I boarded the Beechcraft 1900 with some level of trepidation. I fly a lot in my career, but never in a plane so small. Another first for my aviation experiences was when Air Canada removed one of the passengers and re-routed them to another flight for “weight and balance precautions”. I was glad I hadn’t had that chocolate chip cookie with my lunch.
I was tucked into seat 1A, meaning that I was directly behind the pilot; I could see every instrument and dial, and his view out the front windscreen was the same as my view out the front windscreen. The plane rose sharply off the tarmac in Calgary, where I had just completed an hour’s layover. We broke into a cloudy sky and bore slightly to the south west. I was headed for Cranbrook (YCR for all you airport code junkies out there) where my childhood friend Chris Bosman was waiting to pick me up and guide me around on a four day mountain hunting trip for Merriam’s turkeys.
Forty five minutes later, we broke out below the clouds and I watched our descent from the second-best seat in the plane. Within ten minutes of landing, my shotgun and suitcase came along the luggage conveyor and we bundled all the gear into Chris’s truck before scampering down a rainy highway towards his house.
After unpacking and scarfing back a short lunch, we headed for one of several Crown land areas near Jaffray, BC. These expanses of wilderness ranged between approximately 3600 and 5000 feet in elevation, and they redefined the meaning of the word ‘rugged’ for this flatland-dwelling, lifelong Ontarian.
Having only about four hours to hunt on that first afternoon, our first stop was a large block of woodland adjacent to a privately owned ranch, with the plan being to prospect along through the field edges and game trails (of which I would see hundreds in that four day trip) in the hopes of triggering a response from a turkey. Although we saw fifteen deer and a pile of elk, turkey sign, and notably any turkey calls, were lacking. I was jet-lagged from my all-day series of flights and layovers, and by the time the sun was setting I was leg-weary from the winding climbs and descents of this landscape that I had never before encountered. But the views and the abundance of game had me exhilarated and after a quick dinner I hit the hay.
4:30 in the morning came a lot faster than I had anticipated, but I was keyed up to hit an area that, on Google Earth at least, looked promising. It was in area of Crown land about forty-five minutes from the our home base that housed a series of lakes and uplands, with some sustained climbs overlooking clearings that would be ideal for glassing and cold calling. This was the area that Chris had seen the most turkey sign in during his pre-trip scouting, so we got in in the dawn to make a setup with two Avian-X hens. Another parked truck greeted us on the drive in, but we pulled off a different road and headed upwards, unfortunately spooking several white-tailed deer as we went along quietly. On a sidebar, I have never in my whole life seen as many white-tailed deer as I saw on that four day trip. Once we were set up in the fairly open understory, we started calling.
After twenty minutes, I heard movement behind me to my left, and turning my head ever so slightly that way I was surprised to see five or six whitetails cautiously feeding their way into our decoy set up. Eventually one got into our scent column and the group bolted but it was exhilarating to have that much wild game in such close proximity. After another forty minutes or so, we packed up the decoys and made towards a valley field. In that area we found our first set of promising sign in the form of turkey droppings, a few tracks, and a dusting area. We headed up a hill and stopped for a morning snack; I laid back and drank in the mountain scenery, spring sunshine, and cool mountain breezes. This trip was a much needed respite in a period of pressure and career stress. Although the climb had tightened my legs and lower back, my shoulders and soul were loosened by the quiet skies and craggy grandeur of the area.
When we resumed the climb, we headed up and made for a high ridge that was overlooking a series of small lakes and swampy areas. We set up again at 10:00am, and just as I sat down (and without any prompting from my turkey calls) a gobbler sounded off in the valley below us. We sat down quietly and I started working my slate call, hoping to draw the bird uphill. Chris heard him once more behind us, but still down in the valley. Eventually the bird moved off and we were left to ponder what happened. But some days turkey hunting is just like that.
