Elk for Old Timers

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.

[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 I 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?

[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.

[THE HOME STRETCH]

I followed 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 any might have been carried over the edge, but there were none. Despite being hot on the trail, I stood there for long moments, looking at the little thread of the shining river and its rapids, and at the dark canyon that was only now beginning to fill with light.

I sorted through the clutter of their tracks where they had back-tracked, huffed back up the hill a short distance, and then crossed a notch in the mountain and tightroped over to another series of cliffs. They paralleled these cliffs, trotting now instead of sprinting--almost as if the flight itself had been frightening them more than anything else. It was easy to imagine, now that they were back in single file, how the more nervous among them would have been bumping into and nudging along those in front whom they deemed to be going too slowly, keeping the whole herd moving at a trot. They turned north again, finally calm, catching their breath. Nothing can run forever.

Ten minutes later I caught up with them and crouched behind some scrub lodgepole. I could only see parts of the herd at any one time--ears, muzzle, orange rump. I scanned for antlers but saw none. After waiting awhile, I eased in behind them, now less than a hundred yards away. I had already decided there was no bull in with them, and that I was just following them to learn some things, when I heard that sweetest and most surprising sound, a thin, lonely bugle--a distressed bugle--so close to me that it seemed I should be able to see the animal.

I froze and waited. After several seconds, the call came again--louder--but now the animal and his herd were moving away. I could hear a muffled snow-gallop up on the ledge above me--and once more I set out in pursuit. All previous traces of fatigue were gone from my legs now that I knew I had the gift of a bull before me.

He bugled again, quite a bit out ahead of me now, so I broke into a trot. I couldn't figure out the mood or rhythm of their pace, but as long as he kept bugling, it was fine with me.

I was a long way from the truck, and they seemed to be drifting to a place where I had killed elk before. Over the years I'd taken three elk within sight of this one particular double-forked larch snag, and though the season was young, I was hoping for a fourth.

The bull sounded another time, incredibly close, on the ledge just above me. With a leaping heart I eased up carefully, expecting to see him point-blank.

Instead, the first-thing I saw were the eyes of a cow looking down at me. I cursed silently and crouched lower. I glanced to the right, and there was what I'd hoped to find--the shining mahogany tips of antlers. Taking a deep breath, I eased to a standing position, only to witness a mature whitetail buck, its rack gleaming in the sun, moving through the herd of cows and calves. I didn't see the bull, and I must have looked like a cartoon character with my head turning left and right, unsure of whether to watch the departing cows or the departing buck.

I had thought the cows would run a long way, having been bumped by me, but I was surprised to catch up with them less than 50 yards later. They were all standing around looking back, 20 yards away from that big double-topped larch snag. The bull, panting, was standing in their midst, broadside to me, not 30 yards out.

This is my easy story, I thought, this is like what I have heard other people talk about all my life but have never seen. It was the perfect day, the perfect morning, and I almost hated for it to be over.

[BLOOD, SWEAT, AND YEARS]

Because the morning was still cold, I made a little fire so that I could warm my hands as I worked. The bull had fallen on his back, with his antlers upside down. He was a big 5×5, and as ever, I felt that strange mix of joy and sorrow, the responsibility that is always attendant in the taking of an animal's life.

I spent the rest of the morning and part of the afternoon gutting and skinning and then boning him out. Ankle-deep in that new snow, I lifted my head from time to time to stare at the snowy wilderness on the other side of the canyon, to give thanks again for all of it, and to marvel at my good luck.

Once I had the first load packed up and the rest of the meat cached and hung, I took out an extra sweater, gloves, and a hat and converted a young fir tree into a scarecrow. The first load was heavier than I'd expected. I could barely stand beneath it and had to take tiny old-man steps, hunched over, being careful not to slip on the sidehills in the snow.

On my windshield, there was a note from Tim, apologizing for having bumped into me--a ludicrous note, given that I should be apologizing to him for having run him and his friend off of their face of the mountain.

