Just one Middle Fork of the Salmon River Outfitter’s take on how to “Just Say YES,” how to identify if you are “when-ing” yourself to death and the unwritten obligation of phone calls during hunting season…
Where to begin?
Simply put, life is just different here at our house, as I’m sure it is in everyone’s house. However, ours is just different in a different sort of way.
When the world adopted the “Just Say No To Drugs” campaign years ago, I was personally well into the “Just Say Yes” campaign that I had initiated years before. Without near the following or fanfare I might add as “Just Say No” had. I would like to note here that the “Just Say No” campaign had been under way since I was a child and it wasn’t just drugs getting the “No.” My parents divorced when I was about 11 and oddly the “Just Say Yes” campaign began shortly after. Neither illegal narcotics nor women were high on my list but anything outside of that that looked, smelled of, or felt like… how do I put it… what’s the word I’m looking for… “TROUBLE??” was on the menu. Not trouble in the drive-by shooting, armed robbery sort of way. Just good old outdoor, after bedtime, parents-aren’t-around-kind of trouble. (Really the concerns seemed to be more from the parents of the kids I chose to run with than from my own).
I met “Uncle Jeff” when I was about 12 years old and he 14. It was at a weekend Boy Scout function. (By the way, scout leaders seem to have the same concerns as parents). None could epitomize the troubled parent/Just Say Yes conundrum like the parents of Uncle Jeff. His mother had a unique way of dealing with the situation. She simply said “No.” Uncle Jeff wasn’t allowed to come to my house and I wasn’t allowed to come to his. It made a lifelong friendship a bit tricky at first. A typical conversation between Jeff and his mom would go something like this:
“I’d like to…”
God protects drunks, fools and Steve Zettel
His dad was a very bright man, confident, successful and normal. It was just as if he and I were from two very different planets. He had no insight nor desire to visit, learn about, experience (or have his son for that matter), the planet that I was from. He did however respect my abilities, be they alien as they were, to survive the world I lived in. As he would explain to Uncle Jeff on numerous occasions when necessary that, “God protects drunks, fools and Steve Zettel.” Uncle Jeff’s Dad was a forward thinker for sure and that little ditty has held true for many years. With that said, I’m a firm believer that one should never take credit for their good fortune but take it just the same.
Uncle Jeff found his own path of enlightenment that walked a fine line between these two worlds. He became a surgeon and a dairy farmer. An extremely brilliant, educated man who continually loses body parts to farm equipment.
There are few in this world who understand a day in the life of the Zettel’s but Uncle Jeff is one of them. My late wife and two sons understand this as well, although maybe not as appreciatively as I would like. (What with the family full of blank stares as they would learn just what the Zettel’s had said “Yes” to this time!)
The “Just Say Yes” policy has treated me very well over the years and actually intensified with the diagnosis of my wife’s breast cancer. A million miles travelled by land, sea and air, thousands of miles on horseback, here today gone tomorrow, many times with only that much notice. Once again, I’m not saying we’ve done it better, but we definitely did it.
On a daily basis I speak with someone who will say something like:
“I’ve always wanted to do that…”
“I’ve always wanted to go there…”
To which I say, “Well Duh! Just Say Yes!”
But instead it’s typically:
“No, no, no, not yet, someday, maybe?”
“When the kids are older…”
“When the kids are out of the house…”
“When the kids are out of college…”
“When I retire…”
“When I’m dead!”
But not the Zettel’s!
Them Not Knowing…
There are those who are close to us that understand intimately what I speak of. There are others who are close to us that simply understand that they don’t understand, and they seem fine with that. Then, there the rest of the population that all live their own lives as they do, and will never understand and by all rights—why would they want to? It is these, to whom we affectionately refer to as, “Them Not Knowing.”
It often becomes futile to try and explain to such people what might transpire in a typical Zettel day. A 5-hour horseback ride with infant and toddler in a blizzard with loaded mules on a gnarly mountain trail, flipping a boat in the upper end of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in icy flood stage water, spearfishing Black Grouper in the morning and fighting a 100-pound Tarpon that afternoon, or flying out of the Alaska wilderness after successful Grizzly hunt or King Salmon fishing trip, and on and on and on.
