My grandson, Jake, had a football game, so he, my wife, and I arrived at elk camp later than expected. The plan had been to meet my daughter and the rest of her family at camp early enough so that Jake and I could sneak in an evening hunt, but it was well past sunset when we finally got settled. A cheery campfire was blazing, but my daughter appeared worried. I believed that I knew what was bothering her but kept my thoughts to myself while enjoying watching my young granddaughters playing around the campfire. As the last bit of light was fading from the western sky, my daughter finally voiced her concern. Her husband, Clint, had been gone for quite some time and was late getting back to camp. She was worried that he was in some sort of trouble.
I mumbled something reassuring and then thought back a couple of years. My son-in-law had done this sort of thing before, but at the time only he and I were in camp. My reaction to his tardiness then was simply to sit back, enjoy an adult beverage, and wait. Sure enough, he finally came dragging in. He had spent every last bit of light looking for a deer he had arrowed. Now I didn’t want to jinx Clint by telling his wife that he was probably dealing with an animal he had shot. I simply emphasized that I thought he would be along soon. Then, while my wife sat with my anxious daughter, I ambled off to our camper for a snack and cold drink.
As I was rummaging around the fridge, I heard a commotion at the camper door. Then Clint poked his head in. His wide grin told me all I needed to know. He’d had a very exciting afternoon. His late arrival was simply due to the time it took him to work out a blood trail on a spike elk he had shot and finally found in a nasty blowdown. Tomorrow, the real work would begin.
Just a few years earlier, Clint didn’t know a field point from a broadhead. Although he had been a successful rifle hunter, he had not given much thought to bow hunting. After I put a bow in his hand it quickly became obvious that he had good hand-eye coordination and could be a decent shot soon after taking up the bow. Perhaps most important, he seemed to have a strong interest in all aspects of archery.
Clint’s skill development was rapid, and soon he was quite comfortable shooting targets at various distances. An added bonus for Clint at that time was that it would be just a few short years until my grandson Jake could accompany us in the field and begin his own development as a bowhunter.
Still, what really seemed to seal the deal for Clint with regard to bowhunting was the realization that bowhunting could be such a family-oriented activity. The weekend he shot this elk was typical of many days we spent bowhunting together. Not only were Clint and I in elk camp, but we were joined by my wife, daughter, and grandkids. Although Clint, Jake, and I enjoyed the hunting opportunities, the rest of our family viewed a September hunt as simply a carryover of summer camping in which outdoor meals, campfires, and marshmallows played a prominent role.
This particular hunt really started the previous year, when we hunted a different area that we had enjoyed hunting for quite some time. As the years rolled by, we noticed an increasing number of hunters and other recreationists there. Some were serious bowhunters, but many others were there for reasons that often seemed to focus on loud music, ATVs, and target practice. That year was worse than others. In addition to noisy neighbors, we had a sheepherder move his flock through our camp almost daily. I never could figure out why he wanted to do that. Maybe the final straw was finding a couple of jokers target shooting along the road and firing in the direction of our camp. Yes, it was time for us to move on.
Clint and I as well as our friend, Skipp, who also normally hunted with us, spent a good part of the summer looking for another hunting area. After several trips and a lot of glassing and hiking, we came up with what seemed a suitable area. Clint could easily get to it on a Friday afternoon after work, there was a nice camping spot with good shade, and it provided a safe place for kids to play. Perhaps most important, we found lots of elk and deer during our scouting, and this would be my grandson Jake’s first hunting season.
Clint had to work the first few days of the season. However, Skipp, my grandson, and I had thoroughly familiarized ourselves with the area before Clint finally showed up with family in tow over the Labor Day weekend. We had shot some grouse and called in small bull elk on a couple of occasions. Jake had also made several fun but ultimately unsuccessful stalks on deer.
Clint was excited by our report and couldn’t wait to get out with his bow. He had taken a deer with his recurve two years earlier, but so far had no luck tagging an elk or even getting very close to one. He was anxious to change that.
Our wives were not overly interested in the area’s deer and elk but were quite content with our choice of campsites and the wonderful September weather. I explained to Clint where Jake and I typically found the elk, and we spent three days hunting, sitting around campfires, and watching the grandkids play. We did not harvest any game over those three days, but Jake and I had close encounters with a herd of elk and several deer while Clint had a memorable run in with a small pack of wolves. These are the kinds of outings that memories are made of, and they were made all the more precious by the inclusion of all of our family.
