By David Burns
Having been diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma in the winter of 2016, I thought my hunting days might be over. There was a good chance my entire life would be over as well, since I was already in stage 4 and 95 percent of my bone marrow had been replaced by cancer, too.
My oncologist was a tell-it-like-it-is sort of doctor. He said there was a chance I might not make it through the chemotherapy. The next challenge was to approach the Veteran’s Administration to see if they might pay for the very expensive treatments. Their review committee approved my request, and I am thankful to them every day for helping save my life.
After six long, unpleasant chemo treatments, the oncologist ordered another PET scan. When I entered his office, I had no idea whatsoever if the chemo had done any good or not. The doctor put my scan up on the screen and mumbled through a lot of medical jargon. Then he turned to me and said, “Mr. Burns, I want to read this last line to you.”
I was sweating bullets as he slowly and deliberately read out loud, “Our scanning team here in Seattle find this PET scan to be — totally unremarkable.”
“Is that good?” I said.
“Mr. Burns, it doesn’t get any better than that, my friend,” said the doctor. “The cancer is gone!”
That was one of the greatest days of my life. The battle was far from over as this very rare and strange cancer is considered incurable. With a lot of prayer, family support, a good doctor and the help of the Veteran’s Administration, I have remained in remission for several years now.
When I went back to have another blood test recently, Doctor Quackenbush skimmed through it then shook his head. “Mr. Burns, you are one amazing guy. This blood test is better than a man your age should be — who doesn’t have cancer.” With that kind of encouragement, I decided it was time to rethink my future and include the possibility of going on a great hunt again.
I had been lucky enough to travel to a number of foreign countries to hunt in my earlier life, but the red stag was one trophy I had never pursued. I knew I couldn’t afford the New Zealand hunts, so I decided on the Pampas area of Argentina. After a great deal of research on guides and ranches in the Pampas, I opted for The North Patagonia Ranch owned by Augustin Martinez Oliver.
It was a 25,000-acre cattle ranch located a very long drive west of Buenos Aires. Augustin offered a hunt that allowed me to take one trophy stag and one management stag for a very reasonable price. Luckily, I was able to meet Agustin at the 2020 SCI Convention in Las Vegas.
We sat for quite a while as I pored through all of his trophy photos taken at the ranch. He also had a long list of successful hunters from all over the world I could check with. I wrote him a check on the spot, securing August 20 — the beginning of the roar. I remember telling myself, “Well Dave, you did it. You are actually going on another great hunt after all.”
After a very long flight to Buenos Aires and another long drive to the ranch, the next challenge would be to keep up with Funish, the non-English-speaking guide Augustin had hooked me up with. I hadn’t walked far in several years but was determined to give it my best shot and keep up on our long treks across the Pampas.
When Funish showed up the first time, I wasn’t sure his antique pickup would get us there. My door wouldn’t shut, the window wouldn’t roll up, the windshield was so scratched up it was difficult to see through and when he shifted into gear the entire shift rod came out of the floor. Funish called a relative who arrived within minutes, driving another pick-up. It was not in much better shape but did move forward, and my door actually shut, so we made another attempt to get to the hunt area.
It was still dark when we started out and Funish stopped occasionally and leaned over the hood of the pickup to listen for roaring. The first two days were discouraging as we only heard an occasional roar far in the distance. Augustin said the weather had been unusually warm and that we needed some cooler weather to get the stags into the mood.
We got some rain the second night and that must have done the trick. The third day was one of the best hunting days of my life as we were literally surrounded by roaring stags. I found myself laughing at one point at the constant blasts of angry stags looking for a fight. I could even hear clashing of horns several times that could not have been more than 50 yards ahead.
We kept scanning with binoculars through the tall grass and trees that covered the ranch. Finally, Funish frantically tapped his shoulder, telling me to rest the .308 on it and shoot. I could not even see the stag at first because I had been trying hard to stay right in Funish’s shadow as he had directed me to do. I had turned the 3×9 scope down to 5 and searched the landscape for the stag. He was under a tree, quartering to us at about 150 yards. I fired off a 150-grain Hornady. I could hear the telltale whap as he bolted off to the left.
He stopped behind a large thicket, and Funish took off in pursuit. I followed-up, scanning the tall grass for any blood sign. Nothing. Funish was an expert tracker with 150 stags to his credit. He roamed back and forth over the entire area for 20 minutes. Nothing. Not a single drop of blood anywhere. Could I have actually missed?
I went through the litany of excuses. Was it the darn rented rifle? Was it Funish not holding his shoulder firm? The rogue Argentine wind? Loose scope? I decided to return to the impact site and start over. Just as I got there, I almost tripped over a very nice 12-point stag in the tall grass ahead of me! There he was, and he was all mine.
After the customary celebration and photo-taking, we dragged the stag to the nearest 4×4 trail. I sat and kept guard as Funish went for the pickup. I said a short prayer that his truck would start again. A half hour later I heard the truck come bouncing across the Pampas. After a rough ride back to the Estancia, the two Argentine hunters, who had hunted the ranch five times, admired my trophy and in Spanish voiced me their approval.
The next two days were spent searching for a management stag — one that Augustin would like removed from the population. As luck would have it, I saw nothing but trophy stags that day. Every darn one of them was larger than mine and all presented standing shots at under 200 yards. That was more than I could take.
I decided I would forget the management stag and go for another trophy. The next evening, I followed Funish back toward the truck after not spotting another good stag. Suddenly, he stopped cold and signaled to me to freeze. I peered over his shoulder, scanning the countryside for stags.
Funish carefully removed his backpack, set it on the ground and then began to creep forward stealthily. Light was fading on the Pampas. I was still frustrated at not spotting any game in the distance. Funish looked back at me and pointed down in front of him where a strange critter poised on the edge of one of the endless number of holes across the landscape.
This was my first encounter with the dreaded wild, free-range armadillo. Apparently, they are edible and Funish was going to capture it for dinner. At a distance of 5 feet, Funish suddenly lunged at the critter, attempting to grab it. The armadillo wanted none of that and shot up into the air and out of Funish’s hands.
The race was on as Funish ran in circles, diving unsuccessfully several times. At one point, he even kicked at the critter, sending it high over his head. At this point I was laughing so hard I probably sounded like a roaring stag. As the critter disappeared down a hole, I immediately dubbed this event the “Armadillo Boogie.” It remains as one of my great unexpected memories on the Pampas.
The next day, we caught-up with another trophy stag early in the morning. It took four solid shots to bring the stag down. Wow — two great stags and more great memories. The next day was spent on another part of the ranch dotted with large, open meadows. This is where the blackbucks hang out.
Midway through the hike, Funish stopped to gaze around the area. Clear back on the other side of the road we drove in on was a very nice blackbuck male grazing all alone. A long hike, sneaking from tree to tree and across the road brought me to within 250 yards. I rested across a solid fencepost and the telltale whack was heard again from the .308. What a beautiful little antelope the blackbuck is. It will earn yet another honored spot in the trophy room back home.
At the end of the day, or I should say the week, I had proven to myself that I could still do it. I could still keep up and hike the hills, make the shot when called upon, and could once again call myself a Hunter.
Sitting here back in Oregon, I am already thinking of maybe another voyage to Namibia for plains game.
In the words of Herman Melville in his book Moby Dick, “I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote.”
God gave me a couple extra innings, and I want to make the most of the time I have left.