"You sound like a human when you walk," he whispered as we hiked away from camp and onto a snow-covered trail in the predawn darkness.
"KA-runch, KA-runch — no animal sounds like that."
It was the first of countless insights Jim Kujala shared when we started hunting together years ago. The Montana native and Spokane Valley resident has well-honed ways about the woods, including walking with a "clop, clop," like an elk.
Classically clad from head to toe in wool — pants, hat, gloves and plaid shirt and jacket (no camo) — he's quiet as a cougar slipping through the undergrowth in the timber. At 6-foot-2, Kujala is lean as a herd bull after a tough winter. He seems to sense, breath and think like an elk.
"A lot of what I know about elk hunting is from fouling up," he said, reflecting on his prowess at a Blue Mountains camp recently.
Keys to success
But lots of success also contributes to his elk hunting IQ.
The sportsman is a master after 65 years of tagging one or more elk a season while hunting in Montana and Washington. Only once in his hunting lifetime has he failed to notch a tag.
"In the '60s I boogered up my knee trying to catch up to a bull," he said. "I couldn't hike for the rest of the season. That was that."
The odds of a hunter getting an elk in a single year are more than 10 to one in Washington and roughly five to one even in Montana. Kujala's consistency speaks of someone with extraordinary skills and passion.
Asked to divulge his ultimate secret for elk hunting success, his answer was quick.
"Luck — sometimes," he said.
"Also, knowing what habitat the elk prefer," he continued as I dug for more details. "and studying a hunting area well enough to know what they do, where they feed, where they bed, the routes they travel ... it all plays into success."
The long haul
So does his commitment.
"I came close to not getting an elk in 1966," he said. "The herds had migrated through our area (in Montana) early and none showed up later. I hunted 21 straight days while working swing shifts and finally got my elk on the last day of the season.
"Still, you can't overlook luck. My brother and I were hunting together that day. When we came to a big tree, Roger went to one side, I went to the other side and there was a bull. Luck was on my side. I got it."
That also was a memorable season because it was the last year the Kujala family had horses to haul elk out of the national forests where they hunt. In the past 50 years, they've packed out their elk by human muscle power.
"Our family hunted deer and elk as our main source of meat when I grew up," he said, noting that hunger can be highly motivating.
Some fine mounts hang on Kujala's walls, but mostly he hunts for the table. The majority of his kills are at ranges close enough for head or neck shots with minimal bloodshot meat. He uses it all.
Big Hole boy
Growing up on his grandparents' homestead in the Big Hole Valley, Kujala killed his first buck deer at age 12 with a .22 caliber rifle. At age 13, he tagged his first elk.
"I was with my dad when he killed a bull," he said, "so while he took care of it he gave me his rifle and let me and my 10-year-old brother go hunting."
Floating high on the feeling of freedom in the mountains, the two boys ticked off their two manhood desires. "First we found a place to have a cigarette," he said, noting that he soon gave up the vice. "Then we got an elk.
"A spike we were tracking was backtracking itself and I shot it in the neck at 12 feet."
He'd only watched an elk be gutted to that point.
"I had my brother hold a leg up while I crawled inside the rib cage to pull out the esophagus."
Men back at the ranch didn't believe the boys' story when they got back, so his dad sent them out with two horses to drag out the elk.
It was the first of hundreds of big-game animals Kujala has cleaned and skinned as a hunter or assisting friends and family. He's also used those skills as a permitted volunteer for collecting roadkill to provide meat for charity kitchens.
Endurance epics survived by Kujala, his brother and nephews would be legendary if they weren't so private about them. Hard work is in their blood. One of Jim's first jobs off the ranch was breaking rock with a sledge hammer at Anaconda Company mines. Toughness is in his being.
Spike bulls eluded him during a week of hunting in Washington this season, so he departed almost immediately, as usual, for Western Montana where, on the third day of hunting alone he bagged a five-point bull with his trusty 7mm magnum just before the end of official shooting hours.
The 78-year-old hunter gutted the elk in the dark, setting the tenderloins aside on the snow to cool.
