Caucus Ascent

Thursday, November 5, 2009
North Ossetia Russia September 2009

Since January I had dreamed of little else, having been the winning bidder for a rather unique hunting experience. It was all fine and good to explain in a rather bravado manner that I was going after a North Ossetian East Dagestan Tur. A what? My friends asked. A goat I answered. In Russia. Near Chechnya, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Iran. Isn’t that dangerous? Isn’t there a war going on there? Aren’t there terrorists there? They all asked. I had well rehearsed answers to all the questions, but as the time came closer, I began to wonder just what I might be in for. I hope I am ready for this I thought as I boarded the plane for the first leg of my journey to the other side of the planet. I had lied awake many nights worrying about this expedition. How hard will it be? It is supposed to be pretty tough. I am not in as good of shape as I could be. Fatter than a year ago. Plantar Fasciitis in my left foot. Will my guides meet me at the airport? Will the Russians let me in? How about my rifle? Will I get robbed? Will I get kidnapped? Will the war start up again? Are there terrorists active in the area? If so then what?

Moscow Domodedovo Friday September 18, 2009 1230

As I get off the Lufthansa jumbo a nurse with the Russian health department is individually checking each passenger with a temperature gun for swine flu before we can leave the deplaning area. I am passed through, but some other people are pulled aside and examined more intensely. I fill out several customs forms before the immigration officer carefully examines my Visa and then gives me his rubber stamp approval. I grab my gear off the luggage belt and wait a few minutes for Oleg Potechykin to show up and help me through the customs quagmire with my weapon. The gun permit I had worried so much about is actually not for me I find out. It is for Oleg. I can not go anywhere at all without him to keep a close eye on me. The customs officers are not too quick to know what to do, but Oleg helps them along and a dozen rubber stamps on four hand copied forms and we are set to go to the police official to register the rifle. 45 minutes later and we are done. I am surprised by the people roaming the terminal. Long straight blond hair, blue eyes, very white, not tan, extremely thin, beautiful women with stiletto heels, fashionable oversize sunglasses, Coach handbags and Gucci brightly colored leather coats, unshaven guys with athletic track suits and sunglasses . White, blond hair, blue eyes. No variation. I guess I was expecting more fear, depression, downtrodden, gray sky.

Oleg explains that I will spend the night at a nearby hotel and then fly early in the morning to Vladikavkaz. Oleg drops me off and I check in to the hotel. The desk girls speak English. All I care is that there is a bed. I fall asleep at 4PM and sleep soundly until 530 AM. I meet Oleg again at 9AM after a hotel buffet breakfast of eggs, rolls, potatoes, fresh fruit and vegetables, yogurt and sausage. Oleg’s son Alexi drops us off at the terminal. He has a large late model Mercedes. There are many very nice cars at airport. Few Russian cars, but many BMW, Mercedes, Audi, Lexus, Ford, GM and Dodge high end models. Check in at S7 regional airline is pretty easy, then back to the police for forms, rubber stamps and hand carry of my weapon to the plane. While waiting in the terminal Oleg explains that he takes many Russian hunters around the world to English speaking areas to hunt like Canada where he recently returned from a two week goat/dall sheep hunt, Australia, South Africa, Namibia, Tanzania and also accompanies a very few westerners to hunt different areas of Russia. He was a field expedition biologist during the Soviet times and spent many years in Mongolia, Afghanistan, Tanzania, Sudan and Ethiopia where he studied sheep, and other large mammals. A notable project he was involved with was to hunt and kill mammals in the area surrounding Chernobyl after the disaster, then conduct autopsies and run tests to search for disease and mutation. Supposedly nothing was found out of the ordinary, except for some mutation and die off problems with amphibians. When the USSR broke up he continued to work for a couple years without pay. Then he turned to hunting. A few foreign hunters come to hunt with him each year for sheep, bear and a couple for Tur. He goes to shows like SCI, FNAWS, and Ovis to gain contacts and talk to prospective clients with his partner Sergei Shushanov from Chicago. They feel there are many opportunities in Russia that US hunters are unaware of. I also learn that Oleg was a KGB guard along the Norway border in the mid 70s.
The flight is a short two hours south. We see massive mountains rising from the steppes, up through the clouds. I am intimidated to say the least. When the plane lands, we are held back from deplaning while the other first class passengers, get off. They are 6 men dressed smartly in suits, probably businessmen, however there are many soldiers, officials with flowers, reporters with video cameras and a band playing. It was the president of Moldavia and his entourage that I sat next to on the flight! 15 minutes later we are allowed to deplane after the VIPs are whisked away in a small convoy of armored limos and SUVs. With the excitement dying down, we are met by a huge bodyguard named Arthur who collects our bags and gets us quickly through the police paperwork process. Oleg and I hop into a Mercedes SUV with blacked out windows and off we race into town. The motor is quite powerful and accelerates to 160 kph in short order shooting past other cars, our lights flashing and horn blaring. We rocket past orchards and fields of crops , a huge vodka distilling plant and then into town. The people are dark haired with brown eyes and decent looking clothes. Arthur checks out each and every attractive female while weaving through traffic and I am afraid we will be the cause of a fatal wreck with one of the dilapidated streetcars, dirty buses, ancient smoking trucks, forlorn autos or lackadaisical pedestrians clogging the roadways. There are dozens of typical Soviet Bloc style concrete apartment complexes that look terrible to live in with clothing hanging out to dry from nearly every balcony. Construction projects are in progress all over on the dilapidated structures, some just needing paint, to others that seem to be totally gutted. Flags, monuments, statues, and propaganda posters are everywhere. The Mercedes lurches to a halt at the regional wildlife management office where we meet the boss, Serra, a short solid fellow in his mid fifties with close cropped hair and a Makarov on his belt. He is the chief director of hunting in North Ossetia. The compound has an old BMP tank in the front yard and the building has half a dozen guards milling about with Kalshnikov automatic rifles and hand grenades. Weeds sprout from the pavement and sidewalks and the trees have not been trimmed or lawn mowed for ages. The office is also very poorly maintained with peeling paint, exposed electrical wires protruding from walls, broken railings, doors and steps. There are framed photographs on the walls of VIPs like Vladimir Putin, Boris Yeltsin, and many others posing with Serra. We leave Arthur at the office, Serra fires up the Mercedes and we race to the hunting lodge about 30 minutes away just on the outskirts of town. It is another military compound surrounded by double fences and many guards to keep out the riffraff. We are welcomed by the staff of cooks, maids and soldiers.
There is a huge banquet hall filled with a few dozen partiers celebrating a birthday or something. The place is very fancy with marble floors, walls, columns, staircases, buttresses, crystal chandeliers, Persian rugs, and beautiful hanging tapestries, but again it is shabby and needs lots of work to be freshened up. The quarters Oleg and I will share is one of several very nice suites with two bedrooms, a dining room, bathroom, sitting room and private balcony looking out to the not so distant mountains covered at the moment in thick fog. There are to be no other hunters here for the week I am told. From here we will head out to hunt a couple days at a time. Serra takes me out to a nearby field to shoot my .300 Remington UltraMag. It is dead on at 200yds. We return to enjoy dinner of ribs, tur meat, pizza pie, tomatoes, cucumbers, soup, bread, vodka, lemonade and mineral water. Serra offers many toasts to St. George, friendship, Ossetia, family and good luck hunting. After dinner I find that we will head out in the morning at 5AM to hunt chamois in an area close by. We have not yet received the proper authorization to enter the frontier border area for Tur hunting. I am quite excited and eager to get started. I arrange my gear for the morning hunt.

I wake up early, eat some eggs and drink power juice while Oleg wolfs down oatmeal and coffee. When we are finished Serra arrives and whisks us an hour away to a small village where we meet up with the local guides. The rough looking men all shake hands and introduce themselves, but I do not really catch their names due to the language barrier. They are FSB border guards that moonlight as hunting guides. Some are older, some are younger, but they all look pretty tough. They have mismatched uniforms and old battered looking weapons, but look like they can run up and down the mountains all day long. Serra departs and we pile into a Russian truck meant for four people. We squeeze in eight! The cigarette smoke is thick and the men stink badly. The engine shares the passenger compartment, so it gets hot in a hurry. We drive into a pasture and begin to climb in low gear up the mountain on a rough track clinging to the hard rock. As we slam back and forth I wonder if I am becoming prone to carsickness. Thankful for fresh air, we finally climb out and walking sticks are issued. One soldier grabs my pack and another takes my rifle. Great, I only need to carry myself. We file along up the small mountains as the point men quickly outdistance me, but Oleg and several others match my pace, so I assume I will be ok. After a few hours with no water I am hurting, but unwilling to slow down and show it. The point men spot a nice ram chamois and urge me to rush into position for a shot before it moves away. I chase two of the guys, Aslan the leader and Yuri, one of the younger guys carrying my gear, leaving all the others behind with radios watching through binoculars and updating our progress compared to the goat's position. I have lost my interpreter and am now being forced to move fast. I tire out quickly as the climbing intensifies. When I finally arrive the ram is moving, but only 220 yard away. I try to get into a decent prone position, but can not find the chamois in the scope. Then when I can see him the range is 380, then 450, then 620 yards. No shot. Aslan and Yuri seem a little disgusted with me as we head back to rejoin the others, then thick fog rolls in covering the mountains all around. We eat a meager lunch of bread, apples, tomatoes, and sausage. I am beat. No water, dehydrated, very dizzy and lightheaded. The cool rain is nice and we hunker down to wait for the fog to pass. It does not go away, and in fact some times it is hard to see 20 feet. The trek back to the vehicle is a tough one. The ride in the smoke filled wheeled coffin crammed with eight guys is terrible. We stop at Aslan’s home and wait a couple hours for Serra to come back and get us. I see several nice trophies that Aslan has collected over years of hunting and many pictures of hunts that the team has been involved with. They share some homemade cheese, soup, liver, and chamois meat. It is all terrible. The mineral water from a local spring is pretty bad too, but at least it is wet. There is a huge dog lying on the floor that is only 8 months old, but already 150 pounds. It is for guarding sheep against the wolves that roam the hills. When Serra arrives, I am certainly ready to go. After a quick dinner I collapse into bed. I am hoping to do better tomorrow, but the fog stays for three more days.!!!

In the morning, the fog shrouds the mountains and there is no chance that we can go into the hills. After breakfast, some writing, some reading, lunch and a lot of napping, I am ready to do just about anything that gets me out of the lodge. Arthur comes after lunch and takes us around Vladikavkaz in a battered Mercedes sedan. We stop at the town square where there are many beautiful memorials to WWII heroes, a monument to the victims of the Beslan school massacre, a monument depicting the Ossetians joining with Katherine the Great, and a cemetery of local heroes, writers, artists, mayors and other VIPs with ornately engraved tombstones. The sky is overcast and it sprinkles occasionally. There is little activity in the city, with people staying inside to avoid the unseasonably poor weather. My disguise seems to be working, as no one really even glances at me.

We drive a few miles to the site of the Beslan school massacre where September 1-3, 2004 a dozen Chechnyan terrorists held over a thousand children and teachers hostage. The site is very humbling. There are burned out buildings pocked with thousands of bullets impacts and craters. It is awful. In the main gymnasium there are hundreds of water bottles with flowers stuck in them, symbolizing that the terrorists kept the frightened hostages from having any water, food or restroom visits for three days. There are wreathes, flowers and pictures and of all the victims. The room is not too large, but nearly 300 people were murdered here. There are dark stains on the walls and floors from what I assume is blood. 187 children, 117 teachers, and 12 spetznaz soldiers were slaughtered and all 12 terrorists were killed. Nearly 820 people were also horribly wounded. These people are Orthodox Christians at war with their Muslim extremist neighbors in Chechnya, Dagestan and Azerbaijan. All this horror causes my blood to boil. I start to get dizzy and have to get out of the building. We wander among the ruins for half an hour without speaking. A solemn soldier stands in a courtyard silently gazing at the ruins. A busload of student athletes files into the site with heads bowed. Next we drive to the graveyard where all the victims are buried. The site is maintained by several soldiers. It is a very respectful memorial, but extremely sad. A family of six children buried side by side, a family three, and on and on. Over 300 nearly identical headstones, each with an engraved picture of the victim. A statue of angels rises over the memorial garden. It is enough for me. We leave, heading back to the city, spirits lowered considerably, and take a short walk along the riverfront. I see the capitol building, the police station, and the presidential office. After a few smokes, Arthur drives us back to the compound.

