CALLING, an ENCOUNTER
"He's comin' in," I whispered, "Stay where we can see each other." In this
snarl of black spruce, fallen timber and foot deep moss it was goin' to be
close. He was moving in on us faster than I anticipated. His answering
bugles growing in volume and belligerence as the distance closed. Large
branches and small trees are shattering as he raged his displeasure at
finding a challenger near his harem. I can smell the reek of his urine that
he's sprayed all over himself and wallowed in. I'd hoped to be in the
clearings farther up the hill but here he is, just the other side of a huge
tangled dead fall. I thought I was go'na get trampled or mauled in this
bush. When the healthy desire to keep your hide in one piece has you
puckered and vibrating, you know you're alive. With every sensation sharper
than ever before I'm still unable to see beyond the closed circle of
surrounding trees and blow down, we wait. Listening to a herd bull trash the
country side intimidating the competition, I don't know about my huntin'
partners, but he has me convinced. No visual yet but the screaming bugle
makes me hesitate and doubt in my feeble reply. This close in, the bull is
givin' me a free medical, checkin' my heart, lungs, reflexes and eye sight;
he has me pumping adrenaline like hormones in a kid on his first hot date.
One of the ultimate hunting thrills, calling Elk in dense timber. After
three years of practice I was showing promise in becoming a competent "Elk
Caller." I had Elk answering from places I never thought to look, and we
were seeing them; making days that are wished for but rarely witnessed.
On the Saturday after "Turkey Day" my hunting cohorts Richard Quinlan,
Gordon Salamandick and I found time to enjoy a much required and
rejuvenating hunt. The valley we chose to hunt has a ridge of cliffs that
runs for many miles down its south side. The steep southern ridge makes
entry into the valley from that side crazy and coming out with game
impossible. I'd been up on the southern ridge looking down between my boots,
three times this year already. Each time up top I had answers from a good
bull in his safe valley. A glimpse of him herding up his cows, head held
high and proud, rack reaching out over his rump, had given me delusions of
grandeur. Never mind the gravy I could see dripping off his back. The desire
to get in there was overwhelming and I had spent many days wandering,
looking for the right trail. I found the way in from the North, over and
through a wall of high foothills with muskeg swamps and creeks between. I
doubt horses could have made it over the soggy muskeg flats to where we left
the quads. We'd forded creeks, with names like Halpenny, Marsh Head, Rat and
Simonette. At each I made a mental note to come back in the summer and
prospect for trout and grayling.
Dick, Gord and I left the noisy machines, on a hill top, to cover the last
couple of miles on foot. In a blanket of snow five inches deep, we started
down the last obstacle toward the valley of my daydreams. Slowly the forest
welcomed us with the chatter of a squirrels and the chirping of chickadees
flitting about. The cool tasty air washed our cares from us, as we hiked
through the light snow cover. The trail switched back several times through
the near leafless aspens on this southern sun facing slope, before reaching
the bottom and the dark shade of hill and pine. The trail split, and Dick
took the east fork that headed back up hill to the east.
"I wan'a see where it goes." said Dick.
"Meet ya on the other side for lunch. Don't get to far away we'll need ya to
help pack him out." I said.
"Shoot his face off," he said, and with that obligatory wish of luck he was
Gord and I continued down between the hills westward. Half a mile later we
were wading across a small creek that was running toward the north.
"Did you see those trout we spooked?" Gord asked. "Got'a get back in here
"Ya, they looked like 'bows. I think one of 'em had shoulders." I replied.
Gord gave me a quick shove and then grabbed me to keep me from fallin' ass
over tea kettle into the water.
"Saved ya!" he said, grinning as I hung like a rag in his grip.
"Damn kids," I said, thinking about how I was goin' to get even.
Still following the trail it handily took us in a southern direction,
through the gloom of forested ravine between two large hills. As we came out
from between the hills, the terrain changed to an open meadow that ran out
into the valley, we were there.
Following the meadow's edge along a low spur of the hills we had just come
through we kept going. I wanted our down wind side to be open meadow before
we set up and started calling because if he came in he'd do it on the down
wind side. Looking back the way we'd come we could now see that the hill
tops had meadows dotting their entire upper areas. This was the place I was
looking for. Elk sign everywhere, rubs, droppings, tracks, but that stuff
makes a thin broth.
My brother-in-law Gord took up a down wind position from me, a good hundred
yards out, along the edge of the meadow, in a clump of trees just where we
could see each other. Now the deception became serious. The conditions were
right for it, no blustering wind, just enough moving air to feel it on your
cheeks, when you turned in that direction. The heavy cloud cover close over
head threatened snow, making the day grey.