We’ve had plenty of occasions when we would be participating in some grand outdoor adventure one day and then another, in another state, thousands of miles away the next day. What we’ve become so comfortable with day to day leaves most “Them Not Knowing” bewildered or uncomfortable at best.
Years ago, it was mid-August. I was helping my friend and ex-guide for Idaho Wilderness Company, Lance Kronberger, out with his very first guided Dall Sheep hunt, under his newly formed, “Freelance Outdoor Adventures.” He had booked a couple of my old guests, a father and son, for the maiden voyage. It was a great hunt. Two nice rams and a great time had by all. Lance was on his way! … And so was I—all the way back to Idaho, that same night!
It was my anniversary and I was going to try and make it home. Flying from the Alaskan Bush, to Anchorage, to Seattle, to Boise. Now a 4-hour drive home to Challis, Idaho. But, uh oh, not so fast. There’s a forest fire en route, and I will have to take the long way around. Which would not have been a big deal had it not been for the fact that my wife and boys were not in Challis. They were at our Fish Camp on Big Creek, the largest tributary to the Middle Fork of the Salmon River tending to a half dozen gentleman fishing guests. For those “not knowing,” this means I would have to get to Challis with enough daylight left to catch a half-hour flight into Big Creek, and just enough daylight for the pilot to get home.
I hit the house, put a sheep in the freezer, grabbed a clean white shirt and a bottle of Champaign, (No—I’m not a wine snob and I have no idea why there was a bottle at the house), and off to the airport. Fortunately, the air taxi had a pilot who was always up to a task, especially when it was interesting. And so, it was. With a little coercing (begging really) using the old “Anniversary… small children alone in the wilderness” tactic, Steve the pilot—had relented, and we were off. Thirty minutes later, both Steve’s had just enough daylight to make our respective final legs. Mine was a 20-minute jog from the Cabin Creek Airstrip, a quick crossing of Big Creek itself, the changing of the shirt, and a 200-yard sneak to camp. Did I mention it was a surprise?
As I approached camp, the guests were all seated near the outside dining table and could see me and as I scurried to the rear of the cook tent I gave them the universal shush single with my index finger to my lips. Michelle and the boys were cleaning the last of the dishes from the evening fare when I approached her from the rear in the other classic hug-your-wife-from-behind-while-she’s-doing-dishes position.
I had made it! From one place that most folks only dream about to another, to a woman most could only ever dream about, all in one day. All because I simply chose to say “Yes.” Was it worth it? I can’t speak for others, but for me, Absolutely! I wouldn’t have it any other way. At least not without a fight.
The unwritten rules of Elk Hunting…
I like to believe that if my two boys have learned anything from my examples, it would be the great value of simple opportunities. They are all around us and offered up continuously to us. I get the whole limited money, vacation time, compromise with other things. I just don’t subscribe to it.
It was late October, a year or so before Michelle passed away. I was operating our land-based horseback hunting outfit on Big Creek in Idaho’s Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. Michelle and the boys were now spending most of their time at our home on the Salmon River in Challis, doing normal school things. Attending normal functions. Pretending as best they could to be normal people living normal lives. My life had become a tug-of-war between the career and the place I loved or time with the family that I loved. Typically, I would fly out of the wilderness for a day or two every week or two for some boy time, conjugal visits, some sofa time, (have I mentioned that I’m a napper?) and who knows what else? Anything really but hunting, hiking, climbing, live animals, dead animals, etc.
One moment I would be chasing elk, bighorn sheep, mule deer, wolves or bears, elbow deep in horses and mules, saddling, packing. The next, I would be chasing the boys around the house or Michelle around the bedroom. This particular day as I flew the half hour flight to town I was curious as to the whereabouts of my buddy, Fireman Dan. He had drawn a very special tag and had been Elk Hunting outside of town now for several days. The family was out of town when I landed so no chasing boys, Michelle or otherwise till later. I called Dan on his cell phone. When he answered I optimistically asked, “What did you get?”
His response, “A nice 6-point.”
“When did you get it??”
Response, “About 30 seconds ago…”
Now for those of you in the “them not knowing” category. There is an unwritten rule in the “elk hunting” world and it is simply this: if you talk to someone within 30 seconds of when they get one, you are going to help carry it out!
