“OK, No Problem”…
A day-long drive was slowly coming to an end as we wound our way into the mountains of Macedonia. Having squeezed every last minute out of a morning of sightseeing in Belgrade, Serbia, we passed many kilometers southward towards our next hunting destination, which would feature the elusive and high-altitude dweller — the Balkan chamois.
Macedonia is a land-locked country in the Central Balkan Peninsula in Southern Europe. It is one of the successor states of the former Yugoslavia from which it declared independence in 1991. Despite a dispute over the country’s name with its neighbor to the south, Greece, the United Nations finally recognized Macedonia as an independent country in 1993. Unlike many of its neighbors, Macedonia has avoided many of the cultural, national and ethnic issues since succession. Overall, it remains a relatively safe place for U.S. citizens to visit.
As darkness covered the last several hours of our trip, the weariness of travel was exasperated by the eventual rigors of the mountainous roads that greeted us as we moved southwest of Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, into the mountain range known as the Karadzicas. At the southern end of this range stands Solunska Glava, a towering peak that stands over 8,000 feet above sea level.
Eventually, we arrived at a mountain retreat where several members of the conclave met our outfitter, Joe Jakab, and our country host, Oliver Stombroslav. Oliver is Macedonian, and served as the “on-ground” facilitator of all logistics and details. He knew his way around the country, and later in the trip served as a remarkable guide as we toured the ancient city of Skopje. After a brief stretch, two members of the group, dressed in camouflage, loaded into another vehicle and led us on a one-hour drive deeper into the mountains. The road became increasingly difficult and even contributed to the eventual demise of a tire during the demanding climb. Finally, in a steady rain, we arrived at our camp, a comfortable spread of cabins and outbuildings nestled among a thick stand of pine trees and marked by two conspicuous flags — a Macedonian national flag and Jasen Hunting Club flag. Our camouflaged pathfinders, later confirmed as our guides, assisted with our luggage and within minutes we were settled into the comfortable accommodation.
The Jasen Hunting Club was our base for the hunt. It was extraordinarily comfortable and the hospitality, including the five-star chef, first class. We could have easily spent several more days at this comfortable and scenic lodge.
Mist settled softly on the dirty windshield as the well-traveled Volkswagen truck ascended the narrow, winding mountain road. Visibility was poor, and our view was limited to the dirt road immediately ahead and the passing of tall trees that lined the roadway. Several days of rain greeted our arrival in Macedonia, and there was uncertainty if the weather would disrupt our fist day afield. First light suggested that the weather might cooperate, so we piled into the truck and started our ascent. Arce, my guide, spoke very little English. His command of the English language include key phrases such as “OK,” and “No problem,” to name a few. Of course, my knowledge of the Macedonian language was significantly less. Hunter camaraderie, sign language and a little bit of guesswork serve as our primary means of communication.
The mountains of Macedonia are beautiful, but deceivably rugged. When we reached the end of the road, the climbing began. Look closely and you will note the road in the bottom of the valley used to access this remote location.
After a full hour in the drafty and spartan cab of the truck, we entered a large, alpine bowl. Despite winding our way through heavily forested areas, the evergreens eventually relinquished their hold on the mountain, and a vast open space lay ahead. The large, golden brown grass-covered mountain reminded me of arctic tundra, however, the rocky surface and steep slope confirmed that we were far from sea level. Already scanning the upper reaches of the valley, Arce reached for the ignition, and silenced the truck. The quiet stillness of the morning filled the cab, and the vastness of this mountain space filled our view.
“Chamois,” Arce muttered as he pointed to a high rock outcrop. I could not see the animal, but confident of my guide’s ability I marshaled my gear and quietly exited the truck. Leaning against the truck, I worked my binos in the direction of Arce’s find, and eventually found a lone chamois. As I glassed the animal, I noticed the deep rocky canyons beyond the grassy knoll where the unsuspecting chamois fed.
Immediately, I was somewhat excited about the prospects of taking a good trophy in a relatively easy spot. If we could manage to reduce our distance in this fairly open space, and make a proper shot, I may be spared the rigors of traversing the in-hospitable country behind. Quickly, we dropped over a grassy knob and worked our way upward. The clouds were beginning to dissipate, and the ruggedness and beauty of the mountains was slowly revealed. Climbing for about twenty minutes, we approached two solitary trees, their presence in the open bowl seemingly random and unexplained. They provided natural cover for our final approach, and we soon found ourselves under the branches, looking over the solitary chamois. Sign language revealed that the animal was a good male and worthy of ending the hunt. Of course, in Europe, hunters pay a premium for the measured length of any horn growth over certain measurements. It was clear that our language difference was not going to clarify Arce’s estimate at trophy quality, so I was on my own; the final quality of the trophy and subsequent invoice left to the successful, or unsuccessful, outcome of the hunt. A check of the rangefinder confirmed 297 yards, although the angle was somewhat steep as the chamois fed well above our hide. Using my backpack, I positioned the 8×57 in an effort to establish a solid rest.
The large grassy bowl that welcomed us at the conclusion of our morning ascent. Our truck is parked in the base of the bowl, just below the smattering of pine trees occupying the first ridge. Minutes prior, I missed an “easy” chamois which stood at the exact location of this picture.
