“It was her idea,” Shawn Barrong said. “I wasn’t planning to go elk hunting this year.”
The Sawtooth Mountains area that fired up his passion for bugling bull elk had lost its luster in recent years.
He and his teenage son had seen more than a hundred elk and several huge bulls there five years ago. Since then, the elk have disappeared or at least changed their habits.
“We’ve seen more wolves than elk,” he said.
Last year he sold the mules he’d bought and tended year-round to pack his camp eight miles into the backcountry.
With two teens playing high school sports, he figured this would be a good year to devote more of his autumn to sitting in the bleachers and being a spectator.
“But I changed my mind in two seconds when my daughter suggested we go elk hunting,” he said. “She reminded me that she’s 17 and this would be the last fall before she heads to college.”
Stephanie Barrong was 12 and skinny enough to rattle in the wind when she got her first bow. A target appeared in their Spokane-area backyard that year. By late summer, one of her neighbors took at double-take and said, “Look at you, Steph: you’ve got shoulders.”
She explained that she’d been working out so she could hold a draw on the bow long enough to bag an elk.
She got the flavor of archery elk hunting on her first week-long outing at the Sawtooth camp. Her dad called a 5-by-5 bull within 15 yards from where she was holding her bow at full draw.
“The bull never showed its chest to her,” Shawn said. “She held off.”
“It was a huge rush,” she recalled.
She was 14 when she bagged her first whitetail with a bow after devoting many afterschool hours in the ground blind near their country home.
Then sports and school took over her schedule and September elk camp was out of the picture.
But this summer, the target was out in the yard again and Steph was regularly drilling it with holes.
“I knew this might be my last chance for a while,” she said. “At 30 yards I’m confident.”
Nothing about backcountry elk hunting is easy. Even getting to camp is a chore.
“We didn’t have the mules, so we hired a packer to take us in to a drop camp,” Shawn said.
Steph recalled that her butt was sore for a week from the four-hour horseback ride into camp on her quirky steed, Lenny.
“He’d trip going down the hills,” she said.
“Kind of unnerving,” her dad followed. “I think I saw little tears making mud down through the sweat and dust on her face.”
When the pack string left and the dust settled, they were alone with a wall tent in the thin air above 7,000 feet.
“We didn’t have any stock to tend, and that was kind of nice,” Shawn said. “But that left us to hoof it ourselves.”
They logged 8-10 miles a day, cruising the ridges early in the morning and again later in the day to sunset, looking and calling, hoping to find elk.
“We’d eat lunch and take a nap,” Steph said. “The afternoons were the hardest part. It was hot. The elk weren’t moving. We got so bored we even played hangman one day.”
The hunt was taking a familiar course for Shawn. In four days, they hadn’t seen an elk or heard a bull bugle.
“We talked it over and decided we’d give it one more morning and then minimize our losses and at least get back to Spokane to see her brother’s football game,” Shawn said.
They radioed the outfitter and scheduled a pickup.
“I have to admit, I was getting grumpy. I didn’t come with high expectations, and this was even worse than that. Steph is the one who kept me going.”
What a difference a day can make.
After several fruitless hours of scouting and calling the fifth morning, they finally heard a bugle from the dense, dark timber below the ridge they were hiking.
“I was skeptical,” Stephanie admitted. “I figured it was another hunter.”
But the dad-daughter team moved downslope into position and deployed the cow elk decoy they’d dubbed Suzie.
With Steph on stand 20 yards away, Shawn imitated the bugle of a younger bull.
“I didn’t really get excited at first, but when I saw the bull clearing the thick pocket of trees, my knees felt like they were going to buckle,” she said. “Apparently he didn’t want to share his cows with another bull.
“Dad had told me he’d back me up, but I said, ‘No, it’s my bull.’ ”
She stood motionless as the bull advanced in and out of sight. The light late-morning breeze was sweeping up from the bull to her face.
She could smell success.
“He was sooooo close,” she said. “But I had to wait until his head went behind a tree before I could draw my bow.
“I was nervous. I wondered if I could pull my bow. My shoulder was really sore the day before from sleeping on that cot.
“But when his head was behind a tree, I drew back. I don’t know how long I had to hold it. I really can’t remember: 30 seconds? My heart was beating hard, but I was pretty steady.”
As soon as the bull was in full view at 25 yards, its eyes fixed on Suzie, Shawn made a cow call that prompted the six-by-six pointer to stop.
Steph loosed the arrow.
“Pretty soon I heard “Crash! Crash!” and my heart sank,” Shawn said. “I thought it was running away, but it wasn’t. It was rolling down the hill. She skewered him. A double-lunger. Lights out.”
Steph gave her dad a thumbs up and then let the pent up emotions explode.
“She did a victory dance,” Shawn said. “It was the biggest high I’ve had in a long time. The only bull we saw on the trip.”
“I helped as much as I could with the elk,” Stephanie said, “but once Dad got it cut up, I couldn’t lift any of the quarters.”
They made four trips to the elk to get it ready for the packer. “It was an hour each way to camp,” Shawn said.
“The slope was so steep I could barely climb it the second day,” Steph said. “Funny. After I stuck the elk, I sprinted up that hill.”
In a world that seems obsessed with instant gratification, a teenage girl stands out in the crowd when she talks her dad into a backcountry elk hunt, trains to proficiency with a bow, endures the body-punishing hunt and gathers the skill and poise in a breathtaking moment to dispatch an arrow with pin-point accuracy at one of the most revered targets in the West.
Steph figured most of her classmates at The Oaks Classical and Christian Academy wouldn’t understand the attraction.
It probably won’t help to show photos of the million-dollar view from her camp latrine or the black bag hanging in a tree where the wind sapped the solar heat from the shower water before it could splash on her skin.
“We got our water from a spring that trickled into a metal bucket, and it was the sweetest, coldest water I’ve ever tasted,” she said.
“I couldn’t have had a better hunting partner,” Shawn said, recalling that Steph laughed when the hunt was at its bleakest and danced at the hard-earned success.
“Hunting with a teenager is an unforgettable experience,” he said. “But just like any big-game hunter, she celebrated her success back at camp.”
“With a Pop-Tart,” she said.