By Jim Deeming
It is an unwelcome surprise to suddenly find you are not alone in the woods.
You've worked hard to get away from it all, driving and hiking for hours to escape phones, pagers, people, or cars. It's your annual elk hunt, and the whole forest is your private refuge. Sneaking along in the woods, you begin to feel like the only soul for miles around.
Then suddenly another hunter pops into view and you both jump! Surprise is followed by dismay at being intruded on. Then you try to guess whether the other fellow wants to talk or be left alone. It's an odd, awkward moment.
Sometimes it's very awkward.
Like one particular day of last year's elk hunt. After hunting on foot all morning and finding no fresh sign of elk, I saddled up my big black and white paint, Chief, and headed out on an eight mile ride through new country. For the first hour we just side-hilled through the trees, following nothing but random game trails. Presently we found ourselves on a long abandoned logging road, threading its way through tall aspen. It was easy traveling, hindered only by the occasional fallen quakie, or washed out switchback.
Rounding a bend, we were suddenly encroaching on some hunters setting up a new camp. They looked up, startled and dismayed. Then their southern hospitality took over and they waved us in for a chat. I reined Chief down off the roadbed and into their construction site. Plastic tarps were strung up for shelters and camping gear was scattered everywhere. It was tricky, but we got in close enough to talk with low voices. Three fellows were plainly in view and from the activity on the other side of camp I gathered there must be a couple more.
Exchanging pleasantries I learned they drove all the way from South Carolina and had just packed in five miles on foot. Since I was a "local", and on horseback, and having just hunted several days, they were eager to hear anything I had to say. The fact I hadn't killed an elk yet didn't seem to diminish their attentiveness, so I let them have it with both barrels. I elaborated on the elk, the weather, hunting pressure, and about the big ol' bear Troy had seen near our camp. They were drinking it all in. Even Chief cocked an ear my way, as if he was surprised I was giving up so much information to the competition.
On I went, being as helpful as I could. They were an easy audience, in full anticipation of the hunt that lay before them. I could see I was winding them up pretty good so I poured it on a little thick, just for fun.
"One advantage you all will have", I said, "is that I talked to a rancher day before last and they are pulling all the sheep down out of here, so you won't have to contend with that."
They were especially grateful for this bit of information.
"Oh good", said one. "Sheep or bears could sure ruin a hunting area."
Another said, "Yeah, I saw all these mowed down areas on the way up here. Those *$&%@ sheep must have done that. I'm glad they'll be gone."
"They are", I affirmed. "I also met a lone rider huntin' strays last night and he said the sheep would all be down out of here by today." I don't know Spanish, I didn't add, but I was pretty sure I understood the fellow right.
Chief decided I was telling a lot more than he wanted to stand around and listen to. He was getting antsy and hard to hold still. Chief is a big boy and when he starts moving, people on the ground get uncomfortable. Besides, we were in a maze of rope and twine strung between tents, tarps, and trees. His off hind foot was only one more fidget away from squashing a Solar Shower Bag warming in the sun. I decided to head out before we had a one-horse rodeo in a real small arena. As I pointed Chief up toward the road, they kept talking.
"I hate hunting where sheep's been", said one dejectedly. Over my shoulder, I reassured them.
"Don't worry guys. They're gone, for sure. Sheep are noisy and I ain't heard one all day. I'd say the roundup is all done and you're in the clear. Believe me, if there were sheep within two miles of here, you'd know it! Good luck!"
Chief was glad to be moving again. I began to get a view of the rest of their camp as it strung out alongside the road. These four or five guys had carried an enormous amount of gear. I wondered how many trips they had made from whatever trailhead got them here.
Approaching the far end of their camp, I noticed one fellow hunkered down studying something on the ground. His hat was pulled down low around his ears and he was concentrating almighty hard. It seemed like he was so engrossed in the flora and fauna that he wasn't even going to look up and say "howdy". We were going to walk right by him and I began to wonder if the poor guy was deaf.
The mystery cleared up though when we got close and I realized his pants were pulled plumb down around his ankles - he was busy making fauna of his own! I was embarrassed for him and me both. I felt Chief bunch up underneath me and, before I could stop him, he blew a big old loud snort. The poor guy flinched but still didn't look up.
As I said, it is an unwelcome surprise to suddenly find you are not alone in the woods.
I averted my eyes quick, trying to give him what little was left of his dignity. I held them thus for a few steps until a new bend in the road required my attention again.
My jaw nearly hit the saddle horn - the whole road was swarming and spilling over with 50 or 60 sheep being pushed hard by another horseback sheepherder! They were coming fast, darting to and fro, cutting a swath 20 yards wider than the road on both sides.
And they weren't making a sound! No bleats. No whimpers. Hardly a twig snapped!
Chief is a young horse and he had seen a lot of things for the first time this week. Sheep was one too many, and he made it clear that if I asked him to part that herd up the middle, the answer was going to be NO. So I let him have his head and he squirted uphill fast to the left. His quick pace through the thick trees forced me to duck my head and watch out for my knees - I dared not look back.
It killed me not getting to see what happened. We reined in at the top of a knoll and I listened intently for what must surely be total chaos in the camp below.
But there was nothing. No shouts. No cussing. No sounds of plastic tarps being drug through the ferns and serviceberries - just silence.
It seemed impossible. And what about Fauna Guy? I just knew there was no way he could have got his pants up fast enough, even if he'd seen what was coming. They were too close and coming too fast.
I've read about cowboys dying in a stampeding herd of cattle. Their headstone reads, "He died with his boots on". What do you say for a guy killed by a flock of sheep? "He died with his pants down"?
What to do? I asked my horse.
"Well Chief, I reckon my credibility on sheep is pretty well ruined. How 'bout we ride back down there again and tell them not to worry about any bears? I bet they'd pack up and leave right now…"
Chief snorted again. I think that's how he laughs.
Or maybe it's how he says I'm full of fauna. I don't know which.
About the author:
Jim Deeming is a lifelong Colorado native who writes about his 20 plus years of hunting and guiding adventures. He publishes a free newsletter with tips, tricks, and stories of elk hunting, aimed primarily at the public land do-it-yourself hunter. His upcoming book, "Do-It-Yourself Elk Hunting" is due to be released in time for the 2006 seasons.
For more information, go to: http://www.diyhunting.com
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