Todays I want to share a story with you guys. This episode is a story about two brothers, who were connected through hunting and their love for the outdoors. Through social media and through the podcast I met Karl Blanchard. I’m not going to ruin the story but in a nut shell Karl’s brother Aaron always dreamed of being in a magazine and we are no Eastman’s Journal but if I can help share the story, you bet your ass I am going to help where I can. Karl is an awesome guy and I have so much respect for him and the family members who have lost loved ones in the service. My heart goes out to them all and I am so glad that Karl and others can find piece in hunting. This is the best hunting story we’ve ever had on the show for multiple reasons so I hope you guys enjoy.
- Interview starts (4:00)
- Drawing a Washington branch bull tag (13:00)
- Killing a bull for Aaron (15:30)
- The freedom we have today (24:00)
- Karl’s tactic for his hunt (26:00)
- Nervous for the hunt (31:00)
- Reading a bulls attitude (36:30)
- A bittersweet moment (46:00)
- Why we hunt (55:30)
- Relating to Veterans through hunting (1:03:45)
- Catching up with Karl (1:13:45)
Since the time we were little, playing hunting on the hill by our house, my big brother was always obsessed with big bull elk! I can’t tell you how many times I have been shot with a red ryder bb gun pretending to be a bugling 6pt! Cut outs from bugle magazines covered the walls of his room, and many hours of his young life were spent sifting through books and magazines learning the ways of the wapiti.
Aaron dreamed of one thing. He wanted to hunt loud mouth, fire breathing, stinky, muddy bull elk. With multiple combat tours, and never ending training, Aaron missed many hunting seasons. When he could make it home for some hunting, he chose to come back to Washington and hunt with family rather than pursue out of state adventures, despite my pleading to do so. His faithful dedication to applying for his quality bull permits year after year were met with never ending disappoint. While Aaron accomplished so many amazing things in his life, killing a mature bull elk was something he was never able to accomplish.
On the 23rd of April 2013 my brother, CPT Aaron Blanchard was killed in a rocket attack in Logar Province, Afghanistan. With two brothers serving combat roles in the global war on terror, you often think about the “what ifs”. However, nothing can prepare you for the knock on your door or that phone call from your mother. Aaron was my best friend. He was my hunting partner, hero, idol, mentor, and general guiding light in life. His sense of humor, intelligence, free thinking, and positive adventurous attitude towards life was infectious to all who knew him.
Fast forward three years and here we are. I am a bit obsessed with Mule deer. Elk hunting is something you do to fill the freezer and fill the few weekends between deer tags. Don’t get me wrong, archery hunting elk in the rut is one of my favorite things but deer are what really trips my trigger. I made a promise to myself after Aaron was killed that when I drew a bull tag again, I would give it everything I had and kill the bull of his dreams.
It may sound weird but I knew I was going to draw a controlled hunt tag this year. I literally had dreams at night about it. Enough that I had convinced myself that this was the year my name would be drawn. So when I checked my results and saw that beautiful “selected” by my quality bull entry I wasn’t surprised. It felt like a weight being lifted off of my shoulders.
As soon as I saw “selected” on my draw results prep began. My focus for this hunt was unlike anything I have experienced. Motivated doesn’t even begin to describe it! Scouting, conditioning, shooting, upgrading gear, etc. I wanted to go steep and deep. I wanted to hunt them like I do deer. I wanted to live with them, stay in them until we triumph, and fulfill the dream that Aaron so desperately wanted to fulfill.
To make myself accountable and to keep me motivated I started a thread on my “go to” hunting forum hunting-washington.com. I could update the thread with pictures, gear reviews, and elk talk. Hunt-WA was Aaron’s home away from home. As he bounced around from duty station to duty station he could always log on and see what was what back home. He loved it. After he was killed the Hunt-WA community rallied together like nothing I had ever witnessed. With too many names to mention, over $15,000 was raised between donations and auction items! I was more of a lurker there for a while but it quickly became my escape in the days, weeks, and months after Aaron was killed. It has become my home away from home, and many close friendships have been forged with members there. My elk thread was a small way of me trying to give back a bit to that community.
