Wally Lutz
"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 gone. 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 next season." "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 its predecessor. 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 myself. 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 curious question. 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 last time. 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