Keeping the Faith

Keeping the Faith

"All the difficulties and frustrations of the past 31⁄2 months had suddenly evaporated into the clear mountain air..."

Hunting and shooting skills played a part in my taking this beautiful Colorado 5-point bull, but faith and determination were the real keys.

YOU WOULD NOT THINK that hitting a simple pop fly during a church league softball game would have a major impact on anyone's life. Yet there I was, lying face-down in the dirt between home plate and first base, writhing in pain from a torn Achilles tendon.

It was June 3, and just that morning, in preparation for an early fall Colorado elk hunt with my son-in-law Matt, I had slipped into my hunting boots, donned my backpack, and scrambled to the top of Dinosaur Hill, a steep rocky ridge jutting up out of the center of Rapid City, South Dakota, just a few blocks from my home. I figured that climbing that ridge several times a week throughout the summer, coupled with regular running and working out on my weight bench, would get me in top condition for my hunt -- at least as far as my 55-year-old body was concerned.

Now, however, as I lay there on the dusty baseline, gritting my teeth in agony, my grandiose conditioning program had suddenly evaporated into thin air, only to be replaced with a long, tremendously frustrating rehabilitation program. Unfor-tunately, this situation was not uncharted territory for me. I had torn my other Achilles tendon six years earlier in a farm accident. I knew exactly what misery lay ahead.

First on the agenda -- surgery to reconnect the frazzled ends of the severed tendon. Next would follow at least a month in a hard cast (on crutches), followed by two months in a walking cast (still on crutches) as I gradually worked my way into putting full weight back onto the ankle. Then would begin the slow, tedious process of weaning myself from the crutches and building my calf and other leg muscles back up to some semblance of normalcy.

Even if I stuck to the prescribed recovery schedule, it would be the end of August before I would be able to walk without crutches, much less climb a mountain or pack out an elk. My elk hunt was scheduled for September 12. It was a long shot, but I refused to let myself think, even once, that it wasn't going to happen. If I couldn't go on that elk hunt, it wasn't going to be for my lack of trying.

THE DAY AFTER the incident, I underwent surgery, and 24 hours later, I was sitting at home trying to figure out how to improve my rather bleak situation. What I thought had been my rather innocent inquiry into an accelerated recovery schedule brought only a stony glare from my doctor. He then bluntly informed me that tendon tissue heals slowly and that rushing the process was to risk re-injury and a much longer rehabilitation. He offered no sympathy and, obviously, no adjustment in the schedule. I was stuck with it.

At that point, it would have been easy simply to give up and spend the summer moping around the house feeling sorry for myself. However, an elk hunt -- especially one with a family member -- is powerful incentive.

Two days after surgery, I struggled out into the backyard with my bow clamped tightly against one of my crutches and sprawled on a tiny folding stool with my cast leg jutting out at an awkward angle. Then I began to practice. Retrieving arrows was a big problem since it took much time and effort to get to the target and back. Sometimes I could get my wife, Marcie, or our daughter to retrieve arrows for me. But most times I had to be content to shoot only a few arrows, knowing I was at least doing something to prepare for my hunt.

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As you might guess, it was an interminably long, hot, frustrating summer that sorely tested my resolve, but through faith and determination I managed to persist with my exercise and practice sessions.

When August finally arrived, my doctor gave me the go-ahead to slowly put aside my crutches. I was ecstatic! My elk hunt was edging closer to reality, and now, more than ever, I wanted to push myself. It took every ounce of my willpower to maintain a disciplined routine. Even a small re-injury of the repaired tendon would not only trash my elk hunt but likely would prevent hunting of any sort for the entire year. So I doggedly went through my daily routine of stretching, walking, and shooting -- all seasoned with fervent prayers for patience.

The final stages of my rehab went extremely well. When September came, I still had a severe limp, and my ankle swelled to painful proportions at the end of each day. Didn't matter -- I was going elk hunting. Sure, I would be slow, and packing out an elk was out of the question, but I could already hear the elk bugling in the Rockies, and nothing was going to dampen my enthusiasm.

To celebrate my great progress, Marcie and I decided to take a Labor Day camping trip. The second day into the trip, our celebration came to an abrupt halt when I awoke early in the morning with the world swirling uncontrollably before me. I closed my eyes in an attempt to make the dizziness subside, but it didn't. It got worse. The dizziness, accompanied by nausea, lasted the entire day and all of the next. On the third day, desperate for relief, I headed to the doctor for his assessment of this latest malady.

Labrinthitis was the diagnosis -- an inner ear inflammation that occurs inexplicably but usually disappears in a few days. My problem was I had only a few days before my elk hunt, and now I was not only crippled but also dizzy and nauseated. Fortun-ately, prescription medication took care of most of the problem, but I certainly was not a picture of health and definitely not the ultimate predator I had envisioned at the start of the summer. However, lamenting my condition was not going to change anything, so I dutifully dropped back into my well-worn daily routine of walking and shooting.

