Michael A. Sawyers
The Summer of Love (San Francisco, 1967) was a little more than two years old. Woodstock had happened just a couple months ago. My Utah hunting license was a couple days old and burning a hole in my pocket.
The October Friday night before the opening day of the mule deer season, Steve Malan and I had driven in his 1955 Chevy from our homes in Logan — where we attended Utah State University — to the Raft River Mountains.
You can go online to Google Earth and call up towns like Strevell, Idaho, or Park Valley, Utah, and you will be in the general area of the Raft River Mountains, an isolated, east-west range of peaks that juts up in the Beehive State as close as you can get to Idaho without being in it. In fact, Nevada isn’t too far to the west of the mountains.
When you look at Google Earth you will see plots of circle irrigation. Those weren’t there in 1969. Neither was the interstate highway off to the northeast of the mountains. In fact, there wasn’t much at all in the way of civilization near this remote corner of the Intermountain West.
But there was a 1955 Chevy. There were two 20-something hunters enamored with their new surroundings. I was new to Utah from Maryland. Steve came from California. There was a Model 99 Savage with a new Weaver 4x scope. There was enthusiasm and awe, bravado and an irrepressible expectancy of good.
Neither of us had been to the Raft River Mountains and I cannot remember how it was we came to choose that spot for the Oct. 20 opening day, though I’ll bet its remote and rugged setting was an attraction. Everybody else we knew was headed for the mountains near Logan in the Cache National Forest.
Truth be known, our hunting site was not all that far — at least in Western distance terms — from the spot where the golden spike had been driven exactly 100 years earlier, hooking rails and creating the Transcontinental Railroad.
We had a green Coleman gas stove and with it on opening morning we slopped together some scrambled eggs and headed up the mountain, out of the sagebrush and into the Douglas fir and junipers.
We didn’t see a deer.
There were no cell phones, no GPS units, no ATVs; just boots and paper maps.
Though Sunday hunting is legal in Utah, neither of us could hunt that day. I dont remember why.
Monday morning, well before daylight, I left Logan in my 1965 Mustang and headed for the Raft Rivers.
This was public land (now part of the Sawtooth National Forest), but, in those days, not many restrictions upon how it could be used. I drove the Mustang off the road and through the sagebrush as close as I could to the ascending mountains. I started walking, trying to gain some elevation before daylight.
I was a substantial distance from the car when I realized that I had put five .300 Savage shells in the rifle, but had forgotten to put the remaining shells in my pack.
“Well,” I thought, “if I need more than five shells I don’t deserve a deer.”
Daylight was extremely young when I looked across a ravine and spotted what I thought to be something out of place. I lifted a very heavy pair of binoculars and, sure enough, it was the rump patch of a deer. As I continued to watch, the deer turned its head to the right, showing me a set of branched antlers.
“Houston to heartbeat. Try to slow it down a little, OK? There’s work to be done here.”
I shifted into the kneeling position to shoot, figuring I could see enough of the deer’s right side to slink a bullet up through the rib cage. I pulled the trigger.
As I recovered from the recoil I could see the buck lurch to its left, moving immediately out of sight.
I waited. You know the feeling. Did I hit? Did I miss? The shot was about 150 yards.
I walked down into the ravine, up the other side toward the small flat upon which the buck had stood. As soon as my eyes cleared the top, there was a set of 4x4 mule deer antlers on the ground pointed straight at me.
I had only killed one deer before 1969, a very nice 19-inch, heavy 6-point on the Nathaniel Mountain Public Hunting Area just east of Romney, W.Va., in 1962.
My father gutted that deer for me. This would be my first field-dressing job and I had actually clipped illustrated instructions out of Outdoor Life so I would know how to take care of this animal. I had a pocket knife with a blade of about three inches. It worked.
Dragging the buck downhill wasn’t much of a problem, but when the land leveled out into a sagebrush flat I still had quite a way to go to reach the Mustang.
This wasn’t going to cut it.
I walked back to the Mustang, which had a 289 engine that knew what to do on those lengthy Utah straightaways. Somehow I maneuvered the car to the buck and somehow I managed to wrestle the bulky carcass into its trunk. I couldn’t get the trunk lid closed so the buck’s hooves stuck out.
When I got back to Logan, another student, Brad Leavitt from Oregon, showed me how to skin it and cut it up. The next weekend we had quite a party that included mule deer backstraps and Coors beer.
I wouldn’t say it, of course, but I was thinking, “Jim Bridger, move over.”
Contact Outdoor Editor Mike Sawyers at firstname.lastname@example.org.