Diehards: The Toughest, Coldest Elk Hunt

Illustrations by Paul Pope

As I got a fire burning with pages torn from an old paperback, my brother, Kevin, shuffled down the hill to the creek. The book was The Moviegoer, and I'd read about a third, so there was plenty of early narrative to burn. In the past when we've backpacked for elk, I've started fires with The Big Sleep, The Deep Blue Good-by--even Gone With the Wind has gone up in smoke. You can start a lot of fires with Scarlett O'Hara's pining for the woodenheaded Ashley Wilkes.

The books change, the mountains change, the misery doesn't. An hour after sunset and already the zipper thermometer on my jacket read zero. I blew a plume of breath and scraped sparks from a steel rod onto a cotton ball smeared with Vaseline. The cotton flared. The pages I'd crinkled under a tepee of spruce twigs caught and Walker Percy's prose disappeared in flame.

Kevin's headlamp bounced shafts of light onto the sparkling snow. "Man, is it cold," he said, setting the water bottles down near the fire. I grunted. I blamed him for dragging me up here. There was a time when he followed me into the mountains. Now I follow him, the blood willing but the body reluctant and the mind too often distracted by everyday life at lower elevations.

"So what book are you burning this year?" Kevin asked. He'd spit a sausage and was holding it over the coals. I told him. He asked what it was about. I said the meaning of life. He absorbed the information.

"You mean this isn't it?" he said.

We'd pitched our home-sewn Whelan shelter, a glorified nylon lean-to with a flap that dropped down to convert it into the semblance of a floorless tent, with the ridgeline running east to west. The assumption was that by building the fire in front, we'd be smoke-free as long as the wind obeyed its imperative to flow downhill. A sound theory. It made us look smart for a time, then it didn't. We drank our nightcap of schnapps and hot chocolate standing up, shifting position to keep from being smoked like hams. Finally I said enough with the sparks and burning eyes and crawled into my sleeping bag. Kevin dropped the flap and placed a log to pin it to the snow so it wouldn't flutter in the wind.

"It's going to be a three-elk night," he said.

"Colder than three dog, you mean?"

"Maybe three moose."

For an hour or so I shone my headlamp on the yellow pages to follow Binx Bolling through New Orleans on what he called the search: "What anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life." When I turned off the light, ­Percy's protagonist still hadn't found a way out of his doldrums. I lay on my back, the bag pulled up over my head and my breath damping the silk neckerchief covering my face. Doldrums were the least of my worries.

The Climb
By 3 a.m. I could no longer lie on either side without my hips throbbing. I had to pee but lacked the courage to get out of the sack. ­Finally I jammed my feet into frozen boots and staggered outside. A light snow was falling, and the only visible star was a hazy Jupiter in the slot between the ridges. They call these the Crazy Mountains. The popular version is that the mountain range was named for a pioneer woman who went mad after her husband and children were killed by arrows. A more credible origin is that these were mountains where Crow warriors went on vision quests, which white men misinterpreted as being mountains where men traveled to "go crazy." Standing beyond the ashes of the fire, I had my own version: They're called the Crazies because you have to be crazy to hunt here.

"Well, that was a night to forget," Kevin said a few sleepless hours later. I groped around in the toe of my sleeping bag for the thermos. We drank tea and ate hot cereal in our bags. The council of war was brief. We'd head for an open park on the west-facing slope opposite camp. Kevin's youngest son had shot a big 5-point bull there a couple of years ago, but the decision was based more on elevation. The park was 600 vertical feet above camp, and the climb should thaw out our feet.

A couple of inches of snow had fallen overnight. An elk trail made a dark shadow where it laced the powder above the toe of the slope. I used the rifle muzzle to scrape fresh snow from one of the tracks and momentarily switched on my headlamp. The hoofprint underneath was sufficiently defined to reveal the shoe size. I glanced at Kevin. We aren't trophy hunters. One of the persistent misconceptions about elk hunting is that it's all about 6-point bulls, when I've yet to meet a hunter who doesn't shoot the first legal elk he finds. But a big track stirs the blood. Out of habit the two of us almost never talk when hunting but communicate in a sort of pidgin sign language. Kevin asked if we should go higher by jutting his chin upward. I turned over my mitten, palm up. Either way was fine by me. Never leave elk to find elk is the rule, but it was in both our minds that after a frigid night, elk would feed longer into the morning. The chances of setting the sights on one pawing through snow to get at sedges were better than of getting a clear shot through heavy timber at the elk standing at the end of these tracks. Kevin crossed the trail, and we kept climbing.

