Episode 3 -- Last Chance!
by Jason Ross
For the second time in four days, we were thinking about calling search & rescue. Part of the problem with hunting with hard-core guys — special operations forces, specifically — is that they’re more than willing to go to the wall.
Well, Chad Wade, Navy SEAL, had gone to the wall and now we were running short on options. Snow was falling. Daylight was long gone. The temperature was plummeting, and all our communications and navigation electronics were running out of juice.
Chad was still out there in the sub-zero darkness, Lord knows how far away.
And, this was supposed to be an easy day.
Thirteen Hours Earlier
After three days of hunting across the eastern boundary of our hunting area, we came to the conclusion that it was full of elk — every last one of them were bulls. And we had cow tags.
Our season was about over and we had one last hurrah to get our five cow elk. We decided to move our group to the north where Chad Wade and John Spears had seen a new group of elk — hopefully cows.
We’d wasted an afternoon on the eastern boundary because of internecine rivalry.
Definition. Internecine Rivalry: When one dumb ass from one branch of the military doesn’t tell the other guys where elk are because they’re from another branch of the military and because he absolutely MUST win the bet that’s riding on the hunt.
Yet, the truth came out and we were finally heading toward an area that might hold cows.
Chad, who had started the hunt with a PSE compound bow, had traded it in. In fact, all the boys had swapped weapons.
Chad Wade (SEAL) ran with Evan’s .308 heavy battle rifle. Jeff Kirkham (Green Beret, CIA) carried the M14 .308. Evan (Green Beret, CIA) had traded to Jeff’s Dragunov 7.62 x 54R. I stuck with my Christensen .300 ultra.
Dawn’s early light found the boys marching quietly along a ridgeline, heading north. Jeff and I, thankfully, had spun up a pair of Garmin Rhino 650T GPS radios. These babies communicate not only voice, but give a GPS position over-laid on a digital topo map. So, not only are you talking to the other guy, but you can see his position on your digital map. The Rhinos would turn out to be lifesavers, literally, before the day was done.
Leading the line of guys along the snowy ridge, I glanced left through the trees and picked out flashes of elk across the canyon.
“Contact left! Elk.” I figured that’d be the quickest way to get their attention, talking all military-like. I rushed up to a window in the trees and dropped to the ground, sighting my big Leupold scope on a cow.
With a minimal amount of confusion, I saw the guys drop down beside me. Chad. Evan. Jeff hovered over my back, struggling to target ID with his iron-sighted M14. We were a little over two hundred yards out from the herd.
“Boom!” I let one fly and smacked a cow. It staggered and disappeared into the bush.
“Whiff, whiff!” went Chads suppressed OBR.
All hell broke loose.
“I can’t tell which one’s are cows.” Jeff growled.
“The smaller one dropping into the canyon is a calf. Whack it!” I shouted. Calves are the best eating of all and I’ll always opt for a calf over a full-grown cow.
“Boom!” went the M14 and the calf staggered, clearly hit.
I moved into cleanup mode, dropping another wounded elk. I had two cow tags to fill.
We watched the remainders of the herd filter up, through the oaks and over the next ridge, out of sight.
The guys were a little perplexed. They knew what it felt like to go in and out of a gunfight, but what about shooting huge animals? Did we get them? There were so many trees and bushes in the canyon that we couldn’t see a single animal laid out, actually dead.
We crossed the canyon and went to work searching. Soon, Jeff’s M14 barked again, dropping the small calf that had limped away from his earlier shot.
We spread out in a line and worked up through the forest, soon finding blood trails. Within moments, I found the first cow I’d hit down-and-out and then my second cow, with a bullet directly through her heart. (Honestly, both lucky shots.) Score three down for the group.
After some thorough searching we found Evan’s cow. Down and dead but not quite a “ten ring” hit. The bullet looked like it had passed through her lower abdomen, leaving a gut mess, but then pulverized the left side of her lung, ending her life.
Four elk down. Chad still had an unfilled tag.
Jeff’s shots on the calf were true. Both ten ring hits. It’s not uncommon for a deer or elk to move a long ways even with a perfect “ten ring” hit in the lungs. Both of Jeff’s shots were double-lung, but it had taken two rounds to fell the calf.
While we’d found four elk and filled four of our tags, Chad’s elk remained unaccounted for. After a bit, we found a blood trail and tracked it for a few hundred yards. I was getting the feeling that the elk was bumping out ahead of us, lightly wounded, keeping a ridge or two between us. But there was no stopping Chad. He grabbed his Go Bag, some water, some food and his Garmin Forerunner GPS watch and headed in pursuit.
Unless Chad pulled something out of his hat, it looked like Jeff had won the bet. Since everyone shot from the same location, Jeff’s dual ten ring hits trumped Evan’s eight ringer.
