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"Are you sure you want to do this?" Barbara, my wife, said, glancing nervously toward the end of the Jeep trail. From there the headlights of our vehicle illuminated a single track, which crossed a stream and disappeared into some willows. "What if you get lost?"
"I'll make camp," I said as she helped me put on the heavy pack. Hiking on a moonless night seemed foolhardy, yet it was necessary, which was indication enough that this elk hunt had already been characterized by bad luck. My plan had been to start hiking much earlier in the day, at 3 p.m., with Richard and Jack (as I shall call them), but I'd missed the morning flight from San Francisco, where I'd been to a wedding, to Boise. Richard and Jack had waited until dusk, then left exact directions with Barbara and started up to camp. Now, at 8 p.m., I had to hike up a dark, unfamiliar canyon toward a spike camp I'd never seen.
Richard had said it was a 2½-hour hike in. I switched off my flashlight to conserve the batteries, let my eyes adjust to the dark and began working my way uphill.
I had tried for eight years to draw a permit. Typically it was a bulls-only hunt limited to less than 75 tags. Those lucky enough to have their names drawn for a permit always regarded it as the equivalent of winning big in keno or roulette—undeserved, capricious good fortune—so when mine appeared in the mailbox, I was elated.
Because I wasn't wearing a watch, I didn't know how long I'd been hiking. It might have been an hour since the trail forked through waist-high rye grass onto a shale slide. I had used the flashlight sporadically at first and constantly later, and now its weak beam cast a dim orange light on the faint trail. Just when I decided it was foolish to go any farther in search of my friends, a light flickered beneath a large spruce to my left. Camp.
I had known Richard for eight years—since my first winter in Ketchum, Idaho—and I still couldn't separate his reputation from reality. He was tall, blond, blue-eyed and had built a life-style around living dangerously. Even in Ketchum, a ski resort town where taking risks is the rule rather than the exception, Richard was in a class by himself.
We'd met when he was my upstairs neighbor in a condominium complex within skiing distance of the River Run lifts. One night Richard threw a party, and the noise was deafening. Full of self-righteous indignation, I marched up to complain. What followed, of course, was the comedy cliché in which the angry neighbor emerges two days later wearing a lampshade on his head.
Since then we had fished, skied and hunted together, and if we weren't best friends, we were certainly very good ones—members of a close group that had postponed career and children to enjoy winters skiing in a first-class resort. I was looking forward to this hunt for the companionship it offered nearly as much as for the stalk and shot.
"How'd you find us?" Richard whispered as he helped me off with my pack and put a cup of hot soup in my hand.
"Blind dumb luck and perfect directions," I said, glancing at the two pitched tents. Richard had already hunted alone with a bow for two weeks out of this camp. Hunting elk with a rifle on foot is difficult enough—with a bow it's nearly impossible. Elk are smart and wary and have excellent eyesight, hearing and smell. To approach within effective bow range requires an extraordinary degree of patience and skill as well as a great deal of luck. If Richard had the first two in abundance, he came up short on the last. In two weeks he hadn't gotten a shot. He'd eventually hiked out, picked up Jack and gone back in to try again. As I sipped the soup, I listened to his story. His frustration was obvious.