continued, pointing to each as we strode through the garage. “Or…”, she cut herself off as a Black Dodge Charger backed into a spot in front of us. “The Charger”

I gave her a giant shit-eating grin as the car finished parking.

“OOooo boy I know which one you gonna take!”, she laughed. “Key’s in the car. Thanks for choosing National”.

Thankfully my gun case fit like a glove in the back seat. And within just a minute, I had escaped the confines of the parking garage and was on the interstate heading toward Orlando. I was tight on time and there was no way I was about to miss my next (and arguably most important) flight. So  I stepped on the gas a little. I should note that I’ve never really even driven a moderately fast car, so I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the ride. I even slowed down long enough to take a quick picture.

Sorry Mom

Sorry Mom

I made it to Orlando airport in about 23 minutes.

Once there, I gave the car back to National and made my way into the airport. While standing in line, I actually ran into several of my hunters from last year. They’re all from around the Gainesville area and were on their way back again to hunt with me. It only took about a decade for someone to come check my gun in, and FINALLY, after an insanely long morning/process, I made it through security and was happily sitting at my gate, ready to board.

—-

The flight to Denver wasn’t particularly exciting. Which is a good thing in my opinion. A brutally boring and excitement free flight is exactly what I want. And after what seemed like an eternity, we landed safely in Denver. It turned out that one of the other guides, Cody, was sitting right in front of me during the flight, and upon landing I unbuckled and let out a groan as I stretched.

“One more flight, then a drive and we’re finally there”, I told Cody. And it was just then that I caught the eye of one of my hunter’s, Ed, a few seats away.

“Our flight to Hayden is cancelled”, said Ed, over the seats.

“Bullshit!”, I responded, possibly a little too loud since half the plane turned to look at me.

“Yep…snow. Next flight doesn’t leave until tomorrow.”

No. Freakin. Way.

After the whole process, after traveling almost all day and over halfway across the country, here I sat. Once again, stuck. I soon grabbed my bag from overhead and filed out into the terminal where I met the other hunters. Everyone was busily discussing what to do when Cody and I walked up. Some said we should stay the night. Others argued that the weather might get worse, and we’d be stuck even longer. Some said to rent a car and drive. Others argued it’d take two cars to fit 8 people total (which was how many we had). Regardless, I wasn’t getting my gun into at least the next day at the earliest. The discussion seemed to go on and on before finally I spoke up. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s indecision.

“We don’t know if the weather will get any worse, it’s alright right now. Let’s rent two SUV’s, load up everything and just go. Sound good?”

Everyone seemed to nod in agreement, and then came the decision who should drive. One of our hunters happens to be a truck driver, so it was a given that he’d take the wheel of one of the two SUV’s. The other? There were no takers. Considering I practically drive for a living anyway, and no one else was willing, I offered to take the wheel of the second SUV.  Being a Florida boy, I’d never driven in snow before…But how hard could it be?

The drive out of Denver wasn’t particularly bad. The Explorer we were in handled alright, it was just slightly windy, especially in certain passes as we climbed higher and higher into the mountains. We made a stop in Silverthorne to eat at a Wendy’s and it was about that time I was thankful for wearing all my winter clothes. The temperature was dropping. Fast. Where only 10 hours prior I had been sweating to death in Ft. Lauderdale, I was now almost shivering in the mountains. After dinner we continued on, and it wasn’t long after we left Silverthorne that it began to snow. Hard.

I noticed that everyone in Colorado was still driving like a bat out of hell in the snow. Didn’t matter how horribly steep the road was, they were still flying. Hell, I was just doing my best to keep up with our other hunters in the car ahead of us. Just when I thought it couldn’t snow harder, it did. Then harder. Then even harder.

IMG_1385I was slowly getting more and more nervous as the weather worsened. Tires began to slide and I was having a terrible time. Our path down I-70 actually led straight through the town of Vail Colorado. Having the last name Vail, I’d always wanted to visit the place. Just for kicks. Well…I got to drive through Vail, but I never saw it. Total white out. The best I got was an interstate sign that read “Vail Next 3 Exits”. And that’s it.

We got off the interstate in Rifle and began our trek north toward the ranch. The weather simply continued to worsen. Soon there were only two cars to be seen driving down any of the roads, and both were packed full of Florida boys. The old county road leading to the ranch was probably where we saw the worst weather. At some points the car in front of us completely disappeared and they were only about 30 feet ahead. I actually began to worry that even if we -did- manage to make it to the ranch, we’d never recognize it. EVERYTHING was white and even roads leading off the highway were masked in the white nightmare outside.

Thankfully someone managed to get enough signal to make a phone call to the ranch owner who was able to drive down to the highway and wait so we’d recognize the road. We all met, then drove the last few miles to the ranch.

I was completely and totally exhausted. My hands actually hurt from the white knuckle grip I’d kept the whole ride. We finally made the turn into the 4 mile long driveway to finish the trip. We’d left Denver at what 8:30 on what was supposed to be a 4.5 hour drive. It was now 5 am the next day. With the ranch owner in front, the other hunters second in line, and myself and my hunters bringing up the rear, we approached the ranch house. Just a few hundred more yards to go, when suddenly….

The car in front of us hit a huge snow drift and drove right off the road….

We were so close. So damn close to calling it a day. Everyone bailed out and the other two cars set about getting the hunters and gear out of the stuck SUV and into the two remaining cars. We’d worry about the stuck one in the morning. Or later in the day. Or whatever. I was too tired to think.

IMG_1389

After finally getting into the house, I met more hunters. We were actually so late on arriving that they were already getting up to go make a hunt. I said hey to everyone, dropped my gear, and sorta zombied my way around the lodge. I was too tired to think, and actually too tired to sleep. I’d pounded an energy drink during the ride, and it was apparently still working. I ate some breakfast and watched as the sun began to rise along the horizon. The storm had finally passed.

IMG_1391

Soon after I made my way to my bunk, and passed out cold. We’d made it. Elk season 2015 was a go, and I was absolutely pumped to get out there after them…

Just a little bit later…you know…after I sleep a bit.

 

*Stay tuned…More of this incredible season to come!*

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