Winter came early to the high country in the season of '96. We had been snowed out of our 6,000 foot elevation camp, and had moved down along the Coeur d'Alene River for the remainder of elk season. The fall had been a strange one, with an unusually warm Indian summer and afternoon temperatures into the mid seventies daily, until the eve before cow season opener. The afternoon prior to the Idaho Panhandle either sex elk season, the temperature was in the mid seventies at two o'clock in the afternoon, and by four in the afternoon is was snowing goose feather snowflakes. By seven that evening there was six inches of new snow, and morning light dawned on nearly two feet of the fluffy white stuff, and snowing hard.
After moving down on the river bottom, where the precipitation fell as icy rain instead of snow, with the elevation being slightly over two thousand feet, all the fall colors were ablaze on the cottonwoods, alders, willows and aspens. A spectacular display of God's creativity in the myriad of colors in the leaves of the deciduous trees and brush along the river adorned the banks. On the mountains lining the river, were the golden spires of Western Larch as their color had changed to their annual bright gold before losing their needles. Even on the river bottom, the nighttime temperature dropped to the low double digits before sunrise, and all the rain from the night before was frozen into a kaleidoscope of ice crystals reflecting the morning sun with dazzling colors being reflected as through a prism
Up above, the snow had continued through the previous day and through the night as well, and over three feet of snow lay where our original high altitude camp stood the morning before. Both the elk and the deer had hunkered down for the duration of the storm, and any game up at the snowline, was kegged up tight in the thickets of hemlock just off the leeward side of the finger ridges running down into the drainage we hunted. A hard, long, cold day traversing those ridges up and down, paralleling them ever so slowly in the past knee deep snow in hopes of glimpsing a bedded elk brought our hunting party to the bottom of the creek drainage trailhead simultaneously roughly an hour before dark.
Our camp laid downriver about eight miles from the trailhead, and we all eagerly piled into our respective vehicles for the ride home in the relative comfort of warmth and dryness. My friends Hank Wood, and Bill Culp headed out first, while John Zieske and I poured warm cups of coffee and hot chocolate before heading out, as we waited for the heater in our Suburban to warm things up a bit, and melt the ice off our windshield. Darkness was only about half an hour away as we snaked down the rough, winding, river road towards camp, and along the way found my friends Hank and Bill stopped on the side of the road, Bill looking down, off the berm of the road towards the river. Next to the river, Hank wildly called to me to join him, as they had spotted an elk crossing the river from their vehicle, and Hank had followed down to the river where he had gotten off a snap-shot at a herd-cow running straight away from him in the tall canary grass across the river.
I obligingly followed his path through the canary grass on the near side of the raging river, now swollen from the runoff of the previous two days' worth of precipitation, to the bank where Hank stood, looking across where he believed the big cow fell. I waded into that icy water armed only with my revolver, a skinning knife and a mini-mag light with half worn out batteries. Wow, was that water cold! We waded across the current in waist deep water, slipping on the round, smooth, algae covered river rock under our feet toward the opposite shore. Sure enough, about twenty yards up the bank on the opposite side lay a huge cow elk, hit squarely at the base of the skull with a 220 grain Hornady round nose bullet fired from Hank's battered Winchester .30-06!
Darkness was upon us by the time we found the elk, and John, my hunting partner was thoroughly convinced that we were playing the supreme practical joke on him to get him frozen to the bone! After some not so gentle persuasion, he too crossed those black icy waters to help us with Hank's prize. After some quick evaluation of the situation, it was decided that our best bet was to drag the cow to the river, then float her to the other side, then hook a rope around her neck and drag her up onto the road with the aid of a vehicle.
Well, the theory was fine, but the execution was another story. Once we finally managed to get the old girl to the river and buoyant, our problems had just begun. The current was strong, and the resistance of the water pushing against the mass of that cow elk was more than three of us could manage. As we neared the opposite shore, Hank fell into a beaver hole that put him entirely under those icy, swift waters, and with no lights, I had no idea what had become of Hank. His back is bad anyhow, and I feared for his safety, and went into the hole after him, going in well over my head in the water as well, leaving John to hold onto the elk in the current by himself!
We managed to get Hank onto shore, then I helped John wrestle that big old cow up partially onto the near bank, where Bill had a rope ready to put around it's neck, being already attached to the trailer ball of his pickup. With some grunting and groaning, we managed to get the cow clear of the big boulders that lined the near side of the river, and she slid up the bank and onto the road slicker than slick. While the adrenaline was still pumping through all of us, we loaded that 650 pound cow whole into the back of Bills pickup, then we began to feel the effects of the plunging temperatures, our fatigue and our thoroughly soaked clothes and boots.
After the remaining short drive to camp, we unloaded the elk near the base of a good sized fir tree, and began the process of making incisions in the hide to skin her with the pickup. Coleman lanterns were lit and positioned to give the best lighting, and congratulations were passed around from all at camp on Hank's fine cow elk. As we went to work on the carcass, Bill Johnson, a regular in our camp that comes from Arkansas every year to unwind and relax during elk season, disappeared during our dealing with the elk.
Finally we had managed to pull the hide free of the carcass with the aid of the pickup, as per my usual technique, and the clean, hairless elk rested upon a fresh new poly tarp to keep it clean. Because of our haste in getting her out of the river and back to camp, we now gutted her into a trash can, and then quartered her for cooling and transit. All the time we worked, we were frozen to the bone, and all of our outer clothing soaked as the temperatures plummeted while the night wore on. We weren't really too interested in changing clothes at that point, as our only other dry clothes would be soiled with the butchering job, so we just toughed it through in our wet gear. By the time we finished the tasks at hand, it was nearly midnight, and the temperature hovered into the single digits. We were totally exhausted from a long day's hunt, the freezing water, the wrestling match with a current carried elk carcass, and a hurried butcher job. When we loaded the front quarters onto the pickup for transit into town, they had already began to freeze up and ice crystals glinted from the surface of the meat.
Then, after the knives and saws were cleaned, and our hands and faces washed with some warm water and soap, we realized that it had been many hours since breakfast. We were mutually famished! Just as we finished drying off with a towel, Bill Johnson called, "Dinner's ready anytime you boys are!" We hadn't noticed his absence with all the work we were doing.
When we walked into Hank's camp trailer, there was a Southern Fried feast! A platter full of big, fluffy home-made buttermilk biscuits, a massive bowl of mashed potatoes and a pot of thick chicken gravy, home-canned green beans with onions and bacon, and two heaping platters of the most beautiful golden-brown, crispy, Southern Fried chicken that you have ever seen. If this wasn't enough, Bill had fixed a pair of 9"x12" baking pans full of fresh peach cobbler! The memory of the aroma of that dinner alone makes my mouth water. You simply can't imagine how that meal looked and smelled after that night.
Man, you talk about a feast fit for a king! After the day we put in, most all of that table of food was devoured in less than forty-five minutes! I can't remember a better meal in my life! Whenever I think of that bone chilling elk-float across the river, I too remember chicken. Golden-brown, Southern Fried chicken with all the fixings! As Bill gave thanks for the meal, we all gave thanks for an awesome memory that The Lord had given us along with his provision, in the company of good friends and brothers in the Lord.