For dinner we have pizza rolls, meat, soup, fresh salsa, vegetables, and beets. Of course vodka! We are joined by the Vladikavkaz police chief and his family and some other local dignitaries. Toasts and good food. The table manners are confusing. They reach for food with their hands and do not use napkins. They all slouch and rest their elbows on the table, but they hold their knives and forks very properly. Lots of laughing, many old stories, but no English. I end up talking to the police chief’s wife and daughter who speak English well enough for me to understand a little. The evening comes to an end and all of the important people and their entourages depart.

The next day is similar. Fog and no chance to go into the mountains. More reading, writing and sleeping.
After lunch Natasha takes Oleg and me on a drive to her hometown in a valley an hour away. The town is a tiny mining community with a roaring river, narrow road and long thin sliver of apartment buildings crammed in against the valley walls. She shows us the apartment where she was born and the school she attended. The road is very winding with tunnels and steep walls. Mine shafts bore into the sides. Most of the factories and mine facilities look abandoned. An important natural gas pipeline also shares the valley. Many guard posts with soldiers, machineguns, sandbags and bunkers stand ready to defend the road and pipeline due to the Georgian conflict which is not really quite over. We stop at a massive stone statue of a king said to bring good luck to hunters. The mountains rise steeply thousands of feet above us disappearing into the clouds and fog. I actually catch a brief glimpse of the blue sky high above as we visit the site. Maybe the legend is true and this fellow will help me by clearing the sky.

We return to the lodge at last and have dinner with Serra, Natasha and her two sisters. One of the sisters speaks English and talks about how much she likes America and would love to go there, especially New York City. She is amazed to find out that I have not been there. The evening ends and again I hope for a break in the weather.

The next day is all about napping and reading and being cooped up in the lodge. We eat alone, but receive word from the guards that the weather is clearing for tomorrow and we will go out at 4AM to hunt chamois in another area where we are cleared to enter the border frontier zone. The Tur area is still closed. I wonder if I will get to hunt for Tur at all. I hope so. I have had enough rest.

I have seen and experienced a lot, but want to get to what I really came for.
The time has come for hunting. Up early, power drink, light pack, good mountaineering clothes, a short drive with Serra to meet the hunt team on the road. A drive of a few hours. It is dark so I can not see much crammed in with six smoking Russians. I just try not to get sick. We stop at a village and a couple more guys join us. They have seen chamois in the valley nearby. The fog is light and burning off as the sun rises. We proceed to a checkpoint where soldiers examine our documents. They are very polite, but curious about me. Where am I from, why am I here? …. They have a boring job. We drive along the valley past some abandoned fortifications from the Georgian conflict and then I get out with two soldiers for a climb up the mountain. The truck departs and begins dropping off guys with radios and binoculars along the road at intervals to glass for goats while I scramble to get up the slope and into position. A group of twenty chamois is spotted and I go with the two young soldiers to get in close. It sounds easy. With an audience watching every move from 3000 feet below and 2 miles away, I struggle to keep up as we scramble on the shale and boulders staying low in stream ravines and edge slowly up ridges to carefully peer over trying to catch a glimpse of our quarry. What looks so easy from below is not easy on the mountain. I see thousands of polka dots on the mountainside across the valley. I can not understand what it is and since the guys with me do not speak English, I can not ask. Eventually I realize that the polka dots are shell craters. The old darker vegetation has been blown away and new lighter colored growth has replaced it. The whole mountainside was shelled 8 months ago during the war. My hypothesis is confirmed as I begin to find dozens of parts of shell casings, fuses, guide fins and shrapnel broken and scattered on the rocky terrain we are traversing. I am hoping and praying not to run into any unexploded ordnance or artillery deployed mines. Georgia is only a kilometer away on the backside of the mountain we are climbing.

Eventually after six hours of hard climbing and crawling, we are able to see some chamois. They see us too and run away! The radio guys say they have only gone a little way. A little way for them is just two ridges. For us it is a long way and takes quite a great deal of effort. There nearly 35 individuals, some smaller ones closer and one or two larger ones farther off 600-700 yards distant. Attempts at asking the soldiers which to shoot are fruitless. I am finally able to set up for a 340 yard shot at a resting chamois below us. It is the best animal I can see within range. I calm down and focus on the target taking time to consider all the factors in play. Two dry fires and then squeeze, squeeze,….. BANG! The chamois jumps up and runs away. The soldiers jabber excitedly and I can not understand. Are they saying I missed? Is the animal wounded? Is it dead? I can not tell what is going on, but one guy wants me to give him my rifle. I hand over the gun and he fires a single round. I look through my Swarovski binoculars at the running herd of chamois, but I do not see what the guy shot at. They vigorously shake my hand and indicate that it is dead. I am slightly disheartened to think that the guide shot my ram. The other goats have all run over the mountain into Georgia. The 380 yards takes me an hour due to the slippery rockslide and having to take a somewhat safe circuitous route to the chamois landing site. The shot felt good and I am confused when they begin to indicate that two chamois are dead. I am worried about what happened and if I shot two and what the fee will be. One is a baby and the other is a decent size female. I know I shot the female and not the baby, but was there a ricochet or pass through? I try to get them to take decent pictures, but they do not quite understand what I want. The pictures are ok, but not great. The terrain makes it really hard to maneuver without sliding down the steep rockslide. They start to pack up, dragging my chamois. I attempt to get them to see that the hair is being ruined and stop them. I put the goat on my shoulders and show what I want. They are hesitant to do this, but eventually agree to tie it to a walking stick and carry it between them while I drag the baby down with me. We descend the rock slide for thousands of feet to where there is some grass and it is relatively flat. The other guys from down below have worked their way up to us and we have another round of photos. This time Oleg takes care of things and the quality improves significantly. I explain how I want the cape done, as Oleg explains that I hit the female and Alec shot the baby himself for the meat. Much relieved and feeling better about myself, I am then sent down the valley for the two hour hike to the truck. I have had no lunch and am very tired. At least there is a rough path to follow. I see some soldiers patrolling the opposite mountainside and they wave as they go by, saluting my success. I feel much better and am enthralled at having worked pretty darn hard for my fourth chamois. The trek ends and I sit down to eat some of the food set out by Aslan who passed by me on his way down. The chicken, tomatoes, cucumbers, bread, and Snickers bar are superb. I drink deeply from a stream and relax, waiting for the rest of the team to complete the hike. The drive back is a blur, dropping off soldiers, receiving congratulations, and a three hour drive back to the lodge. We stop for ice cream and fuel. At the lodge there are toasts, vodka, pizza, meat, salsa, vegetables and bread. It is a short meal much to my liking, and best of all, Serra says the Tur area authorization has come through. I am to pack my gear very light for a couple nights on the mountain. It will be very hard I am told and I hope and pray I am prepared. So far it has been hard, but not too bad. I dream about the successful chamois encounter and the coming tur expedition.

At 2 AM it is time to get going again.
I have packed my gear into a Kelty 3200 pack. It does not seem like a very large pack, but I have stuffed it pretty full. Rain gear, aid kit, vest, jacket, wool hat, socks, sleeping bag, water, power food, sat phone, GPS, wind indicator, ammo…. It seems like 20 pounds is not much, but add a 10 pound loaded rifle with scope and bipod and a 12 hour assault on the Caucasus Mountains from 4000 feet to 13000feet at up to 60 degree incline, loose shale, snow covered boulder fields, ice, running water, etc and it becomes a real load.
The three hour ride in the hunt van full of smoke is not a real joy on winding roads. Did I mention that the Russians are not really very safe drivers? Speeding, overdriving headlights, narrow roads, wandering livestock, tailgating, passing blindly, weaving.
We come to a small village and the ruins of a Soviet era resort. The massive hotel is like a concrete fortress, once the pride of the tourist industry, now stripped to the shell and left to decay. We need to report in to the border guard base camp. It has a detachment of about 50 soldiers, dogs, and a couple heavy trucks. They are responsible for patrolling the mountainous border on foot and by helicopter. These guards are very businesslike. A staff officer appears taking our papers and then reemerges 45 minutes later, wishing us luck. We are off. The van winds its way up a narrow dirt track as far as possible until the road ahead is washed out. There is a guard bunker with tripod mounted binoculars and machinegun. The two kids on duty are excited to see us and wish they could go with up into the mountain instead of dying of boredom watching the river flow by down at the bottom of the valley. We dismount and leave our packs for donkeys to carry part of the way for us. The path is very rough and tangled. It was once a road that was carved into the hillside but has had hundreds of washouts and rockslides, so it is now an obstacle course. I enjoy the hike and lead the pack for the 4 hour, 10 mile trek. It is beautiful; the path ends at a hot springs near the face of a large glacier. Two glaciologists we passed on their way out said they saw many Tur, but up pretty high while they were doing their work and tests on the glacier over the last few days. I feel pretty good about things as we strip off our clothes and relax in the hot tub like springs, but when the donkeys catch up, we have a quick lunch and hoist on the packs. It is a nice sunny 55 degree day, little wind, the roar of the icy glacier fed stream behind. Then starts the hard part. We are going up there. Aslan indicates the top of the mountain towering overhead. The climb is very ,very difficult, easily the hardest physical endeavor I have ever undertaken. The mountain side is a 60 degree slope, very rough, rolling rocks, slippery moss, and hidden crevasses. As we get higher, it gets colder, windier and steeper. Ice and snow cover the hellish terrain. The soldiers move very quickly compared to my snail pace. I can feel the weight, measuring each step, careful not to tumble down and injure myself. It is not like a shear cliff, but the incline is steep, rough and relentless. Each false peak is a spot to rest and gather strength for the assault on the next section. In between it is really too dangerous to stop and rest. Finding stable footing was a major challenge. I handle the fatigue well, and discipline myself to keep moving. As we continue to ascend, I can certainly feel the reduction in oxygen. We need to hunker down and hide several times while passing groups of Tur move by. They have a shrill alarm call and stay far away. They are much higher and can see us when they look down. They do not run off, but stare and call at us. We even have some cross behind and below us a hundred feet and 5 minutes after we pass. A female comes to investigate and in my cramped position, I turn my head slightly and notice that she is only 30 yards away. Eventually we decide we have to keep moving or we will not make it to the top by dark. Climbing in the dark would be too risky. We come to a cave where some meager supplies are stashed and have a drink, some food and collapse into our bags. Oleg has a small tent that he erects on an area with a 20degree slope. It is terribly rocky and uncomfortable. I sleep very little, as I can not breathe well and the ground is so bad.

