Back Country Adventures: High-Basin Muleys

Hunting in the wilderness is never easy, but that's exactly the point. These sacred places are hard to reach—and even harder to leave.

Eagle Cap Wilderness, Oregon

The rock fell away to greensward that lapped black timber on the opposite wall. I peered over. A rifle-shot below, antlers shook a bush.

“What a deer!” My friend Lowell, scant yards to my left, was mistaken.

“It’s an elk,” I hissed. Long tips jutted well above deer height. I glimpsed a chocolate neck.

Silence. Then: “Better look from here.”

I backed off the lip and eased to my pal’s side. I gasped. The dark-necked animal was a mule deer. Antlers, thick as baseball bats, surely spanned a yardstick.

“There’s no way.” With bows and arrows, we had 200 yards to close, our only path the rock.

We slipped over the edge, and down perhaps the length of a Scottish fly rod. The deer vanished.

Come October, I packed into that country with a rifle. I killed a deer in the gulch, but not the buck I’d seen—the biggest buck I’ve ever seen.

Wilderness is like that, revealing sparingly its treasures, yielding them with great reluctance.

I moved to Oregon’s Wallowa Valley in 1975, without a job. The country drew me as it must have the Nez Perce, whose ancestors arrived 600 years ago. Vaulting to 9,800 feet over a deep, mile-long lake with textbook moraines from the Pleistocene Epoch, the Wallowa Mountains boast 30 summits that are more than 8,000 feet—an alpine lake (one of 60) at 8,900! Hunters ply 530 miles of trail in this 360,000-acre patch of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, designated primitive in 1930, declared the Eagle Cap Wilderness a decade later.

Above timber you see far, but not always well. You must probe the little places where bucks live. One old deer circled my friend unnoticed. From across the canyon, I waved him back. That buck didn’t expect a second visit.

Alpine wilderness like the Eagle Cap has little winter range. You’ll look hard to find mature bucks, harder to find big ones. But wilderness isn’t about easy. It’s about wild.

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