Our elk camp’s roster and team portrait is changing for the ninth time since I first drove my 1999 Ford F-250 to Idaho’s Targhee-Caribou National Forest in September 2006.
As any camp boss can attest, it’s tough to maintain the ranks for any endeavor that involves volunteers, hard work and little hope of success. That’s especially true when you didn’t conceive the mission and organize the team until reaching your 50s, and you seldom recruit from the younger crowd.
That includes my truck, which passed the 318,000-mile mark around Albert Lea, Minnesota, while driving westward Sept. 1. I figure it’s about age 90 in truck years, so I don’t nitpick its looser steering and louder road noise. On the whole, the old Ford is as reliable and humble as a single-shot rifle, and has never failed to complete the circuit from central Wisconsin with anything more than fill-ups.
Still, I’d forsake the old truck tomorrow for just one more hunt with my late friend John Peterson. A heart attack dropped The Captain, one of our camp’s three charter members, at age 64 in April 2009, seven months after making his third straight elk camp with me.
One tends to dwell on such things when reaching a dead friend’s eternal age. Peterson, fortunately, is our camp’s only fatality. Even so, a review of our annual rosters shows 12 names besides my own. And, other than The Captain, only three returned a second time.
My daughter Leah bowhunted with us in 2008 and 2009, and longtime friend Mark Endris made the trip eight times between 2010 and 2019. Endris no longer hunts, but he fished regularly and kept the camp clean and organized this past decade while I disappeared up the mountain every day for two weeks. Unfortunately, he sent his regrets in June for the trip, explaining that age and repetition had depleted his enthusiasm for elk camp.
Chris White, the camp’s “boy” the past eight Septembers, would have made it nine straight years if not for the COVID-19 pandemic. (You know the camp’s roster is beyond “graying” when age 43 qualifies someone for boyhood.) Given his company’s travel restrictions and possible quarantines, White will be forced to stay home in Toledo, and eat his $650 elk tag and license on his own.
Those who joined our elk camp only once the previous 14 years include good friends like Tim Watson, Waunakee, and Mark Beyer, Scandinavia, in 2008; Tomaz Kirn of Slovenia in 2009; Karl Malcolm, Milwaukee, in 2011; and Craig Stephani, New London, in 2014.
The annual rosters show that Endris and White teamed with me for six elk camps between 2012 and 2019, and that Endris missed only two years from 2010 to 2019.
Meanwhile, Leah remains the only woman on the camp’s historical roster, and Kirn the only Slovenian. Both are always welcome to return, of course, but Slovenia is roughly half-way around the world for Kirn, and parenting three pre-schoolers while serving as a Navy officer makes elk camp seem even further away for Leah.
And so I’m possibly starting another chapter in our elk camp’s history by welcoming in two longtime friends to the Targhee-Caribou National Forest and the banks of the Snake River. When Endris resigned his position as camp caretaker in mid-June, I recruited Mike Foy, who I’ve known since we were kindergartners at Crestwood Elementary School on Madison’s west side.
Foy and I regularly fished, ice-fished, chased rabbits, and hunted deer together through our high-school years; and often dropped in on Joe “Duffy” Brungardt to hunt his father’s farmlands in nearby Iowa County. Foy, in turn, recruited Brungardt to join our elk camp.
By the time we confirmed our plans in late June, however, Idaho had sold out of elk and mule deer licenses, so Foy and Brungardt settled for small-game licenses for dusky grouse and fishing licenses for trout. Without being asked, they said they’d be happy to help me pack out an elk if I arrowed one. I hope to test their enthusiasm for that job.
And so it was that Foy and I drove to Idaho on Sept. 1, and at dawn the next day met Brungardt, who drove over the night before from his home in Boise. We spent Sept. 2 shuttling gear and rigging our campsite roughly 2.5 miles from our vehicle. We plan to stay until Sept. 19, or whenever we finish hunting elk, grouse and trout.
This marks the first time I’ve camped with my ol’ high-school friends, but I don’t expect any of the unpleasantness you risk when venturing out with new campmates the first time. We’ve long known each other’s quirks and traits, and find them more intriguing than irritating.
We take comfort in that awareness. But if that’s not enough, we know few virtues surpass tolerance in making a happy elk camp.
Patrick Durkin, left, with friends Chris White and Mark Endris teamed up for six elk bowhunting camps between 2012 and 2019, but COVID-19 helped end that partnership in 2020. — Patrick Durkin photo