Achieving The Impossible
By Tom Miranda
I remember may 12, 1998, lIke It was yesterday. Perched high in a tree stand near the fringes of Wood Buffalo National Park in northwestern Alberta, I was watching a huge black bear amble his way into bow range. Unknowingly, it was the beginning of a quest that would consume me until I let a fateful arrow fly on Isla de Carmen in the Baja of Mexico on May 9, 2011.
The 13 years of my life between those two hunts were driven by my dream to take all 29 species of North America’s big game with archery tackle. But there was more; I wanted to document it all on broadcast video. No one had been able to capture 29 separate adventures, 29 arrow impacts on camera. I intended to be the first.
The Super Slam is a tremendous undertaking. The various species cover the entire gamut of big game available in North America and are found at all four corners of the continent and everywhere in between. The list includes five deer species, five caribou, four bears, four sheep, three moose species, three elk species, bison, pronghorn, muskox, mountain lion, and mountain goat.
I grew up in Columbus, Ohio. My father was a Bell System employee and my mother was a stay-at-home mom. I loved baseball and ice hockey, but also felt the tug of the Big Walnut Creek wilderness that lay just down the railroad tracks from my home. I hunted squirrels and woodchucks with BB gun and bow and arrow and, at the age of 11, began to trap muskrats. Trapping developed into much more than a hobby. It was my life. It got me outside, it challenged me, and I made money at it. To me, it was like Christmas morning every day before school as I set out to open the gift waiting at each set. Looking back on my trapping roots, I see how important the experience was in forming who I am today. Trapping was hard work, but rewarding enough to motivate me to become better every day and it eventually became my vocation. I made money by selling furs, but also from teaching trapping, writing trapping books, manufacturing trapping scents, and producing rapping videos. When I was in my mid-20s I took a job as a government trapper and moved west to South Dakota.
In 1989 I had the opportunity to transition from my trapping videos to television with a show called Outdoor Adventure Magazine.” ESPN noticed, and in 1992 “Outdoor Adventure Magazine” made its national debut. Around ESPN headquarters I was known as “that crazy bowhunter that would do anything once.”
I quickly learned that being a TV bowhunter is vastly different from hunting off-camera. Television production is all about the footage, and a lot of my bowhunts were compromised due to the presence of a cameraman and the huge cameras they lugged around. In 1994 I interviewed Chuck Adams and remember being amazed by his trials, tribulations, and accomplishments in his Super Slam quest. To me though, such a goal seemed impossible. It wasn’t on my radar.
Then, in 1997, a door opened that altered the course of my life. The person behind that door was Bill Jordan. He asked me to do a television show featuring his Realtree camouflage and “Advantage Adventures with Tom Miranda” was born. I began to travel, and by the year 2000 I was dreaming about the Super Slam and getting it all on tape. In 2003 I had five species. By August 2007 I was halfway there with 15 species. But, it was a tough road. The burden of laying down quality footage for every animal added serious pressure and increased the challenge exponentially, especially on the truly adventurous, remote hunts.
The camera was like an anchor that weighed us down and was often the determining factor on hunts. My ESPN broadcast training demanded I use a high-quality, full-size TV camera, which is a beast that weighs in at 40 pounds with tripod. These cameras have limited low-light capability, but their high-quality lenses and large digital chip blocks gave a National Geographic feel to the footage. But, more often than not, game spooked because of the camera, or the hunt was called short due to low light or poor weather.
There’s no doubt success is so sweet only because failure is so bitter. I can’t recount the times I’ve sat on an airplane after a long hunt, playing the tortuous infinite loop in my mind of, “should have done this, could have done that.”
For instance, my first moose took five years. Five separate hunts that lasted 10 days apiece! The locations were awesome, the outfitters great. But it boiled down to nothing more than the circumstances of bowhunting on camera. There was always the dominant thought, if we could just stay one or two more days, but production schedules dictated otherwise. Airline tickets are booked in advance, outfitters are booked for specific days, and hunts are often scheduled backto-back. Any slight hiccup in the schedule has a devastating domino effect.
Moose were the first “jinx” animal for me, but not the last. Roosevelt elk took me four trips through four years. Rosies aren’t known for posing in wide-open clearcuts while you lay down top-notch footage. Instead, they prefer to stay in the dense rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, making them one of the most difficult critters to arrow on film. On top of that, the bulls are often relatively quiet during the rut. It’s like trying to capture evidence of paranormal activity; long-tined ghosts offering fleeting glimpses that don’t quite convince the mind of what the eye has seen.
Other animals that gave me fits were brown bears and mule deer. Both species demanded three separate trips before I had blood on my arrows and quality footage in the vault.
Then there’s the Stone sheep. Many Super Slammers consider them the hardest animal in the entire quest. Stone sheep have proven almost mythically difficult for hunters to bring down with firearms, let alone archery equipment.
