[box] There is a podcast audio below, reading this text. There is also a video below that, with some “highlights” of the excursion.[/box]
People rarely go hunting with my husband twice. I have vaguely understood this, knowing that he is often a frightening combination of explorer and extreme stamina. When other people say, “Oh, I wish I had lived in the pioneer days!” I say, “Oh, God, thank you that we live in the day and age of cars and indoor plumbing.” When my husband enters “Wild Greg” mode, I easily envision what my life would have been like in that time period. You would probably be reading about my “noble and valiant struggle” in some historical record with false longing from the comfort of your couch. When the world of “future space exploration” is contemplated by arm chair adventurers, I think, “I am so glad we are limited to this earth!” I can enjoy the summer camping, even in the remote spots he thrives in, but I always want to come home to my modern conveniences, such as ice cream. If “the final frontier” was involved, I doubt we would make it home.
I suppose that if I didn’t know any different, I would be fine. If my life involved strenuous nomadic travel or predators howling outside my cabin door on dark winter nights, I could deal with it. I have a generally adaptive nature. Like I adapted to waking up on the morning of our 33rd wedding anniversary and finding out we were going to climb up the side of a mountain. For fun.
Now, I had offered to take him camping for our anniversary. So many times, it is the husband who is expected to make the wife feel special on an anniversary. This time, I decided to surprise him. I also can’t complain, because when the option of staying in my sister’s tiny cabin came up, he said he thought it would be nice. This was several steps up from our standard tent camping, especially when it came to the flush toilets and hot showers just 50 feet from the cabin. When we arrived, he merely commented on how close together everyone was, but since we saw few signs of life, there was little to complain about. Apparently our anniversary falls at the thin edges of camping season, even with large, fully stocked, and heated RV’s at their disposal.
And I haven’t been married to him for this long without expecting some adventurous hiking if we visit the mountains. Or anywhere. But it is usually hiking that at least starts out on a trail. It certainly has never been straight up a mountain before. I guess he felt I was ready? He was glad to hear I had brought some enclosed moccasins for any potentially challenging hiking conditions. (You can find my moccasins of choice in the RunAMoc ad in the sidebar to the right. Mine are called “Moc3”). I was pretty sure long pants were a wise choice, too.
I have heard snippets of hunting tales. Some of them he waited 10 years to tell me, being concerned I might tend to worry. Like the time he was out after pitch dark and almost walked off a cliff. He had noticed just in time and stopped because “something just didn’t feel right.” Still, he has never taken me hiking at night. Sure, we have been for nighttime walks, like the time he was showing me how bats respond by throwing a rock up in the air, but miscalculated the trajectory of the rock. I only screamed slightly when the rock and bat appeared within inches of my nose at the same time, but I have decent reflexes. However, being on the cautious side myself, I was observing his preparations for this particular hike with both regular interest and clues for what to expect. He doesn’t like a lot of questions.
Thus it was that when he put the flashlight into his back pack, I spoke up. “How long ARE we going to be out there?” He chuckled. He “just” wanted to be prepared, which is actually odd, since it is not uncommon for him to say I don’t need water or snacks if the hike will be less than 6 hours. This time, he even packed emergency food. Well, peanut M&M’s, but from his history, this was quite a concession. And a signal. Of Something. He really didn’t seem to want to volunteer any more information, so I went with trust.
I DO trust him. I know that he cares about me. I know he will take full responsibility for any mishaps and bear the physical brunt of any real difficulty. Plus, it really is an unspoken indication of love that he would want to spend time with me in an activity that he craves for “alone time.” I buried any thoughts of this together-alone time extending into the middle of the night and got myself a bottle of water.
As I followed him out the tiny cabin door, I was expecting to head toward one of the mountains that surrounded us and the campground. Instead, he got in the car. When I asked, he said he was looking for “a mountain he remembered from hunting in the area about 20 years ago.” Huh. Okay. So we drove up the highway, past the gate that is often closed due to snow and landslides, towards the region of a certain lake.
Right about mile marker ____ (I am sworn to secrecy), there was a small, gravel area that allowed him to park far enough off the road so as to be well out of the way of traffic. It was right by The mountain he thought he recognized. To me, it looked like many of the other peaks in that region of the Sawtooth Mountains, but fortunately was not one of the jagged cliff faces.