We moved down off the rocky bench and into the bottom from which we had recently heard the bird, cautiously moving along in utter silence. As he passed under a fir tree, Chris’s pack caught on a dead branch and it broke off with a loud snap. Immediately to my left and at less than twenty yards, a head popped up unexpectedly, but it was not the head of any game animal, but rather the unmasked head of another hunter. He gestured a greeting as Chris and I walked over to have a brief chat with him. He was there from Alberta and he was with a local friend of his and they were out after turkeys with their compound bows. They had not heard the gobbling that we had, but they had only been on the spot for forty minutes, and they admitted that most of those forty minutes were spent having a late-morning nap. As it turns out, these were the only other hunters we would encounter in the four days we hunted.
I want to raise a couple of points now. First off, I was secretly pleased with how slowly and quietly we were moving through the bush, as anyone who knows me as a hunter is probably aware that silent stalking is not always my strong suit. But that we were unwittingly able to stalk up on two other hunters (albeit sleepy ones) gave me some satisfaction. Secondly, I’d like to point out that we were hunting in the literally hundreds of thousands of acres of Crown land in the area. That we ran into any other hunters is coincidence enough, that the local friend of the Alberta hunter was a known acquaintance (a fella named Aidan, I believe) of my guide/friend is even more unbelievable. Talk about a small world.
After a ten minute chat with our fellow hunters, we said our ‘good luck’ farewells before Chris and I continued up into an even higher region, with the plan being to eat lunch and glass some ridgelines, before dropping down onto another series of small lakes and ponds. Mother Nature, though, had other ideas. As we ate our packed lunches, the breeze took a distinctly frosty turn and whipped up into a low howl. Looking northeast, we could see dirty weather coming over a snow-capped ridge top, and in a matter of seconds, pea-sized hail began to ping off my hat and sting my ungloved hands. I slipped my heavier jacket on and tucked my face down in my chest, while more ice pellets strafed the back of my neck and slipped down the back of my shirt, finding their final resting place in the crack of my behind. Chris pulled on a windbreaker and threw a warm hooded sweater over that. With no sign of the precipitation letting up, we shared a knowing glance and made for the truck. On the way out the hail subsided, and as we kicked up another dozen deer or so and found a few more turkey tracks in the roadway we thought perhaps we were vacating the situation too early. However, we got into the truck just moments before the rain showed up and started teeming down in waves of wind-driven misery.
Back at the home I caught a much needed hot shower and fell into bed for what I thought was going to be a short siesta. Almost three hours later, I came to. Feeling awful for sleeping the afternoon away, I was relieved to hear that the rain had not let up and that the afternoon was essentially rained out. Sunshine was the order of the day for the rest of the trip, so over a venison dinner (and with a few local brews thrown in for fun) Chris and I surmised a plan to hunt a new area the next morning on a property owned by Chris’s former employer, The Nature Trust of British Columbia. A pine and aspen forest on an upland bench overlooking a floodplain was the dominant feature of the area, but it was not until the next morning that I would find out how dominant it was.
We chatted about family and life for a while before I shuffled off to bed, not frustrated, but not as blindly optimistic as I had been before the trip. One lesson had been taught in those first two days, and that was that my lifetime of languid hunting in the simple fields and gently rolling woodlands of southern Ontario had made me woefully unprepared in environmental, physical and tactical terms, for the rigors of a DIY public land hunt in the Purcell Mountain range. My unhealthy relationship with barbecue and whiskey probably wasn’t helping things either. One fact was certain though and that was that things were going to get harder before they were going to get easier. With sunny weather forecast for Sunday and Monday, our plan was to stay out and hunt all of both remaining days. My legs were already complaining at this rigorous climbing and hiking over varied terrain, and Chris was quite blunt that there was going to be a lot more effort to come in the next few days.
I was scared and exhilarated simultaneously and as I drifted off to sleep, I pictured the various scenarios that could play out in the remaining two days. Even in my dreams though, I could not have predicted the events of the Sunday and Monday hunts.