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Pumice Plains Elk Hunt 2010, October 25th & 26th

(John McAuliffe)



Worst weather yet experienced in the 3 seasons of hunting elk on Pumice Plains.


Dick and I drove down in the blustery, rainy weather.  We arrived at the Loowit lookout, which overlooks the Pumice Plains hunting grounds. We sat in the truck for a bit as the rain came and went, along with the occasional skiff of snow and the cold wind.  We decided to walk down the Johnston Ridge trail that would enable us to view where we would cross the river in the morning. The river crossing point was at least a mile and a half away from the trail, but at least we could view it with our binoculars.  We saw 19 elk bedded down below us within 250 yards.  They left after watching us for a while.  The sun came out briefly so I returned to the truck to retrieve my camera and rangefinder.  We went further down the trail and were amazed to see about 40 head of elk grazing on the south-side bluffs of the Toutle River, right where we planned to cross in the morning.


We thought it would be an easy hunt with so many so close to the river but it did not turn out that way.


We drove up to the Johnston Observatory and perused the exhibits and watched the 16 minute film in the theater about the eruption which is still very impressive to this day.Filled Cow Tag...


The clouds had lowered outside and we couldn’t see up into the crater. Sometimes the rain would fall, obscuring our vision.  We peered through our binoculars looking for elk all over the mountain but only found a few here and there.  I was disappointed a bit, because in past years, the elk could be seen just about everywhere.  They must have been holed up out of the wind and the weather for they did not appear to be abundant this year.


We stopped by the Hummocks trail head on the way to the Silver Lake motel and met Jeff and Todd. Jeff was a master hunter and had a cow elk tag as I did.  Todd, his duck hunting friend of 16 years had come along to help Jeff pack his elk out.  Jeff works at Regents, Todd at Childhaven.


Jeff had never shot an elk before and had done only limited scouting of the area. I explained the best way to the river and where to cross. I told him that I had a cart and that he was welcome to use it to help haul his elk out. Carts usage is allowed on the Hummocks trail, but not off trail anywhere. 


They had waders as well with which to cross the river.   We agreed to meet them at 6:00AM in the morning.  Dick and I stayed at the Silver Lake motel while Jeff and Todd stayed in the back of his F150 somewhere on the mountain.


We went to bed fairly early, but 4:00AM comes early too.  It had rained off and on the entire night and I was worried a bit about the river level. It could be too high to cross safely.  We left the motel and drove through Toutle, stopping at the Shell station to get a breakfast sandwich. I’d made sandwiches from bagels the night before, for us to eat during the day. We had candy too, and I had two liters of water along in my pack.


We arrived at the Hummocks Trail head and Jeff and Todd were there already.   We put the cart together and trundled it down the trail to a point as close to the river as we could get it. Dick and I carried aluminum pack frames to which our day packs and waders were strapped. Jeff and Todd had aluminum frame packs with the nylon pack bags attached, their waders strapped to the outside.


It was starting to get a little light and we were able to shut off our headlamps as we crossed the grassy flat towards the steep bluff that we would descend to the river.  We made it to the river; it was higher than I wanted to cross at the place I’d used in previous years.  We searched upriver and found a place where the Toutle forked into two streams, thus dividing the torrent of water into narrower streams to cross.


Jeff crossed first, picking his way carefully.  It wasn’t really dangerous and we made it uneventfully.  It takes time to take off your Gortex Camo raingear and get into the thick neoprene waders.  It was raining lightly as we made the crossing.  On the other side, we left our waders and trekking poles by the river, since we planned on returning the same way we’d come.


We crossed the 200 yards of barren river bed to the notch that cut upwards through the 200 foot bluff on the south side of the Toutle River.  Jeff and I went first, since we had the tags and rifles, with Dick and Todd behind us a ways.  The creek in the notch had a surprising amount of water, more than I’d ever seen in it before.


As we broached the top of the notch, onto the hummocky plain, we crept along very slowly, as noiselessly as possible, peering around the sides of the hummocks, searching for the elk that had been there the evening before.  On and on we searched, quietly covering ground but there were no elk to be found.  They had vanished to somewhere during the night.  Amazed, I was that those 40 head of elk had vanished.  We could not locate them anywhere around us despite searching with our binoculars.


We headed up towards Studebaker Ridge, because Dick and I had seen another group of elk a long ways below it last evening and there was the possibility of locating them.


