Editor’s note: A hunting partnership that spanned a quarter century left Rich Landers and Dick Rivers with a wealth of memories and stories that get to the core of the time-honored tradition. As a tribute to Rivers, below is one of Landers’ favorites from 1997:
Soaked, bloody and five hours overdue, Dick Rivers slogged through the mud to the trailhead. His flashlight batteries were nearly spent, and the beam could no longer punch through the fog, drizzle and darkness.
The source of the blood wasn’t clear in the glow of my pickup’s headlights. His pant leg was ripped, exposing red-stained gauze taped below his knee. Blood was smeared on his boots and shirt sleeves, too.
I had been feeling a little sorry for myself. Waiting and worrying isn’t enjoyable, especially without dinner on a chilly late-October day that had dragged on for nearly 18 hours.
Now my concern was riveted on my hunting buddy.
Rivers was hunched forward under the burden of his waterlogged backpack, an aught-six cradled in his arms as though it weighed 100 pounds.
I rolled down the window, watched the rain drip off his nose and searched his eyes for answers.
Reaching into his reserves for the energy, he finally uttered three words that send chills through an elk hunting partner:
I helped Rivers throw his gear in the pickup. I knew my elk hunt was over, and by the end of the next day I would look as wretched as he.
The sport seemed easier years ago, when Rivers gave the tanned skin from one of his elk to my wife and me as a wedding present.
Elk were more abundant then. Fewer restrictions governed our hunting. We were younger, and the hills weren’t so steep. But elk hunters have always had to pay their dues.
“I got my last elk five years ago, and I don’t even want to think of how many hours I’ve invested in getting one since then,’’ Rivers said that night.
Maybe that’s why he hadn’t tried harder to get more days off for the hunt.
Four days is sufficient to set up camp and scout a small portion of Pend Oreille County. But it’s barely enough time to hunt, and certainly not enough time to deal with an elk if you bag one in the backcountry.
“The chances of getting a bull up there are so slim, I’m not worried about having to be back to work on Thursday,’’ he had said the day before the season opened.
Indeed, the first day out, we turned up little more than a few desiccated elk droppings that might as well have been a century old.
Our spirits were buoyed the second day by the blessing of fresh snow. We each hiked miles and miles away from the logging roads, trying to find tracks that would lead us to elk.
No luck. Rivers produced an expensive bottle of red wine in camp after the first day of hunting. We compared the sharpness of our knife blades and debated the merits of the various tools we carried in our daypacks.
Then we got serious and pored over the topographical maps by lantern light. We needed a new plan.
“Remember this place,’’ he said, pointing to a rare section of roadless area in the Colville National Forest.
I nodded, trying to avoid the question.
“That’s where you got lost a few years ago.’’
“Wasn’t lost,’’ I shot back.
“Yeah, right. Let’s just say you had an extended hike. But you saw elk on that hunt, right?’’
Rivers ran his finger across the map to a bog and up through an area of tight contour lines, indicating steep terrain.
“Let’s try this,’’ he said.
“That’s a hellhole of brush and downfall,’’ I said.
“No hunter in his right mind would go into that,’’ Rivers confirmed.
“I guess that’s why we’re going there.’’
Hunters were stirring in one camp near ours the next morning, while another camp was still dark. There’s more than one way to hunt elk.
Rivers and I have always been suspicious of armed men who must let their pickups idle with the heater running for 15 minutes before they’d climb in and go hunting.
“Road hunters,’’ Rivers said, as we passed an idling rig at the camp next to ours.
“Suddenly, it doesn’t seem like such a bad idea,’’ I said, conjuring up images of the snarl we planned to hunt.
We were on our way to the hellhole at 5 a.m. Rivers snapped a tape into the player. Mozart entertained us in the darkness until a rutted road ended at the trailhead.
Little was said as we hiked until we reached the point where Rivers’ finger had stopped on the map the previous night.
“Meet at the trailhead around dark?’’ I asked.
Rivers nodded, and we split ways into some of the thickest jungle in northeastern Washington.
“Yes, I’m sure he has a rain jacket and fire starter in his daypack,’’ I told the sheriff’s dispatcher. “I’m concerned, but not ready to say he’s missing. He’s got the skills and gear to make it through a cold night.’’
