It was one of those father-son bonding moments, the likes of which don’t happen often, and it was my rare privilege to be present.
The boy isn’t my son, but that in no way diminished my gratitude at being able to watch the episode and to participate in a minor way.
As I watched my brother-in-law, Dave Britton, stand beside his 16-year-old son, Tyler, while Tyler shot his first elk, a fine big bull with seven points on one side of his rack and five on the other, my heart ached in that unique and pleasant way that it does when you’re experiencing an event that lasts seconds but which will forever remain as part of a family’s lore.
I had my binoculars to my eyes as Tyler fired the final shot. I saw the bull crumple and immediately go still.
Tyler and Dave, who were standing about 40 yards from me, slapped hands.
“Great shot,” Dave and I said almost simultaneously as the tension of the previous minutes suddenly eased.
It was indeed fine marksmanship. Tyler, who had nothing on which to rest his barrel, had fired the last bullet from almost 400 yards, a considerable distance for a 7 mm-08 cartridge.
The moment was indelible, and the sight of Tyler and Dave standing together, both clad in camouflage and hunter orange vests and caps, the boy a few inches shorter than his dad, seemed to me a perfect tableau.
Even the binoculars felt right. Their knurled black plastic was worn smooth in places by the hands of my maternal grandfather, Edmund Klecker, whose initials are scratched onto the case and whose first name my wife and I bestowed on our son, Max, as his middle name.
My Grandpa Klecker, who died in 1980, was quite an outdoorsman himself. And although he preferred backpacking into and fishing the high lakes of the Central Cascades, I thought it not farfetched to imagine that the 7-power glasses might once have afforded him a similar view of a successful hunt.
As every hunter knows who has ever filled a tag, the exhilaration of that moment, in the silence after Tyler fired the last shot, was rapidly replaced by the drudgery, much of it rather messy, that involves turning a massive animal into edible meat.
A frosty twilight had fallen before we lugged the first batch of bloody cloth bags to the nearest road, where Tyler’s grandpa, Howard Britton, met us.
The chilly breeze felt fine on my cheeks, which were dappled with sweat as I trudged along with a hindquarter awkwardly draped over my shoulders.
(Awkward being the only way an elk hindquarter can be hauled. At least by me.)
I had pretty much decided to scrap my down jacket, which was liberally decorated with blood and has a bum zipper anyhow, but the hawthorn thicket I blundered through ensured the garment was do omed.
In the glare of my headlamp I noticed the jacket was disgorging feathers from one major gash and a few smaller ones, creating a brief but well-insulating blizzard.
(The fault lies with me, of course, since the hawthorns, like most foliage, aren’t capable of ambushing a person. For a reason that escapes me now, I was in the lead of our little venison parade, and the route I chose could not be fairly described as direct. Unless by direct you mean directly into a thicket of thorny trees.)
We returned the next morning at dawn to bring out the rest of the meat. It was an altogether satisfying hunt — probably the most satisfying hunt I’ve ever been on, and I never carried a rifle.
The episode was the epitome of the classic big game hunt, a mixture of depression and excitement and anticipation and exhaustion.
Fortunately I had packed many fun size Snickers bars. I would not have survived without them.
We had started walking along about daybreak from near the summit of the Snake River Road south of Richland. Tyler had received one of three permits to hunt on Idaho Power Company’s 10,000-acre Daly Creek property west of Brownlee Reservoir, but we had to hike across a couple miles of BLM ground to get to where we’d seen elk the day before.
Mileage is the typical way to gauge hiking distance, of course, but the method has little relevance along the breaks of Hells Canyon.
The topography is so consistently jumbled, so unrelenting in its harsh ness, that a mile, which is a trifling distance on a well-graded trail, can require that you negotiate two or three draws, each involving a few hundred feet of elevation loss (and, of course, gain).
We had been walking for more than four hours, and had peered into several canyons without seeing anything but a handful of deer and several coveys of chukars, when Dave finally spotted the elk herd.
They were spread out at the head of a draw that included a rarity in this arid land — a grove of Douglas-fir trees. A handful of elk were bedded down among the firs, and several dozen more were feeding on a grassy bench below. Dave, who has a range finder, pegged the distance at 900 yards.
We decided to circle around the basin, staying behind the rimrock to avoid alerting the elk.
This took more than an hour. As we rounded the ridgeline and approached the bench a snow squall wandered in from the Wallowas and pelted our faces with snow driven by a brisk wind from the northeast.
We saw a couple of spikes, but Dave noticed a branch-antlered bull off by himself. I held back while Dave and Tyler crept toward the herd, reasoning that adding another pair of feet — and clumsy ones at that, which mine most assuredly are — could only reduce the chance that Tyler would get a shot.
A few minutes later, in the glow of the westering sun on a properly nippy November day, I watched the pair celebrate a milestone that will be relived, and savored, for decades to come.
It is a fine thing to watch a chapter of a family’s history — the very best sort of history — being written.
J ayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.