…I also left with the impression that I still had toilet paper in my pack.
This was how I had to explain my attire to my wife when I came out of the woods that morning. The fitting end to a weekend of scouting where everything that could go wrong seemed to go wrong.
Two weeks and counting until opening day of archery elk season in AZ. By the grace of God and some sort of statistical anomaly, a couple family members and I had drawn a coveted bull tag in a great unit two years in a row. After all four of us getting skunked the year prior, we were more than motivated to put in the leg work and get some meat in the freezer this year.
My father in law and I left early one morning with the intention of picking out a new spot to hang his tree stand, and then we would check a trail cam I had out there on the way back. Not 300 yards into our hike I realized I had left the keys to my cam's bear box back at the cabin, and it would be another 45 minutes round trip to drive back for them. After a quick cost-benefit analysis, I decided it was absolutely not worth it and I could come back out the next morning to check the cam.
We arrived in the general area my father in law had picked out as a good spot to hang his stand a little before 10am, and began looking for the perfect tree with the perfect shooting lanes. After spooking a half dozen cow elk out of their beds moving towards a clearing, we decided that would be a great location. I began cutting limbs with the pole saw I had carried out there, while he began harnessing up and getting his stand unpacked. He worked his way up the tree, and I began clearing shooting lanes for him while he directed from his perch.
I finally cut the last obstructing limb, and began heading to my pack for some water - feeling the effects of the elevation and heat. That’s when I noticed my father in law leaning his head on the bar of his tree stand, and not at all looking well. He said he was feeling a bit light-headed, and clearly looked in distress. Instantly, my mind assessed just how far up a creek we were in this situation. We were three miles from the nearest road in an area with no trails and terrain that wouldn't even allow a UTV to get to us. This man is 6’ 3” and outweighs me by quite a bit, so I’m not carrying him out. And should he actually black out, he would be harnessed into a tree 10 feet in the air, and how in the name of the lumberjack games am I supposed to get him down?! (I'm sure he would like it noted that he adamantly claims he was merely dehydrated and experiencing some digestive distress and was never in any real danger. There...official disclaimer accomplished.)
Slowly and cautiously, he was able to make his way down the tree. We got him sitting in the shade, drinking some water, and my initial fears of heart attack or something truly catastrophic began to subside. I convinced this proud and rugged man to let me stuff his pack into mine, and we rigged his lightweight frame to have only his hydration bladder on it so he could focus on drinking water the whole way out (and not dying, of course). It took us almost three hours to go three miles – taking plenty of breaks in the shade – but we made it back, and I was so happy to throw off that double-pack I was carrying.
Side note: these are the moments where the physical training side of hunting comes into play. While I may not be strong enough to carry a man of that stature out of the woods, carrying double packs was almost a breeze. Even in those moments where my shoulders started to burn and my breathing got heavier, I could mentally remind myself that it was nothing compared to a 300 lb. barbell squat. The week-in, week-out grinding through strength training gives you a deep well of mental grit to draw from when you’re stuck in the woods and the only way out is to just power through it.
Now, back to the toilet paper situation: After the disaster that became the scouting trip the day before, I decided to duck into the woods very early the next morning just to check my cam. It was my middle son’s birthday, so I knew I needed to be back at the cabin before he woke up so I could greet him on his big day. I hiked out in the dark the 1.4 miles to my trail cam, planning on a simple morning: hike in, check cam, hike out, be father of the year. Simple. Well, just as I arrived at my cam and dumped my pack to begin checking the card, I realized that a storm of sorts was brewing down south. It was becoming clear in a hurry that a bathroom break was going to be in order.
As I opened the pocket of my pack where the first aid and bathroom supplies normally reside, I was horrified to see the empty TP roll I had stuffed back in there on my scouting trip last week. How could I have forgotten I had used the last of it and not replenished my supply?! My body clearly did not care what sort of supply shortcoming I was dealing with, and it was becoming clear that I was not going to have a choice as to when and where this happened if I didn’t take swift action. I looked at the T-shirt I was wearing, noticed how soft and comfortable those sleeves looked, and knew what I had to do. Like Hulk Hogan I ripped those sleeves right off (I only needed one, but who wants to walk around with one sleeve?) and went to find a good spot to take care of business.
Digestive crisis averted, I went back to the game cam and checked the card. There was a good group of cows that had been through a few days prior, but I had yet to get anything bigger than a spike on cam this summer – hopefully they’ll be there by opening day. By now the sun was up, and I re-set the cam, threw my pack on, and began to book it out of the woods to get back for big-man’s birthday. It was then that I learned how much warmth a pair of T-shirt sleeves actually can provide, as my arms were freezing on the way out, but a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.
Just to put the cherry on top of the weekend, as I emerged from the woods onto the dirt road where I had parked, I noticed a steady trail of oil some vehicle had left. Walking up to my wife's Suburban, I was horrified to see the trail of oil turn right off the road and disappear under the truck. Thinking the worst, I began checking all the major fluids and looking for visible signs of a leak. Fortunately, it ended up just being a blown shock absorber, and I was able to get out of the woods and get us back home where I could fix it properly.
Now the cam sits out there, hopefully tracking herds of cows as the bulls start to round them up in preparation for the rut. That weekend was far from the simple and leisurely scouting trip I had planned, and at times it was downright terrifying. You never want to mentally go through how you would direct a rescue helicopter to your location, or even wonder how you'll explain to your wife that her car is stuck in the woods. But it’s in these moments – even when everything works out alright – that another piece of what makes you the man you are gets etched into stone. Being willing and ready to do everything in your power to prevail, to help someone in need, or even finding resourceful ways to deal with digestive distress in the woods…this is part of the recipe of manliness. A man stares at whatever situation lies before him and firmly states: “whatever happens, I will handle it.”
If you're curious about my personal strategy for scouting and placing cams for elk, watch the video below.