by T. Duren Jones
My Final Bow, Maybe
The abysmal lack of success a decade and a half earlier had left me seriously unmotivated …
I sit here this morning looking out my home office window at freezing fog doing its frosty magic on the pine tree boughs. Three inches of fresh snow cover the yard from the night before. It is completely quiet as the workforce is sluggish to head out to jobs on icy roads, with low visibility, and the local school district has delayed students’ arrival by two hours.
Seems that this midwinter we are seeing snowstorms about every two days or so. I barely get the snow shoveled off the porch and driveway when, here it comes, yet another one. The joy of the holiday season is behind us. The snow in Colorado, when it first arrives in fall, is so charming, so beautiful, so serene, announcing the sentimentality of the days to come. By April, and even as late as May, we are shaking an angry fist at the sky. We’ve had it! So, instead of dreaming of this White Christmas past, I’m reflecting back on being outdoors during last fall’s hunting season.
Any game that day was probably several ridges away, and laughing.
Since it was both shocking and invigorating at the same time, I felt it was easier to soap scrub and rinse if I screamed like a schoolgirl.
I hadn’t been archery hunting for years. Frankly, the abysmal lack of success a decade and a half earlier had left me seriously unmotivated to hike miles in the dark, through dense forests—with no trails, and seemingly uphill in both directions—to try to get within 20 yards of game, just to play Indian with a bow and arrow. And this is assuming that you even seeany deer or elk that have every unfair advantage on you in the wilderness. If I had been born in another time and place, say as a Native American, my given tribal name would have been “Hunts Like a Blind Man.”
Yet, here I was again, deliberately punishing myself, this time with my son-in-law, Joe. Although Joe had a lot of experience back in his home state of Georgia, this would be his first opportunity to fail at bow hunting in the Rocky Mountains. Joe had wanted me to go with him for our first hunting time together, so I reluctantly agreed. Perhaps the weight of shareddisappointment wouldn’t be so crushing.
Our elk tent camp in the Uncompahgre National Forest in southwest Colorado sat in an open meadow surrounded by craggy, forbidding mountain peaks, with thick forests at their feet. Joe, our good friend Bill and I dressed each morning before dawn in our camo clothing (this year wearing knit masks instead of face paint for disguise, and deciding not to spray ourselves in elk urine). Then we headed out with delusional anticipation of success from either working hard, being smart or getting lucky. Our spirits were high. You see, with hunting there is always the possibility, the hope, of success. Each day might be theday to “bag” something, thus creating campfire stories to recount in exaggerated detail for years to come. At least that’s what we’d tell ourselves.
One evening, Joe and I decided that the next day we’d spend all day out (not returning to camp for lunch and a siesta), plus we’d spend the night out in the woods as well. That way, we’d already be set up for the next morning in the deep forest in a good location, having hiked many miles and several hours from camp. This was a first for me—and the last time I’ll even think of doing such a hare-brained thing. Good idea; poor execution.
With past hunts, I’d return to camp at the end of a long day, sometimes well after dark. Dead tired, my hunting buddy and I would crash into our respective cots after a hurried but hot camp dinner of Dinty Moore beef stew. At least we enjoyed the relative security and protection of our camp and large tent. This time, the notion of sleeping out in the dark woods, with hidden eyes watching us, seemed like a grand adventure, if not somewhat intimidating. Bill wisely chose to stay in the valley.
We got up into high elevation that day—nearly to tree line. It was a long and hard climb, steep and rocky, and it was compounded by the fact that we did not have the right equipment for our undertaking. We didn’t have frame backpacks to carry all our overnight stuff, just lightweight daypacks. Back at base camp, we had used bungee cords to strap on our two-man tent, sleeping bags, ground pads, heavier jackets, game field-dressing supplies, camp lights and extra food.
We looked ridiculous: Bulky plastic trash bags shot out in every direction. And it felt even worse! Our small packs were never meant to handle the added bulk. Items kept shifting and bouncing. Our shoulders and hips hurt, and our balance was thrown off as our wilderness supplies flopped around, hit tree branches and triggered ergonomic stress.
Most of the day was spent, painfully, just going where we were going, without much hunting. Anyway, with our loud shambling around the forest, any game that day was probably several ridges away, and laughing. Close to dusk, we decided to call it a day. Neither Joe nor I fully realized just how steep the surrounding forest floor was where we found ourselves. There was nowhere flat to pitch our tent. We scouted until dark and finally found a small, somewhat level spot—at least it looked nearly flat, in the dark, and with our exhausted minds.
Headlamps on, looking around for any glowing eyes in the murk, we threw up the tent. Joe asked if we should use the tent stakes, and I assured him that our weight would hold the tent down okay without them. We had a snack dinner inside our cramped tent, climbed into our sleeping bags … and then realized we were on far more of a slope than we had thought. Immediately, we—in our bags, on our pads, with our packs, and all of our extra stuff—began to slide forward toward the tent entrance. Too tired to make any adjustments, we both just kept pushing ourselves up through the rest of the long, mostly sleepless, night.
