I’ve heard that if you iron out the peaks and canyons of Wallowa County it would lay flat the same size as Vermont or the universe or some large area. If you had ironed my legs last week, after backpacking with Jordan Manley straight up and down some of these ridges, I wouldn’t have noticed because my body was dedicating all available sensory functions to the part of the brain that says, “What are you doing? Stop this.”
Manley is a river guide, hunting guide, ski guide, horse packer, cowboy, former firefighter, traditional archer. Goes off into Hells Canyon for extended periods to hone his survivalist skills. Nickname is “Squatch,” as in Sasquatch. I’m guessing because you’re always trying to catch a glimpse of him but he’s just a blurry figure in the distance. That was my experience anyway. I still can’t feel my legs after our week-long archery elk hunt, but do feel strongly that I learned a lot from Jordan about survival tactics in the wilderness. Do not go backpacking with Jordan Manley. That’s really the main thing I learned. It’s just physically impossible to carry enough ibuprofen for the task, even in a large backpack.
My plan for hiking in was to take advantage of a recent invention known as a “trail.” Jordan, however, was eager to arrive in elk country and favored the approach of the shortest distance between two points being dragging Jon up and down mountains in a straight line until he falls over from exhaustion. We got there, eventually, though I’m sure Jordan wishes we’d gotten an earlier start that day and I wished we’d started last year.
Last year my great ambition was to make this same trip. Pack into the hinterlands with my bow and arrows and go after elk. I got ready, months in advance. Every morning I got up, stretched, exercised, did push-ups, skipped rope, rode my bike. Even went jogging, which is high on my list of being low on my list of things I like to do. I got into as good of backcountry elk hunting shape as I could. Then I got lucky and got my elk on a weekend outing with an easy pack to the truck. Huh. All those push-ups, completely unnecessary.
This year I didn’t think I’d have time for an extended trip so the physical training dropped off a tad. Does “tad” mean “completely?” Because the physical preparation dropped off completely. Then suddenly my schedule opened up, I gave Jordan a call and, next thing you know, I’m wobbling on a ridge on leg muscles reduced to overcooked fettuccine, a huge pack on my back with seven days of food and Jordan is pointing at elk.
“See ‘em?” Jordan asked. “Far ridge, just above timberline. Looks like a good bull in there.” Oh, I saw ‘em, all right. And the far ridge was ... far. I explained to Jordan that I didn’t have an elk tag for South America so didn’t think we should go after these particular elk. I also reminded him that I’m in my forties. And tried to explain to him the concept of how trails work.
I survived hunting with a survivalist. Even came home with an elk. And I made a new best friend. That would be Tio, Jordan’s saddle horse, which I got to ride when we went back in to pack out the meat. Love Tio. Can’t say enough good things about that horse. Very patient. He let me rub his neck the entire way, whispering, “Thank you, Tio. Thank you.”
Jon Rombach is a horse enthusiast and local columnist for The Chieftain.