After two hours hunting from the woods near the back of my house outside rural Wildhorse Plains, Montana, I was able to claim my first six by six bull elk. After catching the trail a quarter mile from my backdoor on Thanksgiving morning 2007, I trudged up hill for two hours gaining ground on a solitary large set of elk tracks in six inches of new fallen snow. After hiking an elevation of about 1,200 feet and passing over the saddle of the mountain range that overlooks my house, I was feeling like giving up the chase and taking the old logging road on back down to the house to join my family for a ten o’clock breakfast. I briefly stopped to contemplate this decision while silently complimenting myself that I had worked hard to get this point and thinking, “Wouldn’t it just be awesome to see an elk walk right up this narrow clearing so I could be rewarded for all the tracking I had done this morning?” Going back home seemed like a very real option, in fact, the tracks were not any fresher than they were at 7:00 am, and I had not seen a single animal all morning. The tracks that I had been following all morning started to go parallel on the hillside and would predictably go down the other side eventually. I decided to follow them horizontally on the hill until they met the logging road a short one hundred yards below me and return home. I momentarily stopped to catch my breath and re-examine the Elk tracks. At this juncture there were now three sets of tracks to study. By chance I looked over to where I had the thoughts of seeing an elk and much to my surprise, a healthy six by six bull was standing in the exact location of where I was only three minutes ago!
I wasted no time and fired three quick bolt action shots to his left flank. It wasn’t until the third shot did he move off, and at a walk at that! He appeared to never see me at the 150 yards distance, as his line of sight was cut off by mature Ponderosa Pines. I waited about five minutes and reloaded before pursuing the hunt. When I arrived at the point where I shot him, my previous footprints were evidenced in the stark white snow, as were his, but no sign of blood to track. I continued to observe the story of his condition in the snow as he maintained his uphill walk back over the saddle to the direction from which I had just come. The sign he left behind showed him lying down twice, about seventy-five yards apart, but still no sign of blood. As I crested and descended the apex of the peak, I noticed turned over soil and rock mixed in the snow on the sharp descent. Ahead in the thick immature evergreen thicket the bull gave me the first eye contact we made at about fifty yards. I took a shot through the heavy brush and had the bullet ricochet and miss. The animal failed to flee so I moved my position on the steep hillside to take a neck shot. This shot did the job and dropped the elk. After firing five shots I had scored my first elk in four years of trying.
I spent the following hour field dressing the elk by myself and discovered that my first three shots were tightly bunched and pierced the liver leaving no blood trail. I found myself getting leg cramps and going through the physical demands it takes to dress an 800 pound animal. After satisfactorily preparing the game, I made my way down to my house in twenty three minutes to announce my Thanksgiving blessing to the family. We celebrated briefly then considered how we were going to pack it out. Considering that it was Thanksgiving and that we have our own three horses, we decided to use them rather than interrupt many of our friend’s on this family holiday. My wife Wendy and I decided to call our friend Sam, who had some experience packing out an elk or two. He said we could quite easily use the horses to drag the meat out on the well cleared logging road back to the house. This would be a longer commute, about 4miles, but it made sense because of the improved footing and gentle grade. We arrived to the kill sight and promptly sectioned off the carcass. One section consisted of the head and antlers, the second section contained the front shoulders and rib cage, while the two hind quarters were left joined together for the haul. The horses were tied nearby and witnessed the whole ordeal and they acted as if they had done this before. Only, they hadn’t done this before. This was their first experience with any dead animal.
We brought along full length roping lariats and never intended to drape the meat on the animals. Our plan was to ride the horses, wrap the rope around the horn, and safely slide the meat on the six inch snow pack and head back to the house. If any problems should arise, we would let the ropes go and regroup. Initially, this is exactly what happened. After a good thirty minutes break-in period, we were making some head way. Occasionally it was easier to walk alongside the horses than to ride them. The snow was pretty high and this arrangement was uncomfortable to walk in and difficult do for an extended time. My strawberry blonde appaloosa mare, Molly, was especially tough to get going. I had to mount her, and each time I did, she would turn back and face the shoulders and ribs that we were pulling. This required me to let go of the rope time and time again. We kept up this spinning pattern for a while and fell behind the other two horses. She finally came to an understanding of what it was I wanted her to do, and we easily caught up to the others after about a mile. After meeting up with Sam and Wendy, I learned of their difficulties as well. Wendy’s paint quarter horse trampled over her when she was walking beside him. He spooked for some reason and forced her to the uphill side of the mountain that bordered the road. She fell as he bumped into her and he proceeded to completely stomp on her chest area and thigh. She was on her back under the horse and the hooves should have given her serious injuries. She escaped with only bruises and was able to remount and keep riding! She smartly decided to abandon the meat on the side of the road for later retrieval. I couldn’t blame her. She attributes her safety to her faith in the good Lord!
