A Hunt in Memory of Grandpa

As I made my final turn into camp, I was acutely aware of the emotions trips previous had garnered. I was, however, unsettled. Where there should have existed optimism, contentment, and a sense of whole, I only felt unsettled conflict and anxiety.

Such feelings were historically nonexistent. Indeed, the drive into the familiar surroundings of Sumpter, Oregon and the Elkhorn Mountains had always provided me with a sense of completeness. This was the country in which I’d taken my first elk a few short years previously. Its rocky crags held the Rocky Mountain goat I’d taken on a tag drawn through lottery-like odds. It was a country of firsts; my first elk, my first bear hunt, the first time my Dad and I packed out an animal together, the first country I’d really begun to learn.

Pondering the Expanse

Its the type of country in which you find yourself truly coming to the complete understanding of one’s own insignificance. It never fails to take my breath away at least once during each trip.

And then it struck me with unfair reality:  Grandpa was gone. My hunting mentor, the source of uncountable discussions ranging from calibers to critters, the ever-present anchor point from which I strayed into God’s country and returned, was no longer here to be regaled with tales of the pack out. And at that moment, on an eighty-five degree afternoon, I was cold.

Grandpa Bud

The gravity of Grandpa Bud’s passing not two months prior was not lost on me. My Dad had lost his. Grandma now occupied a house and a world with which she had formerly shared with Grandpa for over sixty years. And for me, I’d lost the man largely responsible for the feverish fervor with which I pursue the hunting experience.

That I was even pulling into camp the day before the 2010 Eastern Oregon Deer opener was likely entirely a result of his influence. It felt foreign, then, to be preparing for a hunt without Grandpa’s physical presence somewhere in the world. But prepare I would.

As we’d all successfully drawn tags for the Sumpter Unit’s buck deer season, Dave, Scott, and I had formulated the battle plan a couple weeks in advance. I would drive Scott’s fully-loaded pickup to our usual camping spot nestled in the Elkhorn Mountains on the Friday morning before our tags became valid. Scott and Dave, both of whom have football-playing high school sons, would make the six-hour trip after their respective games that evening. If all went as planned, they would arrive early Saturday morning and the hunt would be afoot.

Sumpter Unit, Elkhorn Mountains

The plan involved the bulk of camp being set up singularly by me. I’m up for a challenge and doubted I’d be bested by a simple wall tent and a few cots. After a leisurely drive from my home in Springfield, I made my way through Sumpter and began the ascent toward our camp site. We had two sites in mind, both of which we’d used numerous times before. As luck would have it, I was able to secure our favorite spot and was knee-deep in camp set-up by about 5PM. After laboring for about two hours, I had camp set-up and ready for inhabitation.

Camp ala Matt

Now all I had to do was relax with a good book, a cold beer, and a comfortable camp chair until darkness fell and a quiet night of sleep arrived.

Daylight arrived the following morning well before Scott and Dave. They’d both been up all night and and suggested a nap prior to officially starting the season. As I’d had a fitful night of broken sleep, little convincing was needed. While we had observed several other camps, none of us were feeling much pressure. As with most places in Oregon, the predominant numbers of hunters in the Sumpter Unit would be road hunting. As such, allowing them to run amook throughout the countryside would serve to drive deer deeper into the roadless areas. Our areas.

After a nap and some lunch, Dave, Scott, and I saddled up in one of the trucks and drove some of the perimeter roads in the area. The plan was two-fold:  First, we needed to see how much pressure the roads were receiving from road hunters. Second, we were curious to see if the deer had deviated from their pre-season movement patterns (around the roads) and had been driven away from roaded areas. Our observations seemed to support our predictions, in that we saw considerable road pressure and very minimal deer movement. It was settled, then. At dawn, we would begin poking and prodding our way through the thick, heavily-timbered draws and ridges inaccessible by road.

No Roads = Big Deer

After a great meal of chicken and rice and a few beers around a roaring campfire, we settled into our respective beds and let the sounds of the nearby stream lull us to sleep.

The next morning found us up just before dawn. After a quick cup of coffee, we dropped the first  of two trucks at a rally point and loaded into the second. We traveled the twenty minute drive up rocky switchbacks until reaching our first drop-off point at approximately 7300′. Scott and Dave set out from this point. I dropped a few switchbacks down and parked the truck at about 6700′. The plan was simple:  All three of us would be, for all intents and purposes, hunting the same draw. We would be hunting parallel to one another while maintaining our starting altitudes. After hiking around three or so saddles, we would drop down approximately 1200′ to an accessible road, grab the dropped-off truck and fetch the remaining hunters.

During the course of the three-hour hunt, I quietly plodded through the timber and open expanses of my particular draw. With my Badlands 2200 pack and semi-custom Remington M700 (both constants in my hunting world), I found it relatively easy going. While I would occasionally bump deer from their beds, I never spotted a good “shooter” buck. I did, however, find a pretty established bear den. Empty though it was, I was encouraged with its location, as we hunt this same area in the Spring for bear.

Overturned Tree Bear Den

Lightly sweating from the warmer than usual temperatures, I returned to the truck and met up with Scott and Dave. Perhaps possessing a certain amount of ESP, Dave had decided to forgo holding out for a bruiser buck, taking a healthy (albeit smallish) spike. Scott, as I, had struck out.

After returning to camp and completing the requisite skinning and storage of Dave’s buck, we refueled with a quick lunch and hit the roads again. Having seen much fewer deer than anticipated, we wanted to drive a few other areas to gather a bit of  intelligence prior to the next morning’s hunt.

