One Women’s Elk Hunt of a Lifetime
You never know when someone makes a comment or tells a tale how it may impact your life or others. Such is my story.
I learned about the NRA Women’s Wilderness Escape (WWE) at the NRA Whittington Center (NRAWC) from a former next-door neighbor and dear friend from when we lived in Eagan, Minn. I thought, “I want to do that.” And so I did. On Sept. 22, 2010, I drove by myself from our Piedmont home in the Black Hills of South Dakota to Raton, N.M., and the NRAWC for my nine-day wilderness escape with 99 other women and a host of caring and talented instructors. We shot everything from pistols, black powder, carbines, rifles, shotguns and archery. At the end of this amazing experience, the NRAWC offered a raffle for two cow elk hunts. Again I decided, “I want to do that.” As luck would have it, I won a hunt to take place in January 2011.
Winning the hunt was the beginning of the next stage of my experience. I didn’t have a rifle, but my husband, Gary Lillie, was very supportive, and I had the confidence I gained at WWE. I bought a left-handed Tikka T3 .270 rifle and a Nikon Buckmasters scope.
I am right-handed, but at WWE I learned I am left eye dominant and started shooting left-handed. That was another factor added to the mix. Next, I learned that the stock on my rifle was too long. After having that cut down it looked like a miniature stock, but it fit me. I am 5 feet 2 inches tall and 66 years old. I didn’t have time to shoot my rifle other than sighting it in because in the middle of November we were leaving for Elephant Butte, N.M., where we winter. After one time at the range, it became apparent that the kick was too much to have fun. I was fortunate to have Dave, one of our neighbors and an avid hunter and former guide, to help me. He knew a gunsmith who installed a muzzle brake that reduced the felt recoil by 40 percent. Now I was having fun!
During the whole process I learned how to handle my rifle, what a muzzle brake was, that 150 grain ammo is necessary for elk, the helpfulness of shooting sticks and how to use them, the effectiveness of walking up and down the dry arroyo with my gun for fitness, a simulated hunt so I would know where to aim to hit my elk, and the role my guide would play.
On January 17, 2011, with a glorious sunrise welcoming me to the day, I climbed in our red truck for the six-hour drive to the Whittington Center. Since I had been there before and had met some of their staff, I didn’t feel intimidated. We sighted-in my rifle that afternoon, and I had a very nice grouping.
At 6:50 a.m. on Jan. 18 my guide, Jack Polen, showed up at my cabin, ready to go. The first challenge of the day was to get into his truck with no running boards. That got better as the day wore on. He took me to the back side of the Whittington Center’s 33,000 acres, where he thought an elk herd might be. We parked in a draw and walked up the hill. He saw an elk. My reply was, “Where?” Turns out it was her back end as she was walking into the woods. I felt good knowing I had gotten a visualization of her color in the midst of the cover. We let her go on her way.
A bit later, Jack suddenly switched his demeanor and said, “Now let’s start to hunt.” I followed his lead in stance, walking style (except he is a foot taller than me with long legs), and use of cover. Since he is so much taller, I sometimes asked him to come down to my eye level, as I wasn’t always seeing what he was. He had binoculars and knew what he was looking for, too. Elk can see a very long way and watch you, on alert, if they can see you. After we had walked a while, I reached in my pocket for my hunting license, and it was gone. Yikes! We backtracked 300 or 400 yards and there it was on the ground. It had fallen out of my pocket. I zipped it into a secure pocket, not wanting to add any more drama.
At one point, when the herd had moved, Jack asked me if I wanted to continue or go back. I said, “What would you do?” To which he replied, “I would go after her.” That was enough for me. “Then let’s go!” I said.
We came upon a large herd of antelope on a plateau with the elk herd down a draw where they couldn’t see us. Jack was concerned that the antelope would spook the elk. Most of the antelope gave us the eye and moved away without disturbing the elk. All of a sudden Jack said, “Can you crawl on your belly?” He started slithering along, military style, to the edge of the draw. I followed. When we got to the edge, there was a herd of about 40 cow elk.
“Wow!” I thought. I could have sat there and just watch them, but that wasn’t my mission. They sensed some danger as they grouped close together and did what Jack called the “protective march,” walking two-by-two so there was no opportunity for a shot. There were a couple of stragglers at the end of the herd, but they were moving and we wanted them to be still.
When there was an opportunity for a shot, it was safe because the Whittington Center’s administrative offices were in the background, although they were a considerable distance away. The herd turned and moved in the opposite direction. When there was another opportunity for a shot, a truck was coming down the road. Again we waited.
Jack pointed out what he thought would be a good animal, not too young and not too old. By now I had my bi-pods down and was ready for my shot. I got a good solid one, although not a heart shot. The herd moved off quickly and all of them jumped over fences and crossed the road into a neighboring ranch. My cow was weakening quickly but found the strength and courage to follow them. Since she had entered another rancher’s property, we had to get permission to enter. One of the other guides kept watch and saw where she had dropped while the herd moved on. Once we gained permission, we found her lying beside a bush. An ear twitched, so Jack had me shoot her again. As I walked over to her, I called her “sweetheart” because she had given all for me. At Jack’s suggestion, I ran my hand tenderly over her face and thanked her.
Then it was time to move on. Jack field dressed her and got her ready to load on the truck. There would be meat for the table and hide for clothing. The Whittington Center has first class facilities and equipment. The truck had a winch for loading, with some help, and we took her back to the skinning shed where Jack and I skinned her. Another item new to me was that elk have two pure ivory teeth. I asked to have them removed for me. I plan to have custom earrings made from them. The hide was handled as carefully as possible, as it is my plan to send it to a tannery referenced to me by Lisa Metheny, my archery instructor at WWE.
After quartering and putting the cow in the cooler, it was time for supper. We hadn’t eaten since breakfast, but the adrenalin kept us from being hungry. Jack, his fiancée, Mera, and I went out for supper. I had made new friends, which was a bonus to my successful hunt.
In the morning, Jack had already salted the hide, the first step in getting it ready for the tannery. We rolled it up, put it in a plastic bag, and placed it in the truck with the four quarters of meat. I drove to Springer, N.M., where I delivered the meat to H&H Processing. It is a family owned and operated business. They were so helpful. They cut the blackstrap, loin, and a couple of roasts for me to bring back. The remainder will be processed, frozen and shipped to Piedmont at a later date. Another bonus was I had breakfast at the Brown Hotel in Springer. It was like stepping back in time.
I was welcomed home with open arms and a rapt audience of my supporters waiting for my story. One of the women, visiting from Alaska, said because of my story she is inspired to hunt. And so it goes.
I want to give special thanks to my husband for his unwavering support and to the NRA Whittington Center for this opportunity.