The Old Bull

For an aging hunter, the hills are steeper, the pack is heavier, and the miles are longer. But there's nothing like a three-day chase through the mountains to get your blood moving again.

Field & Stream Online Editors

I'd stayed up late the night before, watching a long movie with my daughters-a treat, and one I could not pass up, even though I'd be awakening early in the morning to go hunt. So far that season, I'd had a handful of exciting moments carrying the bow around, but no shots had presented themselves. I'd arrowed a couple of grouse, seen some fine sunrises, and started to work my old self slowly back into shape.

It's been a puzzlement to me, as I age, how the seven-day-a-week desire for hunting has faded over the years. Staying up the evening before, for instance, eating popcorn on the couch and watching the movie with my family, I noticed that during one scene, tears began to well in the eyes of my oldest daughter, Mary Katherine, age 10. She had her head turned from us and was trying not to let anyone else see, least of all her younger sister, Lowry, but they were big old silent splatty drops. And the next morning, climbing the ridge at first light, my mind was not on elk the way it would have been in the past but was instead marveling at the sweetness of my daughters, and at my own increasing tenderness.

Another puzzlement to me was the way I kept slipping on the bear grass, giving a perfect impersonation of an old man trying to climb a steep hill. This isn't me, this is a stranger. This is a hill I've climbed many times before. I must just not be paying attention.

Not long after sunrise, a bull bugled, and rather than calling back, I hurried toward him with the wind in my favor. Almost immediately, however, there came another bugle from below me-a crude one, not much more realistic than my own tortured attempts-and then a third. There were hunters crawling all over that roadless area. Nimrods, I thought disgustedly, as if I should be the only one with permission to hunt these public lands.

I caught a scent of the real bull and wanted to go to him, but now the other hunters were coming hard, too hard, charging up the slope like infantry, and the bull or one of his harem must have glimpsed them, for the next thing I heard was hoof-clatter and timber-crash.

I'd been so close-a couple of minutes away, perhaps-but I told myself it was for the best, for if I had been fortunate enough to get up on the animal, I surely would not have wanted to share the space and time afterward with a bunch of gawkers-would not have wanted to engage in conversation. I slipped away quickly, not following the commotion but instead simply making my own escape.

[NEXT "Fresh Start"] Fresh Start
The following day was a Monday. I went back to the same mountain, happy the weekenders had cleared out. A new snow had fallen, which thrilled me, and I was relieved to see that that part of me was still durable and intact-the capacity to exult at unspoiled snow.

No one was on the mountain, and when I cut fresh tracks at daylight, the herd moving just ahead of me and into the wind, I thought I would burst with euphoria. My breath came faster and a wave of tunnel vision swept in-I could imagine the animals just over the next rise, shockingly brilliant, orange and tawny amidst all the new snow-and I paused for a moment to gather my emotions.

The tracks angled up toward the ridge, and I knew I would see the animals at any second. The anticipation, the foreknowledge, seemed as sweet as would the event itself.

I paused again, focused deeper, and then stepped up onto the ridge, fully prepared to see the herd before me.

What I found instead were the scattered tracks of alarm. At first, I couldn't believe it-I'd had the wind in my face, had remained silent, and had stayed hidden-how could they have possibly known? But then I looked down the ridge-into the wind-and saw another of my kind, orange-clad, sauntering. He had not yet come to the hairpin-whirl of tracks, and stepped into the open where he could see me.

We didn't exactly wave at each other, but there was some acknowledgment made; and I turned away first, bailing off the ridge to the right, in the direction of those tracks he did not yet know about, and in so doing encouraged him to choose the left side of the ridge. And in that manner, we parted company.

The wind was all wrong for me now, and the animals were spooked, but still, it was fresh sign and a glorious day, and I followed them as quietly as I could. I walked past the place where my brother B.J. and I had gotten a nice mule deer the previous Thanksgiving, during a near blizzard, and saw where he had piled a big tepee of dried branches. In the end, I'd gotten the animal cleaned and quartered just before dark so that we didn't need to light the big fire. And passing by this strange semi-edifice way out here in the backcountry, I was warmed, but then shook my head as if to clear it of all that butter-soft sentimentalizing. My God, what's happening to me? Here I was hot on the trail of a fresh bull, and I was thinking fond and happy holiday thoughts and living in the past. What is going on?

[NEXT "One on One"] One on One
After a while, the cows and calves moved down into the next drainage, while a lone larger animal, surely the bull, peeled off back over the ridge. I chose his tracks, rather than the herd's, hoping that he might make a mistake. These were huge, indicating to me that he'd been around long enough to know what was what.

Hours later, I was still following him, and he was doing what I hate for them to do, backtracking. It's always a kind of taunt to circle around and find the big new fresh tracks inside your own. And it wasn't just backtracking for a step or two; this particular animal was walking in my tracks step for step, for 40 and 50 yards at a time before diving back down deeper into the timber.

We were both getting tired, and I have to say, I preferred it when he went downhill to uphill. I was still being as quiet as I could-a farce, really, since he obviously knew what was up-but I was hoping that in his weariness he might pause and look back, curious about who or what was staying with him.

Once, at the edge of a little 6-foot cliff, the tracks were so explosive that I knew he must have seen me. I could tell from his hoofprints that he had hidden beneath the cliff and then had whirled and bolted when he saw me, with vast spaces between the tracks now, a flying elk.

