As hunters, we seem to revel in the challenge and frequent suffering that accompanies the efforts of hunting. I believe this comes from deep in our DNA handed down from our ancestry, from generations of exceptionally hard people that lived on the edge of survival. Pushing ourselves to that same absolute edge of our abilities during a hunt seems to tap into the very root of our hunting heritage, and the feeling intensifies the closer we get to the precipice of danger and complete collapse.
I was lucky enough to refine this discourse with a partner during one of my most recent hunts. Hard labor and putting in the time are a must when hunting Rocky Mountain Elk, and we were already deeply committed to a stalk high into the snowy mountains at seventy-five hundred feet. Nick and I have been friends for years, but this was his first time with me hunting elk, his first elk hunt period in fact. He had only taken his very first big game animal a few months prior during the Utah general season mule deer hunt, so this hunt was as much a learning experience as anything else.
The weather that day was brutal to say the least, a winter storm had been producing freezing rain all night as the wind howled across the mountain range stacking the snow anywhere it could. Our time to hunt was short, so we’d decided to go for it since success favors the brave.
As the light of day continued to brighten around us, we climbed a ridge spine that promised to put us in shooting range of a small group of cow elk spotted from the bottom of the canyon. The wind seemed to increase with every step, at times causing us to lose balance and slip in the deep snow. We took the opportunity to talk, as the noise of the wind could cover up a Peterbilt at fast-idle. I regaled Nick with hunting stories of the past, hardships endured, triumphs after failures and so on. Nick being quite eager to learn and be successful as a hunter was happy to discuss all the fine points that make for a fortunate hunt. The wind battered our faces with bits of hail and snow as we lumbered up the ridge, and our discussion turned to a different subject. “At what point does the suffering endured during a hunt cease to be fun” in the traditional sense. After all, most of us hunt because we enjoy it despite the difficulty.
My inquisitive colleague also asked how this hunt stacked up against other difficult hunts I’ve been lucky to endure. If I recall correctly he asked; on a scale of one to ten, ten being the worst hunt I’d ever been on, how are we doing today?
Like a veteran of some awful war, my eyes glazed over and immediately took me back to a freezing cold evening on a slippery mountain deep in Montana’s Kootenai National Forest. For days we had hiked countless miles through clouds and freezing rain, taken several spills down rocky scree-piles and still had nothing to show yet. I found myself clawing up an incredibly steep and treacherous mountain, slipping and sliding grabbing at sticks to gain traction. I would have given up long ago but we’d taken a shot, and I swore to myself that I would either find it or confirm the fear that it was a miss. My heart pounded like I’d never felt before, rain and sweat both ran freely down my face. I couldn’t have cared less since the point of full soak had passed hours before. My patience and exhaustion threshold had been reached, and using my rifle as a crutch I dug into the hillside for every taxing step. After what seemed an eternity, I finally reached the landmark only to find that the better part of the day had all been a waste of effort. I was ready for complete surrender, ready to throw my rifle down the hill and leave my tag hanging in the nearest tree.
I flashed back to the windswept ridge where Nick stood awaiting my answer, I quickly evaluated the labor and suffering we had seen already that morning. And I multiplied it as I looked at what lay ahead, compounded by the unknown that was sure to stand out later. I told Nick, right now we’re at about a six. And we carried on.
The snow got deeper, and we found ourselves moving from one hole to another, digging our feet out with each step. I found myself looking for small trees and bushes protruding from the snow, and stepping on them to use like a natural snowshoe. If only I’d been smart enough to bring a pair I could use for every step.
It was early afternoon when we finally neared the ridge-top where I expected we might have a shot, and it was time to make ready. The wind had only gotten worse, and our condition hadn’t improved, but Nick prepared his rifle for the shot we hoped would come. Removing ice from the rifle to ensure everything was ready, Nick dry fired it several times to make sure we wouldn’t have a malfunction, and then finally chambered a 338 Lapua Magnum cartridge. He backed of his riflescope to six power, and we crept across the crunchy snow between the scrubby trees.
Everything moved with the wind and blowing snow, so I cant be sure when it happened, but almost without any indication, there stood a cow elk a mere forty-yards in front of us behind a small tree. I motioned Nick who was in the process of raising his rifle to bare, but before he could, she bolted from view. We followed her with our eyes as more elk appeared from behind the trees, and moved in a huddled mass away from us. As clouds blew in between us, we used the cover to move below the tree-line where we might have a clear shot at them. We found a tree trunk that provided a solid shooting position and peered into the cloudy breeze waiting for an opening. As Nick continually wiped the snow accumulating in the objective of his scope, I peered through binoculars to where I’d last seen the elk. Through several courses of clouds we waited, getting ghostly glimpses of them but nothing long enough to make a shot. The wind was now blowing at us directly from twelve o’clock, and pelting our eyes and faces with every look. But just as we had nearly reached our threshold for the bone-chilling cold, the wind blew another patch of clear air into our canyon, exposing a few of the elk that stood among the trees. Nick spotted them through his scope, and I watched through my binoculars. When both of us were ready, he finally let the Lapua off the chain. The muffled shot wasn’t particularly loud with the roaring wind around us, but my ears were focused downrange. Among the sounds of ice bouncing down my ear canal, I over heard the old familiar whap come back a second or so after the shot. Both Nick and I watched through our respective optics as the cow stumbled backwards then faceplanted into the snow before her. The three-hundred grain Scenar had broken one shoulder and perforated her heart, and she slid down the steep slope leaving bright red snow patches along the way.
It took us another grueling trek through the deep snow to get to where we last saw her, the whole way we spoke of the excitement and our individual perspectives. As we laid eyes on our prize finally, we went in for a high-five that turned into a bro-hug halfway through. And like we had hundreds of times that morning, we again fell over, finally able to laugh at our hardships.
“Now it was all fun” Nick said as he descended towards his first elk, up until that point it had been indeterminate extreme effort and endurance. That magical act of laying your hands on a prize that you’ve worked your ass off to get, the one you’ve daydreamed about since last season, when you finally have a tangible trophy you can take home and justify all the effort you put in seems to tie it all together into an adventure you will never forget. In spite of the overwhelming imbalance between exertion, suffering, and the few minutes of celebration, that simple act of winning seems to atone for every negative challenge endured to get there.
Our frozen hands were soon warmed as we again set to work on dressing the animal, and the even harder work of getting her out began. Luckily I have some good friends who volunteered to help us get her out, and as I write this she is quietly aging out in my woodshed.
There are few things I enjoy more than sharing this incredibly rewarding and at times crazy lifestyle of hunting, watching Nick take his first elk was the ice cold icing on the cake for me. Watching him dig deep into the snow and pushing beyond what may have seemed rational. I’d like to think he reached his roots down in that deep snow, and felt the same connection I often do when we join the circle of life around us.
I expect Nick will hunt again, I think the affliction of big game hunting has grabbed ahold of him. And he surely has become too accustomed to the taste of venison to stop now.
I too will be back next year, by then all the aches and pains will have been forgotten. And I’ll again be ready to make seemingly poor choices that will put me in range of my objectives, and I look forward to sharing it with new friends and family.