I hunted out the rest of the safari with another hunter, Sten. Born in Sweden 67 years earlier, he had for his life’s resume one much more audacious and far-flung than the progressively drearier regimentation of this century seemed to allow: officer in the neutral Swedish Army during World War II; gaucho in South America; merchant seaman; Green Beret in the U.S. Army during the Korean War; game catcher; hired to work on the filming of Hatari!; and a professional hunting career in Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. He had been tossed by a buffalo and rhino, been shot at by armed men, could still walk down an elephant, and his greatest joy was rowing out into the Indian Ocean off Malindi in Kenya and fishing for big fish. I asked him how he could have ever devised such a fanciful life.
“I read too many books,” he answered quietly, staring off into the gusu, his well used 458 laid across his shoulder.
Thomas McIntyre – Augusts in Africa
“We’ll meet you back at the road around dark. We’re going to drive up to the end to sit and watch a cut block till sunset.”
“Ok pops,” I said as I grabbed my rifle from its case and picked up my pack from the seat beside me.
We were hunting a ridge at the foot of the Rockies during the early part of the deer season at the beginning of November. The area held good numbers of both muleys and whitetails and if you knew where to hunt you could walk for miles along the ridge above the creek through a series of old cut blocks, trails and batches of mature timber and never see the same piece of ground twice during the same hike. It was perfect deer country and to most who drove by, it was invisible.
A fresh blanket of snow had been falling throughout the higher elevations all afternoon. There was a solid inch or two on the ground, which wasn’t a lot but it was enough. In fact, it was perfect. A couple inches of snow is easy to move through and when it’s fresh it can tell you a lot about what has happened throughout the day.
As the truck pulled away and the sound of the engine and tires on frozen gravel faded I pulled on my day pack and loaded my rifle; a beautiful little custom 6.5×55 Swede built on a 98 Mauser action with a hand made French walnut stock. I loved that little piece of iron. Over the years I lost track of how many rounds I put through it. It was probably over a thousand, a good amount for a sporting gun.
Unfortunately, for such a beautiful rifle the bore was always rough. The old girl shot well enough to start. With my hand loads, it would hold ‘minute of angle’ all day long out to three hundred yards. But the barrel was an old military piece, not native to the action itself, and although it had been polished and beautifully blued it was nearing the final stages of its life.
Towards the end, the groups began to open up and there was nothing I could do to fix the problem. It would require a new barrel. So I shelved it and started working on another project; a 257 Roberts Ackley improved on a Husqvarna action. I wrote an article on the process of building a custom rifle for one of Canada’s leading outdoor magazines at the time and featured this rifle, then sold it a year later. It would dump ten rounds consecutively into a one-inch group at 100 yards. It had a fiberglass stock and a new custom barrel from a now retired barrel builder and was one of the most consistently accurate pieces I have ever owned. I don’t miss it one bit.
But I pine for that damn Swede.
It was the nicest handling, most well balanced and prettiest rifle I have ever owned. I shouldn’t have sold it. I guess at the moment I was too young to know that I am an anachronism, a throwback to another time. People like me should know better than to get rid of old things that work well just because a piece or a part has worn out. I could have replaced the barrel, but the stock was inletted by hand to perfectly fit the one it came with. I guess I just couldn’t bring myself to mess with that beautiful piece of walnut. But still.
I’ll always remember the last time I hunted with it. I followed the trail I always followed, through an aging cut block filled with young pine, just tall enough and thick enough to obscure the game that crisscrossed its path.
As I headed north and downward towards a younger block hidden by mature timber and tucked away, neatly, five hundred feet above the creek below, I crossed a set of grizzly tracks in the snow coming up from the bottom of the canyon. He had come straight up the middle of the trail towards me, leaving a spot of blood in his front right track with every step until suddenly he veered west, into the young pine that surrounded us.
It occurred to me that he had caught my scent or heard me coming and turned off the trail, the blood in his track still fresh and busy freezing in the snow.
I stopped and listened for a bit then put a round in the chamber of the Swede and clicked the wing safety on the shroud to the up position and continued my journey north. Step by step I traced the bear’s tracks back through a stretch of mature timber and eventually into the cut block below. He’d come from the creek, straight through the slash so I paused and looked through my binoculars at the treeline on the other side to see if he was alone. Nothing. So I turned east and followed a mess of deer tracks along the old trail, tracing the natural contour of the creek beneath me as I went.
With my muley tag already cut, it was whitetails or nothing so I’d walk a few steps, then glass patiently, then walk a few more steps and glass some more. The trail followed the edge of the escarpment for miles and went in and out of gullies, through more mature timber, spruce swamp, and cut blocks.
When I got to a particular spot on the trail I turned back south and made my way into the slash, shadowing a draw that often held deer. As I gained a little elevation I pulled up a stump and waited. A few moments later I could see a small group of mule deer come out of the mature timber above the canyon and head into the draw that ran past where I was sitting.
For fun I unloaded my rifle, left the stump and crept to the edge of the shallow ravine and skulked along its rim, making my way north once more towards the creek. As I rounded a little bend and a patch of willows the small group of deer, about three or four, lead by a handsome, mature typical four point buck, rounded the corner coming straight past me on my flank. At thirty feet I put the crosshairs on the buck’s chest as he trotted up the gully in front of his ladies, and whispered “bang”.
Sensing something wasn’t right, and not being able to smell me, the buck broke from the cover of the draw, taking his does with him and headed back up into the wide open of the cut block.
I smiled and watched them stot off over a hill to the east until they were no longer visible.
Satisfied it had been a successful but somewhat anti-climatic stalk, I took a quick peak at my watch and realized that what had seemed like a series of short moments had in fact been hours. So I shouldered my rifle and made my way back to the trail and began the long walk back out to the road in the fading light.
As I met the bear’s tracks once more I turned and followed them south and uphill back towards the spot where I would meet the others. Through the cut block and the mature timber, where the old man had shot a nice four by four whitetail the fall before, I climbed. As I cleared the timber and rounded a bend I could see my dad on the trail less than a hundred yards ahead. I waved, and he waved back with both arms.
As we closed the distance between us I could tell something was wrong.
“Are you ok,” he asked as we came within speaking distance?
I was puzzled, it was getting late, but not completely dark, and I was a grown man, not a boy.
“Ya, I’m fine, why? What happened?”
“Nothing, I thought I would come a bit early and walk in to see if I could meet up with you. I didn’t think you would make the whole loop because of the time of day so I followed your tracks in figuring you’d backtrack when I found those grizzly prints with the blood in them. I guess I assumed the worst.”
“Well, I appreciate that but I suppose they didn’t worry me much so I just kept going.”
I grinned at his concern, shrugged and the two of us made our way back to the Preacher and the warmth of the running pickup. All in all, it had been a good evening, the bear went his way, I went mine and I spent my last day in the field with an old friend whose company I sometimes miss.
As I get older and reflect on it I realize that like many of you who read here I have always been a throwback. I’m not out of time, yet, but have always been out of the time I’m in, preferring the company of old rifles, old men, books filled with slightly taller tales, and a world, although smaller than it once was, that is still big enough to get lost in. As such I’ve never worried much about lions and tigers and bears (Oh My!), preferring to lose more sleep over old rifles that don’t shoot so well anymore but that look pretty and handle like a finely crafted musical instrument.
And while I would hesitate to say that I dwell in the past it occurs to me as I read and write that while some people are busy tearing down monuments to our history that at least some of us are busy building them; I suppose each in our own, personal and anachronistic way.