By Paul Gray, Las Vegas, N.M.
My dad was diagnosed with cancer at age 61. He fought hard but after three years of chemo, radiation and three surgeries, his oncologist told him, “Nobody survives the cancer you have. I can’t cure you. I can prolong your life, but you will spend the rest of your days in hospitals with tubes and needles stuck in you, or you can enjoy most of what’s left doing the things you like. Either way, stage four is going to be rough.” My dad looked at my mom and said, “Let’s go home.”
Earlier we had applied together for a trophy bull elk hunt in the Gila National Forest in southwest New Mexico, and for a second-choice hunt a late-December muzzleloader cow hunt. We drew the second choice. Back then it rarely filled.
Typically, in New Mexico, rifle and muzzleloader hunts last five days. My dad’s brother JD and his son Don joined us. Mom, Dad and JD hunted together while Don, my wife, Delfine, and I made up the other hunting party.
The weather started nice on the first day. We hunted near Underwood Lake on Hell Roaring Mesa. There was still snow on the north side of the trees and the turkey tracks were thick. Dad called it “Turkey Track Ridge.” We saw a few elk but had no opportunities to shoot. A cold front with blizzard conditions blew in that afternoon, so we went back to our RV park in Alpine, Ariz.
Day two was very cold and windy. The high temperature was only 20 degrees. It has snowed about 2 inches. My diesel truck barely started. Don and I braved the elements and went for a couple hunts on foot and saw one cow. Mom, Dad and JD drove back and forth on the forest road on Hell Roaring Mesa. They saw one small group running through the trees but in three different locations saw elk tracks on top of their tire tracks.
That night we regrouped to talk strategy. I asked my dad, “What’s the plan?” He said, “We’re gonna keep going up and down Turkey Track ’til I get one to stand still. I ain’t gonna catch pneumonia walking around in this cold.” The plan sounded good to me so we said we would continue to beat the bushes around Underwood Lake.
Around 7:30 the next morning, our handheld Motorola line-of-sight radio crackled. “Crrrrr, you all ... you all ... crrrrrr ... .” We asked Dad if it was him and told him to come back. Then we heard “10-4 crrrrr, turkey crrrr, down crrrrr.” We knew he got one and off we went.
Sure enough, about 3 miles south of Underwood Lake, they had a mature cow dressed out and ready to load. They needed our help with that. We spent the rest of the day taking Dad’s elk to a butcher shop in Springerville, Ariz., that processed wild game.
Driving in the next morning, Don, Del and I saw a herd of about 30 elk on Steele Flat but it was still too dark to shoot. They ran off before shooting light. We went for a long ride above Trout Creek, saw lots of sign and elk tracks (and turkey) but no elk making tracks. I asked Don, “What do you think?” He said, “Let’s go back to where we saw the big herd and see if we can follow their tracks in the snow.” Sounded good to me.
We followed the tracks northwest until we were almost in Arizona. We were on the ridge on the north side of Connor Draw where jack pines were thick as dog’s hair. Elk started standing up all around us. A cow stood up 25 yards away—game over. All I really wanted was for Dad to get one. God is good.
My dad was never what one might call a small man. In July of the following year, he died. He weighed about 130 pounds. That’s all I am going to say about that.
That year, I had applied for the same late-December cow hunt and drew a tag. Opening morning found my wife and I headed south on Turkey Track Ridge. About a mile in we saw a herd of four slipping through the trees. I put on a stalk and had one in my scope. Rats! It was a spike bull. We went a couple more miles and saw two cows. We stopped, I got out and got a rest on a big ponderosa. One elk bolted but the other one just stood there. I fired and down she went.
Walking over to the cow I said, “Do you recognize this place?” My wife replied, “Should I?” I said, “We are about 100 yards from where Dad killed his elk last year. I wish he could have been here with us.” With tears in her eyes my wife replied, “I think he was.”
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