At the end of the long weekend we all went home but Skipp and I returned the next day and hunted most of the next week without harvesting an animal. Still, we both kept finding deer and elk, and I continued to run into elk in one draw every time I visited it. Unfortunately for me, the week before I had found elk around a spring in a small valley just to the south, so I set my tree stand there. I was convinced that those elk would return regularly. After spending many days in that tree stand, I finally concluded that this was a bad assumption. I told Clint about the draw that had elk and where my tree stand was when I returned home later in the week to watch my grandson play football, so Clint was ready to go as soon as he got to camp early the next Saturday.
He found the elk where I said they would be and managed to get situated for a close shot. He said he could see the herd moving down a ridge and was able to get in front of them and wait. I had tried almost exactly the same maneuver, likely on the same elk, a few days earlier, but the animals stayed just out of bow range. Clint later showed me where he’d knelt behind what I could only describe as the poor brother of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. How that scraggly little pine provided him any suitable cover mystifies me to this day. I guess that just further demonstrates the importance of a favorable wind and waiting for exactly the right moment to draw and shoot. Clint told me that he knew his cover was inadequate, but he had no other option. He said he made himself as small as possible and waited. Once a spike bull moved within 15 yards and dropped its head to feed, Clint drew and shot. I saw the result, and it was a terrific shot. Clint had his first elk with a bow. The elk traveled less than 200 yards. The only problem was that it fell down a hill into a serious blowdown.
Clint is a young, strong guy, and I suppose I could have given him the game cart and pack frame the next morning, wished him the best, and then taken my grandson hunting. I don’t think he would have minded in the least, but this was an excellent teaching moment for my grandson and an opportunity for him to participate in another family activity. Hunting with my grandson could wait, as it was less of a priority than teaching Jake the importance of helping your hunting partners as well as showing him how to care for game in the field and pack it out. Clint headed up the hill to begin work on the elk, while Jake helped me gather up pack frames, game saw, game bags, extra knives, sharpener, and game cart. Although my wife and daughter were pleased with Clint’s success, they politely turned down our invitation to join us on the mountain.
Jake and I soon followed and eventually stumbled into the flagging Clint had left to guide us to his elk. We arrived at the base of a steep hill, and the flagging went straight up the slope. We could hear Clint but couldn’t seem him because of the downed timber and tangle of trees. This was going to be challenging to say the least. We finally found him hard at work trying to deal with a large animal lying among fallen trees, assorted branches, and undergrowth. Jake and I jumped right in, and it didn’t take long before we had organized an acceptable workspace and discovered a reasonable trail that would take us and the elk out of the mess.
Soon we had several packs of meat ready for transport. For my grandson’s sake, I downplayed the difficulty of packing an elk out of such a nasty spot and instead tried to get him to focus on the job at hand. I stressed that big game hunting was fun but challenging and that efficiently taking care of a downed animal was just part of the hunt and an important responsibility for any hunter. It was immediately apparent to the three of us that we could not take all the meat out in one trip. Someone would have to make two trips. Jake and I decided to vote on who that someone should be. The vote was unanimous. Clint would be making two trips.
Clint took out one load while Jake and I finished cutting up the elk. Many 11-year-olds might be reluctant to participate in this kind of operation, but Jake had been on many hunting and fishing trips so he was not shy about pitching in to help. By the time Clint returned we had all of the packs and the game cart ready to go and began the long trip down the mountain.
Skipp was hunting with us but had been gone for a few days and didn’t make it to camp until Clint was on his way back for a second load. My wife filled Skipp in, so he grabbed his pack frame and headed up the trail to help. We met him on the way down, and I think I detected relief in his expression when I told him we had the final load. Wanting to help in some way, Skipp returned to camp and made us all a lasagna dinner to help celebrate Clint’s elk. We arrived back at camp tired but satisfied hunters. The hunt was a complete family affair, and even my youngest granddaughters seemed to understand that we had all worked together to accomplish a goal.
My family spent a number of days in elk camp that year, sharing campfires, meals, adventure, and hard work. We came away from that experience with many photos, stories, and precious memories. Our bows took grouse and an elk while my grandson honed his hunting skills and learned how to pack meat. I’ve been on many hunts that simply involved me and some of my regular hunting partners. They were fun outings, but there is something special about involving family in this kind of hunt. When spouses and children are involved, the outing takes more planning and a more laid-back approach to hunting than what normally happens when just a few hunting buddies are involved. On our experiences, the extra effort was well worth it.