"I always take special care of the tenderloins," he said.
He walked 1 1/2 miles through the snow back to his pickup to retrieve a tub-like sled and hiked back. He used the block and tackle he carries in his hunting daypack to help load the entire 400 pounds of bull in the sled.
"Then I dragged the elk — and my butt — out of there," he said. "A little uphill, but mostly down."
Last year, he had to haul a bull out by himself for 2 1/2 miles — far enough to require cutting the elk in half and making two loaded sled trips.
He recalled the time his brother and he tied ropes around their waists and dragged out a whole bull elk in waist-deep snow ... and the time he alone dragged out an elk for more than 6 miles.
"Not long ago, I told my brother, the things we used to do, we couldn't have," he said.
Impressive as his hunting stories are, they speak to only a fraction of what makes Kujala the consummate sportsman.
He regularly fishes for trout, bass, steelhead and salmon, and he's introduced youth groups to fishing through school-approved outings. He cleans trout caught at the annual local Kid Fishing event and takes coolers full of iced fish to the Union Gospel Mission.
He's delivered meals to seniors as well as lay ministry to the needy through his church. Nurses at the blood bank know his veins as surely as the streets to their office.
Last spring, Kujala volunteered, as usual, for the ongoing project to remove barbed-wire fences from Blue Mountains wildlife areas. This fall, he joined volunteers to plant trees for habitat at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge. The Washington Fish and Wildlife Department tapped him as the statewide volunteer of the year in 2002.
Yet he still carves out enough time to get his elk every year.
After retirement from monitoring Bonneville Power stations, state wildlife researchers recognized his critter savvy and signed him up for capturing and radio-collaring deer using collapsible traps that look like dog kennels. Then he would monitor the radio signals by foot, road, snowmobile or aircraft.
For years he retrieved the expensive research collars from dead animals in remote tangles of forests and even garages, with permission, of course.
When a dead wolf was salvaged by biologists to be mounted for education in the WDFW Spokane Region office, Kujala was called in to skin it. He also hunted and prepared a coyote to be displayed next to the wolf for comparison.
Kujala has lived his life with no particular need for a good night's sleep, making him the go-to man for wildlife researcher Woody Myers.
"If we had a deer in a trap, we could call on Jim, day or night," he said.
At elk camp, Kujala is always up after I sack out. His lantern is on when I get up and he's reading books ranging from the classics to the complete works of Zane Grey.
Other hunters may have tagged as many elk as Kujala, although not many. Even fewer hunters bake their own elk pasties and prepare their smoked elk sausage and elk tacos for elk camp.
I bring the salad.
His camp isn't a party. Eat, hunt all day, talk elk, sleep. There's little time for much else during the elk hunt. All suffering is countered with a piece of his homemade pies, which he bakes by the dozen before the season.
He also makes homemade jam from his garden for sandwiches. His ribbon-winning, homemade clear-red cherry wine is always handy for honoring elk camp moments worth toasting, including the successful deployment of blue tarps and duct tape to stop rain from leaking into the camp trailer.
He regularly sends his hunting partner home with a loaf of huckleberry zucchini bread and maybe a spaghetti dinner with elk sauce after the hunt.
Sharing his elk meat with friends and family comes naturally, but he nearly brought me to my knees when he brought a bottle of his wine and one of his precious elk tenderloins this fall so I could treat my wife to a special dinner for our anniversary.
With a hound dog's devotion to another former hunting partner, Kujala set up a blind near the Blue Mountains camp this fall and invited John, who's midway through his 80s, to come up and experience another shot at hunting elk.
"That's it," John said back at camp the evening of the opener. "I can't do it anymore. I'm too damned old."
The weight of John's reckoning with his aging status left the three of us momentarily speechless until Kujala leaned over the camper dinner table and said, "Getting older means discovering something every day that I can't do as well as I could before."
We toasted John's hunting career.
"You made the decision on your own terms, John, instead of somebody making it for you," Kujala said. "There's going to be a day in every hunter's life when he can't go elk hunting."
Then he brought out one of his homemade peach pies.