Coulee Critter on the Diamond K

Since 2003, Kim and Cindy Kafka, owners of the Diamond K Ranch in Havre, MT have generously donated an Elk Hunt on their ranch to be auctioned off at the Annual UFFDA Banquet in an effort to support its mission.  The 2011 hunt was purchased by UFFDA Charter Member and longtime friend, John Swanson of Sauk Rapids, MN.  John lost his right leg during Desert Shield in 1990.  He has been a hunter since the very first UFFDA hunt back in 1995 and has served on the board of directors; he is also the current Range Master at the UFFDA Camp Wilderness Hunt in Park Rapids, MN.

Havre, MT is located in Central Montana about 40 miles south of the Canadian Border.

The third element of the Diamond K Adventure was the ranch’s Elk keeper, Skip Owens.  Skip has been the guide on each and every UFFDA hunt at the Diamond K since 2003, and like the Kafka’s, not only has he served us well, but he has become a very dear friend.  This year, instead of staying in a hotel, Skip and his mother, Berta invited us to stay in their home where we were treated like visiting royalty, helping to make it the best trip yet.  As with each and every UFFDA hunt, one thinks it can’t get any better; then the next one comes along and amazingly, the bar is raised.

Bringing the Kafka’s, Owens and Swanson together was my assigned job and suffice it to say, I love my work.  Taking photographs and the literal documentation of the hunt, as well as serving as the court jester were my responsibilities and I dived into my chores with gusto.  

Although the hunt was rigorous, John Swanson reveled in the experience. 

The 15-hour trip out to Havre was marred by bad roads for part of the journey, but even the slick byways were unable to squelch the excitement that had us as giddy as a couple of lads bound for their very first “big-hunt”.  John had never taken an elk; but had dreamed about a trip to the Diamond K hunt since the very first year it had been offered to the UFFDA membership. 

On the first day of the hunt, we awoke to partly cloudy skies and mild temperatures for early December.  A fresh dusting of snow had fallen over night adding to the 3-inch base, freshening up the surface and making it easy to identify fresh tracks.  The elk was in a 2600 acre pasture that we were able glass from Skip’s front porch.  We tried to locate the bull, but were only able to see a few of the 40 to 50 head of the buffalo that populate the pasture. 

The pristine beauty of the mountain slope was made even more so by the layer of white frosting of freshly fallen snow.

The first order of business was to sight in the crossbow to make sure that it was still on the mark.  John had asked to borrow my Scorpyd 165, not only because he admires the bow for its performance, but also because it is equipped with the HHA Optimizer Speed Dial, which allows the archer to launch an arrow accurately from zero to 80 yards with a simple turn of the dial.  He realized that in order to take the bull with a crossbow, he had to be prepared to take a longer shot than what he was used to.  The Scorpyd and the Optimizer Speed Dial would make that shot possible, if it had to be made.

We loaded up and headed for the bull’s stomping grounds, each filled with excitement over the onset of the chase.  The first objective was to find the bull and that task proved to be no easy chore.  As we began our search, John discovered that what appeared to be a smooth, but steep slope from a mile away was instead was a complicated system of hidden coulees that spread out over the mountain side like the veins of the circulatory system in the human body.  The natural gashes in the landscape ran deep and were shrouded in thick underbrush providing all the natural cover that any wild thing needs to hide and survive. 

John’s special prosthesis enabled him to negotiate the treacherous terrain like a pro.

Finding the bull proved difficult, but a steady search of the coulees with three sets of eyes eventually located the animal bedded down in thick brush halfway up a draw.  We analyzed the situation and then Skip carefully laid out his plan of attack.  The objective would be to sneak down an adjoining coulee to where it emptied into the ravine that held our bull.  John would have to make about a 40-yard shot to take his trophy if the stalk worked as planned, but of course, it didn’t.  As soon as human heads came into view, the bull jumped up and bounded out of the coulee stopping on the top of the rise to peer back and scoff, erasing John’s chance for a shot.  The bull paused long enough for me to nail it half a dozen times with my camera and then disappeared, making a clean escape.  Round one went to the bull.

Our quarry was far too smart to let us get close after the first stalk.

From that point on, the bull was on the constant move successfully keeping itself far away from the danger that it had correctly recognized us to be.  No matter what we tried, the elk out maneuvered our attempts to close the gap, rendering our efforts fruitless.  It was Skip that first detected a pattern in the animal’s flight pattern and his knowledge of the mountainside gave birth to a new brainstorm.  He took us to a ravine that was dotted by the fresh tracks made earlier by our quarry.  He pointed to the thick cover of pucker brush and tall prairie grass that covered one slope and told us to find a good spot there and wait.  It was on the alee side of the coulee so we were protected from the frigid wind chill and had to deal only with snow packed ground on which we rested our cold-sensitive butts. 

Ambush was our only recourse and Skip found a perfect spot for John to set up.

Skip moved away to begin to dog the bull hoping that the plan he had hatched would successfully provide John with what he believed would be a 30 yard shot.  John set the Speed Dial at 30 yards and we nestled deeply into the shelter of the underbrush to wait.  Positioned myself above John, I dialed my Sony camera to the video mode hoping to catch the all the action live if Skip’s scheme went as planned.  John was the first to detect the approach of the elk as he picked out the bull’s ankles popping as it neared our ambush.   Instead of following the trail along the ridge it angled down to the bottom of the coulee, moving directly towards the hunter.  At ten yards, I heard the subtle bark of the Scorpyd as it launched its projectile into the unsuspecting creature.  Taken totally by surprise, the big bull spun in a blink and bounded up to the top of the coulee.  It stopped and turned, staring back at the bottom of the ravine in a vain attempt to determine what had just happened.  After a short pause, the confused bull turned to flee taking only ten steps before gracefully somersaulting into death.  It was over!

After the shot, John was all smiles.  The elk never had a clue that John was there until it was too late.

Skip had watched the bull come back out of the coulee thinking we had been busted and that the elk had made good its escape.  Then, through his field glasses, he saw the blood escaping from both sides of the animal before it crashed to the ground.  Rushing to the coulee, he triumphantly joined us for the celebration we had all been working towards.  After many photos had been taken of the successful team, the real work began.  The animal was field dressed and then slowly, but surely drug by very small gains into the back of the pickup.  Thank goodness the huge expired beast came equipped with a pair of really big handles!  We hauled our trophy back to the ranch, where big machinery helped to complete the final processes of skinning and quartering the elk.  Once that was done, it was off to the locker where the bull was to be cut and wrapped.  From there, it was home for supper and a jubilant celebration that brought a fitting end to what had been a very special hunt. 

Guide, Skip Owens and John with his trophy of a lifetime.

The next day was spent tying up the loose ends and spending some quality time with our hosts.  On Sunday morning, John and I stopped at the ranch and collected the meat and the head then headed for home warmed by all of the good things that had taken place over the last four days. A hearty thank-you goes out to Kim and Cindy for their continued, generous support of the UFFDA Mission and their warm and wonderful hospitality.  We truly thank Skip and Berta for opening their home to us and treating us like part of their family.  And to Skip, a very special and heartfelt acknowledgement for his extraordinary service and all the hard work he put forth to make this hunt such a great success.  We love you all. 

Left to right: John Swanson, Kim Kafka, Skip Owens and Cindy Kafka.

Until next year, my Diamond K friends, fare the well!

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