In the early morning, the rocks are ice covered, it is foggy and in the near darkness I can hardly see to walk, my depth perception is quite bad for judging my footing on the rough uneven rockslides. We must ascend another 1500 feet, nearly to the very top. I leave all but my loaded rifle, binoculars, laser and camera. It is 10F and very windy. The guides know the area where the Tur will cross the mountain top into Georgia and we are rushing to get there before they do. We maneuver into position and setup before the sun rises over the opposite ridge. Aslan and Saslan spot a group of Tur making their way toward us and I can sense the excitement. The soldiers are slightly higher than me and can see over the ridge and across the canyon, but I can not. I hope and pray that I will I get a shot. The time comes. Aslan motions for me to get ready to shoot. I can not see my target yet, but then suddenly I see a small band of Tur moving rapidly up the next peak over. I pick the largest horns in the group and get ready to shoot. It is 380 yards, 10F, 15mph cross wind, down angle 15degrees. I concentrate on what Chip, Doug and Tim taught me in Texas SAAM and gently squeeze the trigger. The massive report surprises me and I see burly goats running over the border into Georgia. I lost sight of my target, but Aslan hollers something and points. I aim again and try to get the right animal in the crosshairs. I can not tell. There it is! Bleeding from a hit a bit far back, limping badly, now at 450 yards and running. Another two shots follow wildly, almost certainly off the mark. The good news is that my Tur ran down the ridge and not up and over with the others to Georgia. The bad news is that I can no longer see my goat and my rate of movement is so slow that I have no real hope of catching up to it. Aslan scrambles off in a hurry with his rifle at the ready. He moves in 20 minutes what would take me an hour. He is speaking into the radio excitedly, but Saslan can not tell me what is going on, so I am left to guess. Oleg has made his way to me as I hear two shots from the distant Aslan. Oleg translates that Aslan found my Tur dead and decided to shoot an old one with a broken foot for himself that was coming toward him in another group. We shake hands and then work over the rough mountainside ridges and shale slides toward the fallen Turs. It takes an hour to go 500 yards, but when I reach the fallen ram, I am extremely excited. Thank God for helping me to be strong enough to do this crazy hunt. I lay down on the animal hugging the 350 pound body. What a magnificent animal! Aslan slaps me in the head with his hat and then repeats the motion to the tur, as a show of respect and honor for the hunter and the sacrifice of the ram. Oleg takes pictures of me and the Tur and then it is time to get moving. I hear thump, thump, thump as a huge HIND patrol helicopter armed with rocket pods and automatic cannons passes down the valley, actually below us. It is a very intimidating machine. I can not imagine having something like that come looking for me. Aslan and Saslan roll the two turs down a thousand feet to a place where the other guys can meet us. More handshakes, and they pat the Tur and me with their hats. Everyone is excited about the successful hunt. They start caping and remove the heart giving it to me, motioning to take a bite. I bite into the tough muscle splashing my face with hot fresh blood. The guys broke camp and brought it to us. We have a quick meal , I put my pack back on and head down with Saslan who pulls Aslan’s Tur with him, while Alec, Yuri and Aslan cape my Tur under Oleg’s watchful eye. It has been an awesome experience, but I am very happy to be done and headed down. The trek down is much harder than up. The going is so treacherous, that my mind hurts and I have a terrible headache from the stress of picking foot positions, and taking chances as I descend. I am making slow but steady progress and relishing the thought of the fresh icy streams below. After four hours of descent I hear a curious noise from above. It is a thumping rumble. I see a large pack tumbling down from several thousand feet above me bumping and rolling down the steep mountain side. It passes near me and I see it is battered and beat-up terribly. Luckily no one got hit or fell with it. It was filled with a hundred pounds of meat and supplies. It continues past me and tumbles out of view. I later find out that it was Aslan's pack. He stopped for a rest and took the pack off, jarring it and it was gone. It took maybe 15 minutes to tumble 2 miles down the mountain and come to a rest very near the trail back to the guard base. Almost like it was planned, except the radio, binoculars and spotting scope were also inside, but now in many smaller pieces. For six more hours I slowly work my way down and Saslan has patiently stayed just a few hundred yards ahead to guide me and make sure I pick a safe (relative term) route. I come to some water cascading down from cracks in the rocks and drink in as much as I can. I make myself continue and stay focused so I do not end up dead. When I finally reach the bottom, I am spent. I lie back and wait as the others come down, watching their progress and marveling at their skill and agility. Oleg is not coming though. When everyone has gotten down to safety, 90 minutes pass and Oleg is still nowhere to be seen. Aslan is worried and heads back up into the ravine we assume he should have been coming down. 15 minutes later Aslan yells and waves his arms. Alec and Yuri race after Aslan. Later, watching through binoculars, I see the three soldiers carrying Oleg’s slumped body. His head bobs and he is speaking, but in a great deal of pain. Luckily they found him quickly and it was near the trail, not too high up. He fell 50 meters into a rocky ravine breaking his left ankle and right foot. I can do little to help but smile and offer a drink of water. Alec and Yuri stay with Oleg and keep him as comfortable as possible while the rest of us walk out with the small donkeys loaded down with several hundred pounds of meat, trophies and supplies. We each take extra packs from Oleg, Alec and Yuri. The walk along the washed out mountain path is another torturous six hours, much slower than the trek in, now that we are loaded down with gear. It begins to rain about half way back. It is dark when we get to the guard post. Aslan drives the van to a village to borrow a horse and returns for get Oleg. I sit in the guard bunker while the soldiers visit on their cell phones and smoke. Hours later when it is time to go, we all clamber into the van and try to keep Oleg from jostling too much. He refuses to take pain medication and does not talk much. We are all pretty quiet on the ride in the dark foggy rainy shroud that has descended with us. The mountains closed up right after I shot the Tur. I am glad the hunt worked out, but am worried about Oleg and what I will do if he is unable to get me safely out of the country. At the lodge, I give Aslan my spotting scope, thank the guides who are eager to get home at 5AM after a long day and participate in one last Vodka toast. It is awful. I wonder what will happen if Oleg does not return from the hospital. Several hours later with two casts, and a shy grin he tells me to get in the car with my gear to go. He has survived, but now will need several months to heal, keeping him stuck at home with his wife. Special arrangements are made at the airport for an ambulance and help by a couple bodyguards for getting on the plane. I sleep on the flight to Moscow and we are met at the walkway by Alexi, Oleg’s son who helps me to take Oleg to the car. The gun paperwork and customs emigration is a horror show of paperwork and trouble, but eventually all the officials get their rubber ink stamps in the correct locations and I am free to leave Russia. The trophies have to stay to be detailed and dried in salt, but soon enough they will have a new home with my collection in Minnesota. I sleep most of the way home and reflect that I am not in a real hurry to repeat my Caucasian adventure any time soon….well until the next time when I have forgotten all the hardships and can only remember the glory the Caucus mountains and my magnificent East Dagestan Tur.

Pachunka!

Pachunka!


1630 Friday July 31, 2009 Belgrade Serbia

Sarah and I step off the Lufthansa A320 onto the tarmac at a modern airport facility. There are many Western looking ground support vehicles, but also many Russian machines; UAZ jeeps, Kamaz trucks, tractors etc. Customs presents no troubles, and we are met immediately by Istavan Ham our guide, a fit looking 62 year old. He comments immediately that he was expecting someone older. I get that a lot. We get our gear right away and then the red tape starts. It is definitely good to have a native speaker to help with the police and customs officials for the gun and ammunition permits. There are no problems, just a $30 fee, several official looking rubber stamps and a maze of offices around the airport. When all is in order, we wrestle the baggage out to Istavan’s Mitsubishi Montero. The parking lot is filled with all manner of tiny cars. In the US the Montero is modest sized, but here it is huge compared to the VWs, Yugos, Citroens, Peugeots, Fiats, Trabants and Ladas. We are to take a 90 minute drive Northeast to the hunting area. Istavan is from Hungary originally and was a university biologist researching raptors until he became unemployed like so many others during the fall of communism and the last decade of turmoil. Our path winds through new and old Belgrade separated by the Danube River. There are modern looking buildings, but they are shabby and in serious disrepair. Graffiti covers most flat surfaces and surprisingly a great deal of it is in English instead of Cyrillic Serbian. The old section of town actually appears in better shape despite being hundreds of years older. The unemployment rate is over 60%. People are walking all over. They look happy and well dressed, not poverty stricken. The vehicles emit a great deal of pollution. The Danube is a very major shipping avenue and there are many ships that we can see from the bridge that have made their way to the interior from the Mediterranean Sea
. The city quickly gives way to farmland consisting of small strips of sunflowers, corn, melons and large garden patches. The homes and farms look typically European, but not as clean as many other places I have been. Most road signs and many billboards are in Cyrillic Serbian and also English. Istavan speaks English fairly well so we have little problem communicating. The daylight gives out as we arrive in the village of Ecka in the Northern plains area. Istavan pulls into a nice looking hotel called KASTLE Ecka and we check in at the desk where a Serbian girl speaks perfect English. Sarah and I head to our room to clean up. The hotel has had extensive renovations and is quite modern, but the shower is European and the air conditioner does not work. The place actually was a palace built 150 years earlier and has had several attempts at being a high end hotel. We head to dinner at the outdoor restaurant. It is still quite warm and humid with many mosquitoes. The menu is in Serbian and English, so I am able to make an easy choice of Roe deer leg, Serbian salad and a plate of local cheese. Sarah chooses a burger and fries, which is actually a ground pork patty and potato wedges. We are exhausted, but I am quite excited to get up at 0400 to begin the hunt. I take a shower (spit bath) and get my gear ready. It is very hot in the room, but I manage to get a little sleep before we are woken up by loud night birds calling back and forth outside our window. Then I just lie awake and wait for the time to get up which comes soon enough.

0400 Saturday August 1, 2009 Ecka , Serbia

4 am comes as early as it sounds. I do a quick rinse in the so called shower to remove the sweat accumulated on my body while lying on the bed in the thick 90 degree air. Sarah foregoes the shower and drags herself out of bed and gets dressed. I grab my rifle, down a bottle of water and head for the lobby where Istavan is waiting. It is already quite humid and muggy, so later in the day it will really be hot and thick. A short 20 minute drive west to pick up the president of the local hunting club who will ride along with us and guide us in the area he farms. It is a real contrast to the previous evening. There are no people up early. The town seems deserted, but the farmer hears us arrive and comes right out. Pallo is a big time farmer for these parts, working 2000 hectares. He owns several New Holland, Case and JD pieces of equipment. He speaks no English. We head out into his croplands and the mosquito onslaught begins. It seems that the crop rotation here is quite different than in MN and SD. They have perhaps 12-18 rows of a crop a ½ mile long and then alternate for soil conservation with many crops, like sunflowers, wheat, corn, and soybeans. There are huge rabbits hopping among the crops, and many raised deer hunting stands. This area is supposed to be the best for Roe bucks in East Europe. We will see soon. After a short period we begin to spot deer as we bounce over the plowed fields in the Mitsubishi. Many does with fawns and a few bucks in the 300 gram class. I am looking for something bigger, so we wait, glass and drive around some more. Later, we spot a fox and I take a shot out the window at 250 yards. I miss of course and decide to check the zero on my Weatherby .300 Win Mag. It is dead on from prone at 100 meters, proving I just more practice at the car door method, which was not for some reason covered at the FTW SAAM shooting school. Off we go again grabbing a huge sunflower head to pull seeds out to suck on. Another fox is not as lucky as I roll it over at 80 yards. It is stifling in the truck, but when we open the windows, we are attacked by man eating mosquitoes intent on sucking us dry of blood. There are lots of huge Storks around in the fields, raptors, herons, cranes and others native birds. We also see many large stacks of bee hives. The morning ends by 1000 as it is too hot and the sun is high so the deer are lying safe in the shade of the high crops. This is a bit early for the late August, early September rut, but the signs are starting to show with a few interested bucks chasing unwilling does. We head back to Pallo’s farm and stop for a quick visit with Sonja, his daughter, and Martin his 10 year old grandson. Martin practices a bit of his English on us and Sonja is pretty good, being a teacher at the local school. We have a Coke and then move on to the hotel to have a breakfast of cheese, bacon and eggs, then nap until 1700 when we go back out. There are many deer, and beautiful farmland, but nothing that looks intriguing enough for me to shoot on the first day, but Sarah’s trigger finger has been working overtime, and her camera seems to be smoking from the near constant use. Back after dark, we meet Pallo’s son and wife. We have a monstrous slice of Watermelon and another Coke. Pallo shares a dozen or so trophies he has taken over the years and his wife shows us many beautiful projects she has sewn like her wedding dress, and intricate patterns embroidered on clothes and blankets. The craft seems to transcend spoken language. Sonja, Sarah and the woman get on very well. Then back for rabbit dinner with a side of cheese. There is a wedding going on in the ballroom, so we sit outside again in the muggy heat. I fall asleep easily when we return to the room. Unfortunately, the birds are back and it is still very hot for sleeping. Luckily our nap helped make up for the lack of night sleep.