I had driven to a rural house and called the sheriff merely to learn the procedure should a search be necessary.
Rivers was a competent mountaineer. We’ve been up some of the big Cascades volcanoes together, and made weeklong winter ski-camping trips through the Wind Rivers, Sawtooths, Valhallas and Canadian Rockies.
But the rain had started in late afternoon, making the conditions ripe for hypothermia. If an accident had happened, an injured person might not make it through the night.
I drove back to the trailhead, prepared to camp there until morning. Thankfully, Rivers saved me a sleepless night of wondering whether I should have summoned help.
He walked out of the woods at 9:30 p.m., looking like death, but still buoyed by the euphoria of taking a five-point bull.
“I’m too exhausted to eat,’’ he said, as I started driving back to base camp.’’
“Baloney,’’ I said. Within minutes of reaching the tent, I had the kerosene heater hot, the lantern hissing and water boiling on the Coleman stove.
Rivers began hanging his clothes to dry.
“What’s in the plastic bag?’’ I asked as he unpacked his gear.
“Two sirloins, just about as fresh as they come,’’ he said. “And there’s a lot more where that came from,’’ he added as I slapped them on the grill.
We toasted with a premium dark beer. Rivers ate like a beast, and slept like a bear in winter.
Getting to the elk the next morning was a chore in itself.
“I’m really looking forward to coming out of here with 100 pounds of elk on my back,’’ I droned. We crawled over downed logs, ripped our pants on branch stubs and snagged our pack frames in the brush.
“I’d feel even worse if I’d have been feeding a pack horse all year for this purpose. There’s no way a horse could get in here.’’
Hours later, as we neared the site of the kill, Rivers re-enacted the hunt. He pointed out where he started seeing signs, and how he moved up a ridge and sat.
“I heard this banging sound down there,’’ he said. “It was a bull raking a tree with its rack.’’
Rivers had picked up some deadwood and began beating a tree to simulate the sound. The five-point bull charged in to confront the intruder and fell to a single shot at 30 yards.
“Of course, he went down in a wad of maples and thrashed a little until he was tangled,’’ Rivers said. “I looked up and the noise had attracted a six-point bull that was looking for action. I had to shoo the damned thing away.’’
Immediately after the shot, with daylight fading, the sky started spitting rain. Rivers built a fire to give him light and warmth as he began the mammoth job of dressing his bull.
He had to saw away some maples for access and tied rope to the elk’s legs to keep the carcass from sliding down the slope. The bull weighed more than 600 pounds, yet Rivers was able to gut it, skin it and remove the shoulders and rear quarters.
The slippery chore took its toll. Rivers stabbed his leg with the razor-sharp knife blade and sliced his fingers in several places.
“I bled as much as the elk,’’ he said. “But some of the meat would have spoiled if I didn’t get the hide off. There’s so much fur and fat on his back, the meat couldn’t cool in this weather.’’
After four hours of work, he had crisscrossed the area with aluminum tape designed to flicker in the slightest breeze and spook birds from gardens.
“I figured the fire and the tape might help keep the scavengers away,’’ he said.
Then he had to find his way out of the hellhole in the dark, a feat that wouldn’t have been possible without a compass, a headlamp and a strong desire for dark beer.
Now we were back to complete the field butchering. Together, we filleted the meat from the bones and loaded it into six canvas bags.
I lashed two bags onto my pack frame and struggled to get it on my back, pulling on the shoulder straps until they stretched tight like piano strings. I’ve explored the wilderness for 10 days with a pack lighter than that, I thought.
“We’ll never get it all out today,’’ I said as the pack dug painfully into my shoulders and hips.
The deadfall seemed to come alive to snatch at our legs and stab our flesh. One spot in a bog swallowed us to our thighs. Downhills were as difficult as uphills.
“It’s a darned good thing we didn’t stay together yesterday,’’ I grunted to Rivers. “I might have shot the six point, and we’d be here until Christmas.’’
Before the work was over, I’d concluded one thing. Rivers has been a great hunting companion, but the ideal elk partner would be younger, stronger, and a really bad shot.