I shot mine on the first day. Go figure. As my quest progressed, I jumped hurdle after hurdle, knowing each one I cleared brought me closer to the finish line. Then, rising out of the earth like a monolith to seemingly block my path, was the polar bear (“White On White,” August/Big Game Special 2011). It wasn’t the hunt itself that posed such an obstacle, but the global warming politics and the fact they were placed on the Threatened list in 2007, shutting down the importation of polar bears into the United States. A CITES permit was required under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and was nearly impossible to get. Fortunately, I had applied for my polar bear tag in January 2004 and I was finally able to complete my polar bear hunt in 2007, taking a giant boar that now dominates a large corner of my trophy room.
Drawing Ever Closer
By the end of September 2009 I had 20 species. With the recent addition of the Tule elk, I needed nine more animals. The difficult, and most expensive, hunts remained. I still needed the grizzly, which is no pushover for any hunter, let alone a bowhunter with a cameraman in tow. I also needed a woodland caribou and a central barren ground caribou, both of which were becoming difficult to obtain. Tags in Newfoundland were cut back drastically and the Bathurst caribou herd of the central arctic continued its downward slide (in 2010 the season was closed in Canada’s Northwest Territories). I hunted both species without putting a checkmark in the win column until I killed the woodland bull in October of that year.
Plus, the most xpensive hunt of all remained — the desert bighorn. I’d applied for desert sheep tags 12 years in a row, unsuccessfully, so I broke down and booked a hunt in 2008. I spent 19 days in Old Mexico on the most expensive hunt of my life. I never drew my bow.
However, in August 2010, I arrowed a barren ground caribou bull on Alaska’s North Slope and a week later a central barren ground bull in Nunavut. Two animals in two weeks recharged my batteries and revitalized my desire to see my quest through. Perhaps the best part was my wife, Sandy, was just as excited as I was. She’s always been supportive of me, and through all of the years of travel and the ups and downs of my job she has stood behind me 100 percent. Knowing she believed I would finish the quest was a huge boost for me.
Even with Sandy’s support and the realization I was nearing the completion of my goal, the pressure mounted. I thought I could handle the pressure, given my experience, but every shot seemed harder to make. The physical aspects became more grueling and, truthfully, the mental strain was almost unbearable. I needed to stay focused.
In early September 2010, I headed to California to hunt Tule elk. The hunt was amazing and culminated with me taking a whopper of a bull at 40 yards. I was now down to just three species.
At the end of that month I traveled to the Pink Mountains of British Columbia for a chance at one of the few bison herds recognized by the Pope and Young Club. Bison are often looked at as nothing more than cattle, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Wild bison are cagey critters with keen senses and the ability to avoid predators with ease. I spent five days on the Sikanni River before I made good on a shot.
Now I was down to just two species. I headed for the coast of British Columbia to, once again, take on one of my nemesis species — the Roosevelt elk. I got into bulls like never before. On the sixth day of the hunt, I tagged out on a monster 337-inch bull, an experience that greatly tempered my bad memories surrounding Rosies.
Last Ram Standing
By mid-October 2010, I was one animal away from the Super Slam, with all of the hunts on video. Only the desert bighorn remained.
I could look in the mirror and see the miles of wear and tear, as if the videos weren’t proof enough. At 52 years old, I could see the years behind me. But I could also feel the conclusion of the Super Slam coming. All I needed to do was put an arrow in a big desert ram, something I planned to do before the year ended. But, the best laid plans…
I spent eight days in December hunting the famous Carmen Island in Mexico and got blanked. I got within 20 yards of a stud of a ram, but we couldn’t get the shot on video. On day seven I blew a 50-yard shot. I also whiffed on the last day on a ram that I had no time to range. The arrow flew low, carrying so much of my hope with it as it crashed harmlessly into the rocks below the ram’s belly. I returned in February to the Agua Verde region of Baja. Fourteen days later I was still empty-handed. Sheep aren’t easy, but I was starting to think the pressure was getting to me. I didn’t wonder whether I would finish, but if I could.
I returned once again in May 2011. After a few days we spotted a big ram, stalked into range, and one arrow sealed the deal. Just like that.
I remember lying in bed on Carmen Island, reflecting on the path of my life. I thought of the seven different cameramen who accompanied me on the Slam. I thought of all of the guides and outfitters and of the many campfires shared with fellow hunters. I thought of my three children, who were toddlers when I embarked on the journey. They are finishing college now, which fills me with more pride than any punched tag or inches of antler ever could.
So many thoughts ricocheted through my mind as I lie there, seemingly a million miles from home and even further from sleep. But one thought broke through all of the others and, like a neon sign, it was simply, “Now what the heck am I going to do?
Tom Miranda’s quest to become the first bowhunter to have taken the Super Slam on broadcast video covered 13 years, 54 hunting trips, and 420 videotapes. Miranda will release a complete DVD set of all 29 hunts plus
commentary this December.