Two old men cling to the frozen face of a mountain that would give Lindsey Vonn pause. They are not mountain climbers or hikers, but elk hunters, holding a dead elk, teetering on the brink of an abyss! One slip and 300 pounds of prime meat becomes elk burger in the depths of a mile-deep, roadless canyon!
These guys are not handsome hunks you see on the cover of “Bugle” or “Field and Stream,” sporting 10-gallon Stetsons and Danners, packing out trophies on their backs.
We’re talking guys that are right out of a senior citizen “Survivor” episode!
Bud Sanders, Joseph, Ore., and G.I. Wilson, Keizer, Ore., have chased elk in the mountains of Oregon and Washington since the 1960s. They have not hunted together in five years.
Sanders, 77, has survived: two shoulder replacements, three back vertebrae trimmed to relieve pain, two broken neck vertebrae, and is currently nursing a painful sprained ankle held firm by a sturdy boot.
Wilson, 83, has survived three knee replacements, a hip replacement, two shoulder surgeries, three back surgeries, pacemaker, and is currently coping with 10 stitches in his arm, and a torn hamstring.
The standard joke for these two is a Mickey Mantle quote: “If I knew I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.”
Sanders tried to get Wilson to apply for this tag for many years, but the season is over Thanksgiving, and he always has family commitments. Over those years, Wilson also has become concerned about his physical limitations to hunt elk.
Wilson finally decides to apply for the 2015 tag and is successful!
So, here we are, second day of season, in a situation that was not supposed to happen. Wives and friends have been promised, “We will not shoot an elk unless we can get to it with a winch or ATV.”
Sanders’ preacher, Dave Bruce, aware of all their maladies, is on standby. He has offered to pack meat if needed.
Getting an elk on the ground doesn’t go exactly as planned.
The hunt starts great. There’s not a cloud in the sky, it’s 17 degrees and a herd of 50- to 60 elk walk out of a canyon 125 yards below us! They pause in the middle of an ATV trail. The trail follows the top of a narrow ridge that drops off into deep canyons on each side.
A young cow is selected. At the roar of the .30-06, she stumbles and turns downhill as the herd stampedes uphill. The next shot puts her down for good. We stand in disbelief as she rolls and rolls and rolls!
“We’re going to lose her,” Sanders yells. “We’ll never get her out of that canyon.”
We hold our breath as she comes to a stop, teeters, and settles down. One more roll and she would be gone.
Our only hope is to get to the carcass and secure it to a big rock with a rope.
We navigate the 50 yards from the trail with caution. It is steep, rocky, frozen, and covered with snow.
She has come to rest with all fours, head and neck folded back under the body. This is the only thing holding her in place.
We gingerly attach a rope to the carcass and anchor it to a large rock 20 feet uphill.
Because of the elk’s position, butchering has to begin at the top of the elk’s back and then work down. Sanders does the work as I sit on the uphill side holding on to the rope and carcass. Any slight push or movement can touch off an avalanche of prized elk meat!
Piece-by-piece the boning out process is painfully completed.
Two hours later the last piece is bagged. We cut the rope and watch in awe as the carcass rolls and bounces five- to 10 feet in the air until out of sight, at least a half-mile below.
We finally breathe a sigh of relief!
Sanders was an outfitter and hunting guide for several years. He has butchered countless elk.
“This is the most difficult one I have ever done,” he hisses, through clinched teeth. “Now we have to climb out of here and get help to pack this meat out. I’ll call the preacher. He’s young, stout and has already packed a spike bull out of one these canyons this year.”
Bruce shows up at Sanders the next morning ready to pack.
“I’ll do this on one condition, you guys stay at the rig and I make four loads,” he adds with a big grin.
After an hour drive through spectacular mountains, blanketed in snow, we unload the ATV. From my vantage point at the truck, I watch Bruce, almost effortlessly, make the 100-yard round trip in five minutes. In 25 minutes, he, Sanders and the meat are on the ATV headed up the hill.
We have all heard “A friend in need, a friend in deed.” Preacher Bruce was truly a friend in deed as he bailed a couple of old elk hunters out of a tough situation!
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