It’s pitch-black outside. The forest is silent. I can see my breath inside the truck. It’s an October weekend, and we’re camping in the mountains near Crater Lake, Oregon. I wait inside my sleeping bag while my dad makes the hot chocolate. Finally we hurry to put on our gear and head out. We hike until we find what my father calls an “elk freeway.” We sit down together and watch the sunrise, a beautiful watercolor painted across the sky.
It is now light enough to shoot. We wait patiently, not speaking a word. We don’t have to. We might not speak more than a few sentences the whole weekend, but this is still our special time together, and I don’t have to share it with anyone else. We listen to the forest and breathe in the fresh air, completely relaxed. The wilderness does that to you. It takes your thoughts and just gobbles them up. It allows you to forget about your worries and stresses–even things you are excited about. It makes you look at life and really try to understand it.
Most people think hunting is all about dressing in camouflage, wearing skunk-scent, and looking for the “big one” that you can hang on your wall. But if you’re a true hunter, you know that it’s so much more. When I’m hunting, I love to just sit on the forest floor and look at the luscious greens and the different textures and shapes of each leaf. I love to hear the sounds that we’re so oblivious to at home: birds singing, bugs buzzing, leaves crunching. I love when I feel my hands get dusty and dirt builds up under my nails, and I don’t have to constantly wash them in fear of germs. I love to smell the freshness in the air and the cleanness after a rainstorm.
Then it happens. We finally hear the sound that is the reason we got up so early. My dad nods his head. I bring the long tube to my mouth and bugle–a skill I learned, oddly enough, by watching hunting shows and imitating the bulls I saw on the screen. I make a resonant scream that gradually ascends to a piercing wail and then abruptly drops off. We hold our breath. The elk bugles back. My heart begins to pound from the exuberant feeling that comes from actually talking to this animal. Suddenly the big bull appears, staring straight at us. We’re close enough to see the hair hanging from his belly, still wet from the morning’s dew. There are water droplets glistening on his nose and whiskers. I stare straight back at this monstrous beast, my finger frozen to the trigger. Before I realize that this isn’t a dream, the bull sprints away. I guess I was in awe.
Someone who doesn’t hunt might not understand why I wasn’t too disappointed by this outcome. Of course it’s fun ranting to your friends about the big trophy you earned through teamwork and hard effort, but you don’t need a trophy to make your adventure spectacular. Even the “unsuccessful” experiences are exhilarating. Best of all is that I get to share it with my father. We lead such busy lives that it’s hard to spend time with the ones you love. With our world constantly being influenced by new technology, you often find yourself becoming greedy and distracted. The wilderness helps you to appreciate what’s important and allows you to see the things that you really love. It helps you to understand life a little better and see why it’s worth living. Hunting is so much more than a sport. To me, it’s a religion, and this is what I love about it.
To read essays by the runners-up DANIEL BOTHWELL of Kalispell, Montana, and NATHANIEL SOKOL of Orland Park, Illinois, as well as excerpts from other essays, visit our website at fieldandstream.com