Sooner or later in our lives, most of us contemplate our own mortality. Those of us who really love the deer woods tend to use the number of deer seasons left as a yardstick of our days. It is said, though, that most deer hunters go through stages, and tend to lose their ardor for the hunt in the twilight of their lives.
So far, in my waning days, this has not been the case with me. The deer hunt and the autumn woods are still the strong magnet they were for me more than 60 years ago. There are others like me, but we are the exception to the rule. The problem we elder hunters face is that the ravages of age — infirmity or death — tend to winnow the cadre of our traditional hunt buddies, and outdoor pursuits are just not the same without the time-tested companionship.
George Clark, 79, from Stonington, Conn., is one of those aging diehard hunters who is nowhere near ready to call it quits. Last fall, while hunting elk in the Colorado Flattops, George and I met at the trail head and struck up a conversation. He soon invited me into his spike tent on a raw, windy day to enjoy a cup of steaming coffee and meet his hunting companions.
Clark, a former Navy diver and submariner who grew up hunting farm country in his native Tennessee, is heading West soon for his 40th Colorado elk hunt. Like most of us who have been fortunate enough to pursue elk in the high country, he admits to being hopelessly addicted. Clark’s introduction to the elk woods first came about as a result of an invitation from a son-in-law who lives in Denver. “I was hooked from the first elk hunt, badly hooked,” said Clark, who also hunts deer in Maine and his home state.
Clark recalls that in the early days of his elk hunts it was not uncommon for his entire hunt party to punch their tags. “We worked to get in the back country, at times we even rebuilt some roads to get where we wanted to be,” Clark recalls.
As most seasoned elk hunters will admit, there are many variables, especially with the weather, in the Colorado high country. Things happen that were not in the hunt plan. “We have been snowed in a number of times up there,” Clark remembers, “I mean really snowed in!”
Clark’s hunt buddies from the early days have more or less fallen by the wayside. He now hunts with younger men whom he brought along over the years. “They take care of me and tolerate me,” he quipped with a grin in his voice. A horseman since his Tennessee youth and a fitness buff even today, the Connecticut man still hunts on horseback from a rented mount. Once during a hunt, a horse bucked him off and into a rock, which resulted in five cracked ribs. “It happened on the first day of the hunt just as we were getting started,” he says. “The boys wrapped my ribcage up good with duct tape to get me through.”
He managed to shoot an elk that day, but a cold rain pushed him into hypothermia. “Try getting the shakes with cracked ribs,” he says. “That’s no fun.” He said the experience was almost worth it because he earned a permanent nickname from his hunt buddies: “King of the Mountain.”
Like all of us, Clark knows his hunt days are numbered but he doesn’t worry about it. His philosophy on this count is basically that when you say you can’t do it then you can’t do it. I have started taking videos of our hunts so I’ll have something to help me rekindle the memories (when he can no longer hunt).
Elk hunter and writer Fred Benton probably spoke for all of us diehard hunters —whatever the quarry — when he wrote: “Every hunter, at some point, realizes that elk country gets bigger, steeper and tougher, more exhausting and less accessible as the seasons pass. What it comes down to is too much country, too short a life.”