Having borrowed many guns during my worldwide hunting excursions, I quickly familiarized myself with the rifle and noted that the eye relief was challenging. Moreover, the gun maintained quickie mounts that positioned the scope well above the natural sight-line of the rifle. Focusing through the riflescope, I was challenged to locate the animal in the field of view. I had not shot the gun prior, and it was now apparent that this could prove to be a costly failure. Adjusting as comfortably as possible, I eased the crosshairs onto the chamois and squeezed the trigger. The thump of the rifle coincided with the bounding and disappearance of the now alert animal into the rocky cliffs beyond. No doubt a miss. I did not need to translate any language to know the outcome of my first effort. “OK, no problem,” Arce whispered, followed by a reassuring smile, and a hand gesture to move forward to where the chamois had stood. Disappointed by my shot failure, the reality of mountain hunting flooded my emotions. Missing a relatively easy opportunity was a sure harbinger for a tough day ahead. We approached the location where the animal had been, and continued on a few yards beyond to look into the steep cliffs that marked the end of the grassy bowl. My disappointment was instantly magnified. Spreading below me was a chiseled escarpment of deep, rocky crevices, interrupted by rocky shelves and rock slides. Much of the terrain appeared humanly impassable, but was unquestionably prime habitat for our quarry. Flooded with reservations of the trail ahead, we adjusted our packs and headed down to intersect a well-worn hiking trail that channeled into the rocky morass. While the hiking trail was distinct, it provided a typical mountain hunting experience: tenuous footing, steep drops and inclines, and rocky outcrops requiring the hunter to suppress all fear of height and progress with extraordinary diligence.
Sidehilling for almost an hour, we rounded into a deep ravine and happened upon several chamois feeding below. Our approach was solid, but finding a suitable rest to take a shot was difficult on the steep, exposed slope. Finally, I managed to find a rocky outcrop to rest the rifle and located the male in the scope only to miss him, not once, but three times in quick succession. Within seconds, the chamois — all of them — disappeared into the rocky cliffs above. At this juncture I was glad my ability to communicate with my guide was limited. There was no doubt we were mutually disappointed, but his hunting prowess clearly put me in range of two fine trophies and I failed on two occasions. “OK, no problem,” was Arce’s matter-of-fact reply. Resting before moving on, Arce drew several pictures in the dirt explaining that all the misses appeared to be to the right of the animals. Absent a chance to shoot the rifle at a range, I was not sure if the errant shots were simply hunter error or if I was handling a rifle that was not properly sighted. For certain, eye relief of the scope was challenging and compounded by the elevated scope mounts. Shooting at extreme angles also made the effort all the more difficult. Using hand gestures and pictures, Arce diplomatically expressed that the gun was on; the hunter was not.
Now with two missed opportunities, I was really going to have a chance to see the mountain. Chamois inhabit inhospitable country, and we spent the better part of the next two hours climbing our way high into the mountain, each step upward toward a massive grass-covered slope that dominated the upper third of the mountain.
Missing the first shot was a harbinger of a tough hunting day. As all mountain hunters know, when you go up you usually have to come down. Climbing through this terrain is often physically and emotionally challenging. Here Arce leads us up in search of a Chamois.
As we climbed, we spotted several chamois feeding in the grassy area. I was fairly confident that Arce was going to try to move me as close as possible to the next animal in an effort to reduce the opportunity of similar outcomes as experienced in our first two efforts. Adjusting our approach, we turned into an adjacent ravine and climbed upward, just out of sight of the grazing herd. Finally, we arrived at a rocky shelf that we thought would provide a good location to try for a shot. On hands and knees, we pushed the final 100 yards into the natural stone shelf. Careful glassing revealed the small band that included a large male. The rangefinder suggested 207 yards…of course, straight up!
This time, I was going to literally bed the rifle in my pack and coat to ensure an accurate shot. After what proved to be a significant production to create my rifle rest, I finally eased behind the rifle and centered the crosshairs on the chamois. Again, the difficult eye relief and the mounting of the scope combined with the steep angle of the shot confirmed that the only way I was going to ensure an accurate shot was to hold the rifle close to my eye, and face the recoil of the rifle. I was fairly certain the end-result would be a flesh wound, but there was no choice. The eye relief of the scope was simply inadequate. Easing the crosshairs onto the animal, I slowly pulled the trigger. Instantly, I could see the chamois crumble in the scope. Simultaneously, I felt the trickle of warm blood flood down the bridge of my noise and onto my cheeks.
Rising to my knees, I could see the joyful expression of Arce as the hunt was finally concluded. His happiness quickly dissipated, as he turned his attention from the fallen chamois to congratulate me on the successful shot. Focused on my new facial appearance, Arce promptly summarized the situation, “OK, no problem.” Pulling a roll of toilet paper from his pack, we began the universal field remedy for a scope cut: lots of tissue paper applied with pressure. Of course, since we were done hunting, the remedial medical procedure was completed with universal smiles.
The result of the rifle recoil is evident on my face shortly after taking a fine Balkan Chamois. The picture fails to give justice to the steepness and ruggedness of the Karadzica Mountains and the alpine meadow in which we found this outstanding trophy.
Happily, we completed the difficult climb to the trophy. Although the area was open, it was dreadfully steep, and the abundance of rocks and slippery grass made travel hazardous. Pictures and the opportunity to view the majestic Macedonian landscape that spread below followed a lengthy break. Arce loaded the entire chamois into his pack. I carried everything else — a very fair deal for a tired hunter 15 years his senior. Through several broken conversations combined with sign language, I understood that the quickest way out was to climb straight up over the mountain. So up we went.
As we left the mountain, I took this picture of the massive grass-covered mountainside from which I shot the chamois. This perspective provides more appreciation for the difficult climbs that face hunters when hunting chamois. It is rarely easy.
Head down, I started the long climb that would take another two hours. Arce had much more weight than I, but managed to move forward and reach the summit first. Upon my arrival, I dropped my pack and we both enjoyed a long break. Hunting the rugged and beautiful mountains of Macedonia provided a hunting trial I will never forget, and once again confirmed that when facing the adversities of the field, simply remember, “OK, no problem.”– Craig Kauffman