When I blew my first call, the bugle echoed up and down the valley floor
bouncing off the hills sides and back to me. I filled the valley with the
echoing sound repeatedly. Between calls, I worked the bushes heavily with a
large stick to play the part of a challenging bull during rut. I would then
stand listening to, and watching my area of the forest, meadow and hills.
Intermittently I spiced up the sequence with cow and calf calls. After
twenty to thirty minutes it is our habit to move if a reply wasn't heard and
Gord was signalling just that.
It was the flash of movement that drew my attention to the meadows on the
hill top. It wasn't something I can say I saw, but the feeling that
something was up there, persisted as I held back to work the deception a
little longer. On the next break in the simulation my eyes were back on the
hill top meadows. I didn't wait long, for there between the trees,
silhouetted against the snow a running wolf appeared. Coal black against the
snow it flashed between the trees, down the hill toward the valley. I looked
around for Gord but he had moved away. Returning my full attention to the
hill side, I saw another, a grey; it was following in the same direction as
A pack of hunting wolves is a team, after locating prey they send in a first
assault. The first chasers, usually the young one, who are responsible for
driving the prey into the rest of the waiting pack. These would be the ones
I would hunt. Just as the first wave gets tired there are fresh replacements
waiting to continue the chase. It's a relay race with only one team allowed
to change off runners. Eventually the tiring and harried quarry turns to
make a stand, and the pack closes in, to disable and then to gorge as the
victim slowly dies.
With these thoughts I again looked for Gord, he was not going to be in on
this hunt. With a short mile of forest to cover these predators wouldn't
take long to arrive. I searched the meadow for where I guessed they would
appear and decided I had found the best field position already; what I
needed a tight group of lodgepole pine, a step up from the valley's open
meadow. This location would allow me a good view of their approach. With my
back to the pine, my camo matched, and a low willow bush in front, I'd be
nearly invisible. To cover our human smell we had doused our selves in, Elk
urine hunting scent.
Barely moving my head to the call slung by its leather thong high at my
neck, I resumed calling again. I bugled now without the extra noise and
movement of crashing branches. Movement would broadcast my position to the
approaching hunters. I new they would home into the sound and so I threw the
sound to my left and behind; hoping to draw them across in front of me.
I waited ... and the solitude shrouded me into my surroundings as only a
snow covered wilderness will. The silence of this truly wild and beautiful
place was a tangible presence close about me. In Arthur Ransome's words, "no
mans possession but the free gift of God."
I began to second guess my decisions as I knew enough time had elapsed, for
my quarry to arrive. I almost thought they were on to my ambush, and that it
was over before it began. I resolved to hold my position, as a smudge of
broken colours frozen in the wilderness but waiting with the patience and
stillness of a predator.
Intruding on the silence of the moment, I heard, behind me, the crack of a
small twig. I turned casually and fully expected to see a squirrel, or
nothing, for so insignificant had the sound been. There, to my shock and
astonishment was a crouching Cougar. Tail twitching great yellow eyes locked
instantly into mine. It was like I was transparent, it seemed like it didn't
see me for it was looking right through me and beyond, those cold piercing
eyes riveted into me and displaying absolutely no emotion. The big cat had
stalked down the hill behind me, and was at eye level within twenty feet of
my position. Now I was the hunted quarry, meat on a plate. It had frozen
stalk still except for the almost involuntary twitching of its tail. I did
not witness any fear in those eyes, only the cold measuring glare of the
predator tying to judge its prey. Without deliberation, I was resting my
cheek against the stock of my 280 Remington Express, the scope's delicate
cross hairs printed on the puma's face. Without fear, the mountain lion
stared, waiting for its prey to run. Under that heartless horrific gaze the
moments lasted forever, and I had time to think. It had been my experience
with wild creatures that all shared a fear of man. Still it did not turn to
run. The big cat, now glanced to it's right and with that look earned a
reprieve. I thought that it had looked for an escape route after realizing
it had screwed up big time. I had completely deceived it into stalking a
human when it sought a young or injured Elk. To take its life now that it
did not advance closer would have been a cowardly act.
I found my voice and commenced to give it a blistering barrage directed at
its ancestry. The sound of my voice did not elicit the immediate reaction I
had desired. The remark about its mother was probably uncalled for and now
it had decided that I be put to task for it. There it crouched, staring with
tail still twitching.