The rain continued off and on, and sometimes the wind blew quite hard. The temperature was close to freezing and with the wind-chill, it was cold on our exposed flesh.  Our gloves became soaked with rain as we walked. Finally, a few miles from the river, actually some ways further than where I’d shot my cow elk in 2008, we took shelter from the wind in a draw. We ate a little and drank some water and discussed what to do, since we hadn’t seen any elk yet.  We decided to climb higher towards Studebaker Ridge and when we came out of the draw, I glassed Studebaker with my binoculars.  I could plainly see about 20 elk bedded down at the base of the ridge, so the stalk was on. We kept the hummock mounds, the low ridges and edges of the draws between us and the base of Studebaker where the elk were.  I knew there was a deep canyon about 150 feet across and 100 feet deep that I had crossed last year, right by the juncture of the end of Studebaker Ridge and the flat below it. That deep draw would enable us to travel undetected until we were within rifle range of the elk at the base of Studebaker. 


Studebaker RidgeAs it turned out it wasn’t necessary to go quite up to Studebaker Ridge for as Jeff and I ambled along at a fairly good pace, some motion to my left caught my eye and I spied two cow elk, leisurely walking uphill.  I sat down, hissed at Jeff that there were two cow elk and put the crosshairs on one of them.  But I didn’t want to shoot just mine and spoil a chance for Jeff to shoot his at the same time. So I watched the elk pass behind and out-of-sight behind some hummocks.  They appeared uphill on the other side of the hummocks and did not seem to see us.  I said this is it, let’s get in position and use that two foot diameter log 30 feet in front of us to shoot from.  We briefly discussed the range and decided it was about 300 yards.  We placed our rifles across the log, lying down prone a few feet apart and waited for the opportunity to shoot simultaneously.  The elk paused briefly to feed or inspect their route which would have been a perfect time, except that mine was in back of a low alder tree and I didn’t want to take the chance of bullet deflection. 


Finally mine cleared the alder, then paused and I said, “She’s clear of the tree, ready, on the count of three. One, two, three.”  On three, our rifles spoke together and both shots hit their marks but with only limited appearance of effect. 300 yards is a relatively long shot and the bullets lose quite a bit of striking energy at that range, but still create lethal damage.  The elk stood there sideways to us briefly and then began to walk forward slowly. I fired another shot at mine which appeared to miss cleanly.  The wind was blowing strongly from right to left as the elk walked slowly from left to right. I said to Jeff something about correcting for the wind. I chambered a third round and held about 6 inches to the right of where I would have normally placed the bullet, and squeezed the trigger. At the shot, my elk reared back and fell over.  Jeff had just fired a second time and his elk went down as well.  As it turned out my third shot had broken the front right leg up quite high and ruined some of the shoulder meat as well.  It turned out my last shot wasn’t necessary as my first bullet had lethally entered just ahead of the elk’s diaphragm, ranging forward through the liver and lungs causing massive hemorrhaging.


We congratulated each other on our success and it was Jeff’s first elk in his life, although he’d harvested many deer previously.


We watched Jeff’s elk kick a few times in the distance but she was down for the count.  We walked up and both elk were dead, mine now facing to the left and down hill and his facing uphill.


The rain stopped briefly over us and the sun came out and made a rainbow, perhaps a sign of a celebration of a successful hunt. I took a picture of it.


My elk’s coat was considerably darker in color than Jeff’s. But her belly hair was a deeper golden color than his.  He thought the colors were more characteristic of a Roosevelt elk, than a Yellowstone elk. 


When I’d first seen the elk, I’d assumed mine was a calf, because the darker color of her body hair made her appear smaller in size. In actual fact, she was every bit as large as Jeff’s.  My elk wasn’t “wet”, meaning she was not nursing a calf.  Jeff’s was wet, but there was no calf in evidence anywhere and they usually stick close to their mothers, so there’s no telling what was the real situation.


Dick called me on the radio; he and Todd were no where to be seen. They’d heard the rifle shots and I tried to explain fruitlessly where we were.  I finally headed to the east where I could see further across the rolling hummocky terrain, but they were not there. So I climbed to the flat at the base of Studebaker; the wind was so strong it made my eyes water and I could not see through the tears.  The radio was useless during the high wind.  Eventually, it abated somewhat and I was able to tell them to head for Studebaker Ridge. After a misunderstanding of which ridge was Studebaker, they finally appeared and had to cross that 100 foot deep canyon that I’d crossed last year.  We descended to the elk and began the butchering process.