There was an energetic creek flowing along that side of the road, too, but with a little reconnaissance, we found the road followed a bridge over the creek about a 100 yards away. It meant walking on the narrow winding road with a few cars and trucks going by, in a place they could hardly expect to run across pedestrians. Pun intended. It seemed like a good trade off at the time, because the creek was just deep and fast enough to be challenging to cross. Plus, I didn’t like the idea of getting wet right at the beginning of a hike of unknown length.
There was no easing into the climb. Right from the base of the road, the slope went up in front of my face. I mean, like there I was standing and the next part of it was in my face. Not vertical, but I was going to develop some new skills and problem solving quickly. I almost immediately had to get over my aversion to touching the plants with my hands. Not only do I have sensitive skin, with a tendency to allergic reactions to plants, but I KNEW there were bugs in every plant. That was simple to verify, as a great many of the creatures were slithering and hopping all around. But I couldn’t very well give up right at the start. So, I started grabbing clumps of grass and pulling myself slowly up the mountainside.
I say “slowly,” because the husband, who was now fully in Wild Greg mode, was gliding quickly up the side like he had some sort of anti-gravity apparatus. Every 50 feet or so, he would stop and wait, and call down encouraging things. I, on the other hand, was grasping full hands of grass, thinking how ironic it was that when weeding in my garden I curse the tenacity of grass roots, but here I was immensely thankful. There really was nothing else to hold onto and the dirt-rock mix was constantly sliding away under my feet like a bad dream.
A couple of quick looks down to see if I was making progress convinced me I shouldn’t look down. It made me dizzy and off-balance. The road looked like an aerial view of Google maps. I mentioned to Wild Greg that I was feeling a high degree of risk, but he said if I fell I “wouldn’t fall very far.” He elaborated that once a friend of his had fallen and had been stopped by some (sharp) sticks after a relatively short roll. Deep breath. It was meant to help me not worry. I asked him if we could find another way down, to which he happily informed me that we wouldn’t be able to find this route if we wanted to! Great.
I didn’t bother keeping track of time or distance. We were in another dimension, a Wild Greg Zone. I soon learned to appreciate the young aspen saplings that became available as hand holds. More on that for the trip down.
It wasn’t too long before we began to come across game trails. I have seen game trails before, but not in an area that was so obviously devoid of human trails. The network of paths was impressive. The ground of the trails was dented and churned everywhere by hoof marks. Some trails ran sideways. Others went more vertical, giving evidence that there is great meaning to descriptions such as “leap like a deer.” As I struggled where they obviously pranced, I spoke to Wild Greg about the fact that deer and elk always have two feet on the ground.
Finally, we entered a comparatively gently sloping meadow. Here, the myriad of tightly packed grass clumps were matted down, like animals had recently slept there. There were lots of elk droppings, and we even saw bear scat. I was assured that it was probably only from shy black bears. The meadows began to occur more frequently and there were often rivulets of water running through them, probably the head waters of some major river down below. I thought about building a cabin and settling down. Then, I remembered winter.
We never walked along one of the game trails for very long. I suppose because 1) they didn’t go straight up the mountain, and 2) there was no point since we were exploring potential hiding and hangout places. I still couldn’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment every time we left a trail, even if it was made by animals. There was a familiar comfort to the idea of being on a trail. However, as we pushed our way through thickets of shrubs and small trees, I compared it to our traipse through the elephant grass in Africa and was felt glad we were unlikely to be hunted by aggressive Black Mambas or trampled by elephants (that didn’t happen there, but there was the potential). By comparison, a wolf or bear was sounding tame, or at least I told myself so and tried to think intimidating thoughts.
It was me who spotted the only live elk we saw. It was small, probably a female or a youngster. Either way, it was on the move and was gone before Wild Greg came over. He was perfectly happy to have me be the only one to see it. He would be back.
Wild Greg chose one particular large meadow to mark on his GPS for future reference. Then, he suggested that we “just” go to the top of the ridge we could see and find out if it was really the top or only a false peak. I could imagine us chasing down the top of the mountain until the edge of tomorrow. It might be a shame to get that far and not stand on the top of the 7000 foot pinnacle, however I didn’t want to become “one with the mountain” in another more permanent way, either.
