When fall finally arrived, I had been itching to go hunting for a month.
Pa and I always set up a wall tent from an old 1930s logging camp. We set up our cots, belongings and Pa’s custom wood stove. Pa is always coming up with new things to improve the wood stove – a water reservoir, a pizza oven and even a thermostat that dings so he knows when to put wood on the fire. Best of all, the stove can really crank out the heat. When we come back from a day in the cold with the rain and snow, the stove is still holding heat from the morning. We fill it up with tamarack or white pine and the heat in the tent makes us so sleepy we can barely get dinner down before we’re crawling in the sack.
My older brother, Dakota, was coming hunting with us this year, so we would have three guys in the tent. Ma said she wouldn’t want to smell the inside of the tent with three men, wet shoes, socks and clothes drying all over the place, but I never smell anything but the wood smoke, so it’s fine by me.
We woke up early the first morning at hunting camp and had a great hunter’s breakfast. Pa always wakes up way too early. Not knowing what to do with himself, he starts cooking. By 5 a.m., and sometimes earlier, he has a nice big breakfast for us with eggs, bacon, and cocoa. When we’re done it’s usually still dark, so we just sit around and wait for it to get light. Just in case we don’t come out of the woods until it’s late, I stuff a Clif Bar, some jerky, and some bite-size candy bars in my pack.
This morning we decide to hunt down in the Hole, a place between the two ridges near our camp. Pa says that’s where all the elk will be, but Dakota and I know he is determined to find an old steam donkey that is rumored to be down there. He figures that if he doesn’t get his elk, he might still find that steam donkey.
We start walking through the woods trying to be quiet. Despite our efforts, leaves constantly rustle while we walk and an occasional twig snaps under our feet. This side of the ridge smells strongly of cedar, because the whole mountainside is covered with it. We hike most of the morning. Normally we stop to look for elk sign, but today we haven’t seen any. We stop to wait for Dakota, which I think is funny, because I am usually the slow one. Dakota is catching up when I notice some logging equipment on a stump. I point to the tool, but Pa and Dakota think I’m pointing at an elk. They drop their guns off of their slings and into their hands, while I slide down the hill and pick up the logging equipment. When they see it we all laugh at their mistake.
Looking a little closer, we realize that it’s what the loggers would use to slide logs down the cable to the steam donkey. It is a thick chain, brown with rust, with spikes on either end. Pa looks around and notices the skid trails the donkey left behind. We were so distracted; if an elk had found us we would have ejected every shell from our guns in surprise.
We follow the skids for an hour or so until they end in a flat spot along the creek. We talk it over for a bit and decide this would be the perfect place to abandon a steam donkey. Pa and Dakota discuss where the steam donkey might be while I look at the creek disappearing into the hillside and notice a pair of railroad ties sitting in the creek bed. I motion them over and Pa offers a walking textbook definition. Apparently, I have found rails the steam donkey would sit on.
Pa points out a half a trillion skid trails scaling various ridges before we notice we are standing on the edge of the old lower logging camp! Pa finds an old shovel and Dakota finds an old rusty knife. I suppose an old straw boss must have picked his teeth with it while he yelled commands at the donkey punchers.
We strike out on the flat path left behind after the logging crew pulled up the railroad tracks. Eventually, we arrive at another camp, where we find a broken bowl with the year “1860” stamped on it and a crosscut saw. On second glance, we realize it is half a crosscut saw. We still have no clue what use half a crosscut saw would be.
After our discoveries, we start home on an unfamiliar ridge and are surprised to find it covered in elk trails. If we had kept moving instead of investigating the steam donkey we could have shot one of these elk long ago.
We are tired though and decide to call it a day. My legs are burning, but I know I can rest back at camp.
Eventually, we meander out of the woods onto the logging road that leads us back to camp, where we see smoke rising from the stove. Grandpa has come to see us, and asks if we saw any game.
“Nope,” Pa replies, “a little sign up on the point, but no elk.” Dakota and I hang up our guns on the tent poles. The sweat on my back cools in the mountain air as I take off my backpack.
Pa fixes us some stew for dinner, and I slowly doze off in the heat of the wood stove, thinking about the successful hunt we had that day, even though we shot no elk.