I heard the wind howling before the trees thinned enough to see the opening. The chill factor up there had to be 30 below. We'd crossed several more elk trails in the past 40 minutes, the last one 300 to 400 feet down the ridge. For once we were above them. Contouring to the north, we dropped onto a lee slope where a narrow-gauge logging road curved around the head of a basin. An old cut had grown up in lodgepoles and Douglas firs the size of Christmas trees, but the slope below us was semiopen. As it was protected from wind and offered a good vantage of the country, we unslung our rifles and sat on our packs to glass.

Kevin spotted the elk beds first--about a mile north, across a lake of timber that blackened the bowl of the basin. Even at this distance, the trails leading into and out of the two beds were plain to see. Which way the elk had headed after standing up was a guess. So was the sex--but bulls travel in pairs quite a bit of the time, whereas cows are more often in small bands. Again, I felt the old blood, that hunter's pulse as strong under the pallor of modern skin as it was when the Paleo-Indians crossed into the Americas during the last Ice Age.

"I've got the right feeling about this place," Kevin said.

I nodded. Snow overnight, snow still falling, bitter cold, and we'd already crossed the tracks of a half dozen elk. Better yet was that they were scattered in wild country, not herded up on lower slopes and moving under the stars to the sagebrush flats in the valleys. This late in the season, a lot of the game is about deciphering migration routes, knowing where the ­private-​property boundaries are, and trying to outmaneuver other hunters. You can call it elk hunting, but it isn't the kind of elk hunting I have an interest in.

As if sensing my thoughts, Kevin said, "There's nobody here but us."

Up to this point, neither Kevin nor I had chambered a cartridge. The footing on the climb had been iffy--weak depth-hoar snow over slick downfall--and we had both long passed the age where we needed an elk badly enough to chance an accident. Now Kevin put a cartridge up the spout of his Weatherby, and I fed one into the chamber of my .350 magnum. A stout, short-barreled cannon that I've carried half my life, the rifle had weighed 81⁄2 pounds until I glass-bedded a synthetic stock onto the action a couple of years ago, paring the weight by 20 ounces and hopefully extending our dance together in the high country for as many more years. "Use enough gun," Robert Ruark wrote, never truer than when you're hunting elk. I blew snow from the scope covers, and we got going.

The Shot
The logging road was long abandoned and had deteriorated to the point where it was little more than a trace. It dipped into and out of timber as it contoured the basin, leading in a roundabout route toward the slope where we'd noted the beds. We found ourselves following the trail of a small cow elk, then came up on the bed she'd made in the center of the trail. The urine suggested she had left recently--perhaps our scent had drifted to her, though the snow was sifting straight down. Where the cow had dropped off the road, the pines fell away for a thousand feet or more, then the country rose and dipped in a series of low ridges divided by jump-across creeks. Very heavy timber, all of it. Conditions were perfect for tracking, and again we found ourselves faced with a decision, for in this district antlerless elk were legal. And again we stuck to the plan: to continue contouring until we reached the open slope where we'd spotted the beds.

Leading Kevin, I saw the block of color before the outline of the elk. It was below me, and I dropped down and kneed forward through the snow. There were two bulls coming up through scattered pines, but I was so intent on making sure the closer elk had the brow tine that would make it legal that I couldn't say whether the one following was bigger or smaller. I probably had time to drop my pack and set up my shooting sticks. But in elk hunting you take the first good shot you have, and this was a good shot with the near bull maybe 70 yards away. I tugged my right mitten off with my teeth and brought the rifle up, saw the post of the old Lyman scope wobble on the elk's shoulder, and made sure of the brow tine on the beam of its right antler. The bull was down at the shot, floundering in the snow. Then it was up and gone. A running shot taken in the instant it disappeared dropped a pine bough too far out ahead.

I turned to Kevin. "I don't know," I said.

"It went down hard," he said. "It's dead."

"I don't know." But he was marking his GPS with a waypoint: deadelk.

Still, I didn't know. It can happen like that, a shot pulled high and the shock to the spine enough to put it down, but the wound superficial and the elk, its nervous system recovered, up and running.

