Wyoming – A Twentieth Anniversary

Homey Steve Kiesel and I rolled into Sheridan, Wyoming, bright and early on rainy Monday a week ago. Later that day, son-in-law Chris Kolakowski arrived from Denver and we set up our week of making antelope and deer meat for our families. 2016 was year 20 for me, 13 for Steve and year 10 for Chris. “Twenty years,” I was thinking. “This has to be a special year, somehow.”

We first picked up our leftover antlerless deer and antelope tags at the Big R, then made rounds to say hello to now-old friends. When Chris pulled in, we got his licenses (we eventually had six whitetail and three antelope tags), and checked in with Oscar Rucke (pronounce it “Roosky”). I congratulated Oscar on 20 years and asked him what he wanted for our anniversary. He couldn’t quite find the flattering words I know he wanted to say. Clearly, we were right at home.

I first met Oscar and his buddy Bob Haugen in mid-morning of September 14, 1996. Brother Tom Fontes and I had decided to check out the Sheridan area because the antelope season opened early enough that we could hunt, get some of the beloved meat back to our folks in Boise, and then get home in time for my fall quarter classes at Central. We had camped overnight in Livingston, Montana at Osen’s Campground (“Welcome to Tom Osen’s Drive-Thru Retirement Home. Camp anywhere you want. I’m the only thief in the campground, and I stole everything I needed years ago. That’ll be ten bucks!”). We drove to Sheridan the next morning.

After Tom and I talked to Oscar for an hour or so about where we might hunt, he allowed as he and Bob would be busy the next day – the antelope opener – but gave us some directions and handed us the key to the gate into six sections of his hunting ground. That was Tom’s only trip, as his leukemia caught up to him within a year and a half. I skipped ’97, given Tom’s failing health, and returned in ’98. I have not missed a September hunt since. It is at Oscar’s that we clean, cool and process our game meat so that it might come back to Paradise perfectly. Over years of phone calls, occasional summer or winter visits with him and his wife, and those regular hunts, Oscar has become a treasured friend.

That first trip, Tom and I were joined by three of his buddies from Washington and Oregon. Over the course of the 20 years, 16 different hunters have joined my annual Wyoming safari. Five of those 16 have gone on – I hope – to the Happy Hunting Grounds. Homey Steve, Son-in-law Chris, and Last of the Hucklings Edward have been most steadfast.

Initially, and for the first eight years, we made antelope meat. In 2005, Wyoming opened an antlerless deer season on September 1, to thin out deer herds which had become problematic. We began adding deer to our safari – mostly whitetails, but a fair number of muleys as well. With a couple exceptions, we bought only leftover nonresident tags at prices ranging from $80 each in the last century to $34 today.

Over the decades, we’ve gained permission to hunt eight different ranches to match several parcels of public ground. Some owners and permission-granters moved, sold or passed on. Some years we scrambled to find hunting ground with critters on it, but we always went home with meat to sustain our families. Over twenty years, my safari hunters have purchased 154 antelope and deer licenses, filling 143 of them (most unfilled tags were antelope). The last few years, our hunting has focused on three ranches.

Amazing, really, seeing so much history and change in my 1996 – 2016 spreadsheet. Still, isn’t that the world in which we live and thrive?

So, back to last week. On Tuesday, the 13th, we went deer hunting in the off-and-on rain on one of – arguably – the most beautiful ranches in Wyoming. By Noon, we had skinned, cleaned and hung three deer. After a quiet lunch we headed back to the ranch. Given the muddy roads, we hiked the mile and a half to the alfalfa bowl where the deer were hanging out. I had filled my one tag, so my job was rickshaw driver with the two-wheeled cart Homey Buzz Chevara had loaned us for the trip. We were back at the truck by dark, with three more deer aboard the rickshaw – pulled and pushed by a rotating pair of us. All deer tags were filled.

The next day, we processed some of the deer meat and waited – over cool malt beverages and a great BBQ dinner at the Big Horn Smokehouse and Saloon – for Thursday’s antelope opener.

Thursday dawned wet – again. By afternoon, thanks to careful stalks and good shooting, three antelope had been carted to the truck, skinned, cleaned and hung up. Antelope tags were filled.

Friday, we processed meat for the trip home, did a bit of souvenir shopping, and relaxed over a couple more cool malt beverages.

On Saturday morning, we finished processing meat. Then I presented Oscar and Bob with twentieth anniversary gifts: each received a specially wrapped “20” hand carved from a two-inch thick block of the best fudge in Wyoming. After a warm round of thanks, and several disparaging remarks, we noted that this was indeed a special year. Never before had we filled all our tags on the first day of hunting for each species. And in the muddy wet, yet.

By dark, Chris was back with his family in Denver and Steve and I were in Montana, heading for the barn.

Happy fall…

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized