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Notching his elk tag for 65 years only part of what makes Jim Kujala a consummate hunter

Rich Landers, The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.) on

Published in Outdoors

He walked 11/2 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.

(c)2017 The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.)

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