All that summer was a full on grind session! Every day I shot the bow (normal routine). Daily runs, leg workouts, and weekly weighted pack workouts with a group of buddies at the high school football stadium were now my new norm. Every weekend was spent scouting new country and laying eyes on as many bulls as I could. By September I was a fit and well-oiled machine and was ready as I’d ever been on a hunt.
My bow for this hunt was not your ordinary bow. Aaron served 5 years in the Marines which included two combat tours in Iraq. After getting out he went back to school to become an Army officer so he could fulfill a life long dream of being an Apache pilot. Money was tight for him and his young family. But as a graduation gift to himself and from his wife Becky, he bought his first high-end bow – A Hoyt Alphamax 32. He LOVED this bow! It was his most prized possession! After his death, Becky left it in my care. It had now become my most treasured possession too. I respectfully dressed it in new red and blue strings and a custom grip made for me for this hunt by my good friends Chirs McCarthy, Jared Hillyard, and Jon Soulier. They knew how important this hunt was for me. And because they couldn’t be there to help, they wanted to do something for me. Inscribed on the grip was Aarons name, the 10th Mountain division insignia, and the words “none knew but love, none spoke but praise”. Those same words etched in his headstone at Medical Lake Veterans Cemetery in Washington State.
Joining me on this hunt was a group of great friends. Kurt Perkins, Chris Martin (chef extraordinaire), and Bob would be holding down base camp and target cows and spikes in general season going on in my unit. Heading up the mountain with me would be my good friend Corey Wisner and his son Jake. Corey has been a key figure and mentor in my life since the death of Aaron and there is nobody you want on an elk hunt more than Corey. He’s taken dozens of elk with stick and string and can run elk calls better than anyone I know. Corey is no spring chicken, so in his commitment to do all he could to aid me in my journey, he cut out all sugar from his diet and hit the gym or a packed workout every day. He showed up lean, mean, and with fire in his eyes!
The plan was simple. Pack in, camp high, and rain death from above! I wanted to hunt bulls that I could see first. By glassing feeding areas and transition corridors we were hoping to find a solid bull and then decide an approach from there. The only thing that I didn’t feel confident about was my ability to judge a bull on the fly. Especially when he would most likely be 10 yards breathing fire in my face. If I could see him first then I felt I could identify him during that moment of truth. I had to kill a monarch of a bull on this hunt. There was no other acceptable outcome……
Work couldn’t end quickly enough on Friday, September 9th. The truck was loaded and the guys were already setting base camp. As we all converged on camp you could feel the excitement and anticipation in the air! We tossed our extra gear in the wall tent, loaded our bows and packs in the jeep and kicked up some major dust on the way up to the trailhead. We had about a 4-mile hike to get to where we wanted to camp that night and light was fading fast. We weren’t done setting spike camp till after 10 pm. And with a full day of work and a solid hike under our belt that day, sleep came fast. Up before the sun, we were glassing bulls right off the bat. Nothing that looked worthy of a freedom arrow but it felt good to know there were bulls around. A full day of hiking and calling produced little rut activity.
Day two was much more eventful. We went a different direction from camp and not too long into the morning struck a bugle. With a bit of glass work, we spotted a 320 class bull feeding by himself. It was very tempting to make a play at this bull as we felt he was very killable but he just wasn’t quite what we were after. By midday, we had struck several different bulls but opted not to make plays on them due to location and the wind. As we worked around a ridge we got a lone bull to sound off. It was a very halfhearted bugle but the follow-up bugle was a lot more intense! Before we really had a chance to get set Corey had him in my lap! Unfortunately, Corey had called him to the wrong side of a tree. So there I was at full draw with a shooter bull 10 yards from me with a giant snag blocking his body. As the wind swirled and kissed the back of my sweat soaked neck, it drifted into his nostrils and sent him carreaning down into the dark timber from where he had come. Just like that my opportunity at a great bull was gone.
