It was two hours and change until shooting light and I’d been up since 3:30, banging pans for my breakfast, nosing the truck past the skeletons of Christmas trees in the alley. In the middle of January, with any hopes for a bull long gone, it was a meat hunt now. I had a tag up the Madison good for a cow driven low by the snow.
At least it wasn’t cold, maybe a few degrees above zero. Last year, same week, same hunt, it was 40 below. My brother had a tag, but when he tried to chamber a cartridge, the bolt wouldn’t slide over the pin on the side of the rail. Even though he stuck the rifle up under his shirt to thaw the pin spring and walked in circles until daybreak, there was nothing doing, so he said the hell with it and snowshoed 2 miles back to the road. He had to flag a trucker to jump his car. It was tough luck for him that day, and there wasn’t much call for optimism on my part this morning either, with the slopes windswept and the snow old and crunchy. But then if you don’t go, you never know. My hopes were resting on a knob of timber that might hold a small band or two under these conditions. The going was bad, and of course that’s why they liked it. On the north slope of this place, I had never seen a boot track except for my own, and that’s going back many years.
I parked at Papoose Creek, shut off the headlights, and sat in the dark a minute. Get on with it, I told myself, slinging the rifle. Still, I puttered around, patting my pockets for cartridges, reluctant to commit to the first step to the mountain.
A frozen-over trough creased the trail that led up through the creekbottom. Splotches of blood ran down the center, black in the moonlight. I switched my flashlight on to look at it for a second. A few clumps of hair lay scattered, and the snow was stained yellow. Some saddle sitter must have dragged an elk out a couple of weeks before, after the last storm. Probably one out of the main herd, which was still high on the escarpment about 7 miles in. It’s horse country there and might as well be the moon if you don’t have one.
I hiked up the blood trail for a couple of miles and then left it, dropped into the bottom, and forded the creek, using the rifle’s butt as a walking stick to keep from sliding on the ice. Then I started the big push up the knob. No matter what kind of shape you’re in, this is a lung-sucking climb. It was straight up in the dark through scattered timber and then out into the open, about a 1,000-foot grunt. The elk liked to feed on the side of the knob fronting the river, where the face is swept down to the grassline by the winds.
Topping out, I surprised three coyotes, a rare enough sight with wolves in the neighborhood now. They were silhouetted like burglars, and I waited until they had loped round the shoulder before going on. I suppose I let down my guard, thinking no elk would stand for their presence. It was a lapse of judgment that just about cost me. A couple more steps with the horizon shifting and there they were, a line of elk wondrous and huge, as they always appear, filing back along the north slope toward the wall of the timber. I had a shot with legal light a minute old, but in the gloom it was difficult to tell the bulls from the cows, and I couldn’t be sure whether they were 150 yards up the mountain or 250. And the wind was howling, lifting ice crystals off the snow surface and blowing them into my eyes. I had too much respect for the elk to throw a bullet on hope and lowered the rifle. Maybe all was not lost. If I hurried, there was just a chance I could circle around and catch them, for I knew the country as well as they did and was certain where they were headed.
Dropping to the ground, I rolled down until I was below their sight line and got to my feet, brushed off, and started to walk along the sidehill. I’d strapped snowshoes to my pack, figuring I’d need them on top. Now I wished that I’d put them on, but there was no time to pause and nothing to do but to keep putting one foot in front of the other, circling ahead and working up all the while. Twice in the next 20 minutes I saw elk above me, tan flickers in the trees and already past my position. Since I couldn’t do anything about them, I kept slogging, hoping to get high enough to cut off any stragglers. I wanted to ease the burn in my legs and bring my heart back into my chest, but I didn’t dare stop. Every minute I rested was another the elk would gain on me.
An avalanche chute opened to my left, and I crossed it into a belt of pines. I was in good cover and gaining. Above the pines, the slope rose almost vertically for 30 feet or so and then seemed to plateau. From the top I’d be able to see a ways and might have a shot. I dropped my pack, tugged the mitten off my right hand with my teeth, and climbed. And there they were, the last five of what must have been 30 or more. They were strung out about 80 yards up through the timber, a mixed band with a brushhead bull trailing and a dark cow outlined in the middle. I kneeled down and put the post on her. When I fired, the rim of the scope bucked back to the bridge of my nose and cut a crescent that brought blood streaming down my face. The elk plowed through the snow. Once they were out of sight, I caught a tree trunk with my hand. My legs were trembling and suddenly it was difficult to stand. I found a log to sit on and just breathed for a while, holding a handkerchief to my nose to stop the bleeding. The sight seemed to have wobbled too far back when the rifle cracked. I worried that I’d missed and worried that I hadn’t.
