Mountain’s Critters Add Excitement to Elk Bowhunting


SODA SPRINGS, Idaho – Swoosh!


A 3-inch pine cone – hard, fresh and green – whizzed past my right ear and whacked my wrist before thumping the ground. Seconds later another cone banged off the log where I sat, and then a third smacked off my compound bow.

From left, Patrick Durkin, Mark Endris and Karl Malcolm discuss the day’s elk hunts and other mountaintop encounters.

I warily looked up, worried I’d take one to the schnoz. Twenty feet above, a pine squirrel hung by its hind legs, cutting and chucking cones. I knew the rascal. He had cursed me minutes earlier after running up the log where I ate lunch, detouring around me and ascending the tree.

I doubted he was retaliating for me blocking his travel route. Then again, this wasn’t the only cone-bearing pine in the Targhee-Caribou National Forest. Couldn’t he harvest cones elsewhere? Apparently not.

A pine squirrel chatters from a tree in Idaho’s Targhee-Caribou National Forest.

So, I kept sitting, continually hoping for elk to move through this Rocky Mountain ridgeline. Elk roam these mountains in good numbers, but you’d seldom know it if not for the trees they rub, the dung they drop, and the mews, barks and bugles they voice.

It’s much easier to see pine squirrels, chipmunks, chickadees, Steller’s jays and myriad other birds and critters that are tiny compared to elk. In fact, if not for these “others,” elk hunting wouldn’t spawn as many campfire stories when my hunting partners, Mark Endris of Hillsdale and Karl Malcolm of Arena, and I trudge in from the peaks each night.

Although my pine-squirrel bomber story was worth sharing, it wasn’t as intense as the story about my lunchtime nap two days before. In that case, my knee knocked over my bow and arrows as I awoke and stood.

Instantly, something rushed through the brush behind me, snapping branches underfoot. It was a black-bear cub. Seconds later, its mother barreled in to assess possible threats, stopping 20 yards away.

A mouse retrieves camp crumbs outside Patrick Durkin’s tent in Idaho’s Targhee-Caribou National Forest.

I stood still, eyeing the pepper-spray canister in my daypack. I doubted I could reach it in time if the sow charged first and asked questions later. Within 15 seconds, however, the cub padded back to Ma and they departed nonchalantly.

Malcolm trumped my stories, however. The same day as my bear encounter, Malcolm thought he heard two pine squirrels chasing and clashing nearby in a battle for turf or food. Then the squirrel’s barking erupted into a shriek of mortal agony lasting at least 15 seconds.

A pine marten investigates a sound after killing a pine squirrel in Idaho’s Targhee-Caribou National Forest.

Soon after, Malcolm saw a pine marten trotting along a log, carrying the limp squirrel like a Labrador toting a mallard. The marten then laid atop the log, squirrel beneath its paws, and chewed its prey with its canines and premolars.

Malcolm moved closer, pulled out his pocket camera, and squeaked with his mouth to get the marten’s attention. It approached within 5 feet before deciding Malcolm might be trouble. It then retrieved its squirrel and departed.

Although the marten couldn’t know it, Malcolm poses no threat to anything except elk. The proof? The night before, Malcolm entered his tent and surprised a mouse burglarizing his granola supply.

The mouse scurried around the tent, Malcolm in pursuit. The chase didn’t last long. The mouse probably sensed impending doom as Malcolm scooped it up with one hand. But instead of chewing on it with his incisors and premolars, Malcolm released it into the night.

Reprieved but not enlightened, the mouse next targeted my tent, which I share with Endris. As I prepared my daypack for the next day’s hunt, Endris entered our tent and saw the mouse run behind me.

The hunt was on. The mouse dashed behind my cot and broke for the tent door. Finding the door zipped, it retreated beneath my cot. Endris opened the door as I moved gear from the floor to our cots. The mouse, its hideouts vanishing, again dashed for the door. This time it hopped atop the open sill and leaped to freedom.

We didn’t see the mouse again until breaking camp at dawn Tuesday. When it emerged from beneath the log outside our tent, Endris tossed it a peanut. The mouse grabbed the morsel and disappeared.

Little did the mouse know it’s now part of our elk-camp lore. Barring encounters with a hawk, weasel or marten, maybe its legend will grow when we return next year.

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