Even with all the activity so far, we decided this was going to be our last evening at this camp. We would pull up stakes in the morning and come in from a different trailhead that would put us in a better position on some new country we wanted to look at. That night it got wild on top of the mountain! Our windbreak didn’t work too well when the wind decided to come out of the east with a vengeance! With it came pounding rain as well. The next day we packed up camp and did a huge hike through a drainage we wanted to hit before we left. Some old sign was all that remained from its summer inhabitants.
Back at base camp, a hot shower and a belly full of Chris’s gourmet cooking had us feeling soft. I had not wanted to pull off the mountain. Even though it was the right call to move locations, I felt like I had quit. Camp is always a fun time with good friends but my mind and my focus was on the mountain. Aaron’s favorite quote kept echoing in my head. “Fortune favors the bold”. We needed to be back out there.
Early wake up and we were off and running. We hit the trailhead perfectly right at shooting hours so we could hunt our way in. Almost immediately we got a bull to fire off. Soon after another fires off! As we closed the gap, the other bulls shut up and then there was only one bugle commanding the mountain! We knew the elk were moving down into the bottoms every morning so we had to stay ahead of them to make sure the thermals would work in our favor. As we closed in, Corey spotted cows towards the top of the ridge. As we bombed down the mountain we could see they were also working down the mountain at a fast pace. Finally we had to make a stand. As Corey began to call, the bull got more and more impatient. With the amount of cows with this bull it quickly became apparent that we needed to close the gap even more and Corey signaled for me to move again. This time we were where he wanted us and he sounded his approval with a bugle that made the hair on my neck stand at attention! He was coming!
I knew I had to draw early as he would be able to see me by the time I could see him. So when I heard his glunking right out of sight I pulled the string on Aaron’s Hoyt and anchored it to my face just like I had done thousands of times before. Before I knew it I was staring at a bull elk at 20 yards………through a big vine maple. No shot again! All I can see are his huge tops and big mass. I don’t know how long I held my bow but with a 55-pound pack on my back, it felt like hours. I knew I couldn’t let down or this encounter would be over. FINALLY he backed out and I was able to let down. His desire to lay eyes on this “cow” was too great, however, and soon I caught his antlers below me trying to circle us and get our wind. Again I came to full draw but again he backed out. A big log diverted his approach. Around the log, he went and again he was coming my way. I draw as he passes a big fir but again hanging up. I held and I held and I held until my arm was literally about to give out when he started to move. My shot process echoed in my mind. “Lungs empty, halo up, anchor the pin……….!”
This was my moment of truth. All the prep and all the focus came down to these few seconds. Fifteen days of scouting. Countless grind sessions with a weighted pack. A thousand arrows shot from Aaron’s bow. A friend who would follow me to the pits of hell and who had sacrificed and prepared to support my mission. A whole community of hunters who were supporting me encouraged me and keeping me honest. Until this moment none of that had put pressure on me, only focus. Now the weight of it all bore down on me with the weight of the mountain I was standing on. However, it was not enough to distract me from what needed to be done. A soft “mew” from my diaphragm brought him to a halt with his leg forward. As he put the breaks on I was already almost through my shot process. “Pull…Pull…Pull” I recite as I pull against the back wall and squeeze pressure on my release. The shot broke as smooth as if I was flinging freedom arrows at foam in the back yard and the bright green light disappeared into his side! Tight to the shoulder and mid body……
Collapsing under the weight of the world at the shot, I turned to Corey and gave him the thumbs up. As Corey approached me doubt crept into my mind. Did I really see a perfect shot? Did I see my arrow deflect on a small limb I couldn’t see and fall short? Corey was confident he heard the hit and that I really did see what I knew I saw. But I was not convinced. Seconds later my questions were answered by the sound of a bull elk taking his last breaths.
All the emotions that had been suppressed by intense focus and drive came barreling at me like a freight train! I simply wept into my hands. I couldn’t control it. I didn’t want to control it. I was relieved, I was happy, I was grateful, I was angry and I was sad! Not that I had taken a life, but that Aaron wasn’t there to see it. Angry because if he was alive he surely would have been there with me. Angry because I had to fulfill his dream for him.
