Me and the Ol’ Man
Written and submitted by Zach Pallister, Helena:
What I remember most was the blissful quiet of the forest. The snow had fallen heavily and some feathery flakes still drifted lazily to Mother Earth. My 11-year-old legs plowed through the snow up to my knees. I followed the Ol’ Man’s footsteps as best I could. Outside his track was the fresh, never-trodden snow, so beautifully blanketing the rocks, roots and slick limbs hidden beneath.
Outside the cover of the forest on North Wilson ridge, we felt the stinging bite of the cleansing wind as we traced the edge of the old growth Douglas fir forest heading east for a mile or so.
I thought of the mountain men of old – Kit Carson, Jim Bridger and the like – how their yearning for freedom got them here and how I itched to be like them. My mind fantasized glorious days of trapping and hunting with old Hugh Glass as my mentor. Anyone who could live through such a scrape with a grizzly had to be a tough old bird.
I spent my youth reading of all the mountain men and the Indian chiefs, never tiring of American history during the infancy of our country and of those who blazed the way. I immersed myself in their lore. What a world it must have been! Survival was all that mattered. All the “things” we have now days seemed so unnecessary – and only serving to complicate the meaning of raw existence. Give me the Wind and the Rain, the Mountain and the River, the Sun and the Moon; by God, that’s all I need!
Suddenly the Ol’ Man stopped walking and I bumped into his back. Daydream over! He chuckled and pointed to the fresh elk sign in the snow, by now the perfect texture for picking out clean tracks. In a whispering voice, he took the time to teach me how to read the sign. Hoof direction, what was a cow, a calf and maybe one was a bull because the prints were more rounded at the front. The cow’s urine splattered from the rear and a bull made a hole from his center. The larger pellets were from mature animals, the calves had pellets the size of grown deer. Pellets piled when standing and scattered when moving. Looked like a dozen head or so.
The adrenalin kicked in immediately as the predator instinct tuned the senses. I knew we would follow these elk tracks to where their makers were bedded and we would see elk up close. It just couldn’t happen any other way. Any bull could be taken in those days with an over-the-counter license at a cost of about five bucks.
The Ol’ Man hadn’t taken his bull yet which was unusual. It had to have been mid-November by then and lots of trails had been traveled. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that eight of my brothers were eligible to hunt at the time.
My four younger brothers, like me, weren’t old enough to hunt yet. My one lonely (and lovely) sister gave hunting a try for a year or two and decided to leave it to the boys. When you got to be 11, it was OK to ride around with the bunch and learn the ropes. The hunting excursions we made in my youth were what cultivated my desire to tramp the Great Outdoors.
Mom and Dad would load up a pickup and a suburban with kids, food, gear and guns and off we’d go to Ekalaka for antelope, Libby for goats and bear (or berries in the summer), California Creek near Sheridan for mule deer and anywhere close to home before and after school and every weekend throughout hunting season.
Our summers were filled with gardening, building the cabin on Bull Mountain, camping at Elder Creek, arrowhead hunting, picnics, swimming and fishing. We always had hard work followed by the reward of an outdoor experience.
With 12 brothers and a sister, the occasion to spend any one-on-one time with Dad or Mom was precious, for certain. Maybe that’s why this experience has prickled my feathers for so many years.
The wind was slight inside the timber and blew from out of the north. The elk couldn’t scent us and the snow made silent our approach. A squirrel sounded his warning and the Ol’ Man gave him a knowing look of respect. We stopped until the squirrel decided we weren’t quite the threat he had surmised.
Gray jays or “camp robbers” as we called them flitted from snow-laden, grandparent fir trees along our trail, curious as to our approach. The jays loosened the snow on the tree branches and it filtered lazily to the forest floor in a beautiful ghost-like veil. The tree moss was heavy, it’s chartreuse color contrasting flawlessly with the snow.
The elk trail followed the contour northwesterly where Bull Mountain wapiti had coursed this forest thousands of times.
The only trail alterations happened when danger scattered a herd in fright or a natural barricade, like a fallen tree, caused a slight deviation. The scent of the elk reminded me of black licorice and it lay heavy in the closeness of the dense forest. That smell excites me today and always readies me for another spiritual encounter with my favorite critters.
We closed the gap in a hurry I realize now, but back then it seemed a subliminal eternity. Dad put his gloved forefinger to his lips and we crept as silently as my Bass waffle stompers would go.
Then, there they were! The Ol’ Man cautiously dropped to his knee and we huddled together as we shared the moment. The elk were bedded, except for one old cow with her nose up and her eyes bugged out, alert for any drift of a dangerous scent or a predator’s approach. Her nose was wet and it quivered as it worked the air currents, her ears moved forward and back trying to detect the danger. I’ve relived this moment in reality countless times; watching a lead cow up close, tending the flock.
Dad slowly raised his trusty, well-worn .300 Weatherby rifle and looked through the scope at all the elk and elk parts.
“No bulls”, he whispered.
We rose carefully to upright and watched the bunch for a minute or two. Then they just kind of wandered away, not sure of what danger was present, but instinctively sensing it all the same. Dad looked at me and said, “How’d you like that?”
I answered with the expression in my eyes.
I don’t remember much about the long walk back to the cabin, just that I was fulfilled to the max and excited to share the story with mom and my brothers. That same sense of spirituality fills me up whenever I experience the wild of the outdoors.
“Filling my spiritual tank” as my oldest brother Jeff calls it.
That brief walk in the woods with my Dad, affectionately known as the “Ol’ Man” amongst all us brothers, happened nearly 45 years ago. The memory of that experience has sharpened and tuned my outdoor savvy and helped me gain independence of spirit; passed on to my sons and now to their children. What we gain from Nature is freedom of spirit, communion with life in all forms and that sense of completeness individually gained through release of self.
The Ol’ Man’s choice to end his hunting career at age 87 was out of respect for the animals he cares so deeply for, not wanting to wound them. The tunnel vision in his right eye, some tremoring in his hand and a troubled spine made clear his decision. Nearly 94 now, he lives on the family Jaybird Ranch on the edge of Boulder with the memories, having planted his spiritual passion in each of us.
I love you, Dad.