To the hardened and brave souls that go into the white and desolate winter, searching for a kill, famine is a familiar perception.
I have spent sometime in these Rocky Mountains looking for my next opportunity, and I was recently reminded of a passed exploit that pushed my brother and I to the far fringe of such famine.
It was an elk hunt in early October, and winter had shown up already bringing cold dark clouds and the accompanying snow. The mountain we were both hunting and camping on was some nine thousand feet above sea level, up where it gets bitter. We were there because we had always seen large herds of elk in the area, and it was so remote that hunting pressure even during the general season was pretty low. My little brother and I had taken a couple days off of work, and decided to spend them all up here.
The high Rockies can be a very quiet place in the winter, the brutal cold seems to slow down even the sounds of the forest. The crunch of snow and ice are the only familiar sounds you will hear.
We set out day after day, scouring the hills and ridges for the sign of our prey. The country that these animals live in is wide and deep, it can be difficult to find them. Even when in large winter herds, they can be easily concealed in a grove of trees. But with that in mind we looked even harder through binos and spotters, not letting even the lightest patch of brown to go unsuspected.
Elk live in country so big and wide, you can find them almost anywhere, or nowhere at all.
After several days of seeing nothing but beautiful cold ridges, we were beginning to feel the pressure build. For us, hunting season was the best time of year. We had waited patiently for many months for this opportunity. And the desolation that gripped this landscape seemed to be contaminating our spirits, time continued to pass and we had only seen one herd of elk. A herd would have done fine, but they were so far away from us that it would have taken us a days hike from our already distant perch just to get into range.
We had planned on returning home on that Monday, and it was now Sunday afternoon. I was beginning to come to terms with defeat. It was nothing new to me, as I had returned home many times before with a clean uncut tag. But that didn’t make it any easier. My pride, and my desire to participate and conquer even just a little piece of this incredible wilderness consumed my every thought.
Our evening plan was to check a good looking ridge that elk were known to frequent in seasons passed, the south side of which was so steep you’d think twice before nearing it. As we made our way to one of the lookouts, dark clouds began to accumulate around us. Though it meant more snow, and an even colder night ahead, the better part of me embraced this long needed change in our daily pattern. As we climbed a familiar path, snow flakes began to swirl in the air. Even more welcome was the sight of a few deer, running up a ridge parallel to us. Three bucks, which was the most exciting thing we had seen in days. Maybe it was the static of clouds colliding overhead, or maybe it was that magical sixth sense that we share with nature, but something inside me confirmed that action was headed our way, riding a cold and foggy breeze.
We continued down the ridge as planned, quietly discussing the many possibilities that awaited us in the cloudy trees below. Like I often do, to the dismay of anyone who hunts with me, I began to pontificate the many possible scenarios that I felt should happen.
My brother, who has spent the better part of his life listening to these sermons of mine, listened quietly. To his credit, he has only called out my trivial contemplation’s a few times. I suppose listening to me jabber along keeps him from falling asleep (which he is very good at). From as far back as I can remember, my little brother has been my wingman. From his perspective it may be more of a sentence than an expression of endearment. Whether it be building forts in the back yard out of Dad’s woodpile, or the death sentence of cleaning our shared room, we were always together.
Thick and thin had weathered every aspect of our brotherhood, and even now, both of us thick in the middle, and thin in the hair, we still share that bond.
The clouds were gently rolling over the ridge spine in front of us, as usual, my eyes never stopped looking. I turned to my brother and speculated something like this: “Why couldn’t there just be a herd of elk just there ahead of us?”
It made sense to me, I mean why couldn’t the elk just cooperate, and come out in the open just ahead of us, near the path, you know, to make it easy on us for once. He didn’t even get the chance to agree with my thought, because as soon as my eyes came returned to front, my prophesy had materialized before us. I froze, not quite sure yet what I was seeing. I had looked down this ridge so many times, and as you often do, anything that looks suspicious gets extra lookin’ at. This figure, that stood before us in the cloud, nearly a quarter mile away, had not been there earlier. In a seconds time, my hopes had been fulfilled, it was a lone cow, standing tall on the ridge spine directly in front of us. I quickly pointed it out to my brother, and by the time he spotted her, she was no longer alone. There was now half a dozen elk standing at attention, their eyes focused wholly on us. It was go time…
I was now Maverick with my wingman Goose at my side. As that first elk reared back her head and led the charge for the nearest treeline, somebody queued up Kenny Loggins. I went for my rifle, and hit the ground. In no time I had my eye on the scope, and the thunder of hoof-beats pounded out The Danger Zone as I fumbled a cartridge into the chamber. There were now so many elk in my scope I didn’t know what to do, like a freight train they just kept coming over the hill. After a few seconds that had seemed like minutes, I finally saw the last of the elk come over the hill. I decide to pick an easy target, the very last of the ladies, who happened to be a large one. I had already dialed the needed elevation to make the shot, and now it was just a trigger pull away from a closed deal.
I watched as the wave of hooves rolled through the sagebrush, time slowed down, and it was like watching that horse scene from The Man from Snowy River, you know the one Im talking about. The cloudy fog that had enveloped us muffled the sound, and the delay and the spooky dim light gave a surreal feeling, almost other worldly. I focused on the reticle in my scope, and when it matched her speed and brisket, I lit the fire.
One hundred and ninety grains of acute certainty cut the clouds, and the quarter mile between us. I watched the bullet strike her dark brown side, and as I ran the bolt in my rifle, I heard the delayed impact return through the fog. It sounded like a major league baseball bat striking hard against a wet roll of carpet. She immediately stumbled, and stopped her hurried run. As I resettled the crosshair on her side, she again stumbled backwards, and toppled over into the brush. The noise settled down, the sound of my rifle report echoed off through the canyons, and the herd disappeared into a grove of aspens.
Darkness had already began to cloak the mountains, so we hurried towards the kill, wanting to put hands on her before all light was lost. We approached quietly, and found her laying on her side, just next to a single small tree.
In the dimly lit twilight I knelt down beside her, and felt the damp and dirty hair she wore. With cold and wet hands I treasured this beautiful animal, and the prize she was to me. Her flesh would sustain my family, her tenacity had challenged my skill and patience, and perhaps most notable, her life would seal this memory into history for both of us.
Our famine had turned to bounty in just a few moments, the adventure and lesson it had become is still fresh in my mind. Nothing will strike excitement into the heart of man, like participating in the circle from where we draw our living existence.