0400 Sunday August 2, 2009 Ecka, Serbia.

Istavan meets us and I drink a liter of water as we head north to a different area where we pick up Anti, another farmer and bird hunter who has been scouting the area we will hunt. We pass a gravel pit and large artificial lake stocked for fishing. We travel over a bridge designed and built by the Frenchman who built the statue of Liberty before his fame. There are many people headed there to fish both walking and on bicycles. Anti claims he saw a monster buck in the range area close by town. This area is more like western South Dakota range land with poor salty soil. Some cattle graze, but vegetation is very sparse. We spot a few cervids right away, and then only 30 minutes into the day the Serbs get extremely excited and the truck slams to a halt with Istavan and Anti both yelling SHOOT! I do not even have time to look through the Swarovskis, but the .300Win Mag comes up and rests on the truck mirror as I spot the tiny fawn sized animal through my 14.5 power Zeiss Conquest scope. The antlers look massive and long. I struggle to get the focal setting to see through the scope and take a hasty shot. Right over the back. #$%^&*!!!  Strangely the buck did not even move. The next shot BANG! and he fell right down as the 180 grain Hornady jacketed bullet struck him in the neck at 250 yards. Istavan gunned the truck and raced over to the spot. Anti leaped out and ran to grab the deer while hollering at Istavan in Serbian as he dragged the tiny animal out of the short grass. I was a bit embarrassed as the shot had not been as good as I wanted, but it did the trick. Istavan started shaking and was tremendously excited. I saw a mass of antler that looked nothing like I had expected. It was a true mutant growth. 3x3 with heavy pearling and a mess of burls and gnarly growth. “Very Special!” Istavan kept saying. We took some pictures with congratulations to all and as quickly as that the hunt was over. Later when the antlers were weighed, they were 535grams, a very good gold medal trophy. Thanks to my serendipitous tendencies I lucked out again, even as I sweated what the trophy fee would be for the next several days. “Very Special” means very expensive!

Back to Anti’s place where he would to clean up the buck skull and antlers, the hide being too poor to try and save. The deer had hair falling out all over and many gashes and scars from fighting. It was clearly a dominant animal, but malnourished and injured from fighting and chasing competitors out of his domain.
We had bacon and eggs as well as cheese of course for breakfast and discussed the next plan of action. I had only planned on taking one deer, so I figured we would just hang out for a couple more days. Istavan mentioned that I could hunt something else if I wanted. Chamois perhaps? OK twist my arm. A mountain hunt. Not an old man’s ride in the country to whack a deer out the car window. Count me in. Sarah looked dubiously at me while she calculated the extra cost and how she could use this to her advantage later. Perhaps an Alaskan Cruise, Mexico, maybe a scrapbook shopping spree. Istavan began to make calls and contacts to arrange the impromptu expedition. I guess technically the season was not open yet, but apparently things are malleable for VIPs such as myself. We would rest for a couple hours while things were put in order and Istavan went home to get ready. We packed our stuff and then went on a tour of the 30 hectare estate. A good bit of the palace is not yet restored from its 1859 origin and in quite a state of disrepair. There are several beautiful fountains, statues and a rose garden. We sipped Cokes and I posed by an ancient suit of armor in the lobby. Then we began the trek south. We expected six hours to make the 250 mile drive, but it took ten. The roads are not so good in the countryside. Very narrow and winding, with agricultural traffic like tractors, pulling wagons heaped with melons and broken down Yugos being towed by horses. The parks were full of people enjoying a nice day outside and celebrating a holiday something like Labor Day. With 60% unemployment I am unsure why this holiday would have much significance. A couple hours driving cross country where we passed a new ship building facility financed by Norwegians on a Danube tributary, a memorial on the site of a slaughter of Jews in early WWII, and then we connected with the major North- South toll way going from Hungary to Greece. The speed increased to 160kph but the road was in seriously bad shape with lots of cars broken down on the road, deep ruts from heavy truck traffic and potholes jumping up to suck us in. We leave the farm land behind and get into the start of rolling hills, passing a massive four mile long USS steel plant on the Danube financed no doubt by the US taxpayers, a military aircraft manufacturing plant that is abandoned and many more major defunct once major military industrial complexes. We stop for lunch at a truck stop and have cheese, soup and eggs. The people are nice looking, clean, many families with kids. Darker complexion, brown eyes, some Slavic with blond and blue eyes, but not many. No English here. The towns become more and more Muslim with mosque towers sprouting up in every village and town. We approach the Kosovo area and see many KFOR vehicles, NATO trucks and armored fighting vehicles. The war torn region is just on the other side of that mountain range 20 km away Istavan explains. The area is being taken over by the followers of Mohammed and the Christians being driven out. As we approach the border to Macedonia Istavan gets very nervous about the red tape required. Things go fine though. Only 90 minutes delay to take care of the gun permit. The officers are quite intrigued by an American hunter. They have never seen one before. In fact only five privately owned firearms have crossed this border checkpoint in the past nine years. Istavan is able to talk them into waiving all the fees since they have no idea what papers to fill out or what forms to stamp. They smile politely and make some notes, stamp our passports and then wave us along. Istavan nervously smokes a few cigarettes, happy to be on our way again in the land of Alexander the Great. I begin to recall tales of conquests and remember the history that this land has seen. War has ravaged this land for over 5000 years. The Assyrians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Muslims, NATO, the Serbs, the Nazis, the Russians and many others have marched their armies over this landscape. The temperature has risen to 115 degrees. Very dry Mediterranean scrub covers the low rolling mountains. We pull into Skopje the capital of Macedonia which is pretty rundown with lots of litter, exhaust fumes, smog, pollution, loitering thugs, abandoned buildings and wrecked vehicles. We passed several signs for the road to Thessalonica and Athens. Istavan takes a circuitous route through the industrial area of the city and up into the mountains surrounding the capital city. It is a narrow winding paved path going up and up and up. Even though it is supposedly a two way road, there is a great deal of holiday traffic headed down back to town and we need to move over to the side for each load of travelers. There is a huge artificial lake created a few years back by a dam built by a Chinese company. Many of the newly wealthy citizens have built cabins and boat launches on the lake. We continue past all of this and come to a one track path where we get stuck behind a slow tractor as the sun sets. Istavan honks, blinks his lights and tries to get past. Finally the man moves over and we rocket past into the Jacen military reserve once the private hunting area of president Tito and government VIPs, only recently opened to private hunters. Jacen Reserve is 200,000 hectares of mountains inhabited by brown bears, wolves, chamois, mouflon, red deer, roe deer and Istavan informs Sarah that there is a venomous snake in the area so wear boots and long pants if she walks around tomorrow by herself. We arrive at the hunt camp at 2200. The lodge is a small concrete A-frame house with 3 tiny loft rooms for hunters. A nice dining/trophy room with a big screen TV occupy the lower level. There are several chamois skulls, pictures and articles written about the area once reserved for the elite. My mind is exhausted, but I am too excited to sleep.

0200 August 3, 2009 Jacen Reserve Skopje, Macedonia

We are woken by a couple soldiers who will guide us up the mountain. We will climb for four hours before the sunrise to get some hunting before the sunlight and heat drive the chamois into the shade. We start with a 45 minute drive in a rickety old Land Rover up 30% grades as high as we can go on very narrow tracks clinging to the side of the rocky slope. At the end of the road Istavan, Andre and I get out and begin the hike up the winding goat path past the tree line and gaining 4000 feet of elevation. Andre can not speak a word of English, but Istavan must have counseled him to take it easy, as he walks slowly and I can easily keep right with him. Istavan brings up the rear. After several hours we come to a rest house built for president Tito to have a break and drink Vodka. We do not stop, as the sun is coming up and we have limited time. We begin to spot chamois all around us and they even run right past in the shadows 20 yards away. As we leave the cover of the trees behind we proceed very slowly and cautiously, as there are animals right above us watching from 400 yards away. A good looking young ram comes over a crest 200 yards away and we scramble to get into a position to shoot before he runs down the mountain away from us, but he is too quick. As the sun continues to rise behind the mountain we are climbing, our time is waning for an opportunity. Another 100 yards of stalking and we spot dozens of chamois scattered among the crags. It is a huge group of more than 75 animals 800 yards away beginning to run from the sun over a distant ridge into the shadows. We watch through binoculars and I am hoping they do not all leave. We move into a position where I can lay down and take a 250 yard shot at a medium size female. I settle down, do a dry fire, try to remember everything that they taught me at the SAAM course, and then squeeze the trigger. I miss high and the ewe scampers away. I am quite upset, but 20 minutes later two young males and a larger ram come into view from behind a ridge 265 yards away standing broadside and unaware of our presence. I try again and this time it all works out. The .300 Win Mag barks and the big goat hops forward 20 yards obviously hit hard. The second shot, also in the forward ribcage knocks the chamois down for good. It rolls 50 yards and Andre rushes down to retrieve it. It is only 0900, but hunting would have been just about over, as the sun is up now and the chamois have all left the area. I am elated at the huge ram. It is lucky I did not hit the first one, because this one is much bigger. It is a fun photo modeling session and then no real hurry to trek back down the mountain. “Pachunka” says Andre as he points to the hooves of the chamois. I come to realize he is saying we need to “hoof it back to camp” “Pachunka” I echo back and away we go. It starts to get very hot as we head down into the shade of the treeline. Five hours and we are met at the trailhead by the battered Land Rover. I consume at least three liters of water during the descent as we inch along back down the mountain track to the lodge. It is past time for lunch so we have a “snack” of soup, salad, biscuits, meat, and of course cheese prepared by our cook Drago. Andre will take care of the trophy right away, but we will need to stick around one more night for the salt to do it’s job. Sarah and I visit and relax for a few hours and then we head to the larger, older presidential VIP camp that is in a state of disrepair and neglect, but has a proud tradition of hunters. Later we take a boat ride out onto the reservoir. It is really swampy in the area that we launch from, with treetops sticking out all over. The Chinese engineered and financed the project only a few years prior and new condo cabins are popping up around the artificial lake on the non reserve side. The boat is a leaky flat bottom scow with hard wood seats and an untrustworthy old Russian outboard. For most of the trip we are under power, but the last few hundred yards it is Istavan and me paddling. The fish warden giving the tour curses and grunts as he struggles with the motor. We come to a pontoon platform and get off for a Coke and bottle of wine to watch the beautiful sunset. We hear owls hooting in the distance and study the shoreline hoping to glimpse a bear, wolf or goat coming for a drink. We finish our beverages and then row back to the landing site. Back at the lodge we have another great meal and then we are off to bed.

0930 August 4, 2009 Jacen Reserve Skopje Macedonia

We hang around for a few hours until after lunch for my chamois papers to be prepared, then drive across the country to a private game reserve. It is only a couple hours away, but the temperature has increased to 125F, and the wind blows strongly in the Mediterranean hills. We meet the owner, an import/export “businessman” who seems to have more money than he knows what to do with. The lodge is very nice, and being renovated for the season which is not quite open yet. We do a tour of the grounds, looking over mouflon, wild pigs and fallow deer. I am hoping to get a glimpse of an ibex or markhor, but they live only in the most remote areas of the mountainous 20,000 hectares. I am impressed, but not really excited about hunting fenced animals. We have a great dinner of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, bread and mutton, then try to sleep for a couple hours before the ride back up north to Belgrade. In the night I am stung in the leg by a villainous millipede in my bed and after that I can not sleep a bit. I put my clothes on and lay waiting for the time to leave.

0200 August 5, 2009 Stiep, Macedonia

We head out into the darkness, crossing the border 0500 and then arrive at the airport by 1100. We meet with a representative of the outfitting company that has my deer trophy, settle my bill and then walk across the grounds to the Yugoslavian Aerospace museum. It is a huge glass orb surrounded by dozens of decaying carcasses of once proud aircraft. There are many helicopters, including a KA-25 Harmone coaxial rotor craft, a Ford tri-motor, and many vintage 50s, 60s and 70s warplanes. Inside it is stifling, but the displays are very well done. MIGs and Sukhois mix with P40s and ME109s, and most interesting to me are the more modern trophies from the Bosnia/Kosovo conflict. There is a Predator drone that was shot down, a huge bunker buster bomb recovered from the communist headquarters building, a joint standoff weapon recovered unexploded, a shot down F-117 stealth fighter wreck, F-16 wreckage, Tornado wreckage and Blackhawk helicopter parts. It is a strange feeling to realize that we were at war with these people only a few years ago and now they are welcoming us to their country. The insults chalked on the unexploded ordnance are luckily not reciprocated towards us. The economy is wrecked, most people are unemployed, everything is in disrepair, and the world opinion against these people is quite bad, yet they seem happy enough with their meager lives, talking and texting on cell phones and wearing new fashionable clothing. Sarah and I say goodbye to Istavan and board our plane for Frankfurt, having made a new friend and explored another misunderstood corner of the world.

