November 04, 2010
Never judge the spirit of a bowhunter by the number of elk he has killed.
Yes, I'm posing with the Spirit Bull, but I have to thank Bill Poggi for this one.
Bill Poggi was a member of the San Francisco Archers. We met shortly after he started shooting a bow. Already in his 50's, he was not a young man when he decided to take up bowhunting, although he was not new to hunting. His well-used .270, the stories he told, and the photos and racks in his garage testified to decades of successful hunting in the mountains of California and Nevada. But he was a novice bowhunter.
From the beginning, shooting a bow with Bill was like witnessing a train wreck. His gear was mismatched or jury-rigged, with the bow riser from one company, limbs from another, and a stabilizer made in someone's garage. With Bill's gear, you were as likely to see duct tape and bungee cords as cables and string.
A mechanic for many years, Bill was always changing or fixing stuff, and sometimes it even worked. And his first archery instructor must have been an English shotgun maker.
Bill would step up to the line and shoot one over, one under; one left, one right. Every now and then, an arrow would fly true and hit the spot. Bill would turn with a gleam in his eye and a smile on his face. Amazed, we would shake our heads and chalk it up to divine intervention.
As our friendship grew, we decided it was time to chase elk in the high country of Colorado, and three of us set up camp at Three Point Mountain near Meeker. We chased elk over the mountain, across Sleepy Cat, and down Coal Creek. As the mountain and weather took their toll, the other guys decided to stay in camp one day.
Still, I forced myself out of bed that morning and hunted alone all day. After dark I returned to camp wet, exhausted, and ready to quit. Sitting in that old canvas tent that smelled of Bill's hearty pasta sauce, fried eggs, steak, and the perfect helping of potatoes, I snapped at Bill, "Why don't you let me cook?"
Bill Poggi's camps were filled with good food, laughter, and encouragement.
He took my camo fedora off my head, placed it on his head, and said, "We all have jobs." He then explained to me that the others had jobs to do, like dishwashing and starting a fire. His job was to cook. Mine was to find us an elk.
"I can't even do that," I replied.
"You will," he said, handing me a plate of food and a glass of wine. The faith of a good friend renewed my tired body and broken spirit. Attacking my food and maps, I got to work. I had a job and would do it.
Bill had his first heart attack in 2007, and on April 9, 2008, he passed away. A friend told me that Bill was wearing his camo, and his gear was packed on the morning he died. I'm sure he had a smile on his face as he prepared for the hunt.
As the news spread, preparations began to celebrate Bill's life. The San Francisco Archery Club has a tradition called the Spirit Arrow Ceremony to celebrate the life of an archer. Spirit Arrows are made with the colors that the archer used and then launched into the air. Friends and family share many stories, laughter, tears, and good food.
Sadly, I could not attend that gathering, but a few days before the ceremony Bill's daughter Susan called me to discuss what her family thought was a strange request. And later that week Bill's wife, Lu, sent me a note and a package. She explained that Bill had saved $1,000 in a coffee can for one more hunt in Colorado. The thought of chasing elk in the high country was the hope that strengthened Bill's spirit. She wanted me to hunt for Bill -- and to take the package on my hunt.
After his death, Bill's wife, Lu, asked me for a special favor.
When the tag drawing results were posted in June, I learned that I had drawn the unit Bill and I had hoped to hunt together. Through that summer, I tried to prepare my gear, body, and spirit for the coming hunt. One thing I devoted a lot of attention to was creating a quiver full of Bill Poggi Spirit Arrows. They spun true and flew straight.
When I began hunting in late August, I had to ask myself, Am I up to the task? My heart was heavy, and my thoughts were filled with Bill. Sitting under a tree in the pouring rain one day, my mind drifted to past camps and hunts. One year, a fireside discussion on backup bows prompted the development of Bill's Bungee Bow. Bill quickly disappeared into his tent and built a bow using a four-foot stick, duct tape, and one of the many bungee cords attached to his trailer. We spent the rest of the evening refining the bungee bow and arguing over whose turn it was to shoot, while ruining numerous arrows in the process. I fell asleep as the discussion turned to the patent process.
