Mikayla Lewis_Elk_2018 01 - Dale Thornton (left) and Mikayla Lewis, of Bend, hunt for elk on an old stagecoach road in forest in Yamhill County. Photo by Gary Lewis

Mikayla Lewis_Elk_2018 02 - Mikayla Lewis, of Bend, sights through her rifle scope at the conclusion of a hunt for elk in western Oregon. Photo by Gary Lewis

Mikayla Lewis_Elk_2018 03 - This herd of Roosevelt elk in Yamhill County contained 61 animals. Approximately 90 elk use the valley each winter, a number that is slightly higher than the carrying capacity of the land. Photo by Gary Lewis

Mikayla Lewis_Elk_2018 04 - Mikayla Lewis (left) and Dale Thornton, at the conclusion of an elk hunt in western Oregon. Photo by Gary Lewis

Fog. It lay in the mountain valleys with only the tops of the foothills exposed, and the spine of the Oregon Coast Range. With the potential for black ice in the early morning, I kept a tight rein on the Ford’s horses. Through Carlton and Yamhill, our headlights speared the mist.

My daughter Mikayla Lewis, 21, had a tag in her pocket and we expected to see elk as soon as we passed the last vineyard. Yamhill County in northwest Oregon is wine country now, but it used to be elk country. Elk are still there. In small herds they carve circuits through tree farms, orchards and pastures.

Our friend Dale Thornton had the elk spotted. We were on the east side of a small hill and a herd of 60 animals was on the other side. We rolled up and over, headlights switched off, then stopped behind a small stand of trees and a feed barn.

Mikayla stepped out, quietly push-clicked her door closed and chambered a bullet. Thornton led the way, Mikayla behind him, Nick Stelloh, with a camera, behind her. My dad, Don Lewis, and I followed.

Dale Thornton’s grandfather settled in this little corner of Yamhill County in 1932 and he follows in the footsteps his elders laid down before him. But Thornton is fond of elk and he knows they are not welcome just one more valley to the east. Working with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Thornton has a pretty good idea how many elk his land will support without growing out of balance and threatening the orchards and vineyards in the lowlands.

When we reached the corner of Thornton’s top feed barn, Mikayla set up her shooting sticks. A lone cow trailed at the back of the herd and Thornton indicated it to Mikayla. It was right on the edge of the fog bank and in the scope, it faded in and out of sight as if a curtain was passing in front of it. When the fog thickened, we halted the stalk and moved down the hill to try to intercept the herd. Again our stalk was foiled by fog.

Through most of the year the elk move off and onto Thornton’s land in two groups. Sometimes the group comes together. This time I counted 61 animals in the main herd. Thornton said the other herd had 30 elk.

Still early, on the other side of the valley, we parked at a gate and walked down a remnant of an old stagecoach road that once joined the towns of McMinnville and Tillamook.

It was a 45-mile slog that started at Yamhill, wound 9 miles to Fairdale, climbed 6 zigzag miles to Summit House, then passed 11 miles to the Trask House and from there followed the Trask River into Tillamook City. The first coaches that plied the route were open to the elements. Folks who passed over the Trask River wagon toll road in a stagecoach called it “the most awful ride in the world.”

In 1872, the state granted $10,000 in gold coin to finish the road and tolls were authorized. A man on a saddle horse would pay 50 cents to pass over. Two horses cost a dollar.

In 1891, a doctor, T. Van Scoy, D.D. (Doctor of Divinity), rode west in a palace railroad car on the Southern Pacific line, then paid the $5 passage on the Trask wagon stagecoach to see the ocean near Tillamook City.

“Soon the driver is perched upon his seat, the whip cracks and away we go into the mountains,” Van Scoy wrote. The driver called himself Salt Lake and the horses were Rat-tail, Grimes, Long-back, Aleck, Bauldy and Cow-heels. It was as wild a country as could be found in Oregon.

In 1904, the first automobile passed over to Tillamook, a steam-powered Loco-mobile (now on display at the Heritage Center in McMinnville). When it met with a horse, the rider had to dismount and throw a coat over the horse’s head so that it wouldn’t spook.

The only sounds of hoofbeats now on that old road are when elk feed through the timber. Walking back on the wagon road, we heard a cow elk call to assemble the herd. A sound as old as time.

By mid-morning, the fog began to lift and we returned to the meadow and stalked down through the oaks. Mikayla lay down in the moss and oak leaves and dug the toes of her boots into the duff.

Two hundred and 50 yards, I guessed it. Thornton picked out an elk without a calf that was separated from the rest of the herd and Mikayla snicked her safety to “fire.”

When the elk was well clear of other animals, she pressed the trigger.

Perhaps she pulled the trigger more than pressed it. The first bullet went into the grass.

In her ear, Thornton called the shots, and Mikayla kept shooting.

We walked up on her elk among 30-year-old white firs.

I reckon many an elk fed the builders of that “awful” road and the travelers who passed from North Yamhill to Tillamook City.

— Gary Lewis is the host of “Frontier Unlimited TV” and author of “Fishing Central Oregon,” “Fishing Mount Hood Country,” “Hunting Oregon” and other titles. Contact Lewis at