We tried a different approach this year and did not field dress the elk initially. Instead we skinned the hide from one side and removed the legs. I did the hind quarter, finally getting to the hip joint and beyond, getting the leg free of the rest of the carcass with Dick’s help. He lowered it onto an outstretched game bag and I used a boning knife to remove the bones from the quarter. Into another game bag the boned quarter went, while Dick progressed steadily on the front shoulder. Severing that from the carcass and laying it on the outstretched game bag, I boned the shoulder blade from the meat.  Then Dick removed the backstrap steaks.  We flipped the elk over on the clean hide and skinned the other side free, repeating the hind leg, front leg boning procedure and then removing the steaks from the vertebra.  Now it was time to open the guts to enable the removal of the tenderloins, the tenderest cut of meat of the animal.  Dick made a small incision through the abdominal wall and I used my Alaskan blade trader with gutting hook to slice the membrane up to the sternum.  Reaching in, we pulled the entrails out a bit so that I could slice through the diaphragm.  Further pulling of the entrails gave us access to one of the tenderloins, which Dick removed and I did the other one.  With all of the meat in two large game bags and three smaller ones, I lashed a boned quarter to my pack frame and tied my day pack atop of that.  Jeff had an unboned quarter within his pack and Todd had some meat in his. We started down to the river, laboriously leaving deeper footprints than when we’d hiked up, due to the heavy meat loads.Toutle River from the pumice plains


We rested occasionally on the 4 mile pack to the river.  When we arrived the river was notably higher than in the morning. It did not look safe to cross. I walked a full mile up river seeking a safer crossing but found none. There was a major creek fork about two miles up that we could have walked to. This would have given us less water to cross in each stream and probably would have been safer. But we were wet, tired and starting to get cold.  Behind the clouds, the sun was on the horizon and there wasn’t a stick of wood, much less dry wood to be found anywhere, so spending a night out wasn’t a good idea.  We wadered up and Jeff went across the first stream. We’d tied three strands of line to him, incase he fell down. He made it safely. The river was significantly deeper than the morning, perhaps another 6 to 10 inches.  Doesn’t sound like too much but the hydraulic pressure on one’s legs was greatly increased. The water was fast with standing waves and was full of brownish-grey rock flour.  I crossed using my trekking poles for stability.  Four points of contact with the stream bed that way.  I would thrust the poles into the current, striking the stream bottom and leaning heavily on them so that they wouldn’t move. Then I would crab-walk my feet sideways to the left, facing upstream, carefully feeling for solid purchase against the river bed under the turbulent water.  The river pushed powerfully against my legs and just staring at the rushing water in front of me was a bit daunting. All of that fast water was a rushing motion and I did not want to think about it pushing so hard on me, so I looked upstream a little further.  I crab-walked my poles and feet across the stream and made it safely to the island between the two forks.


I went back across and told Dick to use my poles as I had.  To cross very carefully, leaning on the poles and shuffling his feet wide apart for stability.  He came across successfully and I was grateful I wouldn’t have to explain to his wife what had happened, had things gone wrong. We got all of the packs across, then crossed other narrower, less dangerous fork and made it safely to the other riverbank.  It was at that moment that I realized I’d left my gortex camo rain pants on the other side and would have to cross the river again by myself.  I did and must say that by that time, I’d crossed it enough times that I was comfortable with the challenge.  My truck key was safely zipped in one of those pockets within the raingear, so I really had to have them.


By this time, the light was fading quickly and it was time to turn on the headlamps. I gave Dick my spare since his batteries were depleted.   We hiked across the moss-covered river shelf and climbed the 200 foot steep bluff to the plateau that would lead us to the cart at the trail.  We made the trail and the cart, loaded the packs into the cart and began the trek out. It’s only a half mile to the parking lot, but there are a few short hills which require someone pushing the cart as well as pulling. The reflectors on the side of my Ford were a welcome sight in the darkness as we came close to the parking lot. 


We loaded the meat into coolers and began the drive to the motel in the rain. Jeff and Todd were tired, wet and cold and didn’t want to spend another night in the back of Jeff’s Ford under his canopy, so they drove with us to Silver Lake motel and rented the cabin that adjoined ours. As we climbed out from the low point of the Hummocks trail head it began to snow heavily and steadily.  It was really sticking long before we got to Elk Rock and I was glad I’d had new tires installed on my Ford prior to this trip.  We made it uneventfully to Silver Lake and everyone turned in soon, but not before we had hot showers and had hung up every wet thing to dry. We used the motel proprietor’s dryer to dry our gortex raingear.   Dick and I talked a bit as we lay in our respective rooms and finally fell asleep.  The alarm in my watch sounded at 4:00AM but I shut it off and went back to sleep until 5:27, when I could sleep no more.


