The pale orange light of early dawn had just begun to creep over Wolf Mountain to my east. Slowly but surely, the surrounding valley took shape in the light. From the comfort of my hunting blind, I gazed across the countryside. Still too early to use my binoculars, I stared out over the windy grasslands in search of Elk. Not too hot from my walk in, and still not too cold, I felt like I’d worn just the perfect amount of layers for this morning hunt. I settled myself into a comfortable position, and waited for it to get lighter.
The weather was far from perfect. The forecast called for rain and wind. But it was for this reason, and this reason alone that I was even out in the field and not warm and cozy in my bed still. Elk seem to like it cold. They like it miserable. So the previous week’s routine of 65 degrees and sunny meant that the elk laid low and only moved around once it cooled off at night. But this weather…this weather was supposed to bring in the elk.
To my south I could see the outline of another mountain. In fact, it was one that I looked at practically every day. But on this particular morning it looked…odd. Something wasn’t quite right about it. Weird clouds were swirling around it, and it was this strange speckled color. I watched it for several minutes before I realized;
Oh shit, that’s snow.
With the exception of about an inch in Pensacola when I was a kid, this Florida native had never actually been in snow. So seeing it begin to coat the mountain to my south was something I’d never witnessed before. Cool as it was to see, I immediately hoped it would keep its distance and not snow on me. I was, after all, pretty well dressed. Maybe a little chilly, but nothing terrible.
About 30 minutes went by and the snow cloud moved off the mountain, leaving behind a fresh coat of white across the peak. To my west, I watched as more snow clouds began to roll in. It started to look like I wasn’t going to avoid the snow after all. Part of me was excited considering I’d never hunted in snow before. The other part of me was just cold. Maybe I should’ve brought some hand warmers.
I was busily staring down a hill and across a meadow when something hit me on the hand and landed in my lap. I looked down to see a tiny little piece of ice that had, moments before, tumbled down to earth and hit me. Soon another hit me, and another. Suddenly it was nearly raining little globs of ice hit and they exploded into tiny pieces as they struck my clothes, gun, and surrounding blind.
Is this snow? I thought to myself. How does anyone enjoy this?
I sat for another two hours as mother nature continued to dumb thousands of little ice globs on top of me. With the exception of a hawk that landed in a tree about 10 feet away, I hadn’t actually seen any animals on this particular morning either. To make matters worse, I was absolutely frozen. Even with my gloves on, it felt like they’d fallen off about an hour prior to this. Everything was just numb and it took very little consideration before I gave up and got out of the blind. I quickly stood up, turned, and was staring at a coyote that had been sneaking up behind the blind. We actually kinda surprised each other. He bolted before I could even get my rifle ready, and disappeared over the next hill before I could find him in my scope.
Later that day, back at the lodge, I watched as -real- snow clouds moved in. I had been informed by others that I’d simply been sleeted on all morning, and that snow was actually quite different. But to me, it was all just cold.
This happened to also be the first time in my life I’ve had to put chains on tires. And after a crash course on attaching them, I was happily driving around, churning up all the dirt roads. Later that night, it snowed for real, and I awoke to discover everything to be blanketed in white powder. My hunters for the day happened to be from Minnesota, so they barely batted an eye at the sudden change in environment. Meanwhile I had to drive them to their respective hunting spots and, unbeknownst to them,
I’d never driven in snow.
The trip up the hill toward Wolf Mountain was anything but uneventful. After successfully sliding off the road (and hill) twice, I managed to drop off my hunters and get them where they needed to go. I guess I was relatively surprised though. It wasn’t so much the snow itself that I kept sliding around on. It was the mud underneath. Picture thick Georgia clay, and then just add a layer of frosting. Even in 4-low going downhill, the truck threatened to bog down. I discovered too, that walking around in snow is one of the best character building exercises a hunter can do.
A few days later, I swung by to pick up one of my hunters. He hopped in the truck and told me about a dead Elk he’d found at the top of a mountain. He said it was a big bull, and not just big, but one of the biggest he’d ever seen. He guessed it would score close to 400. Obviously wanting the rack, we discussed how we were going to go about getting it off the mountain and I was quickly reminded that I’m the one being paid, so I get the heavy lifting.
The next day we hiked 45 minutes to the top of the mountain and my hunter took us right to the spot where he’d discovered the bull. After weaving through some Junipers and snow covered Sage brush, we came up on one of the biggest and most beautiful animals I’d ever seen. It was, unfortunately, long dead.
We honestly couldn’t believe how big the bull was. The mass on the antlers was absolutely absurd. This animal had been in it’s prime only weeks prior, and the only cause of death that we could imagine made us sick to our stomachs. Though we had no definitive proof, we couldn’t see another reasonable explanation. The bull had to have been poached. Shot at from a nearby public road, the bull may have been wounded and carried itself onto the ranch and the top of this mountain. To say it was a shame is a massive understatement.
But nevertheless, I set about sawing off the skull with a hack saw. It was far from the least smelly job I’ve ever done, but before long I had it disconnected and in a trash bag. Now the fun began.
The skull was heavy. I mean…really heavy. Factor in the weight of the antlers and it was almost like lifting weights. To make things even more interesting, the only good way to carry it was two hands on the antlers, nose pointed away, and the back of the skull resting on my stomach. It sounds OK, but you have to remember that I know have to hike back down a mountain, and I can’t see where I’m stepping.
To both my hunter’s and my own surprise, I made it nearly 3/4 of the way back down the mountain without incident. Small slips here and there in patches of snow, but nothing major. There was, however, one narrow stretch of path that was extremely steep. And I was only a few steps along before my muddy, snow covered boots lost their grip on the path.
The fall wasn’t bad. Really I just plopped down on my butt in the icy snow. The problem was what happened next; I started sliding.
The key to downhill Elk skull sledding is technique. You can’t just lay down and hope for the best. There’s no pizza-ing or french-frying here either so leave your ski instructor’s lessons at home. I found that the best way to go about it is to hold onto the antlers almost like they can help you steer (they cannot). Next, cross your legs at the ankles to avoid taking a Sage brush to the groin as you plummet past them at terminal velocity. Always remember that you’re essentially flying down a snow covered hill, carrying multiple sword points, so keep the Elk skull pointed away from anything important. If you’re feeling exceptionally froggy, you can wrap a leg over the skull and essentially ride it like a somehow managed to do. A string of colorful and creative expletives is almost a necessity for events such as these. One can’t simply fly down a hill on an Elk head and say -nothing-. Finally, there’s the issue of dealing with cliffs and ledges. I’m no expert, but my personal favorite technique is to slide right off them and bounce like a basketball down the hill on your butt.
I’ve still no idea how to stop.
Luckily for me (I think), I ran out of snow, and just butt-slid my way into a muddy spot. I also miraculously didn’t impale myself on the antlers. It would have been a death that no one saw coming, but at the same time probably wouldn’t have been too surprised about.
Arms cramped, legs tired, and butt sore from my sled ride of death, we finally got to the bottom of the mountain. It was an amazing animal. We all just wish we’d have gotten to see it alive.