I must have finally dozed off a bit, because just after dawn I awoke and found myself in the bottom of my sleeping bag, curled in a fetal position, feet against the zippered entrance to the tent. All our supplies were crammed in around us. Grumbling, Joe and I got dressed, stuffed our mummy bags, set them outside the tent and stumbled stiffly into the chilly first morning light. After shaking off the cramps, blinking and rubbing our eyes, we made a discovery: We hadn’t just slipped down in the tent, but the whole now-wonky tent itself had crawled, with us in it, about 10 yards down the mountainside. We were amazed and chuckled at the absurdity of it all.
At this point—maybe getting back at me for the poor advice about the tent stakes—Joe thought it would be funny to give my tightly bound sleeping bag a kick, moving it down the hill. We were both stunned to see it pick up speed, hit and bounce off rocks and logs and just … keep … going. It seemed that it wasn’t going to stop, becoming its own perpetual motion bag of down feathers. When it finally slowed to a stop just a few feet from a 200-ft drop-off, Joe was bent over double in laughter. He sobered when I told him he had to go retrieve the bag, now about 50 yards away.
Given the lack of sleep, and the thought of the arduous climb back out with the ridiculous load on our backs, we decided not to hunt that morning but instead just head back to base camp. The way down was somewhat easier, but we still had the metronome walk from all the shifting weight. Bill cheerfully greeted us at camp with an “I told you so” grin on his face. After a small but convenient brunch of beef jerky and a Snickers bar, I pulled my cot out of the tent and napped in the shade of a large pine tree. A gentle breeze in no way hinted of the bad weather to come.
Late in the afternoon, rested and undeterred by our recent hunting debacle, we all dressed up like the forest again, grabbed our bows (and not much more!) and headed out. The three of us split up to cover an area surrounding a formation called Chimney Rock. I saw no game, or even signs that game had been there in a decade. I needed to find cover quickly if there was even a snowman’s chance of something walking by me at dusk.
I rounded a turn on an old game trail into thick deadfall and was surprised to see a grouse sitting on a log in the open. The large bird (a bit smaller than a pheasant) must have heard me coming and stood statue-still, thinking its tan tones would camouflage it. I did have a small game permit, so I thought I’d give the 10-yard shot a try. This would be a first for me.
I notched an arrow, lifted the bow up, pulled the bowstring back to full draw, adjusted lower than my top sight pin, held my breath and let the arrow fly. Success! I hit low on the target, but we’d still have fresh game for dinner that night. I never did find my arrow, buried somewhere deep in the brush dozens of yards away. In traditional Indian fashion, I thanked the game bird for giving its life for me so that we’d have something other than gorp (trail mix) to eat that evening.
Of course, the guys were surprised back at camp when I proudly displayed my kill. It wasn’t the elk we’d come for, but we would have fun sharing it for dinner, with some other meal items we could muster up. As I “dressed” it outside of our large outfitters tent, the light rain that had started on our way back grew heavier. We secured things around the tent and dashed inside.
My culinary skills are limited to begin with, but it didn’t help that for our game bird entrée we had no spices, not even salt and pepper. Digging through my food box I found a small packaged container of pineapple, with juice—perfect! If you could go to a Chinese restaurant and order orange chicken, then why couldn’t we have pineapple grouse? Everyone admitted it was delicious … and, wait for it … agreed that it tasted like chicken. We crashed into our cots to the sustained, soothing tippy-tap of rain on the tent.
It rained. And it rained some more. And even more, all through the night, and into the next morning, our day to pack up and return home. After three days in the wilderness, we all could stand a little “freshening up.” Besides, we all wanted to be clean and dressed in something other than camo for the six-hour drive home. And our wives would more appreciate that homecoming hug.
Someone suggested (okay, it was me) that we just shower outside in the rainstorm. The temp had dropped considerably, and the rain was now coming down in torrents, mixed with sleet. I had never done anything crazy like this before. I was the first to step out of the tent in my tighty-whities and camp clogs. Since it was both shocking and invigorating at the same time, I felt it was easier to soap scrub and rinse if I screamed like a schoolgirl. I washed my hair from a five-gallon water container that sat on the tailgate of one of our trucks. Each of the other guys followed me (although I believe Bill had to pay Joe five bucks to get him to do it), and in the end, we were all glad we tried this, as painfully uncomfortable as it was. Joe didn’t find out until later that Bill and I giggled from the tent as we took photos of him following my example.
I had never broken down camp before in driving rain. It just wouldn’t let up, but we had to get home. We put on our rain ponchos and braved the bad weather one storage tub, duffle bag and camp chair at a time, quickly loading the vehicles in a most unorganized way. Not sure why I had toweled off after my shower as water ran down my neck and soaked my gloves, boots and pants below the knees. Finally, just as we were ready to start our muddy drive away from our campsite, the clouds broke enough for us to see that the sawtooth peaks around us had a fresh dusting of snow.
We certainly had a hunting season of firsts. Unexpected adventures. Much of it like nothing we’d planned. Challenges that took us to our limits. I told Joe that this was probably going to be my last hunt. A lot of work, at my age, without much success, as most measure success for this sport. I said I thought I was done—this would be my last season.
We are already planning now for the next year’s hunt.