The Moment Apart

This is supposed to be a story about an elk hunt – a chronicle of scouting, spying and scrapping all fall; a tale of braving the elements, rugged terrain and early morning dark for a chance at a chance. There should be tracks in the snow and fateful first glimpses, stalking, crawling, held breath and moments of decision… moments of execution. Point of fact, there was all that, plus prayers, and thanks, and joy, and regret, and the incomparably moving sensation of warm hide against an outstretched palm. It had all of the elements of high drama.

But when I go back in my mind to relive the day in which a season’s share of hard work finally came to fruition, I keep circling back to a single, incongruous cul-de-sac in the narrative.

We’ve spotted a small band of elk, Jared and I, and retreated behind the lip of our high ridge to whisper out a plan. We’re crouched, hearts pounding, leaning together against the biting wind. I look up from our huddle to evaluate the terrain and, before I find the seam we need, my watery eyes lock on to something in motion, something long, low and sturdy. It’s an animal, not running so much as flowing along the opposite ridge, fast, effortless, silky. The name jumps out of my mouth before I have the binoculars to my eyes.

“Wolf,” I say.

“What?” asks Jared.

“That’s a wolf,” I say, pointing.

“That’s a pack of wolves,” he says. He has them in his glasses now, and has spotted the five I’d missed, some standing, some sitting, some laying on the steep hillside, 600 yards away.

“Holy shit,” I say.

“Yeah,” he says.

“Yeah,” I reply, then silence, but for the wind.

They had to know we were there, upwind and exposed as we were. If they did though, the big dogs didn’t seem to care, one way or the other. They just went about their business while we stared, speechless. It felt like we were suspended in a world apart, one good perpendicular stride from the path of reality, as though a little appendix of time had been sewn onto our day.

Then, in a blink, we were back to the task at hand. There was mileage to make if we wanted to get on the elk unobserved. It was ambitious to hope that they’d stay bedded long enough for us to make the move. And the proximity of wolves, I had to assume, wouldn’t contribute to elk lollygagging. So we shouldered our packs and rifles and set to hiking. It was the right thing to do and, with only one day left in the season, it ended well for both Jared and me.

A long season, a thrilling stalk, two clean kills – I couldn’t ask for more. Except that I’m haunted by those few, still moments, as though by a compelling dream that was interrupted by the alarm clock.

I’m often asked why I hunt. I have a list of reasons as long as my leg. On it is hunting’s ability to lock you in, and pin you down to the here and now. That’d be enough on it’s own really, but of course it’s just one facet of a much more complex truth. If there is an actual “why”, I suspect it lives in that moment apart, and that, were I ever able to capture it, it would sink it’s teeth into my piddling list and shake it to pieces.

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