Have you ever been close to death — a heart attack, cancer, car accident, Vietnam? Did this experience change your life? It should have. If you are a surviver, it means that every day, every minute, every experience is a gift. A reward. A positive, no matter the circumstance. Breathe deep and feel the sweetness.
Here is one of my close calls that taught me how good it feels to breathe.
In the critical last second-and-a-half, I clearly recall my thoughts, “It’s not going to hurt, and there will be a huge explosion of stars — then nothing.”
That was almost exactly 30 years ago on a hunt in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness area.
I was hunting with two hunting partners who had been with me on two previous fly-in hunts to the same location. This year we were hunting the late part of the season in late November. Our hunt was scheduled to last about 10 days depending on weather and hunting success. This particular season there was an abundance of snow and cold weather — both good for hunting since the deer migrate to the lower ground, plus the rut was on. Consequently, my two hunting partners were successful within the first five days. Nice deer, too.
At this time two events occurred that changed my hunting tactics. First was that a group of hunters came in to our camping area by horseback. This was highly unusual because of the nearly 40-mile horseback ride to get to this spot, especially this late in the season. The second event was that we began to consistently sight some very large mule deer bucks on the other side of the river from our camp. To get there would require wading the river. Not a good idea since the river was frozen over in the shallow areas and full of fast moving icy water in the deep pool areas.
So here is where these events collide.
The guys with horses were short of 7mm ammunition and in return for a box of ammunition, they offered me a horse to ride across the river the next morning. I would tie the horse up and hunt where the big bucks were seen, and they would continue down river to a place they wanted to hunt.
How could I be so lucky? We’ll see.
Early next morning I helped round up and saddle the horses. So at first light, off we went. We crossed the river uneventfully. The other four horsemen took off down river after advising me to tie my horse up very tightly since he was a little bit “green broke” and did not like to be away from the other horses. They would meet me where we crossed the river in the morning at dusk and then recross the river to return to camp at the end of the day.
So I got to where I wanted to hunt and tied the horse to a big stump with the best knot I knew. I then hunted the steep uphill area and came very close to getting a shot at a very large buck, but things just did not work out for a good shot opportunity. So, a little before dusk I returned to the place I had tied my faithful steed.
The place looked like a war had been fought there, and of course my ride was gone. Long gone. Ooookay. The group of guys with the horses were kind of a rough group to begin with, and now I had lost their triple crown winner.
So I hiked back to the location where we had crossed the river that morning to wait for my “friends” to return. Just before dark here they came — with Trigger or Secretariat, or whatever his name was — in tow. Since it was closing in on darkness, they had limited time to render me a severe ass-chewing.
They had been successful in taking two deer that were field-dressed and in several back pack arrangements. OK, said mister big man (and he was — 6-foot 5 inches and big), here is the plan.
Since they had more deer and people that exceeded the number of horses to cross the river, he said, “YOU (meaning me) are going to ride Secretariat across the river with this pack of deer meat on your back. Then drop the meat on the other side, ride back across and pick up another pack of meat.”
Then we would all cross the river and ride to camp.
“One thing,” mister big said, before advising me I was not to “under any circumstances” let the pack I was carrying on my back touch the back of the horse. “He doesn’t like that,”
So I put the pack on my back and climbed aboard. I led the horse to the edge of the river to start across. I tried to rein him toward a place where there was no ice but was just ahead of a deep pool.
Nope. He did not want to cross here — or anywhere. I nudged him with my heel, and he took a step toward the river but abruptly changed his mind and tried to turn back.
This motion was enough to cause me to lean back in the saddle. The rodeo was on. I grew up on a ranch and had ridden horses for years, so I stuck with him long enough for him to gain momentum directly toward the deep pool in the river. However, with the weight of the deer on my back, my ride was destined to come to an unhappy conclusion.
This is where my one-and-a-half-second epiphany happened. On the way to the deep pool was a large boulder sticking out of the river — directly in our path. As I neared the boulder, I started to become unseated and falling directly onto the boulder. No doubt the collision with the rock would knock me unconscious.
One-thousand-one, one-thousand…wham. The rock hit the pack top inches from my head.
With 60 pounds of deer meat on my back, I quickly drifted under water and downstream, but conscious. Shortly (a few seconds) later I was able to get my feet under me and my head above water.
By working with the current I was able to pick my way to shallow water and walk to the other shore. Very shortly after leaving the water, everything exposed began to freeze. My hair was instantly frozen. My hunting jacket began to ice up and cold water was seeping inside everything including my boots. But I was out of the water. The whole process from beginning to end had taken only a few moments, but now I had to get back to camp about a half-mile away. So I started walking toward camp which required a steep hike.
I made it back to camp without any severe consequences. I do not recall being cold or afraid. I packed the deer all the way to camp, and when I walked into my tent my partners were stunned.
I stripped out of my wet and frozen clothing and got into warm, dry clothes. By this time, the contingent of hunter/horseback riders began arriving back to their camp located near our camp.
Again I endured a barrage of expletives and derogatory comments. I told them their deer meat was in their camp, and their horse (Secretariat) was in tow with them, so as far as I was concerned they had no problems and they would do well to move on as soon as they could to new hunting grounds. I won’t go into the exact details of that conversation, but next morning they packed up, saddled up, and were gone.
What I remember from this incident was that I never had a feeling of fear. Not from the intimidation before the dunking or afterward at my tent. The rodeo process required absolute concentration to avoid a life-threatening situation by staying in the saddle and consequently allowed no time for fear. Even in the water, I just kind of did what instinct told me to do — and got out of the water alive. My main thought hiking the steep climb back to camp was how pissed off the other dudes were going to be.
I guess if I look at what I learned from this incident, it was to think about the process of getting to the goal as much as the desired outcome, and how easy it is to let something too good be foolish and dangerous. Be careful what you wish for.
Sounds good, but maybe sometime in another article I will tell of another close call I had in this my favorite place in my world.
Breathe deep and go for it.
• • •
Lanny Olson is a Coeur d’Alene resident. He is also the Mayor of Mahoney, which is likely somewhere near his “favorite place in the world.” Per Olson, “To tell exactly where Mahoney is would be like telling everybody exactly where your best huckleberry patch is, or maybe where your elk honey hole is. So, I will tell you only that it is accessible only by airplane, is extremely remote, and all of its citizens are hunters. Mahoney citizenship is a fairly exclusive group — of the best kind of people.”
Olson can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.