Eating an early dinner in the cook tent the evening before firearms season opens, we hear distant bugling, and all nine of us hit the tent flap like frat boys who’ve just heard the words “free beer.”
Just 500 yards across the creek, grazing through a series of hillside parks, is the jackpot we’ve all gambled a few grand on: elk. There must be 40 of them-great yellow-brown beasts with chocolate heads and chests. The scene is so stunning it looks fake, like a hokey wildlife painting. Meanwhile, all three guides produce binoculars out of thin air and start calling targets. “Legal bull. Looks like a 4×5, three o’clock low, right-hand clearing,” says one.
“Legal bull. Walking, ah, left to right. Lower end of the other clearing,” calls another.
“Legal bull, one o’clock high, half in the timber. Four points visible on the left side,” reports the third. And then, like the finale of the Super Bowl halftime show, the herd bull, a shaggy 6×6 so big and distinct you can see him without optics, calmly steps out of the black timber and into the open for our viewing pleasure.
“Dibs!” I shout, almost before the thought is fully formed in my head. The guides, still glued to their glasses, all crack up. As if anything in this harsh country-least of all a herd of bull elk that has probably made it through four hunting seasons-plays by the rules of the schoolyard.
“There are a hell of a lot of elk out here,” the outfitter tells us that first night. “But there’s a hell of a lot of country, too. You need to think real hard about what kind of bull you’ll settle for.” Prior to showing up here, I thought I was ready. I’d run, lifted, and crunched myself into the best physical shape of my life. Armed with a scoped Gamo pellet rifle that cost nearly as much as my .30/06, I practiced shooting daily in my backyard. And I showed up thinking I wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less than a trophy bull. Now, at 10,000 feet, in some of the roughest country I’ve ever seen, I’m gasping like a fish and having second thoughts.
[NEXT “Continued…”] Great gym shape doesn’t cut it here. What elk country calls for is someone like my guide, Mark Nichols. At 53, he is still as lean and tough as jerky, a tall, salt-cured strip of a man. One-eighth Blackfoot Indian, he takes your measure through watery blue eyes beneath a sweat-stained black hat with a hank of horsehair stuck in the band. He has a fairly typical elk guide background. He grew up on a farm in Missouri, was orphaned at 9 when his father died in a tractor accident, and spent 11 years wrestling steers on the pro rodeo circuit. A mishandled rope led to an accidental head-butting contest with his horse. The horse won. At the Mayo Clinic they reconstructed a large portion of his face with titanium. When the light hits him at a certain angle, you can see where the bone stops and the metal begins. At such moments he looks like the Terminator, a machine that has assumed human form. Personal habits reinforce the image. He sleeps four hours a night, appears impervious to pain or fatigue, and never gets upset. I find him very likable and a little terrifying.
Here, the elk camp is typical. Get up well before light, eat, retrieve your rifle from the latrine tent, and ride out. Return exhausted well after dark, belt down a drink, eat, and fall unconscious into your sleeping bag for what feels like 15 minutes before it’s time to do it again.
If I could find a bull with his lungs in his hindquarters, I’d make a damn fine hunter. So far, I’ve had only fleeting glimpses of disappearing bulls. In two days, this country has taken me down a few pegs. I’ve quietly told Nichols I’ll be happy with any legal bull. We spent sundown today overlooking a grassy bowl with snow still lingering in the shadows of the trees while a beaver pulled a vee of cold water across a pond he’d built. It was a perfect place for elk, but none showed.
Now it’s dark again, and we’re on the long, cold ride back to camp. In the timber, I can’t even see my horse’s mane, much less the trail. There’s no option but to surrender, sit back, and trust him. At last we come out into open country under a dome of stars so clean and sharp they almost hurt to look at. In three days-elk or no elk-I’ll head back to a smaller life, to the world of telephones, shaving cream, and worry. But for the moment, this country has stripped the scab of daily existence clean, leaving just the core of what it is to be alive. What I know is that I’m exhausted, sore, almost numb with cold, and strangely happy. I only know that we are headed for camp and the promise of a drink, a hot meal, and a warm sleeping bag, all just a few miles ahead, somewhere below the lowest star in the Big Dipper.