My head throbs and the blood sings in my ears as I slowly climb towards the new day, and when I look behind I can already see my truck parked far below in a meadow of willows and lush green grass.
It had been a rough night with little sleep, but I had put a bull elk to bed here the evening before and I was exhilarated by the prospects of the coming hunt. It is a feeling for which I have found no match in that other world we all mostly live in. The world of bills and mortgages, marriage and children, business, and so on.
At that moment I am a free and joyful being with the promise of new country ahead, and I tend to wax poetic at the drop of a hat, if at least in my own mind. It has always been times like this that I am most clear and most right with the world. I am hunting. I am alive. I love elk, elk hunting, and elk hunters. Or should I say that most of the time I do, for it is not easy to find love in my present condition. I have a terrible mountain hangover, made worse because it is a hangover derived without the pleasures of drink.
I have become more than a little touchy at altitude these days, and the night before had again brought headache, shortness of breath, and the beginnings of altitude sickness. I’ve got to stop hunting at 11,000 feet, I told myself. I had said that for the last three years too, but of course I had convinced myself that things would be different this year, better, and here I am again. Hunting the high country of Colorado is an annual ritual that I cannot forego; to miss it would be more than I could bear. A bull elk bugling among towering peaks and impossibly blue skies can do wonders for one’s attitude and make most troubles seem far, far away.
This morning is different though, and it is a reminder of some realities I have done my best to ignore. At the age of fifty, and with over thirty years of elk hunting behind me, it has become obvious that these mountains are getting steeper and it seems almost impossible to cover the ground I once did. My bow seems heavier, and I don’t see my sight pins so good anymore. As I gasp for air and cling to a small spruce tree to keep from falling backwards, my body screams with the thought that maybe, just maybe, this endeavor is really not fun anymore. I don’t even want to think about what might happen if I happen to put an elk down in some impenetrable canyon far from camp. I have done it before, and this consideration is always in the back of my mind, like some recurring night terror I wish not to confront but march determinedly towards, ever closer.
To put things simply, I hurt. My body seems to be put together with junk parts that are worn and metal fatigued. I’ve got a knee that has bothered me for years from a knee cap smashing fall in a river, and it smarts like the dickens if I tweak it the wrong way, which is often. The other’s not so good either, and on a bad day I can tweak both knees, like today. It would be comical to watch me hobble about if it were not so sad. The toes on my right foot have suddenly decided that they no longer fit in my boots. In fact, my feet don’t seem to work quite right and appear to belong to someone else. The bottom of my soles seem to always catch some unseen obstacle as I stumble about at the risk of losing my dignity, grateful that no one is near to witness the spectacle of it all. I’m carrying way too much weight, and I’m not talking about what’s stashed in my pack.
It’s early in the season and the day warms quickly, and the sweat runs down my forehead as my glasses fog over. Is is really worth it, says I? Do I really want an elk that badly? At fifty, I may not be too old to hunt elk this way, but I fear that I have a pretty good view of the end of the road from here. I think of some of my friends, and realize with some sadness that it is already too late for some, and I wonder just how that happened. Only yesterday we were quite a little group of extreme elk hunters.
But now, a great friend has some chronic health problems and he spends much more time on his ATV then I know he would like. Another has found religion and for this or some other reason rarely hunts anymore. A friend that I had lost touch with informed me the other day that he has had not one, but both hips replaced, and will now leave elk hunting for the younger hunters. And another is the father of a young son that he loves beyond words, and he spends his time teaching him what he has learned of the mountains in his fifty years, caring not if he ever again takes another elk for himself. I don’t see them much anymore. I miss them, and I miss who we were.
A faint, whistling bugle snaps me from my circumstance, and at once my attention is focused like a beacon in the gloom. My heart skips a beat, and all my minor ailments, in fact all my troubles, vanish as if left behind for some other person still rooted on the steep slope below.
