“What do you mean you ‘shot an elk right out of a tree?’” asked my wife, Jennifer, with a strong note of skepticism in her voice. Or maybe it was a touch of impatience I had detected in her intonation.
“Just what I said,” I insisted. “I shot my first elk, this morning, right out of a tree!” As I saw her facial expression change from one of quizzicality to one of bemused irritation, Jennifer shot back with, “Well, tell me, who was in the tree—you or the elk?”
“Actually, we both were,” I replied. “I was in a tree first before I shot the elk, and then—later—it was in a tree when I hung it there for field-dressing with my little, portable block and tackle.”
“Okay, funny man—enough of your word-games for today! I just hope it means you brought home lots of steaks for the freezer.” That was her final rejoinder, as she headed for the shower and on to bed. Jennifer greatly enjoyed eating the wild meat I was occasionally able to provide, but she never cared to hear much about the hunt itself. For me, the taking of my first elk with a bow was a really big deal, but I was going to have to find someone else with whom to share the exciting details of my hard-won success.
The adventure, itself, had been shared personally with my good buddy, Jack Vandervest. I had met him several years earlier through my wife, who was a systems engineer for IBM at the time. Jack was also employed with IBM as a salesman. He had always been an avid outdoorsman, but no one had ever introduced him to archery or bowhunting. That had turned out to be my great pleasure.
The late-season bowhunting unit where we chose to try our luck in the fall of 1970 was called the Ahtanum, situated about 15 miles west of Yakima over in eastern Washington. It was open to archery hunting only for either-sex deer and elk, and Jack and I were carrying tags for both species in our daypacks. I had previously hunted the area several times over a two-year period and had missed a few shots I probably should have made. In fact, the weekend prior to the one that is the focus of this story, I had taken a 50-yard shot at a splendid 4×4 mule deer buck crossing a snowy road up ahead of me. In frustration, I had watched him run off after my arrow sailed harmlessly over his back. A clean miss, I’d thought to myself, rather disgustedly—before the idea entered my brain that a clean miss was certainly better than a poor hit.
Going into the weekend Jack and I had chosen for our hunt, the weather forecast was predicting heavy snowfalls of a foot or more for the eastern slope of the Cascades. We knew this would drive lots of elk down out of the high country onto Ahtanum Ridge, which was known to be one of their favorite wintering grounds. I had become quite familiar with the east end of the Ridge already. Two summers earlier, my passion for the chase had reached the point of causing me to buy an old Jeep Wagoneer for just such hunting situations. Unfortunately, my first 4×4 vehicle got less than 10 miles to the gallon and turned out to be something of a lemon. This elk hunt with Jack confirmed my suspicion before it had barely begun. The price of the rig had seemed cheap enough, despite its high mileage, but it was all I could afford at the time on a school teacher’s salary.
Having spent Friday night in a Yakima motel room, 5:00 a.m. found us with chains on all four tires, heading up an old logging road I knew of at the east end of the unit. Halfway to the point where the road dead-ended, we started pushing snow with the front bumper. I hoped, however, that I could render our hike to the top of the Ridge a little shorter, so I kept pushing the snow (and my luck) a little further. The upward progress continued for a while, yet it was painfully slow.
Suddenly, disaster struck. We lurched to a halt, as the Jeep’s much-abused timing chain broke. And there we were: dead in the snow with no “paddle,” no winch, or anything else to help get us out of trouble. This was a couple of decades, of course, before the advent of cell phones, so we decided the only sensible thing to do was to forget about our difficulties and go hunting. We agreed to put off any effort to get out of the bind we were in until at least one of our game tags was filled.
Thanks to a tip given me by another bowhunter I’d run into the previous weekend while hunting alone, I knew the location of two treestands situated just below the top of the extreme eastern end of Ahtanum ridge. I had managed to find them with a little searching the prior Sunday, but I’d not yet sat in either one—other than simply to climb into them “to check out the view.” One stand, only about 14 feet off the ground, had had a bit of “carpentry work” done on it to make it more comfortable for sitting.
The second stand was about 80 yards down the hill from the first, on a bench of widely-scattered ponderosa pines, and it was anything but comfortable. Getting up into it was the real challenge, however.
It sat nearly 50 feet off the ground in the deformed crown of an ancient ponderosa monarch which had somehow lost its top many decades earlier. This treestand was not really a treestand at all, in the sense that we hunters use the word today. There was no man-made hardware up there—simply a bizarre jumble of big limbs that allowed decent footing and a couple of places to lean one’s posterior against. Some observant, enterprising, and athletic bowhunter had seen the tree’s potential and had provided access to the “stand” by driving a dozen or more, long, heavy, well-placed spike-nails into the first 30 limbless feet of the tree’s massive trunk.
Since Jack professed to having a certain fear of heights, I volunteered to tackle the big pine and put my college-mountaineering acrophobia training to the test. Hoping the stands’ “owners” would not show up to “evict” us from their well-deserved rights, we agreed to spend a good two hours in our respective locations and then rendezvous around 11:30 a.m. beneath my tree for an early lunch. The climb up to my lofty perch—from nail to nail-biting nail, as it were—was a bit daunting, I must admit, but I was thankful I’d remembered to bring from home a 50-foot length of parachute cord for hauling my bow up behind me. That left both hands free for climbing. The temperature that morning was not unseasonably cold, but a chilling wind was blowing, and I felt glad I had stuffed a warm parka into my rucksack before beginning our hike to the ridgetop.