We decided to give him a bit of time even though we knew he was dead. I grabbed phones and climbed out of the drainage to find some service and call in the cavalry. After I sent out a group SOS with instructions, I made two very important phone calls. First was to my little brother. He desperately wanted to be there for this hunt but the life of an Army Infantry Officer doesn’t allow for random elk hunts. He was stationed at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina and was forced to follow along via text message updates when I was in cell service. I barely got the words “I got Aaron’s bull” out of my lips and I was a puddle of tears again. My brief call with my dad resulted in the same.
With my call for help sent out, I dove back down the ridge to find our bull. Corey had attempted to find my arrow and find first blood but turned up nothing. Once again my panic set in despite hearing his final bellows. With elk tracks everywhere, we opted to each take a likely path. I didn’t make it 30 yards down the hill when Corey yelled, “Hey you want to see a dead bull with huge mass!?!?!” I went tearing through the brush and there he was! He was everything I had came to find and more. I was truly humbled by the beast that lay at my feet.
After a quick picture session, it was time to snap back to reality and tackle the task that lay in front of us. We had a really big animal on the side of a steep hill that had a date with some coolers and some ice. Since we had all our spike camp gear on us Corey elected to load it all in his pack, hike it back out to the trailhead and then lead the pack mules (our friends) back in when they got there. I would stay behind and break the elk down. This worked well except in our rush to get going we forgot a key maneuver – Get the dang upside down elk turned around and off the dang tree! I’ve never worked so hard to debone an animal in my life! It took me twice as long as it should have and by the time I was done, I was absolutely spent!
Chris was able to scrounge up my other buddy Jeremie and they were the first on the scene. Chris, being the smart dude he is, had grabbed Corey’s truck which had a dirt bike in the back! We got pretty lucky killing this bull where we did. On top of the main ridge that we used to access the area, there is an ORV trail. So while I boned out meat Jeremie hauled loads up to the main ridge where Corey met him and rode the loads out the rest of the way. Almost all the loads that is. There was absolutely zero possibility that all my elk was going to get carted off the mountain by someone else’s power. I trained all summer for a reason. So in the pack went a big sack of meat and on top of that the head and rack. This load was getting walked out. I’m embarrassed to say this climb took a bit longer than it should have but I was pretty spanked from breaking the elk down and also part of me didn’t want it to end so soon. Every time I got to a vantage point I had to stop and just drink it all in. The smell, the sounds, the sights. I wanted to remember it all.
As I crested the second to last hill, there sat all the guys. All these men who prepared for this in their own way and who were stead fast in their commitment to seeing me succeed. I don’t know if it was their heckling or my own overwhelming desire to finish strong for them, for me, and for everyone following, but all of a sudden I heard the voice of my friend Scott echoing in my head from the North West Mountain Challenge – “Let’s run it in! Finish strong!” So that’s what I did! I choked up on my trekking poles and dug deep! I ran as fast as I could with a pack that weighed 2/3 my body weight! When I crossed that imaginary finish line and Chris peeled me out of my pack, I collapsed on the ground! We had done it! We climbed the mountain to find a mature bull to honor the dream of a man who gave everything so we could live our own dreams and we did it!
As I reflect back on the hunt, and everything leading up to it, I am reminded of how truly blessed I am. I have good men that I am lucky enough to call my friends who will walk through fire to see me succeed. I have a loving family who pushes me to be a better man every day. I live in a place where I am free to pursue the things that bring me happiness without the fear of evil taking it all away. And lastly, I had the honor of calling Aaron Blanchard my big brother. His sense of humor, optimism, self-honor, and courage are the definition of what we should all strive to be as humans. His love of hunting, family, God, and country, helped shape the man I am today. I was blessed with 30 years of memories with Aaron, from childhood adventures to hunting adventures, to just living this adventure we call life. And though he was taken from us far too soon, I am grateful for the time I was given.
I love you brother and miss you every second of every day. Your wife has found peace and your children are strong and healthy. Rest in peach CPT Aaron Blanchard…..
John 15:13 “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his own life for his friends.”
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