A quick set of directions as to where he was, a trip to the house to get a backpack, and good news! I was already dressed for the occasion as I had been wearing the same clothes for the past two weeks of elk hunting. About an hour drive later I found myself on foot using my 37 years of well-honed tracking and locating skills developed over thousands of miles and thousands of days in the field.
Dan finally answered after I yelled about a thousand times.
A quick scurry to his location, load a couple of quarters and off to town for some well-earned chasing. The next morning, I woke to a day of no work, and there would be no outdoor nonsense either. A perfect day of almost nothing. Oh, there will be some chasing, as well as the all-important securing of the sofa cushions. Game time at last, NFL that is. I had my drink, my snacks, my family, my beautiful wife sashaying by every now and again to replenish refreshments and whatever else. YEP, it was perfect…
And then, the phone rings! I’m sure that every home, every family, every couple, every spouse, has a code for “I’m not here!” Mine was a simple shaking of the head in conjunction with a slitting of the throat motion. Now you would assume that after being together for 18 years that a couple would be able to communicate this way! Yes, he’s here. Do you want to speak with him? I now take it up a notch and resort to the “I hate Spinach” move, which is very similar to the “I’m not here” gesture except the teeth are clinched the head moves back-and-forth faster and the arms flail around as if out of joint.
As Michelle seemingly misses both attempts at communication and sashays slowly but steadily towards me, I’m about to realize my worst fear. She’s going to hand me the phone! She suddenly does the most graceful pirouette and as she was no longer the demon approaching me with the phone, and I hear her say…
“Okay, you don’t need to speak with him? You just need to borrow a kayak? He shot it where? How big? Oh, that big!” For all her qualities, Michelle was very poor at sign language. She was no better at recognizing “grown man running across the room reaching for the phone” move then she was with the “I’m not here” or the “I hate spinach.”
Click, she hung up the phone.
“What’s up?” I ask.
“Oh nothing. I’ve got it. You go enjoy your game. I just need to find someone to fly into the Middle Fork with a kayak and go rescue someone and his big buck on the other side of the river.”
I knew better than to believe that after all her poor visual listening that she would have any chance of understanding the “Pick Me,” regardless of how high I reached my hand in the air or how high I leaped with both feet off the floor. Actually, quite high for a man in his fifties if I must say so myself. And so it was, that as my drink ice melted, I found myself on a plane, flying into the wilderness, pumping a kayak, packing it to the river, two trips across the river and back, one with the deer and one with the dear friend, carrying the kayak back up to the plane, then the deer.
On the flight back to Challis we noticed some elusive elk hanging in a place that was about an hour drive, then an hour hike from town. Seems like a lot of work for someone foolish enough to go after them. I knew just such a foolish young man and I would be sure to tell he and his dad when I got home. A few minutes after the plane touched down in town, I suddenly found myself sitting there at home, holding down the sofa cushions, game not yet over, ice not yet melted, wife still sashaying hither and tither. Was it all dream? It was nap time. One thing was for certain, I was going to take the rest of my “town break” away from any kind of hunting, climbing, or meat packing etc.
So, as we climbed up the trail in the dark early the next morning, one of my young wrestlers and his father and I approached the area where I had spotted the elusive elk the afternoon before. Uncertain that they would find the spot on their own, I was compelled to join them just to be sure. Hours later, we loaded the last of the elk into their truck and after the several trips and several hours of hiking and packing, I again looked forward to the sofa time and Monday Night Football, with a drink, snack, children and lovely wife.
Ring, ring, Hello? There was no need for an attempt at communicating with the demon phone packer. I simply reached my hand blindly back and accepted the phone. It was a friend from the past, a “Them Not Knowing”. Your wife says you’ve been out for a couple of days, getting a little R & R. What have you been up to? After a moment and a realization of that there’s no use trying to explain to a “Them Not Knowing,” I responded with, “not much, just hangin’ out with the family, watching the game.” Just another day.
~ Steve Zettel… from Philly on a Greyhound to a pack-string in the Idaho wilderness, 38 years of outfitting and guiding, and still none the wiser.
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