SODA SPRINGS, IDAHO — The campsite was just as vacant as the day John Peterson and I first trudged toward it from the Upper Snake River’s shoreline in September 2007.
Unfortunately, I soon spotted three tents 150 yards south of “my” campsite. That meant another group of elk hunters had beaten me to the hunting privileges on the mountainsides beyond. I suppose I could have walked into their camp to ask if they’d be staying long, but I instead returned to my small boats and moved south 2 miles.
I reasoned this is good elk country, and maybe getting bumped from turf I knew well would force me to learn some new hunting grounds. One can’t know too many elk hangouts, especially when it’s public land and you can roam where you please.
Two hours later, a bull elk bugled from above my new campsite. I cocked my head, hoping to pinpoint whether it was on the ridge north or south of me, or the creek valley behind to the west. But the sounds vanished into the winds.
Just as I lowered my head to resume pounding tent stakes, the bull bugled again. And again I cocked my head in futility, unable to zero in my ears. I then worked faster to raise the tent as dark clouds hovered west of the ridges, and distant thunder rumbled. Minutes later, as I assembled the camp cots, a wind gust uprooted all three stakes on the tent’s western wall, and I sat on that corner of the guest cot to hold things down.
After the brief storm passed, I walked around the little valley picking up rocks big enough to risk a hernia. I lugged a rock to each of the tent’s seven main stakes and centered them on the sunken pegs. If a wind blew away my tent now, I’d be flying with it.
Camp chores consumed the rest of the afternoon and early evening. There was water to filter, a privy to dig, a solar power panel to stake down, a stove and lantern to fire up and cooking/eating area to arrange.
Finally, too exhausted to start hunting and scouting, I walked toward the water to fish for trout. With luck, I’d have a fresh fish to add to my freeze-dried dinner. Those plans and hopes vanished a minute later as thunder rolled again from over the mountain and down my valley.
Looking up, I saw a dark cloud rising into view like a wildfire. I wasn’t going to win this argument, so I retreated to the tent and zipped myself in as heavy raindrops thudded into the tent’s nylon fly.
I don’t know when the rain quit. I was too busy sleeping off the previous two days of driving, hauling gear and setting up camp. All I know is that when I opened the tent door at dawn, I stepped outside wearing camouflaged rainwear, knowing the forests and meadows behind camp would be drenched.
I spent the next two hours crouched and hunched — sometimes inching, sometimes jogging — up the narrow valley trying to catch up to a bull bugling a few hundred yards away. I followed him through the willows by the creek and the aspens in the meadow until reaching the edge of a steep, forested mountainside. I quit the chase when conceding I couldn’t match the bull’s ascent. His bugles grew distant as he widened the gap.
I returned to camp in late morning to make lunch, finish my setup chores and prepare for Chris White’s arrival. My friend was flying from Ohio to Salt Lake City and then driving a rental car to our rendezvous at a nearby boat landing. I had warned him earlier that morning that we were in a new campsite and wouldn’t be hunting our usual spots unless we took a boat ride each morning in the dark.
If that bothered him, he didn’t let on. He’s a good hunter and typically makes the best of situations, rather than imagining troubles that seldom come to pass. Who knows? Maybe we’d find our best hunting area yet when we started hunting the next morning.
Believe it or not, that’s what happened. I’d been up this particular ridge system only twice before, once in 2007 and again in 2008. I recalled the ascent wasn’t a backbreaker, and that I had chased a couple of bulls during the 2008 hunt with my daughter Leah and my friend Mark Beyer.
We never reached the wooded mesa atop the ridge on those hunts, but it had intrigued me since Leah and I studied it from the next ridge to the north. “It’s tough to get up there, but it looks like great elk habitat from a distance,” I told White. “We’ll try to get halfway there in the dark tomorrow morning, and work our way up if we don’t hear any bulls to chase.”
The bulls didn’t bugle, so we eased up to the long mesa and sat to watch a patchy mountainside 200 yards away. A flat, open saddle bridged the ground between, and a heavily used game trail crossed its width. We sat downwind of it and waited.
About 20 minutes passed before an elk calf walked the trail and disappeared to the north. After lunch we moved that way, figuring we’d slowly scout the mesa for the next few hours.
We subsequently stalked within 75 yards of a cow elk and spike bull, which had 18-inch antlers still in velvet. When they moved into thick cover, we resumed our sneak. Minutes later, I held up my left hand for White to stop. A cow was bedded about 50 yards away, looking our way but chewing its cud and flicking its ears.
Before we could try stalking into arrow range, an unseen elk apparently caught our scent and alerted its companions. The big cow rose, and they disappeared in a thumping of hurried hoofsteps.
Any regrets about forsaking our previous campsite and hunting grounds disappeared with that small herd.
Patrick Durkin is a freelance writer who covers outdoors for Press-Gazette Media. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.