I got up and made coffee and woke Dick up.  We dressed and made up our packs for the day, intent on packing out the meat in either one or two trips.   Yesterday was made tougher by having to carry our rifles out in our hands as we walked. Today we would have minimal gear with us.  Jeff and Todd were up; eventually we drove up to the Hummocks Trail head after having stopped at the Shell station to buy breakfast food and coffee.  Suitably fueled, we drove up through the snow over Elk Rock and descended to the Hummocks Trail head.  There was a skiff of very wet snow in the parking lot. It had rained heavily quite a bit of the night so Dick believed the river was probably higher than it was the previous evening.  He wanted no part of water any higher and so chose to remain on the north side of the river.  As it was, surprisingly, the river was lower that it had been last night. At least at first it was….Johnston Ridge Observatory from the valley.


Dick drove up to Loowit Lookout and talked with us several times by radio as we crossed the river and hiked up to the elk meat.  It snowed constantly with a brisk wind as we hike up the gentle slopes.  As we closed on the elk kill site, there were coyote tracks in abundance.  We actually saw one big coyote run off when we were within 200 feet of the meat. There were raven tracks all over the snow and the bony carcasses had clearly been chewed on by coyotes.   One of Jeff’s remaining quarters was missing. Turned out the coyotes had consumed most all of it and we’d walked by it on 150 feet away from the rest of his elk. 


All of my meat was bagged and had been left alone by the coyotes and ravens, but Jeff’s elk meat was not so lucky.  We examined the tracks in the snow and followed some drag marks and faint blood stains in the snow up hill, thinking that the coyotes had taken the missing quarter.  As we climbed higher, we got up into the stronger wind and Jeff turned around, convinced that the coyotes could not have carried a quarter up that hill.  He returned to search for his missing quarter in the brush by the kill.  I continued higher, up to the flat at the base of Studebaker to satisfy my curiosity.  The wind was oppressive as I walked across the flat to the base of Studebaker. The snow stung my face as I walked. It was miserable but I wanted to know what the coyote had.  His tracks were so fresh in the snow; I knew I was only minutes behind him. Finally I found what the coyote had carried. It was a section of ribs 18 inches by 15 inches, sort of oval in shape. It didn’t weigh more than a few pounds but he’d left it behind when he knew he was being pursued.  I left his prize for him to reclaim and trudged back across the flat and down to my elk meat.Jeff's cow


Now the worst was to come, that of having to bear the sensation of freezing fingers as I tied the meat sacks to my pack frame.  I lashed a bagged quarter and then a somewhat smaller bag of meat above it, and then tied my day pack on top of that.   My fingers still worked, much to my amazement, and I was able to tie knots in the cord successfully, despite not having much feeling in my finger tips.  Jeff and Todd were ready to go. They helped me up with my pack which probably had about 75 lbs of meat lashed to it. 


Down we started, all the while the snow continued and the wind still blew hard.  Dick called a few times on the radio and when he knew we were close to the river, he brought the cart down the trail. 


We rested many times, bent over  while standing on our feet with the oppressive weight of the packs on our backs.  I did not want to sit down for fear I could not get back up.


Mine was a very heavy pack but Jeff’s was much heavier. It helped he was 6’2 and 220 lbs as well as being much younger than I.


We made the river, wadered up and crossed it. It was a little hair-raising because it the volume was up again and our packs were heavier.  But we made it.  Dick met us on the other riverbank and lashed our waders to his empty pack frame.  The hardest part of the trip was climbing the 200 foot bluff on the elk trail that climbed it. It climbed steeply and at the worst part, the sensation experienced with each step was similar to what one experiences at the final of ten repetitions when lifting weights at the maximum weight.


Once again, we were walking by headlamp and I was grateful we’d avoided having to make another trip in the same or another day. John's cow


The coyotes having eaten some of Jeff’s meat were a blessing for me, because Jeff was able to carry the remaining two bags of my meat within his pack. His pack must have been 90 to 100 lbs or more.  I could only lift it with considerable effort to help him shoulder it at the riverbanks.


Dick pulled the cart while it carried my meat heavy pack frame and the wader packed frame as well as another small pack of meat.  Jeff amazingly elected to carry his heavy pack all the way out to the vehicles.


We made it to the trucks in the heavy rain and unloaded the meat from the pack frames into coolers. We folded and loaded the cart into the bed of the truck. We exchanged business cards and telephone numbers and departed for home. Dick drove much of the way. We stopped for coffee at Toutle and then at a rest stop on the way home. I drove after it got dark.


We got to my house and Dick helped me unload my truck and gear.  Hung things up to dry, gave him some frozen elk meat left over from last year and bid him adieu.


It was another successful hunt but some of the worst weather I’d ever experienced hunting. It was a long ways to pack meat and had somewhat dangerous river crossings.  It was a real adventure this year, made more difficult by the nasty weather.


But I think I’ve got it in me to do it another time, if I get drawn for the Pumice Plains master hunter elk tag again.




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