France October 2007

Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Pyrenean Dream Come True
Reprinted with permission of SCI International

1: IMG3829 Pyrenean Ridge and Alpine Lake; September 30, 2007; by John F. Cedarberg IV
2: IMG 0986 Pyrenean Peak ;September 30, 2007; by John F. Cedarberg IV
3: IMG 3817 Female Trophy Izard on the Hoof 1 ; September 30, 2007; by Dr. Vincent LaCoste
4: IMG 3822 Female Trophy Izard on the Hoof 2; September 30, 2007; by Dr. Vincent LaCoste
5: IMG 4058 Mother and Baby Chamois; Oct. 1, 2007; by Dr. Vincent LaCoste
6: IMG 3837 John F. Cedarberg IV with trophy Pyrenean Chamois; Oct. 1, 2007; by Dr. Vincent LaCoste
7: IMG 1003 Village of Mijanes; Oct. 1, 2007; by John F. Cedarberg IV

The 2007 fall hunting season took me to the Pyrenees Mountains of France for an early October adventure, continuing to chase my dreams of bowhunting around the world, this time pursuing Pyrenean Chamois; known in France as the Izard.

Until recently the idea of bowhunting for big game in France was not in the cards. Not so long ago bow and arrow had the negative stigma of being the weapon of choice for poachers. Therefore hunting big game with archery tackle was illegal. France finally changed its laws to allow bowhunting for big game only about eight years ago.

After the flight from Minneapolis to Amsterdam and a connection to Lyon, France, I am pleased to find that all of my gear had arrived intact. I was met immediately as I stepped off the plane by my guide, Dr. Vincent LaCoste. I received a warm greeting in excellent English and we headed to the parking area. Vincent has a reputation as one of the top bow hunters in France. He is a fit 42 year old general practice medical doctor residing in France near Geneva, Switzerland. Several times annually he travels the globe in search of new archery challenges. Dr. LaCoste has the honor of being the first Frenchman to take all big game species in France in a single year by archery. I believe that having such a man for a guide will certainly be a great benefit to help me towards this step of my goal to successfully archery hunt each continent, and eventually take the Capra Slam of Wild Goats by bow.
We attempted to stuff my equipment into the doctor’s fire engine red Peugeot rally racing car. He apologized for the tight fit, saying he just negotiated to sell his Land Rover and purchase a large Audi wagon, but has yet to take delivery. I believe he secretly would rather drive his sports car instead. The kilometers flew by as we raced south through the French countryside towards Marseilles, paralleling the LGV route. Occasionally I caught a glimpse of an orange blur as a train packed with Frenchmen rocketed past at nearly 300 kilometers per hour.

I was surprised that the French countryside is not totally covered over by development as I thought it would be. There are enormous tracts of land that are wild and undeveloped; where hunters are free to pursue their quarry.

Forests and fields gave way to brushy scrub as we approached the Mediterranean. Lush vineyards were everywhere as we passed the medieval walled city of Carcassone and spotted the foothills of the fabled Pyrenees Mountains in the distance. We turned off the motorway and made our way through towns and villages as we ascended into the mountains. I was exhausted from my travels, but the flowing conversation regarding hunting, politics and family life caused the six hour journey to fly by. I was reinvigorated as we passed through the Saint George Gorge where the very narrow winding road clings to the edge of a tributary of the beautiful Aude River and is overhung with rock blocking out the sky. A couple close calls nearly scraping the rock walls while passing big rigs and we are safely through. A treacherous switch back road is a delight for the hard driving speed demon and finally we arrive in the town of Majines. A castle ruin guards the skyline and banners advertise the elevation to be 1130 meters on the torturous route of the Tour De France bicycle race. We stopped at an ancient stone hotel and wrestled our gear up the winding staircases and into our sleeping quarters.

After taking a few minutes to organize it was time to meet with the federal forest agent, Diddier. He is a short well-built man in his 50s. Diddier is very enthusiastic about the upcoming hunt and despite our lack of compatible languages, I could tell he would be perfect for the task ahead. I got all my paperwork taken care of, drank a Coke and waited for the arrival of Vincent’s good friend, Gerard. He is a liver transplant surgeon and an aspiring bow hunter from the north of France. When he arrived I discovered he speaks a little English. The French flowed quickly among my three companions. So far my investment in a $7.00 Langenscheit’s translation dictionary had proven to be worthless. Although I had spent a rigorous 30 minutes of studying the small pocket book on the plane trip, the words blended together so quickly that I was unable to distinguish any content whatsoever.

I was treated to duck gizzard salad for starters with a nice beef steak followed by crème brulee and then a very much needed rest.

At 5:45AM it was time to get moving. Far from completely rested, I could feel the effects of jet lag and two previous days of no sleep weighing heavily on me. I had packed my gear into my sheep pack; leaving out all but the absolute essentials. My setup included a Matthews Black Max 2 85 lb. draw bow; Beeman 300 matrix composite arrows, tipped with Rocky Mountain Ironhead 100 3 blade cut on contact broadheads.

Before heading up the mountain for the day we had a breakfast consisting of Especialle K (Special K for us here in North America) with UHT stabilized milk. For those of you who have never had the distinct pleasure of consuming UHT stabilized milk, this kind of milk is common in Europe; especially in France. It is heated to more than 135 degrees Celcius to kill any bacteria that may be in it. The upside is that refrigeration is not required. UHT milk can have a shelf life of six to nine months before it is opened, not days like the milk we buy from the dairy case in North America. The downside is definitely the taste. I’ll just say it leaves a lot to be desired.