The view from up above was quite something! The snow had stopped falling before dawn, and now the skies seemed to be forcing some lemonish pleats through the darker cloud cover. As I looked out across the valley that separated the Ahtanum from the elks’ summer and fall ranges, the thought occurred to me that we might even see some sunshine in the afternoon. The snowy world around me seemed almost magical, with every tree in view sporting a spanking-new greatcoat of ermine purity and freshness. The rising gusts of wind, however, began randomly stripping various trees of their newfound finery—unraveling huge plumes of powder snow, as they pursued their way to One-Never-Knew-Where.
But where were the elk, I suddenly wondered? There just had to be lots of them around, given the weather conditions and the time of year. Once I got settled into my “stand” and starting glassing for game, I found quite a few animals feeding, or running about, in different directions. No doubt there were many other bowhunters in the area besides us, helping to stir things up and move the elk from place to place. I felt confident that—sooner or later—one or more would come along and cross the bench underneath me.
As things happened, I didn’t have to wait even an hour-and-a-half. Of a sudden, I spotted two cow elk running directly toward my tree. Instantly I stood up straight, stabilized my footing, drew my bow, and leaned over—far forward—aiming the arrow nearly straight down. The bigger cow was passing through my shooting gap between tree limbs just as I reached full draw. I hadn’t been quite quick enough for her, so I decided to concentrate on nailing her slightly smaller, yearling offspring that was trotting some five or six yards behind her. Because she was passing almost directly below me, I aimed for the middle of her back, just behind her withers. As I released the arrow, I could only hope my timing was right.
The hit proved virtually perfect! As the elk ran off, I could see my bright orange nock just showing on top of the back, right next to the spine. It collapsed and expired at the base of another ponderosa just 30 yards away from the one I was in. I could hardly believe the cow had died so rapidly! The whole drama had unfolded and played itself out in just over half-a-minute. I let out a war whoop, knowing Jack would hear it from his stand, and that he’d show up shortly to help me deal with the big job ahead. After lowering my bow to the ground and then clambering down from my “crow’s nest,” I walked over to my first-ever elk and found the Bear Razorhead broadhead sticking about four inches out the bottom of the brisket, a few inches behind the front legs. The sense of elation was euphoric.
Getting the heavy animal back to our stricken vehicle, however, was a huge challenge—and totally different from the one we knew we’d have to deal with once we got there. The return “path” was mostly downhill—thank heavens!—and the snow made dragging the carcass much easier than it would otherwise have been. Yet talk about getting lucky! Our bad luck of the early morning was no match for the good fortune that overwhelmed us that afternoon.
I don’t suppose the two of us had been tugging on the drag-rope for more than five minutes when a non-hunting snowmobiler happened along. He cheerily offered to drag our elk all the way to the Jeep, and we, of course, were definitely in the mood to accept his kindness. Jack climbed onto the snowmachine, right behind the driver, and I hitched a free ride, too—by sitting astride the elk as it was pulled through the deep snow. What had taken us more than an hour to climb on foot in the steely, matinal light of daybreak took us only 10 minutes to descend by Snowmobile Express.
Having arrived at our incapacitated vehicle, we offered the Good Samaritan some money for his efforts, but he declined to accept anything for his services and took off for parts unknown. Parked right behind our rig was a much bigger, taller, four-wheel drive truck that had found its upward path blocked by our Jeep. The owner had obviously just parked there and gone hunting, too. We figured he’d return before dark, so we proceeded to string our elk up in a nearby tree and do a careful, meticulous job of field-dressing.
When the truck’s owner finally returned in the late afternoon, he threw his bow in his cab and promptly asked how he might help us. He had a winch on the front of his rig, but the first job was to get our Jeep turned around and headed downhill. He provided us with an ax that allowed us to chop down several small trees in the way, and then—by using a block and tackle attached to first one tree, and then a second one—he was able to winch us around, bit by bit, ’til we were in a position to be towed with a rope attached to our front bumper. Our second Good Samaritan of the day did not abandon us until he had towed us down the mountain and all the way into an auto repair shop in Yakima!
Talk about having good luck when a hunter goes afield! All I know is that Somebody Upstairs that late November day must have decided to cast multiple blessings on my head. On the drive home that evening, I told Jack I figured I’d probably used up my entire quota of good luck for the rest of the year—and maybe all of the next one! My first bow-and-arrow elk, shot right out of a tree, from 50 feet up, was a memory that would stay with me forever. Neither before then—nor since then—have I ever hunted from a treestand anywhere near that far above terra firma. Indeed, following that dramatic weekend, it took me many days just to come back “down to earth.” It had been a real “high”—in more ways than one!
Editor’s note: This article is the sixth of the BAREBOW! Chronicles, a series of shortened stories from expert hunter and author Dennis Dunn’s book, BAREBOW! An Archer’s Fair-Chase Taking of North America’s Big-Game 29. Dunn was the first to harvest each of the 29 traditionally recognized native North American big game species barebow: using only “a bow, a string, an arrow—no trigger, no peep sights, no pins—just fingers, guts, and instinct.” Each of the narratives will cover the (not always successful, but certainly educational and entertaining) pursuit of one of the 29 animals. One new adventure will be published every two weeks–join us on the hunt! You can learn more about the work and purchase a copy on Dunn’s site here. Read the fifth Chronicle here.
Top illustration by Hayden Lambson