No tag soup for Mia Enstrom this year!
“Happiness is a cooler full of elk meat!! Oh and my Archtach jacket, of course!” #proiswasthere — with Mia Enstrom.
How Road Kill Rabbit Stew Led to My Western Elk Hunt Honeymoon…
My first, but certainly not my last Western hunting adventure had humble beginnings. I grew up hunting and fishing the hills of Arkansas. As a child my dad stuck me on deer stands and put fishing rods in my hands until the outdoor passion became engrained in my weird, multifaceted personality. I was told that every Southern woman worth her salt should be able to accurately shoot any weapon she was handed, skin any animal without a flinch, and back a boat on a dime. I’m worth my salt. My undergraduate degree was in biology, but my master’s in dance, yes DANCE, so even today, I continue to priss through the woods, daintily leaping over logs and gingerly performing dance steps over the slippery rocks of rushing creeks to commandeer my game.
My 90 year old Grandma Hill would have target practice with a paper plate stuck in the top of an old cedar tree so that “When I want rabbit stew, I can just go out and get one!” My boyfriend accidentally ran over a swamp rabbit one rainy night. If you aren’t familiar with swamp rabbits, then let me tell you those rascals are like a cottontail on steroids! The poor thing was expired but intact, so I suggested he pitch it in the back of his truck. Once home, I proceeded to make the best road kill stew out of that rabbit that he had ever put in his sweet little mouth! After dating for over two years, THIS was the push over the top for the immediate marriage proposal. Really? If I’d known that was all it took, I might have frequented the back roads in search of those hippity hoppity creatures myself, screeching through the darkness, weaving to and fro at speeds not unlike Dale Earnheardt! At any rate, in two months we were wed and bear hunting and halibut fishing on Prince William Sound, Alaska. But that is a story for another day!
The second portion of our honeymoon, we decided, would be that elk hunt we had both dreamed of for years. We planned. We schemed. We trained. We contacted a good friend from Alaska who is wise in the “Elkin Way.” He flew to Utah, where we drove 22 hours to meet him, continuing on to a section of public land in the backcountry of Idaho. Folks, Idaho is a long way from Arkansas! We loaded our supplies and headed up, up, and up to our chosen base camp location, from which we would hike twice daily for eleven days of hard, concentrated hunting. We climbed about 2000 vertical feet per day, and at 5′ 2″ and about 115, I still lost 12 pounds. Ladies, I discovered that elk hunting is a great way for a woman to stay in those “skinny jeans!”
On our first hunt, we excitedly hiked down to a canyon that cornered up to a section of private land. Pointed out to us was the approximate whereabouts of an elusive fence line, beyond which we were not allowed to shoot an elk. That very first crisp, cold morning, a group of handsome bulls came bounding out of the golden glow of aspens at the bottom of that canyon, and I thought my rifle would shake right out of my hands! They put on a tremendous show, unlike anything I’d ever witnessed. However, they were at a distance and quite obviously on private land, so I raised up to get a better look. When I did, I happened to see movement below, catching 13 cows waltzing down a trail right under me. Not legal! Oh well. But what a first hunt!
Later that morning, out from the trees on the ridge across from us, 400 yards away, meandered a little spike bull. I watched him. I wondered. I realized I had forgotten to discuss the efficacy of shooting a spike. In whitetail hunting, where I come from, you get in trouble back at camp for shooting a spike and I did NOT want to be the one on the hot seat! I’m a goody two shoes girl who implicitly follows the unspoken rules of the hunt! So, I crunched on potato chips and crispy apples and made enough racket that I’m surprised it didn’t echo across the canyon and send that little spike into a run for his life. I decided then and there that I was really gonna like elk hunting if I could consume enormous amounts of loud food while doing so. I like to eat. A lot. At home, I would have sat motionless and starving, for fear the smell, noise or movement would’ve scared away my prey. In the end, I chose not to take the spike, for fear of retribution back at the base camp. Turns out I was wrong and they would’ve been thrilled for me to have harvested the meat. Well, darn the luck.
