Early Elk

In the space of a few days the September foliage had gone from impossibly loud to nearly noiseless. I eased through the green-black timber that covered most of the bowl I was hunting in and gave a soggy hat tip to the three day rain and its quieting effect on the high mountain vegetation.

It was still raining as I settled into my bag under the flimsy yellow tarp, a gentle but relentless rain that fell as though it meant to keep it up all night, all day or all week, dropping enough water to break the drought of the last few years and put us in the green for a few more to come. It was a mixed blessing. Another half-day of rain at this pace and I’d be in danger of detection not because of the dry arrow-leaf balsam-root or dry pine duff that covered the ground, but because of the puddles I was sure to be sloshing through.

I was camped two miles and a world of difference from the truck, hoping a bivy sack and a siltarp would keep me dry in spite of the constant rain. So far so good, I thought as I drifted off to sleep.

That night I slept well enough, only waking a few times to readjust my bony frame on the slight mattress, but I still managed to outpace my alarm. I was thankful to beat the clock because I’ve never liked waking to an alarm in the backcountry. The noise feels disrespectful, embarrassing.

For a hasty camp, thrown up in near darkness with only a halfhearted headlamp to help me get set up, things looked remarkably good the next morning. The tarp was still taut. My down bag was dry thanks to the combined efforts of the tarp and bivy sack. My pack and my longbow had managed to avoid the bulk of the rainfall under their corner of the shelter and I hadn’t done anything regrettable like accidentally kick it out into the rain in the middle of the night. Though my boots were still soaked on the outside, and cold on the inside, they warmed quickly enough when I stuffed my dry socked feet in them. So far so good.

I left my camp in the light of a half moon, planning to set up before sunrise. I was headed for a spot at the edge of a hanging meadow in a mess of wind felled trees, not far from a game trail that was tattered and torn by so many elk hooves it seemed like a sure thing.

Halfway there I paused for the ritual first shot of the day, using the brief stop to stretch my shooting muscles and focus my mind and my arrow on a single point. I shot well, a good omen. I pulled up to my natural blind right on schedule to beat the elk on their morning commute. I put on an extra layer of insulation, readjusted my armguard, took a pull of water and started in on a homemade energy bar that would pass for breakfast, brunch and lunch today.

As I slowed my mind and settled into my seat I noticed two things: the rosy fingers of dawn streaking the sky, and the quiet mews of contented cow elk already in the meadow.

As the light grew and no elk came down the highway I had forecasted for them I had time to think about what had happened. My best guess was that when the rain stopped in the night they decided to celebrate with a snack. That put them on the trail before I arrived, and in the field earlier than I had predicted.

As the morning’s light grew, I could see they had already drifted too far from the cover of the trees for me to hope for a shot at an animal on the fringe, and I was well past time for a straggler coming down the trail. I spent the morning watching them through my binoculars as they chewed their cuds and lazed in the sun that struck silver in the dewy morning grass. I ate another two bars as I watched and waited and wondered if they’d drift back toward me on the way to their beds for a siesta. They never did.

I’m an indifferent caller and the season was young, so I decided not to press my luck until the rut had the boys making bad decisions. Nobody in the bunch was making much noise and I figured any sound I made would be out of place.

Perhaps you’re second guessing my decision. Hell, maybe I’m second guessing my decision, but I backed out slowly, ruefully, and headed back to break camp and go in to work for the week, having had things go just about as right as they could have without bloodying an arrow.

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