The above photo was taken on one of the first days out on my hunt. I was on foot with Clarence and it was my first time walking back into the depths of the Little Rainbow Mountains. To say the least, I was a bit nervous. It was quite cold (even though it was a beautiful sunny day) and we were alone on the mountain. His son and wife had not yet arrived at camp by the time we struck out, and part of me was counting on the fact that they would know where we were if we got in trouble. Not that I expected to have trouble, or even really worried about my 84 year old hunting partner’s ability. Rather it was my ability–or lack of–and the thought of something happening to Clarence, that had me concerned: I wanted to know there was a ‘back-up’ in case one was needed. I know I am inexperienced and that I could make a wrong decision if push came to shove in these winter mountain conditions. Luckily nothing untoward unfolded and we had a great hunt!
The early part of the day was spent in preparation and getting to camp, and then we headed out on the trail. “This trail runs due south,” Clarence kept reminding me, “Mah dear, to get back to camp we just have to walk due north. It’s that simple, um-hum.” What Clarence never seemed to understand that–for an inexperienced greenhorn–nothing in the hunting/outdoor survival world is ‘that simple’. He is so comfortable in this world that it is beyond his comprehension that someone wouldn’t be. Without him seeing, I got my compass out and verified his statement. Then I set the dial and tried to convince myself that I felt more at ease.
Over the years of knowing him I’ve realized that he has difficulty teaching these kinds of skills. He is sometimes quite unaware of the depth of his knowledge, and thus can’t seem to separate what should be highlighted because of its importance, sometimes even when I ask. For example, today while we were traveling along the trail I asked how he knew how to find his way. “Well it’s flagged,” he said matter-of-factly as if the answer was obvious.
As I stood there looking perplexed a look of bewilderment crossed his face then his chin jutted out in front of him nodding towards some trees ahead of us. My eyes followed his chin and looked for trees wrapped with ‘flagging tape’ but saw none. If I was going to get a clear answer from him I had to press further, “I don’t know what you mean.” He walked towards a tree and pointed at a yellow mark made from the tree’s own sap, “My sons and I made these marks nearly 40 years ago with an axe.” The trees then produce the yellow sap to heal the scar which becomes the ‘flag’. That, is what I needed to know.
Once I had these two crucial bits of knowledge the going was easy and I soon lost some of my nervousness and began to really enjoy myself. However, it did not last long. Minutes into our hunt we cut some fresh tracks; ones that made me glad to be carrying a big gun. I was out in front so I saw them first. My mind filtered through all that Clarence had taught me about tracks last year and ruled out most critters. I was just working my way round to the realization that it was not a wolf, when Clarence caught up to me and looked down at the tracks.
“Oh my aching back,” his eyes widened with delight as he surveyed the scene, “that’s a cougar track. Wow… it’s fresh and it’s a big one.” Oh good. Cuz that’s what I wanna hear… I looked due south along the nice little ‘moose hunting’ trail that I had–until that moment–felt relatively safe on. Then I looked due east towards the cougar tracks and felt a chill run down my spine: I wanted to get as far from this spot and those tracks as I could, and fast. As my mind worked in overdrive trying to keep my emotions in check, I was only dimly aware that Clarence was verbally reconstructing the scene for me. Suddenly he said something that brought his voice to the foreground, “Well looky here mah dear… there’s three of them traveling together!”
As ridiculous as it may sound, like the Spanish Inquisition, I wasn’t expecting to see cougar tracks, let alone three sets of cougars all traveling together close to where I stood. I was, after all, out looking for moose. Why would there be anything else out here? “A mama and cubs?” I ventured, my mind grinding back into focus. “Noooooooo. See that track here,” he said pointing at the largest of the three sets, “That is a huge Tom print… biggest I ever saw.” In light of the fact that Clarence has hunted cougars for more than 50 years, that statement is saying something (and that something is not something I was comfortable with at that moment!). “Why would cubs be traveling with a tom?” I asked still hoping he would reconsider his analysis. “Oh, those other tracks are not cubs… nooooooo, they are also full grown cougars… probably all toms.”
They had come from the west and were headed due east when they cut our north-south trail in two. As if this wasn’t enough to put a chill in my bones, Clarence had declared the tracks only minutes old. He showed me how they had been walking slowly on the west side of the trail, how they had all stopped in their tracks right on our trail, and how they had taken off on the run to the east: “Hey mah-dear… Why they were probably looking at us!”
It was not easy to get Clarence re-focused on the task at hand. In his world cougar trumps moose every time. It was in the midst of yet another one of his ‘I-wish-I-had-my-hounds and do-you-wanna-track-em’ reveries that I thought of another use for the parachute cord in my possibles bag: a Clarence Hall lasso.
As I watched him drift east talking more excitedly with each step, I wasn’t sure how else to get him back on track and headed due south again. It took some time but eventually I more or less got him re-focused, but it certainly wasn’t the end of his ruminations. The last thing he said to me before falling asleep was, “I wish we’d tracked those cougars today. You know, in hindsight.”