By Ross Seyfried
Perspective is an interesting thing. Some would see ATVs as an invading force; others might imagine them as a machine for thrills and speed. Yet another point of view considers them as tools to test the skill of the rider, to test his or her ability to reach unreachable places with awesome riding expertise. But there are other apparently difficult “places” where the ATV itself is the “ability,” serving as a bridge of sorts.
Yes, there are moments in time when the ATV can be a vital conduit into special places, and it can be a very important means of transport for those who physically might not be able to make the hike without help. Of course no other generation is more in need, more honorably entitled to transport into wild places, than the older generation. Very often these men and women were a part of the wild world when the only entry was hard work and physical stamina. Unfortunately, time tends to rob them of that power to go, but there is another way.
I remember well days on the mountain with very special men and women. The first gentleman was a product of wildness, growing up and living in some very remote places. He had watched for wildfires in the western mountains and guarded a special bay off the coast of Alaska against poachers. He was a hunter, but more important he was a naturalist who loved the mountains. However, a cruel twist of time robbed him of his love. His heart could not go above 5,000 feet, even in a vehicle.
He learned of my mountains, with their tops at 4,800 feet, which would allow him to hunt elk one more time. If I could get him to the higher places, he could hunt downhill on foot.We rode to literally the top of this world and parked on the old logging road. Just over the ridge and below was a stand of thick pine and fir that elk were known to frequent. The hunt is a gentle one, slow “still hunting,” as hunters call it. While one is not still, it often seems that way because of how it is done: one tiny step, with a long pause to see every pine needle in the forest, then another step. Often it takes several hours to cover a mile. The plan is to become part of the forest, to hunt exactly like the big cats.
As is often the case, on this day there were no elk in that patch of timber. So I left the gentleman in a little clearing with a view that ranged for miles over the drainages below. A pretty mountain meadow lay about 400 yards beneath, then a hard basalt cliff patterned with green moss and lichen. Beyond, the world tumbled into a vertical canyon that climbed out to a yellow tamarack thicket, over another meadow and on into the blue haze. I left him with this view and said I would meet him on a logging road about 100 yards farther down the hill.
Half an hour later, I parked and hiked back up to him. Most hunters are eager to be off, to try another pursuit, but this one was anchored with his back against a Ponderosa pine. “Are you ready to go?” I asked. He replied, “Do we have to move now?” I felt a little frightened; he was past 70 years with a really bad ticker . . . how bad was he feeling? Had I asked him to walk too far? I summoned my courage and asked if he was OK. “Oh, I am fine. But I never thought I could go on a mountain again, never thought I could look down on the river valleys and timber below, never thought I would see a sight like this again. I would just like to look a while longer.” We just sat and looked for another hour before taking the wheels into the next valley for another hunt.
Of course it is not just men who covet the hunt and the mountain. She was impressive, elderly, a cancer survivor with bad legs. She loved the hunt, but had never succeeded. Her ability to walk was about zero, or at least that is what I thought. There was one small facet I had missed: Her lack of physical ability was offset by an iron constitution. I found the elk on a small ridge top more than a half-mile away. And we were as close as one could approach on an ATV. It was time to walk, and the only way to get closer was to hike along the steep hillside below them. I cut her a walking stick and we began. It took more than an hour, but one wee step at a time brought her into range. A grandmother had accomplished the impossible. Of course the red, four-wheeled horse had not finished. It dove down the steep hillside, traversing the downed trees and slick snow to retrieve the prize, a prize that would feed the family for a year and also make a beautiful buckskin coat.
Another autumn day brought another old gentleman. By now it may be apparent that I revere old people, revere their wisdom and courage. This day began with blustery wind, a ride around and behind a ridge so we could once again hunt gently downhill. A herd of some 200 elk was in a place where, by a long circuit, we could approach. The steps were slow and sure, and the most dangerous places where the game might detect us were past. Now we had to cling to the lower edges of the basalt cliffs and move another half-mile south. Just as we began the last hike, I heard elk in the canyon below. They were closer, but to hunt them was risky. I knew I would have to get the machine below him so he could hike down to it, but that he would then have a bit of a tricky ride out to the logging road. We chose the “bird in hand” and hunted down into the beautiful canyon. As we lost elevation, the sun came out and the wind stopped. It had become a magnificent, dew-drenched fall day. Life surprises are part of the intrigue of wild places and the great challenges that go with guiding old men you do not know well.
He stood beside his elk in silence for quite a while, soaking up the elk and the beauty of the world around him with obvious reverence. Then he said, “Sometimes I feel too lucky, sometimes I feel like I do not deserve all of the fine things that happen to me. I remember well another day, over another beautiful river valley, but this one was in Europe. One lone thunderhead boiled to nearly 40,000 feet. I remember rolling the plane over on its back and flying straight down through the heart of the storm, with lightning and rainbows all around me.” “What!?” I interrupted. “Oh, I haven’t told you, I used to fly fighters. That was a very special day, and this is much the same; they are magnificent days, when a man is very lucky to be alive . . . and today I do not have to walk home either.” And there I was, now with much less concern about the ride out because my “learning” ATV driver was nothing less than a real fighter pilot.
Yes, the humble ATV can bridge tough terrain, cross generations and almost alter time.
Ross Seyfried has been an editorial contributor to numerous outdoor publications. He served as a licensed professional hunter in Zambia and Tanzania and is now a licensed guide and outfitter in Oregon.
Originally published in Honda Riders Club of America.