The plan had been to get up earlier than we had the previous day, but even then arising at 4:15am put us to our parking spot with too much daylight to make an unnoticed entry to the woods. Luckily a dense fog draped over the area and we geared up and stalked our way in. Every now and then we paused and I blew out the tell-tale notes of the barred owl.
Not a turkey responded.
We began to move through mixed stands of aspen and pine, with open meadows interspersed throughout. Chris led the way often, as he was familiar with the property, and at one point he suddenly stopped short.
In grizzly bear country, when your guide freezes up, you pay attention.
But this was no bear. Rather, the dark form of a cow elk began to emerge slowly from the fog, her silhouette ghostly in the gloaming pre-dawn fog. She was alone and apparently unalarmed by our presence in her woods. After briefly sizing up our shapes, she calmly ambled away to our left, her form being re-enveloped by the fog as she departed. For a second I was fairly certain I had just hallucinated the entire encounter, but Chris turned around with a broad grin on his face.
“Pretty cool, eh?” was all he said. I had to agree that it was.
We discussed our next plan, and Chris suggested an open field that was nestled at the bottom of a flat ridgeline and across a stream. Not being one to argue with local knowledge I bade him to press onward; and I was soon faced with a daunting chunk of landscape. It seems that in order to access the previously mentioned field, a hunter had to scale down an incline that was, to put it euphemistically “steep”. Think winding one track game trail with a downward slope of around 65 degrees. Now make it scraggly and stretch it out for two hundred yards or so. Add to that mud. That’s what my ankles had to look forward to at 5:55am on a Sunday. Chris mentioned that this was the fastest way down, but he also cheered me by mentioning that the return journey would not be via the same route.
And with that, like a mountain goat, Chris was rapidly down the singletrack nightmare, while my descent, while not comical, was not precisely rapid either. I made it to the bottom with ankles, knees, and collarbones intact, so I considered it a success. The bottom of this cliff (for lack of a better word) a wide field shrouded in mist greeted us. Chris motioned to a bridge across a creek (a bridge he built by the way) and we made for the crossing. As we approached we both noticed that forty or fifty elk were bedded down just across the bridge, and to get to our intended location, we were going to have to get past them. Neither one of relished a climb up to higher ground, and the elk obliged us by moving quietly away. Several times we were within seventy-five steps of them, and never once did they break into anything more than a walk as they moved away from us. For a moment it seemed like Chris and I were just another part of the wilderness landscape, with game indifferent to our presence. We made for a small copse of aspens next to a watering hole, and we placed the decoys out in front of us. The mist was so thick that all of my gear was becoming damp, and when I pulled my slate call from my vest, the surface instantly bore condensation on it. So much for that call, I thought. Luckily my box call was waterproof and I let a string of yelps pierce the fog. Nothing answered.
A pair of Canada geese noisily lifted off the water hole behind us, and circled the field, landing two hundred yards from our decoys before proceeding to feed on the wet grass. The silence was periodically punctuated by clucks and honks from those two geese, but otherwise the silence was perpetual. In time the geese began to get quite excited, and their honks and growls escalated in volume enough to draw my attention; it was then I noticed the large and very healthy looking coyote that was trotting towards them. He made no attempt to stalk the geese and as he continued on across the field he also trotted close by the group of elk that we had encountered first thing in the morning. He disappeared over a hill in the field and although we saw him twice more, he really did not cause any trouble to anyone.
In time we decided to move on to another spot; heading for the mountains again with the hopes of working through a large piece of public land adjacent to our set up from Saturday. We encountered more elk and white-tailed deer as we arrived, but the weather looked to be on our side as the earlier mist had lifted and we were greeted by blue sky and sunshine. A light breeze had developed, but nothing that would discomfort us in our hike through the area. We set up initially for about an hour, but hearing nothing we opted to move through the forest, prospecting for turkeys, and watching out for sign.