My husband and I would be the first to leave camp and the last to return each day, but still no elk to haul back. We continued to see elk, but all cows or bulls on private land. Or were they? Exactly where WAS that fence line? I was looking pretty rough by the 10th day without washing my hair and my fourth day wearing the same ratty tee shirt. It didn’t help my femininity that our host’s girlfriend was driven up to camp wearing her perfectly matching hi tech outdoor garb with her perfectly styled hair blowing in the wind, flashing her blindingly white teeth, while batting her doe-like false eyelashes and exclaiming, “Oh Baby, isn’t this fun? It’s like we are really camping or something!” I thought, “Oooooh, yes, “Baby,” it is SOMETHING alright.” Grrrr. It made me even more determined to get my elk!
We were now on the next to last day with my chances of getting an elk slipping away. I was crouched stiffly in my spot, freezing my butt off at the crack of a nippy dawn and finally decided to warm up with a little jig across the ridge to check out that fence line position once and for all. I eventually figured out that elk are not like whitetails, but are nomadic, and I could investigate the fence line without being too awfully concerned about never seeing an elk there again. I know. “Duh!” all you Western hunters are saying.
As I crept down the fence line from the top of the ridge, I heard a cow call, and as I watched in amazement, I saw a magnificent bull step out from behind a tall spruce in the distance. My heart was POUNDING. I put my crosshairs on him but I couldn’t pull the trigger. I didn’t know where he was in relation to that fence line marking private ground. I frantically scoured the hillside with my binoculars, looking for that tiny strand of barbed wire. Hurriedly, I would glance back to my elk. He was just leisurely nibbling at leaves, giving me one broadside shot opportunity after another. Having this beautiful creature in my crosshairs again and again for 10-15 seconds at a time and not being able to pull the trigger for fear of violating private ground was killing me. I watched, tears rolling down my face as he disappeared over the next ridge. I followed that lone barbed wire strand to find he had been on my side of the fence for a long while. I kneeled down and sobbed.
He was the last elk I saw on my first Western hunt. Next year, the first day, I’m marking that fence with bright, neon ribbon tied in great big bows that will glow in the light and flap in the wind! I’m considering battery powered blinking lights. The first legal elk that is dumb enough to step into my sites will be headed for my freezer. I will even pack an extra clean hat in case “Baby” comes up from civilization to spend day 10 with us. Oooooh yes. I am now addicted to the Western hunt.
I spent Saturday morning doing something truly unforgettable. Picture it, a cold snowy winter morning. A horse-drawn sleigh with hay bales for seats. A group of friends, anxious for what they know they are about to experience. Two majestic draft horses pull the sleigh as it jolts forward down a snowy lane, deeper into the woods, then comes to a stop. There we wait. After several minutes the first silhouette appears in the trees, as if it had been standing there the entire time, yet somehow unseen by this group of spectators. Suddenly more and more bodies appear, making their way through the trees, brush, and deep snow. Then we hear it… a sound which will remain one of my favorite spine tingling sounds for as long as I live-a bull elk bugling. Then you see him, trotting in with the rest of the herd, as if a dinner bell has been rung, which in fact it has, only in the form of sleigh bells. Filing in one after another, cows, bulls, calves, what seems like an unending procession of elk.
Do I have your attention? Now for the best part!
The hay bales I spoke of earlier are what the sleigh bells have beckoned this massive herd of elk to come running in for. Dinner is served. One by one the elk surround the sleigh and start snacking on the hay bales, yes, right out from under our warmly dressed bums. As an elk hunter and admirer of these creatures I cannot think of a more surreal situation. Magnificent bulls mere inches away, not caring that we humans are sitting atop their meal. I can’t think of anything else quite like it!!!
Although we could have sat there amongst that herd all day, unfortunately it was time to go. So, once again the horses pulled on their reigns, jolting the sleigh forward, and away we went, knowing we wouldn’t see this herd of elk again until next winter when they are drawn in by the sound of sleigh bells in the cool, crisp winter air, ready to feed.