"In Search of the Mexican Whistler"

Sunday, June 28, 2009
“In Search of the Mexican Whistler”

The acrid stench of cordite powder was burning my eyes and causing my skin to itch as the veteran Bennelli spoke again and again. Feathers, blood and gore covered the ground all around me. The smoking hot barrel had burned the bluing away as it guided small loads of number 9 shot into the sky, delivering death and carnage. I was the perfect poster for PETA. An evil American standing amidst wanton waste and destruction. It was the ultimate dove “hunt.” The experience will stay with me forever: the sky filled with millions of tiny marauding doves flying in a constant cycle from their roost to feed and then back again, to deliver sustenance to their waiting broods. It was my job to help as a conservation management volunteer. I must help save the poor farmers’ crops from the scourge of airborne marauders. As though I needed justification. I did my share over a period of three days, with thousands of shots fired and thousands of raiding doves eliminated. It was certainly not hunting, but as far as honing my shooting skills go, nothing could have been better.

The first evening when we arrived in this cropland east of Cordoba in central Argentina, the sky was blackened with a monstrous swarm of these pests. I had a bird boy assigned to load my two semi-automatic weapons and keep tally of my shots and kills. He passed the weapons back and forth as fast as I could empty them. Flailing about with very little accuracy I nevertheless filled the sky with lead. I guess, when you come to think of it, the lead comes back down into the cattle pasture where stock eat the toxic substance, and circling raptors devour tiny dove corpses filled with poison. I made no dent in the raging torrent flowing overhead, but oh, how I tried. When I had had enough shoulder pounding excitement, I walked over to watch my cousin and fellow murderer calmly and skillfully wield his Browning Grade 5 Superpose. Up. Aim. POP! POP! Down came two birds. Break. Load. The cycle was repeated over and over. Scott was a machine. After several days of this he received a nifty hat advertising his prowess. Doc, my dentist of 30 years and Scott’s father was suffering from the later stages of bone cancer and was on strong steroids that wore him out. He loved to watch his son shoot, but was not particularly interested in doing so himself. Over the three days we had allocated to this slaughter, we were housed in the beautiful estancia manor house of Juan Carlos located an hour drive east of Cordoba. We enjoyed outstanding accommodations and excellent food in genuine old world surroundings. The mansion contained a private chapel, numerous ancient Indian artifacts, and dozens of pieces of beautiful furniture from the time of the Spanish colonization. I could get used to a life in these conditions, I thought.

This July 4th expedition had been schemed up the previous October on a whim during a South Dakota pheasant hunt. Originally my father was to have accompanied us making it a foursome, but he passed away the month before we were due to depart. Scott and Doc were extremely enthusiastic about this foreign adventure and I decided that Dad would be upset with me for not going. We flew out of Minneapolis to Dallas, and on to Buenos Aires. A short drive through the countryside later and we were met by our guide Alex at a rural hunting lodge. He explained that we would hunt ducks for four days, and then later three days for doves, leaving two days in the city.

We were eager to get started and immediately prepared our gear for the waterfowl hunt. I had never been duck hunting before, so it was all new to me. Having wriggled into my brand new waders, I struggled into the boat for a high speed ride down the Parana River. I had a local guide to help me for the evening. We met at the blind he had prepared covering a small spread of decoys. Soon after I arrived and got set up, dark winged shapes flew over. I shot. “No! No!” The man shouted. I was confused. My Spanish was very poor as was his English. Apparently there were some types that I was supposed to shoot and others that I was not supposed to shoot?? The next flight swooped in low over my decoys and whistled a strange call. They looked quite similar to the last ones, so I did not shoot. “Shoot! Shoot!” yelled the exasperated local. “HM????” I wondered.” “I guess I will learn as we go.” I shot and shot as the ducks flew over. Small groups kept coming in. The outfitter had imposed a limit of 30 ducks per outing, and with my stellar shooting I was in no danger of exceeding it. When darkness fell and the boat returned, there was a good deal of laughter at my expense, and I tried to explain that I had no idea what I was doing, but that was unnecessary as my performance had made that very clear. Scott and Doc had done rather well at their position a mile further down the river bank. Over the next few days my performance improved and I got some idea of the shape, size and coloration of the target and non-target birds. I had a blast standing chest deep in the river behind a thin blind of vegetation with a disgusted bird boy wondering how he got stuck with this goofball. Just the same, I really enjoyed the murky river, and the denizens of mosquitoes. Occasionally a duck I had killed would disappear into the water. It had clearly been dead, but where had it gone, I wondered. Oh yeah, the Parana (piranha in English) River, I realized. Yes, there were piranha in it. Also, caiman crocodiles and one wonderful afternoon following an outstanding barbeque in the wild we were introduced to another of the local ruling figures. It was a chance to get a nap for the crew while we waited for the afternoon shoot. Scott and I decided to take a walk along the shore and try to pass shoot some ducks. A couple hundred yards later I looked at the distant bank of an island in the delta we were in and saw a huge black shape slide into the water. It was an enormous snake! Although it was early July and supposedly the middle of winter, it was 80 degrees and the cold blooded creatures were coming out to enjoy the weather. We quickly spotted another massive scaled reptile taking in the sun on our side of the water. We moved closer, Scott with his 12GA at the ready and me with a Nikon both hoping for a good shot. We got up on a dead tree ten yards away just as the huge serpent reared its head and raced right for us!! I had nowhere to go and no time to panic. Luckily the snake slithered under our tree instead of up it to have us for lunch. We raced back to our lounging team of professionals and informed them of our discovery hoping they might help us to catch a great monster. The locals were very excited and got into gear quickly waking from their siesta. We found several more snakes and actually caught a small one. It was whacked on the head with a club and I assumed it was dead. Scott held it menacingly for photos. I was standing close by, but definitely not interested in caressing the scaly green and black creature. The 10 foot Green Anaconda started to wiggle and hastily made its way back to the water as we scattered.

We later enjoyed an afternoon of fast action Perdiz grouse shooting over pointers. Finally a day tour of Buenos Aires rounded out the adventure. We saw the tomb of Evita Peron, the expansive River Platte, various government buildings and shopped for a polo horse saddle and leather jackets for the girls left back home and an amazing steak dinner at a wonderful restaurant for an astonishingly low price made a real impression on me.

Our adventure ended with one more good laugh on me by Scott and Doc. Having no idea how to fill out the customs forms to import a cooler full of frozen ducks to be mounted back home, my deviously clever cousin made up names like “Mexican Whistler”, “Brazilian Teal”, “Spotted Shoveler”, and “Rainbow Widgeon” for me to fill in the blanks. The Fish and Wildlife inspectors looked at me strangely, but they let me through sans ducks which were confiscated for further inspection. To my relief they reappeared the next day Fedexed to my office.

All in all, it was a very exciting adventure with a pair of great friends. Doc has since passed away, but it was a special time for me to get to share with an amazing man. I enjoyed his company a great deal more in this setting than with his drill in my mouth! Scott was ok, too. I guess I might let him talk me into another Mexican Whistler chase.

Buffalo Breath

Friday, April 24, 2009
“Buffalo Breath”

June 6, 2006

My PH had his mighty .505 Gibbs resting heavily on my shoulder, and I was armed with a 110 pound draw Mathews held at the ready. I was locked in a stare-down with a 2,500 pound black stinking mud covered leviathan. Luckily, the wind was in my face and not his. At 10 feet you actually can smell the breath of a water buffalo. Regurgitated bile eminating from the mammoth wafted into my nasal cavity and mouth as I tried to remain calm. These beasts look big at a distance, but when viewed from your knees at near milking range they appear more like a monstrous locomotive. I felt like I was tied to the tracks hoping the train would not run me down. My heart was racing and cold sweat was running down my back as the huge bull and his six compatriots studied me at close range. The odds of surviving a charge from these huge beasts seemed slim, but I did my best to think myself invisible.

After stalking through sparse cycad brush to within 25 yards of a herd of massive Asian water buffalo and making a pretty decent shot on the largest, I had expected a slightly different result. “TWANG!” went the string. “Thud!” went the arrow as it disappeared into the armpit of the creature and then….. nothing. I stealthily nocked another arrow and waited for a clear shot. Several minutes later and ….. still nothing. Seven brutes calmly grazed closer and closer. Scott McClaren, my PH from Mary River Outfitters in Northern Territory, Australia, was also a bit unnerved, I later found out. The arrow seemed to have had no effect. The bull did not flinch, jump, or even groan! Then, I saw blood foaming out of his nose and mouth. The titan staggered a step or two and laid down 15 yards distant with all his cohorts wondering what had happened. He was not angry, confused, or aggressive. It just looked like he was planning on taking a nap. After the stories I had heard about these animals being extremely aggressive, I was pretty happy not to see a personal demonstration…… Only his pals did not leave. They just hung out and watched us for what seemed like hours. We did not dare to move for fear of raising their ire. The huge rifle was becoming quite a burden and I worried that if Scott decided to fire a massive Woodleigh solid into the brain of the closest behemoth, I would be deaf from the muzzle blast and stunned, which may at least have lessened the shock and pain of the charging monsters goring and stomping me into the hard dirt. The terrible great black horns seemed to spread 10 feet wide as the bull rocked his head back raising his huge wet nose to try to smell this strange little creature masquerading as a bush. I was getting terrible cramps in my legs and realized I was holding my breath, hoping that my heart slamming in my chest would not give me away as the creature moved closer.

Then it happened!!! My bull grunted, snorted and struggled mightily to his feet! Oh $%#$^!! Here we go! I thought. Blood poured out of his nostrils and I began to contemplate what my mangled body would look like all over his horns and face. Miraculously, all the members of the posse turned to watch their patriarch rise to his feet just as I felt the wind on the nape of my neck. Again, I could imagine painful death as a hapless matador as the wind shift betrayed us, but then they all just swiftly moved off. As the danger disappeared in a cloud of dust, just walking quickly, but far faster than I could run, the herd masked the stricken leader that I had chosen for my trophy room. I got to my feet unsteadily and caught my breath. Scott did the same as he flicked the safety back on. He admitted that if things had gone wrong we would have been in real trouble. He could have stopped one bull with a 500grain slug to the brain. Probably….? But the others could have run us over at the roar of the shot. At 10 yards there would have been no time to even react or throw the bolt for a second shot. I would have tried to fire an arrow, but the stopping power of my Mathews was no where near adequate.

The quarry vanished down a nearby ravine with a tributary of the Mary River at its bottom. Any trace of a blood trail was obliterated by the dust and hoof prints. We ran to the edge hoping to catch a glimpse of the animals. Perhaps Scott could get a shot at the wounded bull and anchor him. No such luck. The brush got very thick down there and it was getting close to dark. The sun sets extremely quickly close to the equator. Stumbling around in the inky blackness hoping not to encounter a Taipan viper or western brown snake, let alone a wounded angry buffalo bull or hungry crocodile, was not all that exciting to contemplate, so we decided to retreat and come back tomorrow at first light. We headed back to our Polaris ATVs for the 20 minute ride to camp. By the time we reached the machines, it was totally dark. Yes, there were billions of stars overhead, but it was totally black on the ground. The night seemed to close in around me. When the quads were started and moving, I felt a bit safer. The earth actually seemed to be slithering in the yellow beam of my headlight, with wriggling snakes chasing cane toads and other prey. I had been warned not to leave the lodge at night and wander around in the yard. I now saw why. The reptile book on the coffee table in camp listed several species of deadly venomous snakes native to this area, and dozens more listed as not “dangerous” even though they may have killed me from a heart attack. Hundreds of serpents raced ahead of me to escape the oncoming light. We came to a muddy area where Scott easily motored his large machine through the bog. However, my quad had worn tires and much less ground clearance. I wrestled the veteran Polaris through the morass and just as I cleared the muck, I saw the shining eyes of a pair of buffalo trotting towards me. Shaking with the thought of being charged in the dark, I gunned the throttle and raced after my PH. That night, after a great steak dinner, I literally fell into my bed. I had no intention of wandering about in the yard. In addition to the snakes and spiders, the lodge is only a few dozen yards from the Mary River and the border of the famous Kakadu National Park. Along the highway at all low spots and culverts there are signs that warn travelers to not swim, fish or let pets near the water. I guess that has something to do with the huge saltwater crocs that live in just about all the wet spots around, like the river only yards from my bed. What a great spot to hunt, I thought. I must have been too tired to dream, because if I had, it would have been a nightmare.

