In November of 1998 my good friend Bill Booth invited me to join him on an elk hunting trip to the Wyoming Range in west central Wyoming. Our guide and outfitter would be Chuck Thornton. Chuck was a retired game warden from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Bill had already been on several fishing trips with Chuck in the summer with his family. This was to be Bill’s first elk hunting trip. I did not want to spend that kind of money, so for a discount, I went without a gun but with fishing gear. I tagged along on the daily hunts and fished in the beaver dammed streams near camp in the evenings.
Getting to the camp in the Bridger-Teton National Forest was a travail. We flew into Jackson Hole, WY, and drove our rental car several hundred miles south on US 189 to the tiny town of Big Piney. Then we drove west on WY 350, Middle Piney Road, into the Wyoming Range, towards Wyoming Peak and Mount Darby. Chuck’s company was named for one of these geographical features, being Darby Mountain Outfitters, located on South Piney Creek near Darby Creek, which tumbled off of Mount Darby. The route was many dozens of miles west of town, on ever smaller and muddier roads. By the time we got within five miles of camp the road was a deeply rutted, twisted, muddy quagmire, hardly passable by our car. When we got to camp we saw that all the other vehicles were four wheel drive pickup trucks with shovels in the back.
All of Chuck’s crew were nice guys, mostly his friends and relatives. Chuck is especially warm, informative, calm and self assured. He knew the area like the back of his hand. The meals were cooked by his brother and were fresh, hot, homemade and filling. Breakfast and supper were in the mess tent, while lunch was packed in paper sacks. Breakfast was usually a multi-course meal of scrambled eggs, bacon or sausage, pancakes and coffee or milk. For some reason, all the lunches included plastic cups of pudding. And the wranglers loved the pudding. They would eat the contents with a spoon, then use a knife to cut open the cup and spread it out like flower petals, and lick off every trace of pudding. The wranglers were also tough and inured to the cold. Despite daily morning temperatures of about 15 degrees F, none of them wore long underwear, heavy coats or toboggans. They just wore the standard issue cowboy boots, blue jeans, wool or flannel shirt, leather vest, jeans jacket, leather gloves and cowboy hat. I suspected that riding on top of a hot horse all day helped them keep warm.
There were about a half dozen other guests hunters besides Bill and me. Most of them appreciated the wrangler’s duties that included entering our canvas bunk tents each morning before dawn, while we were still in our sleeping bags, and starting a fire in the wood stove with oil soaked sawdust and firewood. I am cold natured and especially liked the fires to get the air above freezing. But Bill was so hot natured that rascal told our wrangler to stop making the fire! Bill said he got hot enough putting on his winter hunting clothes that he would be sweating in the tent.
Most days we would start by glassing (viewing through binoculars) the mountains around camp, looking for elk. Some days we would see them walking and feeding across open meadows far above us and miles away. The guides would then meet with their guests and plan their day’s stalk. We would saddle up and head west on the Wyoming Range Trail, to the South Fork or Middle Fork South Piney Creek Trails. When they got on an elk, the guests would draw straws for who got to hunt and shoot first. After that, then the other hunters in the party would get a shot. By the end of the week there were several elk hanging from the meat pole. For some reason, Bill always had Booth luck. He never got the short straw, and he never got a shot. Bill is woods savvy enough that he believes if he was turned loose alone with a rifle and a horse, but without a guide, he could have gotten an elk.
Most evenings we rode back to camp about dusk. But a couple days we stayed in the wilderness until way past dark. About 9 p.m. we headed back to camp. The route lead along dozens of miles of creeks, steep hillsides, drop-offs and stream crossings, sometimes above tree line and through thick woods. In the pitch dark all we could see was occasional stars and sparks from the horses’ metal shoed hooves striking rocks. Sometimes, the horses would walk under invisible low branches and brush the rider off the horse. Other times some of us got sea sick from not being able to see where we were going, and we would have to get off and walk beside the horses. The horses could somehow see in the dark, and they knew the way back to the corral. If we gave them their head (not try to guide them with the reins) then they always stayed on the trail. The cook would always be waiting with steaming plates of meat loaf or steaks and home fries and apple pie.
Chuck even had an outdoors, wood fired hot tub fed by gravity piped spring water. Most of the other hunters just stayed dirty. One evening, for a lark, Bill and I indulged in the ablutions. Except for while we were actually immersed in the water, it was a fairly chilly, inconvenient exercise.
On the last day, with still no elk killed, Chuck felt badly for Bill and personally guided him and me alone, the farthest any hunters went from camp, almost to the Idaho border. We had a great ride and a good time. We saw lots of bear sign, including claw marks eight feet up on trees, and golden eagles wheeling in the cold, clear air. But Bill still did not get a shot.
Early afternoon on that last day, as we passed through one of many similar drainages, Chuck pointed out a clump of trees in the middle of the wilderness and told me to remember where they are. He said our hunting strategy may include me wrangling the horses back to there while he and Bill were on foot. For the rest of the afternoon, as we rode and wandered around many hills and valleys, I struggled to keep the back track route memorized. I endlessly rehearsed in my mind the geographical features leading back to that clump of trees. Eventually, near dusk, Chuck and Bill dismounted and left me with the three horses on a ridge at our western-most point. The hunters hiked down into a long valley, and disappeared. A long time later, I saw Chuck and Bill far below, waving their arms. I had no idea what they wanted me to do. So I followed the prior instructions, gathered all the reins, and wrangled the horses for about an hour, across many hills and valleys, back to the clump of trees. Then night fell. Several hours later, I heard some voices in the dark. As the voices approached me, Bill yelled across the distance for me to turn on my flashlight and hold it over my head. I said “Why?” He said “So I can shoot you in the head!”
The hunters explained later that they did NOT want me to lead the horses back to the clump of trees, but simply to point towards any elk that I had seen. By my riding off with the horses, the hunters had to hike for many miles, in the dark, hoping they would find me somewhere in the wilderness. Bill said that in spite of years of brutal football practices, that was the most tired and most blistered feet he had ever suffered.
Despite the lack of success with Bill’s gun, and the horse wrangling fiasco, we had a great time. We made some good friends with the cowboys. And most evenings we fished in the creeks around camp. The fish were not stocked at that high altitude, so our catches were smaller brook trout in bright fall spawning colors and cutthroats. The area was full of moose and beaver. Hiking up and downstream was hampered by willow thickets and swamps backed up behind beaver dams. Most places, as soon as you got past one dam, the next marsh from the downstream dam started. Someday soon I would like to go back to the same place and stay at one of the area National Forest campgrounds and just hike and fish.