After reading my report on our mule deer trip to Montana, my hunting partner Tony was a bit disappointed that I talked more about rocks and cactus than his many and varied skills. As an example, he pointed out that I had totally overlooked his remarkable sense of humor. Despite the fact that his comedy repertoire consists of a single joke (it’s a good one...but it’s just one) I’ll admit that he has a good sense of humor.
His comment got me thinking though...what makes a good hunting partner? It’s not like you pick a hunting partner based on a resume...you just go hunting and if the dude is a good hunter and fun to hang out with then you go again. If he’s un-safe or un-funny you just avoid him like the plague.
Let me look beyond the anorexic joke lineup of my hunting partner Tony, and provide you with a look at some of the many other talents that make him a great guy to hunt with.
He’s the kind of guy who just works all the time. He got to our hunting area first, and rather than just look for a slurpee at the nearest 7-11, he rucked up and started scouting for a place for us to hunt. Interestingly enough, on his first scouting trip he lost the keys to his vehicle. I got a text lamenting the loss and I could hear the desperation in his words. A little while later I got another text telling me he had retraced his steps and found his keys. It was an amazing turn of events...he lost his keys in the middle of Nowhere, Montana but he was able to track his way back to them. Things were looking up.
He did all the advance work on finding us a place to camp while we were there. I have to give him credit here. Tony secured a private camp site for us within a very short driving distance of a beautiful highway rest stop. How could a highway rest stop be beautiful you ask? First of all it had heat in the mens room, and hot water too. One might not really appreciate those two things until they’ve spent a few long days alone on a cold windswept ridge. The rest stop also had picnic tables. Big deal right? A picnic table? A good hunting buddy will have this area scouted out too and understand the nuances of the environment...this work would pay huge dividends later.
On day one he led me all the way to our hunting spot. After all, he had done the advance work and knew where we were going. Day one was great and went off without a hitch...right up until the end. As I came down off a ridge in the dark I heard Tony yell up at me “I looosst my phooooone.” Then he romped off into the dark trying to find it while I came down from the ridge. For the next 15 minutes I stood in the dark with only a creaky old windmill for company. I watched his headlamp bobbing in the distant blackness as he marched left and right, out and back, all over the horizon as he retraced his steps trying to find his lost iPhone. I called his phone about 15 times hoping he’d see it or hear it and put an end to the goose chase. About the time I was wondering what the odds were of a mountain lion getting one of us here in the dark, I saw him start his return...after adding another mile and a half to his days hiking mileage he had found the phone.
I spent day two hunting alone. Darkness gathered around me as the day drew to a close, leaving me a small, dark, hungry speck upon the rocky landscape. As the last rays of legal light slipped over the horizon, I got a text message. Cold hands meant a shaky phone but I could still read the words...Tony said to just meet back at the picnic tables because he was making dinner...steak and potatoes no less. I got his text as I sat shivering on a high dusty ridge with the wind sandblasting me until I thought I’d walk out of there as a frozen skeleton.
“Steak and potatoes?” I thought...surely this is a joke. Tony, you see, is quite the prankster. In fact, at one point he had me convinced that the entire hunting trip was a bust...that we hadn’t drawn the required tags in the lottery. As it turns out the day he tricked me was April 1st...it had not even crossed my mind to check the date, and he got me with an April fools joke. I had trusted him, and like a good hunting partner will do, he immediately violated that trust to toy with my emotions. Surely you can see why I initially doubted this “steak and potatoes” message. Part of me thought he had found a road-kill possum and cooked it up to test my gastronomical prowess.
When I arrived at our table Tony informed me that he had met another hunter who was in the area on his own and invited him to our rest stop diner. “Who does that?” I thought. Rather than let some dude eat alone, far from home, he simply invited him to join us. Tony is just that nice of a guy. Of course there was an outside chance that this loner was a serial killer who cruises rest stops for victims, but if that was the case, Tony would at least make sure that he’d be a well fed serial killer. It might even buy us some goodwill and keep us off the victim list.
The dude turns out to be a cab driver from Minnnesota who has hunted the area for 20 years, and appreciated some end of the day conversation. As we sat at the picnic table talking shop, Tony broke out a 2 burner Coleman stove and began whipping up a meal that would make Betty Crocker look like Chef Boyardee.
I watched in disbelief as Tony dipped into his magic cooler and pulled out one ingredient after another, bacon, potatoes, elk steaks...it was unbelievable. I hadn’t eaten since around 9 that morning and all day I had been “looking forward” to a bag of re-hydrated lasagna with “meat sauce”. While that lasagna would in fact be nutritious, it would also be extremely bland. Eating re-hydrated meals from a bag is kind of like paying taxes...you do it because you have to...not because you want to.
So in a weird way, Tony’s rest stop cooking was a bit like tax evasion. It helped me avoid doing something I really didn’t want to do and if felt great to be doing it too.