The top was an illusion, but it had to be up there somewhere. As Wild Greg contemplated trying one more time to find the top, I had to tell him that my legs were getting very tired. I wasn’t sure if the “hike” down would be easier or harder. Regardless, I was pretty sure that I would regret going further before turning around. He agreed and took a reading of the car’s position with his GPS. We needed to head slightly to the north, but basically down.
When Wild Greg told me how he and one of the rare repeat hunting partners usually would run down such hills, I was dubious. Surely he was exaggerating. Then, he proceeded to run part way down the hill. Again, he would stop and wait, telling me to utilize the saplings and “just” swing down parts. I had been using them some, and was pleasantly surprised to see that the skin on my palms was NOT being shredded. I attempted to be a bit more free with gravity, but only confirmed that my upper body strength was not up to any Tarzan and Jane maneuvers. I was able to use the saplings enough to brace myself against a few precipitous slides. Somewhere along here, we saw a fawn skitter away.
When I tried to cross one of the logs we encountered, barely controlled sliding ensued and soon turned into me doing an unintentional modified version of the splits. I had positioned my lower leg to take a step over the armored log. I say armored, because the perimeter of the log was a mine field of sharp protuberances. These former branches were not just broken, but were dried and stiffly pointed. When I tried to take the step over, the dirt under my lower leg gave way and moved that foot a couple of feet downward. I was carefully holding onto one of the short, sharp knobs, which helped me to avoid going even farther, but then the space between my feet was so great as to make lifting either leg unlikely. Not only was my pelvis stretched to the limit, but the tension on my jeans was inhibiting. A brief rest and some mental concentration made me realize there was no other choice. I managed a modified ninja step while the lower leg slid just a bit more. However, I made it over the log without perforating my thighs.
At one point, we found ourselves going through a tangle of forest that was much taller than our heads. There was no way around it within sight and we could hear the creek below. He suggested I needed to go through this section of forest jungle backwards, which made sense and made it easier, since at that point all I cared about was getting down. I made sure that any branches I put my weight on showed significant signs of being green and living. It was also necessary to watch out for sharp dead branches that would flip up under me like swords in a sacred, guarded tomb set to deter intruders. I may have been moving at the speed of a sloth, but I was getting places. I think I can now say I have “rappelled” down a mountain rope-less.
Arriving at the creek was supposed to be a relief. It wasn’t. We arrived where it was rushing over some largish underwater boulders, with no option for stepping stones or logs. There was a log bridge taunting us about 50 yards up stream, but there was nothing resembling passage to get there. Wild Greg attempted some rock climbing interspersed with wading, but in his tennis shoes. I decided it was time to go barefoot and turned to balance so I could to take off my moccasins. When I turned back around, he was already on the other side of the creek. I was distressed. I could tell the force of the water was going to severely test my remaining leg strength.
For a few minutes, I despondently inspected the slanted, densely shrubbed shoreline. To get to the log, I would have had to go back up the hill. I turned to stare down at the creek, both gearing myself up for the inevitable and trying to make a good plan. No good plans were forthcoming. I inhaled solidly and stepped into the icy, fast flowing water.
I made it to the middle of the creek before my legs rebelled. Then, there I stood with my lower legs and feet going painfully numb, holding me up against the deceptively beautiful force of the flood, but still sending emphatic messages to my brain that if I lifted one of them that the other would give way. It was only about two feet of water, but I pictured myself smashing against the rocks and being knocked down stream for an undetermined length of time. In retrospect, I should have just sat down and scooted across. It was only a few more minutes up the other side and to the car, but at that moment, I was crossing a raging river that was threatening to break my bones. I started to cry as I sputtered out to Wild Greg that I couldn’t do it.
Without a moment’s hesitation, he was back in the creek, reaching out his hand to mine and balancing me while I took the steps needed to make it to dry land. He then gave me a minute to recuperate while he entertained me with his cheerful perspective on dealing with such choices in trail-less hiking. He wasn’t impatient with me at all.
It was only about 20 feet up to the road. We didn’t end up right where the car was, but it was in sight. I wobbled to it with enthusiasm, thinking of the hot springs pool and lunch. I recalled that he would be taking me dancing the next evening. I also noted that he was actually talking (more than one word sentences) about how much fun he had had on the elk scouting hike. I think I did the right thing. Happy anniversary, you crazy man.
Helpless Female Scouts for Elk – part 1:
Helpless Female Scouts for Elk – part 2:
Video highlights (with some commentary not included in the text):