The morning is clear and 10 degrees Celsius as we traveled up a narrow winding road following the green Forest Service van of Gerard and Diddier. Thirty minutes later we strapped on our packs and started climbing. With significant expenditure of willpower, spiritual assistance and several packets of Gu Energy Gel, I finally made it to the top of the ridge. Vincent gave me some very good news when he said I would take up an ambush position for Chamois here. Since I was already feeling exhausted, I was very happy to not to have to climb any further. Changing into dry clothes and assembling my weapon, I settled in to wait for an Izard to come walking along the path above me.

In the distance was a beautiful snow covered peak that we would have to cross that afternoon to return to the vehicles. I was stunned to suddenly turn and see a female Chamois leading her baby towards me 30 meters away. My shot was blocked by thick brush, but she was not looking toward me. For nearly 20 minutes there was little movement. Suddenly another group of four Chamois trotted into view about 100 meters below. The new group’s arrival startled the young mother and caused her to rapidly climb to a path above me. I prepared to shoot when she reappeared 45 meters away, almost straight above me. I took my shot. I can still think of lots of excuses, but I just missed plain and simple.

Another hour of sitting and then it was time to have lunch at a small mountain lake that was a 20 minute hike away. What I had to eat was definitely not the kind of trail food that Americans are used to eating. On that particular day I had a spicy, nut-filled sausage that was about twice the size of a bratwurst, a strong, strange smelling cheese, pork pate, applesauce and a liter of water before falling asleep.

When I woke up, Diddier and Gerard were already headed up the next ridge to take a position for the afternoon hunt. I struggled to keep pace, but eventually arrived at a new ambush site. Diddier made a long walk, attempting to drive some chamois towards our position; but nothing came our way. The afternoon descent would prove to be a long one. Two hours down steep slippery grass slopes covered with melting snow was taking a heavy toll on my backside. I kept slipping because of the worn tread on my boot soles. I could barely recollect the evening meal and I was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

The next morning I awoke feeling mildly refreshed. The first order of business was painting a copious amount of camouflage cream on my face. This was done to reduce the glare of my pale white face and avoid potentially scaring off a trophy Izard, however it seemed that the sweat pouring down my brow while getting into position would wash it off before it would be needed. After breakfast it was off to the mountains for the hunt.

Again, the hike to get into position was brutal. This time I would be in a spot where I would have only a brief chance at a target 16-20 meters below at a 60 degree angle. I patiently waited and was rewarded almost immediately by a young female and her baby who passed quickly under me. I tried to get a shot, but before I could get to full draw she had moved too far away for an ethical attempt. I was excited to see game two days in a row in this rugged terrain and Vincent assured me I would get another chance.

While waiting for that next chance I marveled at the beauty of the valley below. From my perch about 2100 meters up the side of the cliff I could see a castle ruin and a couple towns in the far distance. While taking in this vast beauty I almost failed to realize that a huge black horned, dark brown bodied Izard had trotted into my shooting lane. In one fluid motion I drew and released my arrow. I could hear a satisfying thump as the broadhead passed through the rump and out the chest through the heart of the old Chamois. She whirled around and ran down the slope, operating purely on adrenaline. She then disappeared over a cliff 100 meters away.

We waited about 30 minutes and then struggled to carefully descend from our ambush site to track the trophy. It took only 15 minutes to spot the crumpled brown mass 300 meters below us down a steep rocky cliff, and another half an hour to make it to the crash site. I was elated. My goal of taking a Pyrennian Chamois in France had been realized. It was a two hour wait in the bright sunshine, with a magnificent mountain backdrop, admiring my trophy while Vincent climbed to alert Gerard and Diddier to the fact that I was successful. They arrived and we took many photos to memorialize the event. Vincent and I ate a snack before getting down to the business of skinning and quartering the 30 kilogram mountain antelope. Diddier and Gerard went over the mountain to the other side for another drive, while Vincent and I made our way down to the trailhead with my chamois. I was light on my feet trekking back with my pack full of the hide of my prey. I felt alive and very happy. Since I had first ascended the trail in the dark, I noticed how steep it actually is on the way down through the ancient old growth pine forest.

After measurements by Diddier and a fellow federal game agent it was determined that this particular animal was 15 years old with a very respectable set of horns. She easily made the French record book, taking a high position for archery. I have now become one of a small number of individuals to take this species in France by archery and count myself very lucky to have shared the experience with a great hunter like Dr. Vincent LaCoste.

The rest of the hunt was anticlimactic for me. I had another tag, but I didn’t have a strong desire to fill it as it would be nearly impossible to top my trophy in any case. Four more days of hiking and taking in the beauty of the Pyrenees rounded out an awesome hunt. It was made possible by lots of help from Agent Diddier, Dr. Vincent LaCoste, Neil Summers and Dennis Kamstra at Bow Hunting Safari Consultants. I also owe Kristin Lynch at Lifetime Fitness a debt of thanks for having me do so many hours climbing the Stairmaster so I could get into shape for this endeavor. Of course the biggest thank you goes out to my very understanding wife Sarah and my three children, Lydia, Johnny V, and Reuben.

If I could convince Vincent to take me hunting there again I would plan to return to try for Mouflon and Alpine Chamois. But I would definitely return with a new pair of boots. Being 10 kilograms lighter next time around would be nice too.