We encountered no turkeys, but the wilderness was in full ‘display mode’ for this flatland dwelling Ontarian. We came across more elk and deer sign than I thought was imaginably possible, and the highlight of the afternoon was finding an open meadow rife with wild morels. I harvested about three dozen of them, and though I’ve seen morels in the past, never had I seen them in such abundance. After making a long circuitous hike that was punctuated by several stunning vistas and more than a few uphill slogs, we opted to finish the day back where we had ended the previous afternoon. It was, after all our only stop that had yielded any consistent turkey sign and also the only place where we’d heard a gobble.
Arriving at the trailhead under a beaming sun, I shed a layer of clothes in the truck before even venturing out, and I was pleased that I did. Thirty minutes into the hike and we stopped for a water break which was more than necessary, even though I was down to the bare essentials of shirt, pants, socks, boots, hat and vest. As we stood quietly looking around, movement caught my eye to my left about fifteen steps away. An unformed gray shape was moving slowly through low brush, and I initially dismissed it as a rabbit. I glanced again and as the shape cleared the shadows of low trees, I realized that it was the head of a hen turkey, the rest of her body was hidden by a low mound. She did not alarm putt, and she did not sprint away, but rather she purposefully and directly headed up a steep ridge to my left. I looked in vain for an accompanying gobbler, and within moments she had disappeared from sight. Frustrated at this chance and all too brief encounter, but buoyed by actually spotting the animal I had come to hunt, Chris and I resolved to put in a sit at a bend in the trail a few hundred yards up the road. We again placed decoys, concealed ourselves at the foot of some trees, and I went to attempting to call in a gobbler. After ninety minutes of silence and stillness, voices up the trail prompted us to backtrack to a picturesque seasonal pond, where we again did some prospecting and calling. With no success there, we made for an even more remote clearing with a pond, in a place where Chris mentioned he had harvested his first deer. Curious to see the place and having no other option but to keep pressing on, we made the move, but not until after we took a few photos of the spot. The pictures capture the essence of the whole trip perfectly; a clear sunny afternoon in a stand of greenery, while snow-capped mountain peaks and a silent pond stand as the backdrop. For our own part, Chris and I stand together wearing smiles that are far too wide for our respective faces. It is pretty obvious that we’re having fun, in spite of the turkeys playing stingy with us.
On our walk to what would be the final stand of our day, we crossed a muddy flat, and came across the fairly fresh, large and unmistakable track of a large bear. I photographed the print, and put my size 12 left boot alongside it for scale. The track was essentially the length of my foot, and we would later identify the track in a field guide as that of a grizzly bear. To say I was a little more comforted by the can of bear mace at my right side would have been an understatement. The next kilometer or so of hiking was filled with Chris recounting the stories of the five or six people he knows who had themselves been mauled or had had loved ones involved in bear maulings.
Chris knows how to put a man’s guard at ease.
We made the final clearing with the sun descending low on its ecliptic, and to be honest my heart was a bit out of it. We had to that point of the day put in over thirteen hours of hiking and travel, and the fleeting hen aside, we had little to corroborate the statement that Merriam’s turkeys did in fact live in that region of British Columbia. I was hungry and in need of a beer, and although he wouldn’t say it, I felt that maybe there was some pressure building on my friend. Eventually we headed for the truck, and my feet were throbbing from all the ground covered that day. I had never anticipated an easy go of this trip, and I was getting just what I had guessed.
That evening I cleaned up the morels before frying them in butter, salt, pepper, and lemon juice. This was accompanied by wild rice, honey-glazed carrots, and some jalapeno-cheddar sausages made from last fall’s venison. A cold local beer found my stomach, and my stomach was glad for that. We were down to our last card in the deck, and we decided to go all in on the spot we had just left. No place else had held recent turkey sign, so we planned to get up the earliest we could and prospect the morning with locator calls, before settling into the pattern of alternately prospecting and sitting over decoys. It was our best shot.