Shouldering my pack, I climbed the last of the incline with the rifle ready. After you shoot, the forest feels different and surreal. The shot seems to freeze the country, and you move into the picture with everything around you still and silent. I followed the churn of tracks into the timber, and she was right there, down in the snow with her orange rump toward me. Everything became real again at that moment. She was an enormous cow, and I was miles in and knew what I was up against. I felt that creep of mortality that comes when you’re just a speck on a mountainside with 400 pounds of elk on the ground.
Leaning the rifle against a tree, I fished through my pack for the saw. Then I got a hand warmer going. I’d need it on the hand that wasn’t working in the meat. A jay flicked up from the shintangle and called from a spruce.
I squatted down and ran my hands over the cow’s coat. Sometimes you get one like this, rich chocolate where most are two shades paler, and smelling as sweet as brown sugar. The bullet had taken out her heart, a great shot if only I had called it that way. I drew the knife I wore around my neck and started to work.
I removed her rear quarters whole and boned out the rest of the meat. Two hours after first drawing my knife, I cut out the ivories, then I kissed her head and buried it under the snow. I spread out the cape from the front half of the elk and lay down on it to rest, blood all around me. The sun coming through the pines was as pale as death at this temperature. The jays were wiping their beaks on the rib cage. I didn’t want to get up, but I had to. I stood, my legs already feeling stiff, and started shuttling meat. It was a slow grind, 100 yards or so at a time, then back for another load, sinking in snow up to my hips. I hauled the hide out, resting on it between shuttles until I got cold, knowing that if I had a heart attack up here I’d end up as a story for the newspaper.
By sunset I had managed to cover a little less than a mile, post-holing through the drifts and slipping on the sugar snow underneath. Conditions were just awful. For years I’d been telling anyone who’d listen that a man should carry a pack stout enough to load 40 pounds of boned meat but had failed to take my own advice this trip, hoping to go light, and now I was paying for it. I had double-bagged all the meat in plastic garbage bags and tried sliding them behind me, but this works only when you have the right snow. Here jaggers poked out of the old crust and snagged holes in the sacks. I’d brought six of them and needed about 20. Down to the last two, I couldn’t take a chance and had to sling the bags over my shoulders, hiking like a broken-down hobo. I pulled out the hindquarters with a rope, one at a time. Eight hours after the echo of the shot, I had the elk off the mountain but was still miles from the road.
With the light failing fast, I dug troughs in the snow to bury the meat bags and quarters. I kicked up big slabs from the snow base and tilted them on top, then stomped them down, creating four snowy coffins along a socked-in ravine. Then I took off my undershirt and my silk long underwear and draped them over sagebrush clumps. I marked each mound with ribbon and set my strobe light blinking. The coyotes I had seen earlier had me worried. One bold old dog had looked as if he’d take me on if I had dropped my rifle. But there’s only so much you can do. Before leaving, and for good measure, I peed on all the mounds.
After that it was just a hike out in the dark, a dreadful haul. My pack was sagging with as much wet elk as I could cram into it and more strapped on top. I was so loaded down that I had to stop every couple hundred yards, sink to my knees and elbows, and lay my head on my hands to take the pressure off my back. I didn’t dare take the pack off because I couldn’t imagine getting it back on. Finally, I could hear the river, and then I saw a car headlight come searching up the valley. I summoned what was left and stumbled down to the road.
The next morning a friend and I went in with pack frames and sleds and found the meat undisturbed. I told my friend maybe I’d chosen the wrong route for packing meat. There was an old log flume I could have used as a slide on the north slope. He said any way you pack meat is bound to be the wrong way when it comes to elk.
A few hours later we had the last of her out. It had been a great hunt and a tough hunt, but then none of them are easy. I’m getting older, though. My back takes longer to recover, and now my nose would have one more scar. But time is like snow. It erases scars as it buries the bones and the pains of the past. I’d heal well enough. The mountains would turn white once more. The elk would move with the snow and I’d climb to meet them, my blood pounding to the ancient, irresistible rhythm.