SEPTEMBER 12, DEPARTURE DAY, finally arrived. I, along with two other members of our hunting party, pulled into our hunting spot at sunrise and set up camp just as Matt arrived. Amazingly, everything had fallen into place, and I had made it -- elk country! It was all here -- snow-covered mountains, white-barked aspens with brilliant yellow leaves shimmering like gold against the deep green spruce, fresh elk rubs as thick as my arm, musky wallows hidden in places that only the elk and a few lucky hunters knew, and big bull elk just waiting to respond to my alluring bugles and cow calls.

On our first hunt late that afternoon, an eager bull responded to our bugles with two hoarse, raspy squeals. Forty-five minutes later, he crashed away like a train after sneaking to within 40 yards and busting us, leaving me without even a glimpse of him. Despite the excitement of having a bull respond, I was disappointed and vowed that tomo

rrow I would turn my predator mode up a notch and watch and listen more carefully. I would be ready when that next bull showed up.

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Two days after surgery on my ankle, I headed to the backyard to practice with my bow. I had to do something to stay focused on elk hunting.

However, fate held far less stellar plans. That night the labrinthitis I thought had disappeared re-attacked with such a vengeance that the dizziness nearly spilled me out of my sleeping bag. By sunrise, I was nothing short of miserable and barely managed to get dressed between periods of nausea. Despite well-intentioned suggestions that I stay in camp and recover, I insisted on hunting. Staying in camp certainly wouldn't put an arrow in an elk, and I eventually staggered off into the woods, trailing behind Matt with the goal of simply surviving until nightfall.

The woods and fresh mountain air helped a bit and even gave me a hint of optimism. Although slow and weak, I persevered, limping along throughout the day, resting all too frequently and struggling to maintain focus. At least I was in the elk woods.

Days three and four were ugly repeats of day two. With miserable, swirling dizziness all night, getting on my feet and functioning each morning required major effort. I refused to give in to the obvious and continued to remind myself that I was in elk country, surrounded by great hunting companions who enjoyed the wonders of elk and the hunt as much as I did. I wasn't suffering -- I was blessed!

Early in the afternoon of the fourth day, blizzard-like conditions and plummeting temperatures sent us all scuttling back to camp to sit out the storm. We passed the time thawing out the water lines in the camper and clearing snow from in front of the door. The storm dropped nearly seven inches of snow but was short-lived and let up just before sundown.

THE NEXT MORNING the thermometer registered a frigid 18 degrees. To my great relief, the dizziness had subsided during the night, and I felt amazingly healthy as Matt and I made our way up to a distant ridgetop where we thought we had heard a bull bugle the night before.

We had barely settled in and hadn't even sent our first bugle into the woods when we heard the bull screaming a challenge out of the darkness some 400 yards away. With coming daylight, we threw insults and invitations at that bull for 45 minutes, but he would not move our way. It was a solid bet he had a harem of cows. This bull had important business to attend to that did not involve the likes of us.

As Matt and I discussed a new strategy to entice the bull, a second bull sounded off a quarter-mile away and began approaching the bull on the ridge. Immediately, we picked up our gear, hustled forward about 100 yards, and began cow-calling again, hoping to pressure one of the bulls into making a play for the amorous cow we were imitating.

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We waited only moments before the second bull screamed a challenge from less than 100 yards away. I answered quickly with two muted, seductive cow calls, and in less than 15 seconds, a solid 5-point bull ghosted through the woods a scant 20 yards away. I came to full draw and settled the yellow dot of my sight pin on the bull's rib cage as he moved through the brush and stopped six yards from me. I use the term "settled" loosely, because even though that bull's rib cage was the size of a bushel basket, my sight pin was dancing all over it in concert to my trembling arms and hammering heart.

As I triggered my release, the bull collapsed in his tracks. The broadhead had sliced cleanly through the elk's shoulder blade and penetrated the spine, bringing him down less than 20 feet from where I was kneeling.

I sat quietly beside the bull for only a minute or two before moving off a short distance to a spot where Matt could see me. Although he didn't see what had happened, he certainly heard the ruckus coming from my direction, and I could tell from his inquiring posture that he was aching to know what had just transpired.

A simple wave of my hand brought him over on the run, and he was incredulous when I pointed at the bull lying so close by. We laughed, we danced, we hugged, and then we laughed some more. We were so breathless and excited about what had just happened we could barely talk. I had actually done it. All the difficulties and frustrations of the past 31⁄2 months had suddenly evaporated into the clear mountain air, and at that moment, I wanted for nothing. I had hunted elk, and I was blessed.

The author is an avid bowhunter from Rapid City, South Dakota, who works for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation as a land program manager.

Author's Notes: For this hunt, I used a PSE Laser bow set at 63 lbs. with a Cobra Sidewinder sight and 55/70 Cabela's Stalker Extreme arrows tipped with three-blade, 100-grain Muzzy broadheads. I carried Pentax 10x50 binoculars and used a Primos Terminator bugle and a single reed Mini Sonic Dome diaphragm call.

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