That night, when Tim called to check in, he carried his gentlemanliness further and offered, then insisted, that he and Andy help me pack out the next day. It's hard sometimes to accept help, but I'm trying to get better at it as I get older.

We didn't have a third backpack, so in the morning we borrowed a friend's old birchbark trapper's basket, a brutal torture-machine of a thing with rope straps and a tumpline. Retracing the hunt moment by moment, we hiked through the forest and finally reached the animal--no ravens yet.

I hadn't sawed off the antlers, nor had I pried out the ivories, and so we worked on that for a while. It was a hard task, made harder by the gymnastics required to fit the little saw in between and beneath the wide antlers. After we finally had the cranium open and the antlers lifted free, Tim and I fooled with the ivories.

"Good gosh, they're rooted deep," Tim said as he sawed and poked with the knife, cutting away gray gum. "But so pretty."

Tim finally got one ivory popped out, and I started in on the other. I was tired and cold and clumsy, and before long I grew careless and slipped with the knife and cut a slash in the heel of my hand, shockingly deep, not an inch from my wrist.

It went right through muscle, and I felt immediately a confusion of emotions--chagrin, embarrassment, regret, and disappointment as well as shock and physical pain. Tim searched my face, wanting to know if it was bad. I lifted my good hand from the wound, and blood flowed everywhere, dripping onto the elk, and onto my boots and pant cuffs, and into the snow. It looked extraordinarily red to me, healthy and bright. Perhaps already in a bit of shock, I was mildly pleased by this, choosing to view it as a good indicator.

We fooled with it for a good while--the bleeding gave no indication of stopping--before Andy figured out a way to engineer a butterfly bandage by cutting off a scrap of my scarecrow sweater. We loaded our packs, reassembled the remaining bare elk skeleton into a running position, and set off back toward our truck. Now each of us was taking those short little old-man steps.

My bandage quickly grew soaked and soggy. With each step I was leaving a drip of blood trail. It hurt like fire, and I was annoyed as much at the clumsiness of it as with the pain. A perfect hunt and I had to mar it. And yet, thinking about it now, I realize the imperfection made it even more real.

[MILES TO GO]

After an hour or two we were still slogging along, one tiny little step at a time--Tim toting that ridiculous basket, with the ropes cutting savagely into the flesh of his chest and shoulders. The world was still beautiful and I was still astounded by my good fortune, but my hand hurt and I was feeling a little dizzy. I felt more than ever like exactly what I was becoming, year by year, which was and is an old geezer. Not quite yet: but close enough now to see into the territory of it, as if it were now only the next basin over.

What if I had slashed my wrist? What if Tim or I blew a clot, struggling up the hill, and expired beneath the load, killed by the elk I had killed? I remember thinking, It's got to end someday, right? But I'm not ready for it to end.

We reached the cliff, the pinnacle on which the entire herd had perched, and peered down into the rocky canyon below. It was hard to talk and walk at the same time, but I felt obliged to, as if to keep my guests engaged and to take their minds off the beautiful torture. Pausing for breath, we readjusted our packs and then started up that steep slope down which the elk herd had plunged, almost flying, the day before. In places the snow had melted and the black soil was visible again. The light coming down through the canopy was autumnal, made up of columns of coppery sun and shadow.

"I aim to someday be an old geezer," I huffed to Tim, stopping to catch my breath again. Already the weight on my back was feeling like an opponent, a wrestler, and Tim's pack, I knew, was all the worse. "But if I don't make it, there's something to be said for not getting so old that you can't do this anymore."

Tim is a few years younger than me. He wasn't even panting. Not yet.

"I know what you mean," he said.

The bull sounded another time, incredibly close, on the ledge just above me. With a leaping heart I eased up carefully, expecting to see him point-blank. I couldn't believe the elk weren't there. Clearly, aliens had descended and lifted them into a spaceship.