It takes some doing, but I struggle to the top and sit for sometime, until another bugle, closer, allows me to get a better bearing and plan a strategy. I cow call several times, and another bugle from my left lets me know that there are two bulls coming my way. I need a shooting lane, and I pick a spot to set up and must cover ten more yards. As I take the last step and begin to kneel, I hear the all too familiar crash of spooked elk, and I see hide flash through the trees and a bit of antler from both bulls. My last half step was one too many, and I have bumped them. I cow call in vain, already knowing what the result will be. Soon, I sit and smile and have a pull from my canteen. Just another “almost” in decades of “almosts” and very close calls.
- “Catch Me If You Can”
Photograph Courtesy of David Massender of Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
This is why it is called elk hunting and not elk shooting. Bowhunting can be so frustrating. Still, I am happy because this is success, in many ways. It is a new area for me, and the elk are here as I had suspected. For a long time most of my favorite hunting spots were largely untouched and I had little competition with other hunter’s. Hunting pressure has always been a consideration on public lands, but lately it seems that someone has beat me to almost every spot, and for a time it upset me. I’ve had to search for new spots, never knowing if it was worth the walk, or if I would find other hunters.
I’ve noticed something different though. My competition all seem to be much younger than I remember, and they all look hungry. They look fit…eager, and determined. They drive beefy, jacked up jeeps, with large tires and lots of chrome parts shining in the sun. I don’t recognize the music blaring from their open tops.
Their smiles are broad and have that certain twist, and the glint in their eyes tell me that the long and grueling hike they just completed was just a warmup. They can’t wait to coffee up and leave me behind, as they strike out to see what’s over the next ridge. It suddenly dawned on me that they remind me of my friends and I – many years ago. Hell, they are us, I thought, and now I know that this is simply the natural progression of things in our world. We are here to pass the torch, and the young guns are more than happy to receive it, even if they have to pry it from some of our hands. I for one will not go down easily.
I agree with many who feel that a hunter is born and not made. I believe that a wise father knows that desire can be encouraged, but not coerced. Yet, an elk hunter must find some further dimension, grasp it tightly, and hold onto it for all he’s worth. In the end, the final product is hammered from iron, tempered by fire and ice, and honed to a razor’s edge by deep, dark canyons, jumbled black timber, and high windswept ridges.
A path so chosen produces legs of spring steel, the lungs of a mountain sherpa, and the heart of a young and fearless lion. An elk hunter must be confident and sure-footed, like the mountain goat on an impossible ledge. Above all, he must be eternally optimistic and willing to improve his skills and knowledge in the teeth of setback and hardship. For it is not easy, this elk hunting.
An elk, after all, is more than happy to accommodate the most determined individual. The more I hunt them, the more respect I have for every aspect of their nature. As worldly survivors they have few equals. Build a luxury golf course on their winter range, and come the heavy snows you will finding them lunching at the ninth tee and sleeping by the barbecue pit in the backyard of the neighboring house. Let loose a few elk in some of the west’s most forbidding country, throw in enough water and some sparse vegetation, and watch them thrive and multiply. Place an arrow from an errant shot in a non vital area of his anatomy, and if it is not too bad he will suck it up and hang low until the wound heels and he can be found bugling in the same spot next year. Elk give perspective to the concept of what it means to be tough.
From our point of view he is a pitiless and unaffected creature, and he expects nothing of you that he would not expect of himself. He is a “game animal” with a lot of game. He believes strongly in equal opportunity, for he will take on all comers with hardly a care. Should you decide to enter his backyard and hunt him, you can tread lightly and show little effort, like many, and experience small success, like most. Hunt him big, and you can peg the throttles until the rockets burn out. He can take it. Can you? Your choice.
Once committed, he will meet you head on and wear you out physically and mentally, a little or a lot. He can grind your hopes into gritty powder and turn your dreams into nightmarish obsessions. He will turn and happily watch from the hill above, as you beat yourself bloody on the rocks. He waits, until you sheepishly stop to pat yourself and make sure that nothing is permanently broken. Pick your poison, because it is all the same to him. In the end, your efforts are most often fruitless and only slightly annoying to him, and he shakes it all off like a december frost upon his back. If you are lucky or good, or both, and you take him, it’s O.K. too. It’s nature’s way, and the only way he knows. To take an animal in this adventure means little. It is the effect upon your person that matters, and if in the end your character is better or worse for the effort.