After another great meal, a couple evening adult beverages, and some conversation around the campfire, we crawled into our racks and prepared for another night in the country. That plan, however, was rudely interupted by a very early morning deluge of rain which left Scott and I scrambling to tarp the tent. Crisis averted, we returned to bed and slept with the rain pattering a lazy soundtrack on the plastic-covered roof.
The next morning met us with true “deer” weather, leaving both Scott and I heartily optimistic of our chances to catch big bucks on the move. We headed out at dawn and remarked with encouraged tones about the cooler temperature and overcast skies. Coupled with occasional sprinkles of rain, the surrounding country had assumed a more inviting look.

Leaving the truck at the top of one of the main heads, Scott headed down the familiar trail upon which his son, Kraig, had taken a buck in 2007. Indeed, on the same hunt I had jumped a very respectable 4×4 who didn’t give me much chance at a second look. I departed in the opposite direction with the plan to follow the ridge line from the top of the crest all the way to the main road. Dave would be enjoying a hike about three hundred yards below me, which I hoped would push deer my way.

After a couple of hours of slow, methodical marching through scree-covered faces and timbered saddles, I stopped for a snack. Mid-candy bar, I heard the crashing of animals on the move. With just enough time to drop to a knee and pinpoint their general direction, I saw deer begin to run right to left from the area in which Dave had passed. Doe after doe, I watched them race from one side of the ridge to the other. And, in the time it took me to think “buck”, I watched a little forked-horn race into and out of my field of view. I doubt highly he stopped running before hitting Baker City.

The day’s hunt came and went without another opportunity presenting itself. About two hundred yards from dropping onto the main road, I found another heavily used bear den. This one got the camera / rifle treatment and, once again, no one was home. I marked it on my GPS and thought perhaps my bear season would be more fruitful.

Another Elkhorn Bear Den

Upon our rendevous at the truck, Scott informed me he still possessed an intact tag. As luck would have it, however, the drive back to camp would yield a group of deer moving up an adjacent hillside. After taking a nearby spur road and ditching the truck, we located the small group feeding farther into the treeline. While I worked my way up and around where I believed the deer would ultimately feed, Scott (in his patience) stayed where we’d last seen them. Apparently, my imitation of a bumbling, hairless Bigfoot was enough to push the deer back to Scott, who anchored a nice little forked-horn buck with a single shot. A well-delivered shot, I might add, given the distance (200+ yards), angle (uphill, well over 40-degrees), position (kneeling, unsupported), and movement (forky was trotting quartering away) of the buck. Scott once again demonstrated his savvy country marksmanship skills, proving while punching paper with itty-bitty groups is impressive, it doesn’t taste nearly as good with mashed potatos and biscuits!

We returned to camp as darkness fell. Dave wandered into the tent to prep the evening’s meal. Scott and I began the task of skinning and bagging his buck. As the soundtrack of evening began to play and the cool Sumpter breeze worked its way up our draw and into our camp, I thought longingly about those who were missed. Scott and Dave’s company was both enjoyed and appreciated, but there was still room for a couple more in camp. Dad, who had flown to the east coast to celebrate the birth of his second grandchild (and my first niece!), would have been a very welcome addition on the hunt. But missing Dad’s company was averted to a certain extent by the promise (or as much as such a thing exits in life) of future hunts and seasons to come. Grandpa, though, would never be joining the campfire circle in body again. While I desperately wanted to be able to fetch him a beer and listen to stories of 1000-yard iron sight matches and old Norse mythology, I knew it would be his spirit alone in attendance.

With Grandpa on my heart and mind, I paused mid-stroke with my skinning knife with a thought. As a smile slowly snaked its way across my face, I reached into my pack and withdrew the old, folding Gerber Grandpa had given me a few years prior after realizing he’d not likely ever field dress another four-legged critter. It was the knife, blade narrowed by years of sharpened, he’d used to gut the elk whose antlers adorned the wall at Grandma’s house. Indeed, it was the same knife I’d used to field dress the mountain goat I’d taken just a couple short years ago. And now, in the glow of my head lattern, Grandpa’s knife would once again serve utility.

Grandpa's Gerber

I realized while my heart hurt over the loss of Grandpa’s person, I’d always be blessed with his presence in my heart, my memories, and the tools with which he’d left me. While not equal compensation, it was enough to keep the smile on my face as Scott and I finished breaking down his buck.

Saddled with low hours in my vacation bank, the next day was our last. I pushed out with a half-hearted morning hunt in vain. With an intact 2010 buck tag in my pocket, I helped Scott and Dave break camp into two pickup truck loads and watched the Elkhorn Mountains snake away in the rearview mirror of the rig. By most standards, the hunt had been successful. We’d filled 66% of our tags without injury. We’d laughed around the fire, sweated on the hillsides, and done our best to keep Remington, Nosler, Leupold, and Badlands in business. And as I watched Sumpter’s city limits grow smaller, I prayed a quiet prayer to Grandpa.

Thank you, Grandpa, for instilling in me respect for the beauty, wonder, mystery, and finality of nature. Thank you for lighting a fire inside me which has burned and raged and continues to build. Thank you for giving me the gift of common interest with my Dad and the many continuing blessings of hunts and companionship promised therein. Thank you for showing me a true outdoorsman is equal parts conservation and harvest and modeling the standard for giving back more than you take. The impact you made on my life is immeasureable and it is my singular hope I can someday be as learned, loved, cherished, respected, and enjoyed a fraction as were you.

Now…to my gear cleaned and ready for the duck opener. Then doe season. Then elk. Then pheasant. Hmmm, anyone want to donate some vacation time to a worthy cause?!

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About the Author

Matt Thomsen

Matt Thomsen

Matt Thomsen routinely spends over seventy days afield each year during Oregon's hunting seasons. In addition to chasing bear, deer, elk, coyote, waterfowl, upland game, and the occasional sage rat or two, Matt was fortunate enough to draw one of seven annual tags and harvest a Rocky Mountain goat in Oregon in 2008.