Ok. I hastily elected a "Plan B". I had been pointing the rifle at the lions
head I now move the crosshairs onto a tree about six inches to the right of
where the watching lion crouched, I fired a warning shot. The predator's
reaction surprised me, at the instant of discharge the cougar leapt. It
moved so fast, that in memory I only see a blur of flying colour. Such
speed as it displayed is incomparable in the human experience. The puma had
made a complete one hundred and eighty degrees about face. It now crouched
with its haunches toward me, ears flat, snarling and looking over its back
at me. I had thought the creature would run away, as fast as it could, but
there the bastard crouched. In my endeavour to chase it away, it now looked
as if I had aroused it even more. There I stood with an empty rifle and
realized that it had not been such a good idea. Fortunately it gave me time
enough to chamber another round, and I dropped to one knee behind the low
ledge I had been standing on. The mountain lion again did not advance but
was, still, intent on staying re-evaluating once more. This stubborn
reluctance to leave was causing me enormous concern.
Not having any experience with predator cats I was at a disadvantage. The
chance of its demise was an ever closer event. I remember thinking, I
shouldn't kill this animal. My reasoning at the time was that it was on the
endangered species list, a vague thought and one that could have done a
disservice to my family. I had been ready to hunt the wolves without mercy,
yet here was an opportunity to take a hunting cat and I debated defending
Under stress we do strange things and at this point I was, need I say,
extremely stressed. I needed to do something the cat would understand. The
lion, its ears held flat to its head continued to glare at me. At a complete
loss with what to do I allowed a primal urge to take control, and into my
throat come a vicious growl. I didn't know that I was capable of growling so
menacingly and with such deep conviction. The sound grew in volume from
within my chest as I readied the weapon I held. It felt strangely good, this
language. A language fearsomely primitive but without a doubt told this wild
being beware! The puma, only hesitated momentarily, then turned slightly and
bounded high. Up to the crest of the hill, where it stopped. Measuring me
from this vantage point, a last deliberate glare ... then it disappeared
into the stillness of its wilderness.
It shall forever remain in my memory, the cat's long tawny body of
protruding shoulder bones and muscles, the clean bright white marking of its
snarling face, the fearless cold piercing eyes.
The shot had brought in my brother-in-law come hunting partner. Until I
heard and saw Gord, I was completely unaware of my composure. We met half
way and he arrived grinning, with the thought that I had taken game.
"What did you do?" He asked, in a teasing voice.
"La-lion," I stammered. My eyes as big as saucers, I began to tell him of my
experience with the big cat, my body shuddering as the adrenaline, unnoticed
until now took over. My feet never touched the ground as we returned to the
ledge where the Cougar had stalked me. The twenty feet to where the lion had
crouched, appeared a lot shorter as we climbed to examine the tracks left in
the wet snow by the cat.
It was only mid afternoon, early yet, lunch forgotten, we decided to
continue our hunt. Deeper into the valley of the cat, for that is how I will
remember it, we hiked. We didn't really hunt any more, just walked and
speculated on the various possibilities. It's reluctance to leave is still a
We turned back toward the north side of the valley and soon found Dick. He
began hiking toward us right after hearing the shot, thinking that we would
need his aid with some game. He'd tracked us across the meadows and after
telling him the whole story, we returned to the scene. Again we climbed the
short distance to the cat's tracks, to see the empty yet tangible evidence a
When I was young, my parents told me I had a Guardian Angel. The Angel was
there beside me that day. Without the breaking twig I know I would not be
able to tell you this story. Had the cougar been any closer I fear it would
have felt committed to the assault. The camo I wear is very efficient, and I
don't believe the lion saw me until I turned around. Even then it looked
right through me. The sound of the call, and the Elk urine hunting scent no
doubt completed the ruse. The shot, fired at such close range, stunned it
with the sound of the blast and shock wave. I would like to think that its
ears are still ringing.
Gentlemen, a word of caution, calling wild game of any kind, will produce
results, and the results may not be what you had in mind. Always set up with
your back to a protective screen. A large tree, or a dead fall will work,
not only will it protect you but it will also help to break up your
silhouette. Don't call alone! Looking back that'll be the last warning shot
I fire, and I don't recommend growling at wild creatures even with an
equalizer in your hands, a humorous moment that I still take a ribbing over,
but, damn it worked.
Oh I almost forgot the Elk I mentioned in the beginning he got away. Those
quiet moments when they are close better be filled with something they want
to hear or they're long gone