Last week I hunted with a very close friend who just happens to be the best elk hunter I have ever known. His hunting skills are just simply on a whole other level than us mere mortals, and he has always defined the term “advanced” in the concept of advanced elk hunting. I pick my friends wisely, I guess. Just a few short months ago he underwent major surgery, with complications to follow. While recovering from his complications, a blood clot suddenly passed through his lungs and could have killed him. Later, a second clot should have killed him, but did not. He suffered some minor lung damage, and had not completely healed from his ordeal. The doctor had told him that it was not quite time to hunt, but opening day is opening day and not often found on a doctor’s calendar. I suspect that the doctor may have disagreed with the idea more forcefully, had he known my friend’s style of elk hunting.
He wanted to hunt for big mule deer on our favorite ridges above timberline, and I had an elk tag. At first light we spotted several good bucks on the open slopes, and knew immediately that this was going to be a good day. Yet, as eager as we were to get started I thought I detected some slight hesitation from him as he geared up. We would have to move a long way down before climbing a long way back up in order to get around and ahead of the bucks. Our first step towards the bucks committed us to some tough hiking.
Our plans worked well, and we had continuous action well into mid morning. The bucks were numerous and respectable, and we attempted a couple of classic stalks on bedded deer. It was high country mule deer heaven, and it was a wonder just to be there. My friend was not able to let an arrow fly, but by all measures it was a successful day. Played out, yet satisfied, we turned for home with the promise of a cold drink in out near future .
On our way, however, we glassed two small bulls feeding in a meadow far below. My friend was determined to go after them, because I had helped him with his deer hunt and he wanted to return the favor. I tried to talk him out of the idea, but already knew he would have none of it. I knew by watching him that he was in great pain, even though he tried his best to hide it. I also knew that the last thing he needed was to drop off another impossible ridge and lose the precious elevation we had recently gained, and adding even more miles to our trip. Truth be known, I knew I would hurt badly before this day was done. I hoped I could make it.
We were very nearly successful in taking one of those bulls that afternoon, and surely would have had not the always troublesome mountain winds swirled at the last second. Left with a merciless climb ahead, I tried to concentrate on the ground just past my nose and could only wonder what we had been thinking. Towards the top, I struggled with all I had and had ever had to keep up with my friend’s unrelenting pace. I was glad I could not see the pain on his face, because it might have broke me.
Nearing the top, I practically had to lift my legs with my own arms and the thought of crawling was a distinct consideration. The fact that my friend had out hiked me in his condition would have embarrassed me had I not discovered the solid and unbreakable foundations of his character many hunts ago. After all – he is god’s own elk hunter, marching on.
The look on his face as he drove from camp later that day told me all I needed to know, which was that he had pushed himself past the limits that even he was aware he possessed, and I felt badly that I had contributed to his pain. He called me a few days later to let me know how much he had enjoyed our hunt together. In fact, he told me that it had been the best day of bowhunting in his life and he wanted to know when we could go again. When indeed? We shall hunt together soon, should the god’s smile again and we are both still standing, I thought. I am glad he could not see the emotion on my face.
At the age of fifty, I have learned that life, and death, has a way of placing things in proper perspective for those who listen. Hopefully, with age comes the wisdom to know what is important and what is not, and with it the courage to face the choice. My physical skills and mental drive have declined precipitously, and it is hard not to mourn for them and become despondent over the loss. I am aware that I am certainly not the elk hunter that I once was, but that is good. I also know that I would not be the man I am today had I not hunted elk, and that is better. Elk have a way of marking the true bearings of a man in a way known only to himself.
Occasionally, the meaning of life can be reduced to the simple act of placing one foot in front of the other, and the only question left in the end is if you will, or will not, take that step. For me, that silent footfall will always contain more meaning when placed next to the deep and profound track of an animal most loved.
What more can be said of elk, of life, and of a hunter’s heart?
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