It had been five days of riding around, walking, stalking and trying to get close to a big buff. I shot a very nice Banteng on the second day after a 45 minute stalk that went right down with a 35 yard shot to the lungs and we saw buffalo everywhere we looked. “How hard could it be?”, I asked myself. It had been an interesting time so far on a ranch about as isolated as can be three hours east of Darwin, NT, with a 20 mile long driveway and three river crossings where the snorkel of our Landcruiser was actually necessary. During the wet season the area is impossible to traverse by land and the only way in or out is by air, hence the 3,000 foot airstrip and single engine puddle jumper located near the lodge. I had seen wallabees, kangaroos of all sizes, wild horses called “Brumbies,” and beautiful country covered with cycad, termite mounds, etc. and not just a few snakes. I had seen more slithering reptiles than I had imagined there could be. I sampled a few bush treats that Scott pointed out to me. I would have been dubious of trying them, but he popped them in his mouth and did not even glance to see if I followed his lead. I figured I should get the full experience. Some of the leaves, stalks, roots, and berries were not too bad; others were pretty awful. How can people live here? Why do people live here? I wondered.

The next morning it was our mission to discover where my buff had gone. I was all hyped up, the fears and dangers had vanished from my mind. All I wanted was to find my bull. As we left the ranch we took a different route to the area where I had shot. We decided to do a search by ATV as the area was relatively flat except by the river ravine. There was no sign of any huge dead colossus. The only way they could have gone we saw was through the river at a crossing roughed out of the hard earth by the passage of thousands of hooves. It looked about stomach deep, too deep for the ATVs. Only 30 feet across. We had to cross here. The only ford we could drive across was over a mile away. We dismounted and walked closer to the water. In Crocodile Dundee, I remember a massive reptile erupting from the water and nearly devouring the star of the show. The movie took place right in this area. I longed to see a monster Saltie in the wild, just not too close. I decided Scott should go first. He assured me that this area was safe. Only “freshies” ventured this far upstream, and they are much too small to bother us, or so he said. Great. I thought acidly. He tested the water ahead with a long stick and ventured forth. I raced across behind in a blind panic. We shared a laugh and then resumed the search. Many hours later and no sign. I shot a nice big wild boar feeding on maggots in the corpse of a raunchy two week old dead buffalo shot by a client from Russia. It was exciting, but not really the reason I had come here. I wanted a buffalo! All day we searched and later a helicopter was brought in from cattle roundup duty. The pilot located the dead animal from the air in a part of the ravine we could not see from the ground. It was less than 100 yards from where I shot it with the entire arrow having passed through both lungs. The bull had separated from the herd in the confusion as they ran from us and we just plain missed it. I was elated at this magnificent beast. The recovery operation was impressive. It took a Land cruiser with a pretty big winch to get the monster onto the flat ground where we could cape it. It was huge! I had done it! I got what I came down under for!

With four days to go, I shot two more buffalo. One went down with a single arrow from 45 yards and the other took seven arrows to the chest before succumbing. I did not get to smell buffalo breath again, but I did see dozens of prehistoric looking, massive jawed saltwater crocs from the safety of a boat tour through the amazing Kakadu park. There were dozens of species of beautiful birds. The tidal monsoon marshland was a place I will never forget.

A last stop at Amazing Jumping Crocodile Adventures on the Alligator River was unbelievable. Those armored leviathans actually came out of the water 6-8 feet to tear chunks of buffalo meat from a line hung over the side of our boat. Crashes and thuds from beneath made me wonder if our boat was big enough, and when a massive ancient croc was coaxed next to the 20 foot pontoon boat, I realized that I was only 5 feet from the biggest crocodile I could imagine. It’s head was three feet wide! It was longer than the boat!

As I was about to get out of the Toyota Land Cruiser at the airport Scott mentioned that the neighboring ranch was for sale. Hmmm…… I wonder if I could convince my wife to become a cattle rancher.

Viva In France!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Viva in France!

October 21-30, 2008


Lost and befuddled in the French countryside piloting a rented Land Rover Freelander was not how I had planned to start my hunt. My phone and translation dictionary were in the Audi Q7 that rocketed ahead and left me to fend for myself. On a roundabout I lost track of my friend Dr. Vincent LaCoste while dodging aggressive Renaults and Peugeots. Boy, I really wish I knew where we were headed. Perhaps a small detail we should have discussed at some point. The map is little use without an idea where to go. I turn around and wait to be found. Hopefully this is not indicative of the adventure that awaits me.

Fortunately things get back on track.

The French countryside in late October is full of the signs of fall: cool temperatures, crops being taken in from the fields, leaves turning red and yellow. Rain, fog and mist blanket the landscape, spiny chestnuts drop noisily to the forest floor, and dogs bark relentlessly as they pursue wild boars. And then there is the reason that I have returned: the massive Mouflon rams crashing their heads together in a effort to show dominance over the onlooking females. The still air is broken by the cracks like great hammer blows echoing off the canyon walls all around me as these creatures fight. I sit in ambush on a beautiful afternoon in the Massif Central Pyrenees in a hunting preserve near the ancient town of Douch. My good friend Dr. Vincent LaCoste has invited me to return to hunt with him and his friends in an area that he pioneered for bowhunting Mouflon. The conservation approach here is much different than in North America. Tags are issued 1/3 for adult males, 1/3 for adult females, and 1/3 for baby sheep. The idea is to keep the population stable in the relatively small range of habitat. Vincent has leased the entire area exclusively for three of us to bowhunt.

I see a ruined village on the edge of a stream at the bottom of the valley. Once, a couple hundred years back the area was vibrant and inhabited by around 100 poor souls who struggled to tend their cattle, grow some crops, build kilometers of stone walls and eke out a modest living. The remains of an old mill, the waterwheel mostly rotted away, provides a nostalgic example of renewable power, while in the distance I can make out 30 ultra-modern Danish Vestes wind turbines and the cooling towers of a nuclear power station. I sit patiently waiting for a rutting sheep to make a crossing of the ridge where I lie in wait contemplating the mix of old and new. I can make out dozens of animals on the surrounding mountains through my Swarovski binoculars, but as of yet they have not come my way. Many rams are in full rut chasing ewes along the steep rocky side hills. In the chestnut forests that fill the ravines and valley floor near the small river many more are concealed from view. The prospects are good, at least with regard to seeing our quarry at a distance. Now perhaps we could just get a bit closer.

Several hours later we decide to move off the scenic ridge top and try to stalk a group hiding below us in a dense copse of trees. The ground is covered with dry brittle twigs and crackling leaves that make silent movement impossible. Never the less, due probably to preoccupation with the rut, we come across a noisy group of sheep headed in our direction. I quietly take a position with my PSE X-Force bow at the ready. A Beeman Matrix 300 arrow tipped with an Ironhead 100 broad-head by Rocky Mountain is ready. The sheep jostle toward us as the rams chase ewes and babies struggle to stay out of the way. BAAAAAAAH, BAAAAAAAAAH! They cry constantly getting closer. Finally, we can actually see them. The wind is right, we are under cover, the animals are distracted, and I am getting terrible cramps in my legs from the awkward position I am forced to kneel in to avoid being spotted by the keen-eyed animals. BAAAAAAAAAH, BAAAAAAH! They rush toward us! BAAAAAAH, BAAAAAH, they rush away. Two rams turn to crash explosively into each other. I can see them clearly and they are unaware of our presence, but there is way too much brush in the way. BAAAAH, BAAAH! They run in the opposite direction. Damn, have we been spotted? Off the group heads down the ravine, but wait a moment. They are coming back! At 100 meters, the whole group pauses while I try to ignore the pain of my screaming legs. All the sheep disappear for a moment and I shift my position to get more comfortable. Then they are coming again! The whole process is nerve wracking, but a few minutes later at 45 meters I am at full draw as a huge ram leading the flock makes the mistake of stepping out into my shooting lane. He senses something is wrong as he sees my slight movement, but turns to face me, curious about what he has witnessed, instead of saving his life by bolting to safety. My arrow strikes the lustful ram directly in the sternum and tears through the entire length of his body. Sheep scatter and crash away as the hapless Mouflon does a somersault down the rocky draw and lands 50 meters from the spot where he was stricken.

Vincent jumps up and shakes my hand vigorously. I wipe the sweat off my brow, smearing the camouflage paint on my face and thank him for the opportunity to enlist his expertise to place me in the right spot at the right time. His years of hunting this area and studying the mouflon have paid off for me. We approach the huge ram and I examine his rough coat with black, brown and white markings. Stroking the long curls, I admire the massive horns and wonder how these animals can so violently butt into each other and survive? Romeo the Ram has had quite an unlucky turn of events. After a photo session, we hurry to skin and quarter the big sheep; it is only 2PM and the area is allowed 30 animals to be taken for the season by bow. The season is almost at a close and only 11 have been shot. We have work to do. I have three more days to go and I can have more tags thanks to Forest Agent Jean-Pierre.

Day two starts with a wet, slippery rock 20 minutes down the trail that catches me unaware and Crash! Sprang! Swish! I am bruised and sore. My PSE is a tangled mess of garbage! The string had been cut on a rock and the bow self destructed! Embarrassed by my lack of agility in front of these serious Frenchmen I am trying hard to impress with my hunting ability and physical prowess, I hastily hike back to the Land Rover and race back to Douch for my reliable Mathews Black Max 2. The day got better for me as I took another young ram with a 45 meter shot from a ridge-top after an hour long stalk.

For the next two days torrential rain buffets us. It is terrible weather for sitting. But great weather for sheep to move, just not by me, I guess. We view them at a comfortable distance through the mist and fog.

The last day is beautiful. Slight wind, sunny, clear sky, warm: a great day to be outside. Vincent picks a great ambush location, but I guess it is not my lucky day. Lots of excuses are used up. Dozens of ewes and baby rams pass near through the day. I had an inquisitive ewe studying me from 8 feet while at full draw. I miss!!!!! Next, at 20 yards I have an easy ¾ back shot at a nice ewe and a phantom branch deflects my arrow. I did not see any such branch, but there was no question something was there as my arrow flew 90 degrees off the path I had intended! And finally, I have a 10 meter shot that only has a chance to work if the young mouflon steps into the exact right location between the branches I had arrayed about me for concealment. After a lot of Bah, Bah, Bah, within 20 feet of me, playmates behind, in front of, and to each side, I got a shot. The arrow thuds into the young female, and she runs off with a dozen of her flock mates. We see her stop to urinate and feel that I must have missed, but from 10 meters? Wait! There is some blood. It is hands and knees tracking for an hour before we lose the trail 200 meters down the mountain. No good luck for me today. The scenery is great, the mountains not too steep and the overall results awesome! Unfortunately, Vincent’s other friends had a rough time. Philip did not have an opportunity to shoot but saw many animals at close range, and although Gerard was successful with a yearling, he had hoped for a big ram. We toasted cheese to celebrate the hunt at the ancient stone inn, and ended up setting off the blaring fire alarm klaxon. Some environmentalist hikers joined us that evening, strumming their guitar and singing songs I could not understand. I am very lucky that I kept all my gear locked in my room, as Philip and Gerard had their bows sabotaged sometime during the night.