After our stoppage, and sharing of that unpleasant story, we decided to move on. Wendy was up front, Sam had the head dragging behind him in second position, and I remained in third. As soon as we took one step I felt a sudden sensation under saddle that found me being thrust upward toward the sky! Molly, the horse I was on, was in a full out bucking fit! She tried to heave me off as she started running up towards Sam and the second horse. I held on determined to not be bucked off. My thinking was that staying on might help contain the actions of the other horses, and of course, nobody likes to get bucked off. We quickly closed the distance between the horse in front of us, and the head that lie on the ground. Molly, in what looked like a fury, charged straight for the head and the thirty-six inch tall elk antlers. As she charged, she managed to align her front hooves to come crashing down toward the head. She had plenty of room to safely pass by on the road, but it appeared she was trying to stomp on the head instead. Due to her efforts, she took the main fighting tine of the rack to her right breast. It pierced her just above the center “Y” of the breast collar. The impact punctured her heart and the only thing she knew to do after that was run. As she ran straight down the high mountain road in what turned out to be a death run, the other horses lost their composure. Sam’s horses bucked and sent him airborne with his hunting rifle secured around his shoulder. His horse went running ahead with the elk head dangling behind. Sam escaped without further injury to his already sensitive back. Another tragedy averted there. Wendy dismounted and let go of her horse preventing what could have been a repeat of what happened earlier to her. All the horses were running now. Only one of them still had a rider.
Molly ran about another two hundred feet farther down the road and took a hard left off the road on the downward side of the mountain. This was a clear-cut section with a pretty good pitch and plenty of stumps and slash waste wood littering the slope. She was picking up speed now as we plunged down the hillside. I could now see the spurting blood casting itself ahead of her foot placement in the snow as her powerful strides picked up momentum. It was clear to me then that staying on that horse wasn’t going to aid us in keeping the other horses from running off. If I didn’t dismount soon I would be rolling under that horse and would certainly face serious injury or death. I raised my right foot over the horse’s neck and above the horn of the saddle, and looked for a place to push off and land in safety. I managed to find a six foot section with no debris and landed heels first and incorporated a roll to dissipate the momentum of the dismount. I bruised my shoulder blade but was fortunate to escape without serious injury. The horse continued on down the hill for another eighty yards before she stopped. I could see her in the distance billowing blood out of her chest for what seemed like an eternity, but was only a minute or two. She hit her knees and her misery was over. Mine continued.
I crawled my way back up the snowy bank to the road as I witnessed my wife running and screaming after our other horses. Seeing your wife or loved one in such distress is purely agonizing. I regrouped with Sam and we followed chase after her. After about a quarter of a mile, Wendy’s horse came running toward us from the direction she headed off. He easily let me grab him and he lead us another quarter of a mile down the road. I didn’t know what to expect at this point. As we turned a bend in the road we saw Gambler, the horse attached with the elk head, and Wendy half way down another steep clearcut. Previously, Wendy had stopped to pray after running after the horses for a time, and her horse, Splash, had responded to the prayer by showing up at that instant. She jumped on him and he took her to Gambler. She ran down to him and released Splash, finding out later that he ran to us.
When we arrived, Wendy had already untacked the old geld and was biting the horse’s tail to free it from the elk antlers that had become ensnared in it. Sam carefully made his way down the steep hillside to give Wendy a knife to aid her freeing the unfortunate horse, while I stayed with the other horse. Gambler had run off with twelve daggers prodding him with every stride he took. He was badly marked up with gashes and lacerations but amazingly, none of them required stitches. He was also frothing with sweat, trembling to the core, and bleeding from the mouth. It appeared he was in very bad shape. We proceeded in trying to get him to walk off the mountain side but he refused. He held fast and would not budge despite bringing his stablemate down to him. It was nearly dark and temperatures were falling fast. It had been below freezing all day and the temperatures would reach the teens later that evening. It looked as though we would need to abandon Gambler and hope for the best, or come back to him later. Wendy rode Splash all the way home the remaining mile and a half to get help. Sam and I stayed for a bit to encourage the geld again, but he was acting “locked up” due to some unknown malady. We had to leave him to care for ourselves. The prognosis for him appeared bleak due to the extreme exposure he would encounter and the very real threat of wolves that had been frequenting the area.
At this point I faced an extremely humbling walk home without any parts of the elk, one horse dead, and the other horse facing incredible odds of surviving the night. I was wondering what kind of “blessing” did I get myself into? The only positive thread to hold onto was the fact that the three of us were not badly hurt.
When we reached the house, we were informed many of our dear friends were on their way to help us. They arrived and insisted on going back up to rescue the horse. Contacts were made and a snowmobile was on route to help. I was grateful because I was cramping up and could not have walked back there without a meal and transportation of some kind. We had a full moon to aid us and about nine of these great people with veterinarian supplies and warm bran trudged the mile and a half back up to where Gambler was when we left him. As the snowmobile driver and I arrived at the base of the clear-cut, I could see the black silhouette of the horse in the moonlight. He had not taken a single step in any direction. We administered to him by blanketing him, injecting him with muscle relaxants, and feeding him. He responded by taking tentative steps down the mountain to the road below. His pace increased and we were all amazed he appeared to be in excellent condition on the walk home. The snowmobile and the others with sleds recovered the elk sections that were scattered along the road and brought them home. A few days later two friends and myself went to reclaim the saddle and tack and pay our respects to Molly as we turned her back to mother nature’s hands.
I hope others can learn from this experience that horses are large powerful animals with real primitive fears and behaviors. You might say that I got a dose of fight and flight from my mare. Using them in new ways requires training and exposing them to experiences. Even then, the unforeseen and unexplained can happen. When it comes to packing out an enormous animal like an elk, ask for help and enjoy the camaraderie of human interaction. We were fortunate to escape with no major injuries and that was a blessing on this very unusual Thanksgiving Day.