The Soup Kitchen Elk Hunt started as a gag using one of the first commercial cow elk decoys. Bill was a good cook and kept us all well fed, and one evening, as Bill prepared dinner, we placed the headless decoy in the shadows behind the cook tent and then alerted Bill to check out the cow elk behind the tent. Bill grabbed his bow and, glimpsing the decoy, let go his first arrow, which sailed harmlessly over the decoy. His second arrow fell under. We were rolling in hysterics until we recognized a pattern emerging and jumped up to stop the inevitable arrow that would find its mark. Later Bill took great joy in playing the gag on other neophytes.
I devoted a lot of attention to creating a quiver full of Bill Poggi Spirit Arrows.
Bill's constant desire to improve elk habitat led to the Piceance Basin Waterhole Project. One morning he was long overdue back at camp. Thinking he might have an animal down, I loaded a pack at midday, and a couple of hours later I found him standing knee-deep in a waterhole he had spent the whole day building out of a seep. The Army Corps of Engineers would have envied his work. Glad to see him okay, and unable to be angry with him, I said, "You need a lifeguard?" Then the water flew and our laughter echoed through the canyon. Within a week, elk were playi
ng in the new pool.
Occasionally, despite all of our mistakes, we had had chances at elk, but they were rare, and we couldn't afford to squander opportunities. In what came to be known as the 5-inch Brow Tines Hunt, a lack of understanding of the antler-point restrictions resulted in our letting a legal bull walk away -- and my chasing Bill around the fire pit.
The Where is He? hunt evolved when Bill lost sight of an approaching bull and turned to me to ask where the bull had gone. Frantically I pointed behind him as the bull almost stepped on him.
I killed the Spirit Bull at this muddy, stinky, well-used wallow -- the kind of place Bill would love.
Shock, Awe & Why Didn't You Shoot? happened when a large 6x6 bull stopped in front of Bill on the trail. Mouth agape, Bill could barely move, and his arms became too weak to draw his bow. When asked what happened, Bill said, "I forgot I had my bow. He was too, TOOOO CLOSE!"
The Don't Push Bear was the highlight of our last hunt together. Leading Bill uphill toward a wallow I'd selected for his evening hunt, I spotted a cow elk. "Do you want to shoot a cow?" I asked quietly. Bill replied by placing an arrow on the string and preparing for the shot. As she stood at 20 yards, I thought Bill was going to get his first elk. But suddenly she ran toward us, passing so close she nearly knocked us down.
Before we could even question what had spooked her, a black bear came running down the trail. The bear slammed to a stop at 22 feet, and before I could yell, the bear suddenly got closer. Confused, I wondered how she had done that without moving, but then I felt pressure in the small of my back. Less than calmly, I whispered, "Bill, don't push! Back up!" Afterward, Bill denied trying to sacrifice me to the bear. And we never were able to close the deal on Bill's first elk.
A buzzing in my pack brought me back to the moment that August day as I sat under a tree in the pouring rain. Wiping a tear from my face, I saw a text message from my wife: "Keep talking to Bill. He can hear you." It was a timely reminder to get back to my job.
Moving through dark timber, I discovered a muddy, stinky, well-used wallow -- just the kind of place Bill would love. Glancing uphill, I spotted a bit of tan, 40 yards away. The 6x6 bull was heading toward the wallow. I stood hidden, and as he approached, I drew and released a Bill Poggi Spirit Arrow. A few seconds later, the bull's head came to rest at the base of a tree. With a gleam in my eye and a smile on my face, I said, "Thanks, Bill." I'd like to think I made the shot, but I suspect divine intervention had a lot to do with it.
Now it was time for me to honor Lu and Susan's request. Through my tears, I pulled the old camo fedora and the little package from my pack. Saying a prayer, I stuck a Bill Poggi Spirit Arrow in the ground, left the hat hanging in the tree, and spread Bill's ashes where the elk bugle.
If you come across this site, know that you are in the presence of a successful elk hunter. His camps were filled with good friends, warm fires, tasty wine, excellent meals, and much laughter.
Bill, we closed the deal. Save a place by the campfire for me. May the wind be in your face...
The author and his wife make their home in Grand Junction, Colorado.