I followed him in a kind of senseless delirium, until dusk, and then started bushwhacking due east, soggy and sodden, until I came to a road. I would rest easy that night, having spent almost all the energy I had. I wanted to believe that up on his ridge, in his snow bed, his own rest would come easier in his victory, even as he and I both knew he had many more days to go, that this was only the beginning.

The Perfect Day
Another miracle! More fresh light snow had fallen in the night, 2 new inches, but the stars were clear when I woke up a few hours later and headed out to another mountain to give the big bull a rest. I was already sore and frazzled, as if I'd been after the elk for two or three weeks instead of two days.

But hiking up the new mountain in the darkness, I cut tracks so fresh that there was no snow in them. In all the years and all the miles, I'd never had it happen like this. I'd heard of countless others who had, and always listened with distant envy. As I followed this big herd north, I could tell that the herd was mellow, just out feeding, scratching and pawing at the snow, grazing. I trailed them for an hour, walking as slowly and quietly as I could. In a strange way I almost didn't want the hunt to be over.

The herd was striking north through a series of open parks, stepping over the ubiquitous scatter of blowdown to pass from one small clearing to the next, and as I traced their path, it seemed that I could already see them, bright in my imagination. These were happy elk, I told myself, though they sometimes chose a path that led them through the gridwork of fallen lodgepole, instead of detouring slightly around it. It was cheap insurance, I supposed, headed into the wind as they were-covering their backtrail, so that they'd discourage anyone from slipping in behind them.

At the edge of each small clearing I was certain that I would see them. Whenever I paused, scanning the woods, my breath rose ahead of me, and I watched the ridges to see if I might be able to detect the similar breath-clouds from those dozen or so elk.

I was positive there was a bull in there only because the day was too perfect.

Surely I was only minutes behind them. With each clearing I came to and saw that they were not in it-saw where their tracks meandered right through the middle of it-a compression began to build in me, a tension and a challenge; and for some reason, rather than remaining calm and confident, assured that I had these elk right where I wanted them, I began to feel now that the farther we traveled, the more likely the odds were that things could fall apart.

When I came over yet another ridge and looked down into the last clearing before the mountain's forest swallowed this chain of small openings, I couldn't believe the elk weren't there. I figured I'd been only a few minutes behind, but now I'd come upon nothing but a vast and vacant snowy meadow. Clearly, aliens had descended and lifted them into a spaceship.

Dropping down into it, I saw, unbelieving, where the herd had become frightened. Something to my left caught my eye: more hunters, on this mountain too, orange comets hurrying up the ridge. They had already spotted me standing out there-they hadn't cut the tracks yet-and politely motioned that they would veer hard starboard.

Across the distance, I couldn't tell that it was my good friend and hunting partner, Tim, and his friend Andy. If I'd known it was Tim-the ultimate gentleman-I would have waved to him to come on up and share in my good fortune. Instead, I tensed and set off after the elk.

[NEXT "The Home Stretch"] The Home Stretch
Ifollowed the torn-up snow and frozen chunks of turf across the clearing. The herd had thundered straight down through the forest, not in a classic single-file exodus but spread out in a terrified stampede, letting the mass of their own weight propel them down the slope in a barely controlled free fall. I could see where some of them had tripped and slid, leaving skid trails.

Soon they came to a cliff, and the new snow told where several of them had gone all the way out onto the promontory ledges. So severe had been their flight that I peered down to see if om one small clearing to the next, and as I traced their path, it seemed that I could already see them, bright in my imagination. These were happy elk, I told myself, though they sometimes chose a path that led them through the gridwork of fallen lodgepole, instead of detouring slightly around it. It was cheap insurance, I supposed, headed into the wind as they were-covering their backtrail, so that they'd discourage anyone from slipping in behind them.

At the edge of each small clearing I was certain that I would see them. Whenever I paused, scanning the woods, my breath rose ahead of me, and I watched the ridges to see if I might be able to detect the similar breath-clouds from those dozen or so elk.

I was positive there was a bull in there only because the day was too perfect.

Surely I was only minutes behind them. With each clearing I came to and saw that they were not in it-saw where their tracks meandered right through the middle of it-a compression began to build in me, a tension and a challenge; and for some reason, rather than remaining calm and confident, assured that I had these elk right where I wanted them, I began to feel now that the farther we traveled, the more likely the odds were that things could fall apart.

When I came over yet another ridge and looked down into the last clearing before the mountain's forest swallowed this chain of small openings, I couldn't believe the elk weren't there. I figured I'd been only a few minutes behind, but now I'd come upon nothing but a vast and vacant snowy meadow. Clearly, aliens had descended and lifted them into a spaceship.

Dropping down into it, I saw, unbelieving, where the herd had become frightened. Something to my left caught my eye: more hunters, on this mountain too, orange comets hurrying up the ridge. They had already spotted me standing out there-they hadn't cut the tracks yet-and politely motioned that they would veer hard starboard.

Across the distance, I couldn't tell that it was my good friend and hunting partner, Tim, and his friend Andy. If I'd known it was Tim-the ultimate gentleman-I would have waved to him to come on up and share in my good fortune. Instead, I tensed and set off after the elk.

[NEXT "The Home Stretch"] The Home Stretch
Ifollowed the torn-up snow and frozen chunks of turf across the clearing. The herd had thundered straight down through the forest, not in a classic single-file exodus but spread out in a terrified stampede, letting the mass of their own weight propel them down the slope in a barely controlled free fall. I could see where some of them had tripped and slid, leaving skid trails.

Soon they came to a cliff, and the new snow told where several of them had gone all the way out onto the promontory ledges. So severe had been their flight that I peered down to see if