The rest of us turned back to take on the gigantic chore of field dressing four elk. An adult cow weighs in around four hundred pounds and generally leaves just a little shy of two hundred pounds of butchered meat.
Jeff took his trusty Glock knife to his calf, making short work of it. But the real work was yet to come since it took him half the day just to get the calf pulled up to the road. Hundreds of pounds of “dead weight” is no joke.
Evan and my elk were above the road, so we gutted them and slid them down to where the snow machines could get at them. Shooting something above the road works out to be a tremendous amount easier than shooting something below the road. After about five hours of gutting, cutting, dragging and towing, we had all four elk back to base camp.
By the time we got a big ole fire going, we started wondering about Chad. Twilight seemed to pick up speed as dark clouds rolled over us accompanied by giant, fluffy flakes of snow.
We shot Chad a text and he responded:
“I’m still tracking.”
If he was still tracking now, many hours later, that elk was superficially wounded and there was no way Chad was going to get on top of her.
“You should head back to camp.”
After a long pause, Chad replied, “Not sure where that is.”
Bad situations often arise out of seemingly pedestrian moments like this one. Jeff and I knew to take this seriously.
Chad’s next text proved his training in the SEALs. It was a simple lat/lon coordinate. He’d managed to pull his position off his tiny Garmin watch.
We went to work with the Garmin Rhinos that we’d been field testing, very successfully, all day. We pulled up the topo map on the two-and-a-half inch screen and, surprisingly, were able to punch in Chad’s location and see it clearly on the map. He was a long, damn ways away, down a steep ridge.
We manipulated the map, zooming and panning to find an ideal rendezvous with Chad where the snow machines could penetrate. We chose a location along a snow-covered dirt road and text it back to Chad.
Several hours later, Chad was still short of the rendezvous and the weather situation had deteriorated significantly.
“When do we call search and rescue,” I wondered aloud.
“When we lose contact.” Jeff replied.
Another hour later, we lit out on the snow machines, hoping Chad had reached the rendezvous. As we neared the crossroads we’d chosen, we heard a single shot ring out in the darkness. Chad was close. Twenty minutes later, he appeared out of the darkness, well along into hypothermia.
Turns out, that little Garmin watch could give Chad a direction toward a coordinate and he’d been slowing vectoring toward our lat/lon rendezvous for hours, climbing the endless mountainside. The GPS watch batteries had crapped out just as Chad saw the lights of the snow machines.
After an hour or so warming up at the fire, Chad was ready to hop in the ATV and get off the mountain. He didn’t have an elk, but he had a great story and a solid survival experience.
Here’s what he learned:
- He had taken both food and water and for that he was very grateful. Even though he thought he’d only be gone an hour or so, he’d prepared as though he’d be gone all night, which worked out to be true.
- He had two GPS devices, and that probably saved his life. However, the margin for error had been razor thin, with both his iPhone (GPS device number one) and his Garmin Forerunner (GPS device number two) almost dead. Next time, he’d bring a bigger GPS and extra batteries. Maybe a Garmin eTrex with two sets of batteries.
- Electronic devices are fantastic, but the no-fail fallback is a USGS topo map and a Silva compass. They weigh very little and they never run out of batteries, even in the cold. These days, it’s easy to pull up a USGS topo, trim it to your operational area, and print out the map you need. Getting the scale right is tricky, but even a not-to-scale map is enough to get your ass found.
- The LaRue OBR froze open after that single signal shot. That, and it was freaking heavy. Chad could’ve probably fixed it after the bolt froze, but he’d already lost fine motor control and he was running short on time. When it’s wet, freezing and dirty, your gun won’t always operate the way you want. A simpler, lighter gun is often better.
In the end, the guys had learned volumes about hunting in the mountains and the SOF guys taught us a number of things that we’d never seen. Here’s a partial list of my take-aways:
- I’m going to test, then carry a bivy sack in place of a tent in light camping scenarios. I’d probably opt for that in my BOB (Episode 2) unless I knew for sure I’d be camping
- A big knife (6 inches, fixed) rocks for field dressing big animals and it can also dig an ATV out of the mud. I’m still not sure it’s worth the weight in every circumstance, but I’ve added several of those Glock knives to my kit.
- A suppressor has a place in hunting. The shot is almost indiscernible to animals out over 200 yards and they definitely can’t tell where the shot’s coming from. They scatter in all directions, including straight at you. More importantly, I could probably kill an elk or deer without causing other guys to come running to my position (in a SHTF scenario.)
- Lat/lon is the universal language of navigation and me and my hunting buddies need to become more familiar with it, both over-laid on topos and via GPS devices. Sharing lat/lon seriously expedited Chad’s pickup and it probably saved his ass.
Another great hunt lands in the books. As one would hope, we learned valuable lessons about skill and fortitude when it comes to living in wild environs. At the end of the day, it would probably be lessons like these that would save us and our families if the shit ever did hit the fan.