In the morning, Vincent and I load his big Audi Q7 and head down the switchback winding road on a great sunny day . Luckily for me, the Land Rover I’d driven up the mountain had experienced an electrical casualty and was towed by the rental company, leaving me to be a simple passenger content to watch the beautiful countryside slip by. Vineyards, mountains, forests and castles filled my view as Vincent and I discuss the successful hunt and our upcoming plans. Gerard and Philip are headed south to the Pyrenees near Andorra to hunt Pyrennean Chamois, known locally as an Isard, where I was lucky to shoot the world archery record with Vincent last fall. The Doctor and I are headed north to hunt Alpine Chamois in Vincent’s backyard in the town of Clerval between Dijon and Switzerland. I was extremely lucky to have Monsiuer LaCoste call in a number of favors in order to get me a tag to hunt this exclusive goat. The tags are jealously hoarded by French hunters. Foreigners simply do not get this opportunity. Bowhunting is allowed in France, but the tradition is not widespread having been made legal only ten years prior. A select few hunters have taken Alpine chamois with bow, and in the other countries that have Alpine Chamois, bowhunting is not allowed. I feel that this will be a great opportunity to score another very rare trophy.

We arrive at Vincent’s castle estate eight hours later where I am stunned to see his awesome trophy collection including 19 chamois, 37 roe deer bucks, 25 pigs, dozens of trophies from North Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Australia, Russia, and 18 of the North American species. I am very jealous. We sit down to a mouflon steak dinner with his beautiful wife Marie and her wonderful children Emma, eleven, and Zoe, eight. After sampling several local cheeses, I head off to bed planning for an early morning. At 530AM I am up and dressed for the five minute ride downtown. To my surprise we stop, disembark next to some train tracks and head into the shadowy woods behind the village pharmacy. There is a field cleared from the woods hanging onto the mountainside that has been purchased and maintained by the local hunting club. We set up an ambush at the edge of the food plot clearing and as the sky grows light, we hear thrashing and romping in the bushes and a group of Chamois rushes out of the darkness and into the grass to eat. Could it possibly be this easy? Well, maybe? But, no. At 65 meters, four animals cavort and chase each other. There is a decent female, two babies and a two year old. I could make the shot, but I am looking for better. One youngster stays and plays jumping and hopping in front of us for nearly an hour. Vincent assures me that there is a large group known to frequent this area and they should come out eventually.

Across the train tracks to the east, we can make out some other chamois in the alpine meadows sampling a bit of succulent, green grass on the cold and rainy morning. The rut is on here as well. A large, jet-black male patrols his stretch of forest looking for interested females, but then disappears from view. We decide to change the plan and head over to that area right away! It is also part of the hunt club land, so we may be in luck. Immediately after parking the fire engine red Peugeot in the back of a church lot, we can see and hear signs of the animals we are after in the nearby field. We stalk, but apparently too loudly, and the wind is wrong. It begins to rain harder and get very windy. This is good, it will mask our sound and scent. We quietly withdraw hoping the goats will forget about us and try to get around behind them in a better position. Once a huge male trots right by as we are in ambush under a tree in the pouring rain. There is no time to shoot as he rushes by 80 meters away in the oak and chestnut wooded Alpine mountainside. We have a few more close encounters, but today is not the day. At dark we head back to the estate and relax in the Doctor’s hot tub, massaging muscles that are stiff from hours of sitting motionless in the cold and wet weather, oblivious now to the rain still coming down on us. Over night it gets very cold, which is great for us. It will intensify the rut, making the normally very keen chamois dumber than a box of rocks. We realize that Gerard and Philip have had to flee the Pyrenees as nearly three meters of snow has fallen there, effectively ending the season due to lack of access. The Mouflon area we were in two days ago received a scant meter overnight, so I was lucky to get my hunt in, because the snow ended hunting there as well. This morning I have a good feeling. We head back to the first place behind the drugstore and wait for an hour without positive results. Then, we decide to try the cliffs where we had seen the reckless male the day before. As we quietly stalk along a trail in the sleet, I glance behind me and see a large female following 100 meters back! As I turn to get ready for her, she leaves the trail and is followed by several more goats. What luck! Chamois ahead, chamois behind, chamois to the side. Chamois all over! We spot some ahead and creep toward these babies, hoping they have a large mother watching them. And once again behind us is a black-bodied male coming up the path. He does not see us due to his preoccupation with the rut, but turns off the trail attracted to the smell of a distant female before we can take a shot. We have to get into a good position and not be distracted with all the other encounters. We may be seeing lots of animals, but are not prepared to do anything about it. We set up an ambush along a cliff where we are able to observe a well traveled area. Vincent watches one way and I face the other. It is sleeting and raining hard. We are soaking wet in and out, with our breath fogging the air. It is a beautiful day in the French wilderness, just at the edge of town.

After an hour Vincent rummages in his pack and hands me a piece of locally produced cheese, while he cracks open a tin of sumptuous pork Pate. If the goats could not smell us before, they certainly can now as the strong scent of cheese and pureed meat wafts through the air all around us. As soon as we are distracted by our delicious lunch, I can hardly believe my eyes: a huge black ram is jogging right for us. I nudge Vincent who dumps his can with a clang and turns to see what I am so excited about. I drop my bow as the ram turns into the dense brush 80 meters away motioning for the rifle, since this goat looked so huge and did not seem apt to stand still long enough for a bow shot. Vincent is initially confused about my intention, but quickly recognizes the situation. I get into position and the ram does a speedy semi circle through the thick brush 100 meters in front of us. I wait for exactly the right moment and-BANG! The 7mmx64 Mauser recoils into my shoulder and the huge ram disappears from view in the 1.5-6x Schmidt and Bender Scope. I am sure I got him, but Vincent does not think so. We check the area and find no trace. 30 minutes later, dejected I sit down to finish my cheese. Vincent starts again into his Pate and almost on cue the foolish ram returns having already forgotten about us. The Mauser barks again, this time destroying any hope of this fellow passing on his legacy. Although I chose to resort to an evil fire-stick, instead of an honorable twig and string, I am jumping up and down. This ram is huge! His horns are thick and long. He must weigh 60 kilograms. He stinks terribly from the musk and urine of the rut, and we decide that the meat would be better off in the hands of the hunting club members than stinking up Vincent’s kitchen. Besides, it is the biggest ram Vincent has seen in this area, and the club members will not be happy that a terrible US hunter stole this massive trophy from it’s rightful French owners. Oh well, too bad for them. I will return home with three superb French trophies, well worth the discomfort I was forced to endure. Thanks to a lot of luck and Vincent’s experience and connections, I have done it again. Viva in France!

Barefoot and Hapless: Saga of a Bowhunt in the Gobi

Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Barefoot and Hapless: Saga of a Bowhunt in The Gobi

The plan worked perfectly. Or at least partly. As in I didn’t do my part quite right. It was a beautiful sunny day at 2800 meters elevation, 20 degrees C with almost no wind and big, fluffy cumulus clouds in late August 2008. A perfect day to be hunting. The four huge Gobi Ibex rams crested the Argalant mountain ridge 90 meters from the position I had painstakingly crawled barefoot into in order to make absolutely certain that I did not make a sound. Gambo, the local guide from a nearby village, had done his job perfectly to spot these beautiful goats and get us to them unseen. The big horned rams were curiously looking over their shoulders at my interpreter, Amra, who had gone on a round about stalk to get behind the wary animals and push them toward me. He had done his job perfectly as well. I tried to remain calm, but with my heart racing I quickly drew my Matthews Black Max 2 and centered my 100 yard pin on the chest of the nearest massive Ibex. As I triggered my release, the deadly arrow flew toward the unwitting target. A loud THWACK! echoed back to me as the missile buried itself in the Ibex. Unfortunately, a moment later, I realized that the arrow had fallen out and not passed through the ibex. All four of the rams ran off in big hurry, glancing only briefly back at me, and covering the distance rapidly and disappearing over a far off ridge. I rushed to take a look at the arrow and realized that it had only penetrated six inches and the broadhead then broke off in the upper leg bone. I was so close, but so far away from success. The ram had limped noticeably, but still moved quickly in its haste to escape, even with an arrowhead buried in its body. There was very little blood as we tracked the animal over several kilometers of the rough Southern Mongolia mountains a couple hours west of Dalanzadgad. Twice, in the distance, we were able to spot the wounded ram with one of its companions, but the closest I was able to get was 200 meters. Eleven hours more of stalking, tracking and patient waiting and we decided to leave the ram and his friend for the night on a steep cliff shelf 250 meters away. Because I had no rifle, I was unable to finish the job. The sun set and we began the dejected trek in the dark, returning to the poor abused Toyota Land Cruiser. Amra, my interpreter, who had been assigned to get me through this adventure in a very foreign land, seemed hesitant to speak to me, but Gambo and Idersaikhan, the herdsman from a nearby camp, had plenty to talk about with each other. I suppose they were disgusted with me, as I had blown my third chance in eight days of getting a big Ibex ram with bow and arrow.