The guy took a concrete picnic bench at a highway rest stop, and turned it into a comfortable diner serving delicious, piping hot food that you’d gladly pay top dollar for back home. Rather than sitting in the dark and cold eating bland lasagna from a bag, I was now dining on bacon fried potatoes with elk steak, and enjoying a lot of conversation about hunting. We were officially having a great time.
Day three brought more good times in the field followed by dinner at a restaurant in town. Despite the advantages of heat, walls, indoor plumbing, gas, electricity, dishwashers, a staff, refrigerators, ovens and broilers, the restaurant only managed to barely top the culinary creations of Tony’s rest stop diner.
Day four was a hard day of hiking. I filled my tag that morning and rather than continue his own hunt, Tony dropped everything to come help process my deer. Together we skinned out and processed that animal on the spot where it fell. Not long after we began, a freezing rain came in and tried to kill us. I know some people who would’ve quit, or gone back to the truck to warm up for a bit...but Tony is a trooper. He was in it to win it. Despite the nasty weather mother nature was throwing at us he stayed right there with me until we had that thing done. He even took on the role of “expedition photographer” as I set a world record for “slowest pace with a backpack” on the return trip to the truck with 100 lbs of meat on my back.
That afternoon I got to start returning the favors as I took my supporting role in trying to help Tony fill his tag. We drove the roads for a while trying to execute a plan but the day ended with no luck. That evening back at the diner, Tony again broke out the Coleman stove and the magic cooler. A frigid arctic wind couldn’t dampen the spirits inside Tony’s rest stop diner. Hot chocolate flowed like champagne in a rap music video.
That evening the cook created a layered dish of fried potatoes with chunks of elk tenderloin perched lovingly on top. Then to the hushed awe of the patrons, Tony delivered his master-stroke by pouring an entire can of Campbells Chunky Beef Stew over the entire thing. After a long hard day of hiking, this type of food was a Godsend. Hot, tasty carbs, and lean protein were the perfect blend to refuel the hiking machines.
Amid a harsh and cold landscape he had once again created warmth and sustenance. It felt like a magic trick out of the Lord of the Rings...as if Gandalf himself had waved his staff, muttered some stuff in Elvish or whatever you call that language, and POOF! All the evil was gone and a banquet was laid out before us. Such is the impact of a quality camp chef.
The next morning we returned to the field to try to get Tony’s tag filled. Before we left the truck in the pre-dawn darkness he asked me to put his camera in the top pouch of his pack. He had already put his coat in that pouch, so I simply put the camera snugly in with it, then snapped it back the way he had it. Off we went.
The next few hours are funny in retrospect. My phone was dead so I had it in the truck charging...and I forgot to take it with me when we left. We had split up in the field and were on ridges on opposite sides of the valley...facing each other at a distance of roughly 600 yards. I could see Tony through my binos but every now and then he would disappear. I figured he was stalking around trying to find something on the other side of the ridge.
Since I had no phone though, I couldn’t confirm any of this. All I could do was hope that he would eventually figure out to switch to our backup mode of communications...the two way radios. After a few hours my radio crackled to life. Tony had figured out that I didn’t have my phone. He mentioned that he had lost his jacket on the way in. I told him I’d look for it on the way back to the truck.
I saw no sign of the jacket or camera on my return trip. When I got to the truck I checked my phone and saw that over the past few hours he had sent and increasingly desperate set of text messages to a phone that no one was checking.
“Have you seen my jacket?” the first message read.
“I think it fell out on the way in.” stated the next.
The messages grew more stark as his condition deteriorated.
“Man, it’s really cold this morning.”
“Can’t stop shaking.”
It felt like I was reading the diary of a dying man. As it turns out...when I saw him disappearing off the ridge he wasn’t stalking deer. When the involuntary shaking grew so violent that he couldn’t hold the rifle still enough for a shot, he’d bail off the backside of the ridge and march up and down it until he got warm enough to hunt again. Then he’d get back to hunting until hypothermia had him in it’s icy grasp once more, at that point he’d do another “survival hike” to generate some body heat.
I saw no sign of the jacket, but after retracing all of his steps, Tony found it not far from the truck. He took a line maybe 60 yards different from the path I took and he found it lying in plain site. I felt bad that he almost froze to death...I’ve been there and it makes for a tough hunt. But in the end...like always...he found his gear. It’s tough to say he “loses” a lot of gear because he always finds it again. He definitely misplaces a lot of gear and I’d bet he’s in such good hiking shape because he does a lot of 2 for 1 hikes. One hike for the hunt, and one to find the gear he misplaced.
So when you consider the kind of hunting partner that Tony is, you see that you have a character that can hike all day long, but needs to because he loses a lot of stuff. He has one joke but tells it well. He can cook like a 5-star camp chef. He never rests until the job is done. He is equal parts humble and tenacious...a combination rarely seen in people. He is always eager to help out in some way to make things better...even when they seem to be good enough already. He is as humble and generous an ambassador of the outdoors as you are likely to meet in your lifetime...and I’m glad that I got to spend a week on the trail with him. If you ever see a dude at a rest stop cooking on a two burner stove...wander over and say hello...you just might get to meet the legendary Tony McClain.