A grand hike in the Gila

I took a trail the other day that wound its way far above the Gila River. After a mile or so, I left the trail and dropped off the ridge into a deep bowl covered with tall, old ponderosa pines. One pine, at the center, towered high above its neighbors like a matriarch.

As I walked beyond the huge tree, I spied the bare skeleton of a dead elk, its backbone and remaining rib cage stark against the brown pine needles. The decomposing head, still attached to the spine, sported a massive set of antlers that were six points to the side.

I lifted the head up; the spine remained attached. Whatever had killed the bull had not done so by breaking its neck.

This was an out-of-the-way canyon, far from the trail or highway where I had parked, so I reasoned the bull killer had not been a human. Since the carcass appeared to be about 3 or 4 weeks old, it could not have been left over from last hunting season.

I pondered what could have killed a 1,000-pound animal with fully functional headgear. A bear or lion, probably, although my friend, Billy Lee, says a lion will normally break its prey’s neck. Maybe this was the exception. I ruled out coyotes because the bull had been so huge.

I propped the skull and horns against a remote pine tree in hopes of getting a permit from the Game and Fish boys and then going back in for the prize. Then I noticed that elk tracks abounded everywhere in this remote place. I filed this bit of information away in case I decide to hunt the wilderness one day.

Now came the hard part. I had to climb out of this hole, and the sides of the canyon were steep. I was thankful for the many game trails that crisscrossed the terrain, and made good use of them as I negotiated my way upward.

An old fence crossed the slope about 100 yards below the ridge. As I slithered under the bottom strand of rusty barbed wire, my body was nearly vertical.

Climbing that last 100 yards, I could feel my pulse pounding in my ears. My breathing became more labored. "Am I crazy?" I wondered. For once, I wished for a horse to ride. Of course, the critter’s legs would have to be two feet shorter on one side.

I decided I was definitely short on brain matter. Here I was, a 52-year-old man, alone, without any human having the least notion of where I was at, pushing my body to extremes. Go figure. But I knew I had done this sort of thing before, and likely would again.

After I made it to the top of the ridge and back onto the trail, I immediately encountered a huge pile of lion dung, full of burnished brown elk hair. Was this from the killer of "my" elk? At that moment I hated that lion - and all lions, for that matter. In the next mile I found other piles of lion scat, mostly composed of hair from Hereford cattle.

I could empathize with the rancher who loses livestock to the predators. I could feel his resentment, rage and hopelessness.

But the farther I hiked, the more rational I became. What made me, the hunter, any different from the lion, or any other predator? Am I more noble because I kill the animal and take its meat home and store it in a freezer? We’re doing the same thing, the lion and I, but he eats the meat where the animal falls, and smaller critters benefit from the kill. Even flies and beetles were enjoying the bountiful harvest. The dead bull elk helped to perpetuate the food chain; nothing is wasted in the wilderness.

But even though I knew all of this to be true, I still hated that lion. After all, he is my competitor for the game.

Eventually I came to a spring covered with lush, green grass. I sat there for more than an hour in hopes some wild critter would come to drink and share the moment with me. None did. I decided to make my way back along the three miles of trail.

On the way I found an unusual pair of antlers. They had not been dropped by the same animal and were from different time periods, yet they lay within inches of each other. One antler was a small forked horn; the other a medium four-point. Neither was worth keeping. Farther along the trail I found another, larger and fresher, probably from last year. This one I took home.

I was surprised to find fresh coyote tracks atop my own footprints. They were made by a large animal and stayed with the trail for about a mile. Farther still, I came upon the track of a truly huge lion. Could this be "my killer?" Later, the fresh tracks of a smaller coyote and a large bobcat appeared.

Strangely, all of these critters had used the trail after me. My scent surely had to linger there, yet these animals did not seem the least bit bothered by it.

Deer and elk tracks abounded. Finally, I came upon a herd of four mule deer, two of which were yearlings. The biggest doe’s ear had a huge, gaping hole in it.

Being careful to avoid eye contact, I strolled past the animals at 20 yards’ distance. They never moved. The sight of them was a fitting end to a grand hike in the Gila Wilderness.