It had been my goal to hunt all six continents for big game with bow and arrow and I had now accomplished that with this Mongolian goat chase. Little consolation it seemed to me though, as I retreated to my own world of misery and disgust. Previously, I had a nice goat jump the string at 90 meters and the arrow went safely sailing by four meters behind, exactly on target with where the ram had been! [And the other failed incident kept playing through my mind where I had come over the top of a ridge on a stalk with my boots off and hanging around my neck in order to be quieter on the treacherous, rocky, gravelly ground, praying not to cut up my feet, but I had been surprised by the ram which I was stalking as he started coming around a cliff towards me!] In a split second, I determined the range to be 70 meters, and took a hurried shot. At my position the wind had seemed negligible, but apparently down range because where the goat was basking in the sun, the wind velocity was extreme. I almost threw my bow off the mountain as I saw my arrow slip sideways a meter in the air just before impacting the boulders behind my quarry. It had not been going well and the patience of my team was being tested to the extreme. I figured that this had been my last chance, and that I had screwed it up. I had been so gung-ho about doing it with bow alone and adamant about not bringing a backup rifle because of the paperwork, and this reliance on ancient methods was coming back to bite me big time. Technically the hunt was over with eight days of the planned eleven gone. My guys would not talk to me, and I was sure that Amra was not doing an actual interpretation of the conversation I was hearing. It was decided that I could have another day or two to track down the wounded animal, but I was not to get a chance at another animal. It was all or nothing with this recovery. If I did not agree to use a rifle, the guys would quit on me and make me accept the wounded Ibex as my tag being filled. The only other option was three days of chasing gazelles in the Gobi with little chance of a fair chase success. I had been warned about the difficulty of this Ibex hunt and the low rate of success, but I figured I could beat the odds. Dejected, but not yet willing to give up, I agreed to take a day off and spend it hunting the country side for a suitable rifle to follow up the massive horned Ibex ram. I ate by myself in shame and fell asleep feeling pretty low. In the morning we climbed into the Toyota to visit the neighbors. The roads are absolutely horrible and we bounced like crazy men as we followed the Mongolian superhighway across the Gobi over rutted, washboard dirt paths stretching to the horizon. Along the way we stopped at a Yurt tent every so often to ask if the man of the house had a weapon we could use. I was embarrassed at each stop, imagining what was being said about my lack of hunting prowess. We were welcomed into each home and sat on the floor as we were offered Vodka, fermented horse milk called Airag, goat marrow, and a cottage cheese like mixture of semi solidified goat milk. I felt very far from home, even though at each stop, the solar panel powered satellite televisions were tuned in to the Olympics. I could hear English in the background, but the commentary on the Greco Roman wrestling was totally lost on me. I was thankfully able to refuse the offered hospitality gracefully and hope that grave insult was not taken. I was deathly afraid of ending my trip with a case of crippling diarrhea caused by a disastrous reaction in my bowels to this exotic cuisine. Mostly the herdsman had no firearms, but occasionally they knew of someone who had an ancient .22 Russian bolt action rifle from pre -WWII. We did locate a mystery caliber open sighted bolt action from the Korean War Era. It was stamped 1952, and it was amazing to be able to read this for all the rust and corrosion covering the weapon. I was to be allowed 4 bullets for a fee of $100US- a fortune in these parts, but with the availability of ammunition extremely low, I reasoned that it would have to do. I was warned that the rifle shot high-very high- so aim low. I tried two practice shots at 100 yards and was missing the target by at least 5 meters! I was worried. The owner assured me that I would hit the bullseye dead on if I aimed four meters to the left and two meters low! Yeah right! Luckily another weapon was located before I blew up this deadly contraption in my face. A decent scoped .30-06 was identified, but it would be a three hour drive back to Dalanzadgad to retrieve the weapon from the storage location in a locked hotel room. A note from the owner of the gun allowed the proprietor of the hotel to access the rifle, and I was pleased to find a relatively modern looking weapon and a full box of rounds to use. A stop at a local welder, whose operation would cause an OSHA inspector to die of fright, to make some rough repairs to our vehicle’s motor mounts and exhaust brackets. Several bottles of vodka and a couple packs of Marlboros later and we were back to the hunting camp. Then began the race to sight in the rifle before dark. After six shots and maxing out the travels of the scope adjustment, I had the gun shooting on the paper at 50 yards! Yikes! With only two days left of my odyssey, this was the only chance I had left. I gulped and assured the hesitant crew that I would be able to make it work this time. They were dubious and I guess I had given them good reason. I slept intermittently, wishing I had brought my nice .300 Ultra Mag custom rifle built by Bob Odenthal. It was yielding to my pride as a bowhunter that I had passed on bringing it. I woke up early and we drove back into the mountains. In the ten hours of spotting and climbing we were unable to locate our quarry, so with one more day left I was pretty nervous. The guys agreed to give me their best effort one more time and we set out up a drainage gully at 5AM. An hour later as Gambo was answering the call of nature 300 meters behind me and Amra was adjusting his pack a kilometer back, while the herdsman named Idersaikhan and I , with whom I could not communicate verbally at all, spotted a nannie goat and kid on the ridge top 150 meters away from us. I looked through my Swarovski binoculars and took the range with my Opti-Logic laser just for the heck of it. I must have been living right this day, because as the nannie became aware of me she attracted the attention of the four rams lying with her just over the ridge. Unbelievably, one had a bloody shoulder that I recognized positively as the beast I was after. In slow motion I rolled the .30-06 off my shoulder, chambered a round and took aim 2 feet lower than the chest cavity of the animal, as I had figured I needed to based on my range experience. I was surprised when the gun went off , almost on its own, I don’t remember pulling the trigger, and the Gobi Ibex rolled over, legs in the air with a broken back. I was ecstatic to have finally made up for all my mistakes. Gambo and Amra probably thought I had just shot myself for all the confidence they had left in me, but they were quite relieved that they could finally get back to their vodka and Marlboros instead of trekking the rugged mountains with this fool of an American who couldn’t hit a darn thing. I ran up the ridge and looked over the goat. He was a mess from the prior wound, and I was very happy to put him out of his misery. I thanked the Lord for the gift of this beautiful animal and for not giving up on me. A real struggle ensued trying to get decent pictures. Shadows, lighting, and animal positioning were all a mystery lost in translation. As far as the Mongolians were concerned, the goat was down and we were done. We ended up with some decent pictures and then got the hide off in a respectable manner with some argument over the proper method to do so. I compromised and Gambo compromised, and hopefully Marv and his team at Taxidermy Unlimited can put it all back together looking better than it ever did in life. Luckily, I made it back to the truck and off the mountain before my wonderful experience of two days of diarrhea actually did end my hunt. A 30 hour, 700 kilometer drive from the southern Gobi through Dalanzadgad and back up to Ulan Baatar was a real treat. We only broke down for eight hours in the hard blowing rain as the truck bogged down and stalled with a dead battery before another vehicle came along and was able to give us a tow start. The brakes leaked causing billowing smoke to come from the left front wheel well, but with a jury rig fix we were on the road again. The wipers quit working, the defroster did not function, and the motor mounts were broken again causing an awful rattling that made my head feel like splitting. The driver’s window was off its track and would not close all the way, causing an annoying whistle. Despite this torture of being cramped inside this decrepit vehicle, we eventually made it back to what passed for civilization. It was better than waiting another couple days for the plane to come back. Due to the heavy rain and fog we were slogging through on the ground, all flights into the area had been cancelled. In all honesty, the road was a muddy-rutted hellacious journey, but I had gotten what I came for and made it back safe. It took everything I had: patience, endurance, luck and a good team assembled by Ari at Amazing Steppes Adventures to keep providing me with opportunities and not giving up on me. A few hours of sightseeing in the capitol city coupled with a unique banking experience, and I was back on a Korean Air jet headed for the good ole USA. I bet they were pretty glad to see me go! What do you think they will say when I tell Ari I want come back next fall for an Altai Ibex?

The Namibian Cave Leopard

Friday, July 11, 2008
The Namibian Cave Leopard

The fetid, rank air stunk of rotten meat and urine. I pushed myself deeper into the pitch black, dusty sandstone tunnel that was only slightly larger than my shoulders. Inside, the fearsome killing machine I was after, stared at me intently with evil green glowing eyes, and was armed with a gaping maw full of sharp bone-crushing teeth, and wicked, razor- sharp claws. The most frightening growl I could possibly imagine, worse than any horror movie--this was real-- greeted my arrival. I held my breath with my mouth open and, from only 3 meters, let this monster have a taste of lead square in the breast.

Expecting to have my ears blown in, I was surprised at the muffled report of the 12GA; however, I was also blinded by the explosion of dust in the confined space. All I could see from the illumination provided by the Surefire LED light taped to the gun barrel was a curtain of airborne sandstone particles. I could not breathe, see, or hear anything. Luckily I was promptly extricated from the tunnel by the fellow holding my feet, sparing me from being eaten, crushed, trapped, disemboweled or deafened.

Somewhat less exciting than the showdown was re-entering the stinking cavern penetrating twenty feet into the rough sandstone mountain and dragging out a very dead kitty after the air had cleared.

Being extremely allergic to cats, I was surprised at my lack of negative reaction to an hour-long photo shoot. Everyone from the Chaibis Brendenkamp Ranch was included in the session. It had been quite a spectacle to see this crazy white guy from America disappear into the earth and emerge unscathed. Upon relating this story to my wife, and despite my attempts to convince her and everyone else that I had everything well in hand, she seems to agree with the general consensus regarding my sanity.

I had hunted leopard before over bait in Zimbabwe many years earlier and we got a nice cat, but the way we got this 55kg tomcat was a whole lot more excitement and work! Each morning was filled with plenty of activity! Our team rose four hours before dawn, at 3AM, to check hundreds of kilometers of dry, sandy riverbeds, pasture roads, and strategically placed zebra baits around the 60,000 hectare ranch. We identified fresh tracks from seven different leopards, three cheetahs and several hyena. Where promising spoor was found, highly trained hounds were released at dawn to trail the stealthy cats to their hiding place.

I had wrongly assumed that we would be hunting in the bush country and that we would simply run the cat up a tree, and shoot it at our leisure. I had not expected these rugged mountains! There were no trees anywhere, only scrubby thorn covered bushes that tore through clothes and cut deep into flesh. Up and down the Gamsberg Range we trekked for days. Terribly uneven, loose sandstone boulders covered the ridges, hiding puff adders and cobras, while caves riddled the mountains--any of which could be the lair of a rosette-covered, night-stalking carnivore.

After kilometers and kilometers of trailing, the temperature rose from near freezing at dawn to 30C in the afternoon, causing the dogs to lose the scent trail. Then began the routine dejected trek back to the abused Toyota HiLux bakkie.

After a nap during the heat of the afternoon, my loyal PH Louw Van Zyl and good friend Charles Ballantyne of Ballantyne Trophy Safaris in Adelaide RSA, would humor me while I tried to stalk Kudu each evening with bow and arrow. The ground was rocky and uneven with very little cover. I assume that eventually this method could have been a success, but in nearly 20 attempts I was unable to get closer than a 95 yard shot at a nice Kudu bull, which, as luck would have it, I missed. I guess this is called humility! “If it was easy I would not be interested,” I kept telling myself.

Finally, after eight unsuccessful days and hundreds of kilometers of trailing our dogs, a big Tom made a bad mistake that would cost him his life. We stopped to check out a zebra bait that had been totally devoured two nights before. We had not gotten around to this site the previous morning because we were too busy seeing the sights from the top of a series of ridge-tops 20 kilometers to the North. It seems like we would have realized that the view would not change, but we just had to make sure. Well, the dogs lost the trail and that cat got away from us, but this morning the new activity was promising. A fully consumed bait meant that there was a stuffed kitty somewhere near. The scent was too old to chase, so we moved on to the next bait 500 meters further along a sandy dry stream bed. We were amazed to find that this bait had also been eaten, but very recently, only a few hours before our checking it. The tracks were smoking hot and the ten hound dogs were going absolutely wild.

Charles, Louw and I raced to follow John and Max and their pack. Sprinting for only 10 minutes over the rocky terrain and up a 200 meter ridge we immediately spotted the dogs howling madly at our quarry which was cornered under a rocky overhang. Terrible growling and roaring issued from the enfilade as the feline terror tried to hold his ground against his canine archenemies. I moved in closer to try for a shot and all of a sudden when I was 50 meters from the hiding place, a yellow, black-spotted blur erupted into the light, leaving the dogs behind in a flash. To estimate the speed is only speculative, but it must have been at least 75km per hour!

The cat had spotted me and was off again, but not far, having disappeared into the deep hole on the opposite ridge where I would later have the luxury of exploring. I raced behind the hounds, my heart pounding and traded my bow for a .30-06. I set up and covered the cave entrance, ready for any sign that the monster may be coming out. Being extremely careful to not shoot a dog, but with the safety off, I had my finger away from the trigger. In my mind, I was attempting to calculate whether I would have enough time to move my finger to pull the trigger before the murderous beast could cover the 10 meters between the cave and me to tear me to pieces.

While I stood on guard, I assumed that I was being backed up by my friends Louw and Charles. It seems, though, that if they were planning on coming to my aid, they should have been a little closer. John and Max, the dog handlers, stayed quite a long way off from the cave to make sure they had no chance of a tangle with an extremely angry kitty. John claimed later that he carried a set of floating bones from the throat of a leopard in his pocket to provide protection. He was absolutely convinced that this made him invisible to any cat. Despite this protection, he kept his distance. Obviously I did not yet have the advantage of this invisibility charm.

After what seemed like hours on high alert, but was probably only 30 minutes, I moved to the opposite ridge – a distance of 60 meters-- to have a more stable rifle rest. The melee continued with dogs yelping, howling, and rushing into and out of the inky blackness of the cave. All the while terrible growling issued from the depths of the mountain, making me shiver. It was decided that the cave should be securely blocked off with brush and rocks. The dogs were called off and the cat quieted down. Many more people began to appear from the ranch, summoned to witness the mayhem and brought sandwiches, drinks and shovels. We discussed various means to end this standoff. Flares, gas, fire and smoke grenades all were ruled out. Louw and John probed the rocky hillside to find a possible alternate entrance to the lair of this vicious beast.

Finally, we had exhausted all but two options. Would we construct a blind and wait for the cat to emerge from safety or would we, I guess they actually meant me, crawl in to do battle one-on-one with this awesome predator? I am not particularly patient, so I chose to end the battle. I used a spade to enlarge a small side tunnel so I could squeeze in. I could just make out the creature within when I shined a light on him, but had no possibility of a shot without going in deeper. So, I did. I assumed that I could use Louw’s shotgun to keep the monster off me if he charged, as the tunnel was so narrow, and I had 5 shots to knock him down if need be. If I had been wrong, this would have been a much more exciting story, possibly written by someone else while I was laid up in the hospital in Windhoek. Instead of disaster, now my wife is invisible to these creatures that stalk the night-- at least when she is wearing her new earrings made from the floating bones of this unlucky fellow.