The excitement rose with the sun. Mules were being packed with hunting gear and saddles were being cinched up on horses.
In a couple of hours, six hunters would be riding the trail in the Centennial Mountains of southwestern Montana to a wilderness canvas-walled tent camp.
And then, within minutes, I felt horrible. Pain enveloped my right side. I stuck my head in a plastic sack and lost my breakfast ... over and over again.
What was going on? Appendix. Gall bladder. What the heck?
I had been anticipating this trip for several years, rationalizing the expense of the trip by saying it was my 60th birthday gift. It’s not cheap to hunt out of state and with an outfitter. But adventures like this are on the bucket list for many people and that was the case as eventually the hunting party totaled six.
To prepare for the seven-day hunt at altitudes over 9,000 feet, I had worked out in a gym boot camp four afternoons a week and had walked hills in the morning darkness for the past six weeks. I anticipated a memorable hunt and hopefully some success in filling either an elk tag and/or a mule deer buck tag.
But while trying to deal with the persistent pain that was a 12 or 13 on a scale of 1 to 10, I quickly came to the conclusion my long-anticipated Montana hunt wasn’t going to be more than a few steps from a couch or bed in the Centennial Outfitters lodge.
Not long after the other five hunters and two guides reined their horses up the trail, I was headed at a much faster pace over a graveled road and then pavement toward an emergency room in Idaho Falls, Idaho, 2 ½ hours away. While Mel Montgomery, owner of Centennial Outfitters and my cousin, kept the pedal down I remained in misery, rolling around in the back seat like a rolling pin, but finding no comfortable position.
Thank goodness, when we finally arrived, the ER was almost empty. Within 15 minutes I had an IV in my arm and began to feel the pain fade. As the medicine went in, a few tears of relief rolled down my face. For the past seven hours, I had never been in so much pain in my almost 60 years.
A CAT scan eliminated the possibility of appendix and gall bladder problems and possible surgery that would result in a hospital stay. Instead, the scan revealed I was hosting three or four kidney stones, one of which stuck in my ureter. At least the stones didn’t roll over and create a painful issue after I had ridden to hunting camp.
I know a few other folks who have dealt with kidney stone attacks and the extreme pain they can cause. My wife had them once and en route to the Roseburg ER, she was telling me how to raise our two young children after her death (she recovered after the stones were lasered and passed).
Dave Loomis of Roseburg told me he was stoned during a drift boat trip on the Rogue River and he ended up in the fetal position in the bottom of the boat during the long row to a boat ramp.
It’s been said by medical people that for men, pain from kidney stones might be considered the equivalent to that felt by a woman in labor. At least the woman gets a precious gift after her pain.
I was given a relaxant and a pain killer and was released from the ER. I was told to flood my system with clear fluids and hopefully I would pass the stones. It was strongly recommended that I stay out of the mountains.
So on opening morning, while I was on meds to control the pain, Glenn Wentz of Roseburg dropped a five-point bull high in the mountains near the Continental Divide between Montana and Idaho. Another bigger bull was seen and another bull was lucky as a shot came in low.
I missed out on the adventure and the thrill of the pursuit.
But after four days of lodge life, I finally felt up to the challenge of the hunt. Despite the anxiety of knowing the stones could roll over and stop me in my tracks, I ventured forth with pain pills in my backpack.
With each step uphill in several inches of white, powdery snow, I feared those kidney stones could turn the hunting experience into a painful one. But I was excited and exhilarated to finally be outside, to be in pursuit of filling a big game Montana tag, so I pushed on, following my cousin, the outfitter. We had only the afternoon and the next day left to hunt before the group of Roseburg hunters was scheduled to return home.
It had already been a successful day. At daybreak, Alan Ross and I had shot back-to-back on a cow elk. Alan tagged it.
So now, just the two of us were moving on, swooshing through the powder and checking finger ridges and small drainages off a main ridge in an area that had suffered a major burn in 2004. Visibility was good through the bare, gray trees. We moved slowly, but steadily in silence.
Then Mel saw a mule deer doe 100 yards downhill from us before she saw us. We froze. He slowly raised his binocs to look for more animals. He spotted another bald one and then another. He was patient and kept glassing. He moved forward a couple steps and saw another doe. A couple does detected our movements and presence and looked uphill. But they didn’t bolt.
Mel had spotted six does when he quickly turned to me, grabbed my jacket at the chest and pulled me down to my knees.
“There’s a big buck bedded down there and you better get it,” he hissed at me.
‘Thanks for the pressure, cous,’ was my immediate thought. ‘Here’s the rifle. Have at it!’
Knowing that Mel, 58, had grown up in the Centennial Mountains, had gone to a one-room schoolhouse there and had been an outfitter in those mountains for almost 30 years, I knew he knew about what constitutes a big buck. The pressure was on ... me!
I shed my backpack. Adrenaline would take care of any potential stone flare up.
We were patient, letting the situation develop on its own. When animal heads were down, we crept forward a couple yards on hands and knees, hoping not to snap a snow-hidden branch.
Initially I couldn’t pick up the buck in my scope, but after several minutes it stood up and the antlers filled the crosshairs. I slowly moved from a crawl to a sitting position, resting my elbows on my raised knees.
The side of the buck filled my scope. I don’t remember having time to be nervous. I squeezed the trigger and the 300 magnum roared. I quickly found the buck again in the scope as he collapsed.
The pressure was off.
It was hard to believe. Six days earlier I was in an emergency room feeling intense pain, concluding that my Montana hunt was not going to happen. And now I was standing over an eight-point Montana mule deer buck.
In all his years in those mountains, Mel said it was either the first or second biggest buck he’d ever seen taken.
“The second I saw those antlers, I knew it was a shooter,” he said. “The number of points, the antler mass, the size, there was no doubt. It’s hard to get a buck to grow that big around here because people shoot them earlier. That’s the way it is in most of Montana, except in a few areas that have trophy bucks because of limited entry hunting.”
The outfitter said he’ll see 20 to 30 good bull elk in the Centennials before seeing such a big buck. A head-and-shoulder mount is being done by a Montana taxidermist.
“This hunt started out so crazy with a run to the emergency room,” Mel said. “There was the disappointment of probably not getting to hunt together.
“We weathered that, sucked it up and dealt with the challenge,” he added. “I feel like God blessed us. There was a reward in the end, a blessing that we got to get that buck. It’s a pretty neat story line.”
As if that wasn’t enough, the next morning after a 90-minute horseback ride in the dark, Preston Wentz and I each dropped a cow elk in a high mountain meadow. That capped quite a week of extreme emotions, from pain to pleasure.
Now if only the stones would pass. They seem to be stuck, but thankfully at the moment they’re painless. They’ve been given a couple more weeks to move on their own or else they’ll be surgically removed.
From the ER to the trophy of a lifetime, this was a hunting journey like no other.
• News-Review Features Editor Craig Reed can be reached at 541-957-4210 or email@example.com.