I picked up the brass where it glinted in the snow, and we sidestepped down the slope, the silence palpable and the country taking on a surreal quality with the pines standing at attention. We stood where the elk had fallen, and I licked snow off my lips. The dark sweet scent of the bulls hung in the air. No blood. Fifty yards along the tracks--still no blood. Another 20 yards, nothing. Then, a big swerving furrow in the snow, and a few yards later another. I glanced down the hill. The elk was on its left side, bubbles of blood foaming and breaking on the hair over its right shoulder where air from its collapsed lungs was still escaping. Elk, even elk hit hard, die hard. This one's shoulder was smashed to pulp, and later we'd find no trace of a heart. It had died midstride and fetched up against a pine trunk. Four points on one side and three on the other, with a scar where the left brow tine had broken off short. A young bull, what Montanans would call a raghorn, but the antler beams were thick, and it had the heavy boxy body characteristic of elk from steep ranges.

I squatted beside it and kissed the top of its head before Kevin walked up. It is no small thing to take a life, and I felt the regret I always do. The measure of it grows each year I hunt. I know it is emotional, and not rational, for the elk lived wild and was killed cleanly and would feed many people. And we had earned it and we weren't done earning it; it was a long way to camp and a long way from camp to the trailhead. It would take us a morning just to pack out camp and then three days to haul the boned meat.

"That's a big elk," Kevin said. He was making the same mental calculations I was.

We had to saw down the tree that the bull's hindquarters had wedged against just to move it into position to work with the knives. "I've been thinking," Kevin said, as he helped me hang a hindquarter from a tree where I could bone the meat and drop it into a gamebag. He finished his thought after tying off the rope. "I've been thinking maybe we could take it out another way."

"The logging road," I agreed. Long abandoned and overgrown as it was, it still had to lead somewhere.

"When we take a break," he said, "let's get out the maps and the GPS. Maybe there will be good news."

There was. It looked as though after packing our camp out, we could drive on a county road, turn onto a logging road, then take a spur off it and park only a couple of miles from the slope where we now stood. An hour's circle in four-wheel-drive and maybe we'd have to chain up, but doable, at least doable on the map. We might even be able to haul a game cart part of the way up the old logging trace.

"There has to be a catch," I said. In elk hunting, there's always a catch, just as in mountain climbing there's always a false summit. Only two years ago, while packing out my nephew's bull through the bowl of the basin below us, we got lost twice--three grown men with GPS and we wound up hiking up and down creeks that led nowhere half the night, schlepping 60 pounds of wet elk on our backs. Our wives called search-and-rescue on us--an embarrassment we have yet to live down.

We thought about the logistics as we worked, the prospect of getting this elk out on wheels looking more and more attractive as one gamebag after another became distended with meat. By the time we'd hung the bags with parachute cord and I'd lifted the head and antlers of the bull as high into a tree as I could, it was growing dark. Three miles of sinister-looking pine spears separated us from camp, but one plus of having been lost in the country was getting to know it. Though the snow was deep and the footing uncertain, we managed to find the right trail, and within a few minutes of reaching camp, I'd started a fire with crumpled-up pages from my book.

The Pack Out
I finished what was left of the story zipped in my sleeping bag that night and wasn't sure what to make of it. On the surface, it seemed like Binx Bolling, who had tried to fill the well of his existence by wandering from one woman to the next, from one movie house to the next, underwent a religious conversion and finally found meaning in the arms of his distant cousin, Kate, who shared his tenuous grasp on reality. A part of him still seemed to be searching at the end, but then I suppose that's true for most of us.

The next morning we backpacked the camp out to the trailhead, then packed the elk out using the route the GPS and our maps had suggested. It took all afternoon and into the night, grunting the heavy bags of meat up the ridge to the logging road, but as elk hunting goes, it was an easy elk. Kevin strapped the loads onto his game cart while I went down the slope one last time to bring up the head. Where I had wedged it into the tree branches, the antlers were silhouetted against the sky. Early stars pulsed in the spaces between the tines, the bone fingers reaching upward to cup the universe. I looked at those echoes of light a long minute. I knew that next year I'd probably have the same excuses for staying home. I'd be mired in the monotony Walker Percy wrote about, but I'd come back as I always have, to this range or another. Our fires would be struck with the pages of a different book, and two men who still feel the ancient pull would find their way back into the bloodstream of the mountains once again.

I lifted the elk antlers out of the tree. The stars went out as the sky grew heavy, and the two of us packed out the bull through the falling snow.