Just… Keep… Walking
Moonlight filtering through clouds of falling snow, seen through my squinting, stinging, frozen lashes, gave the night a yellow glow. Overhead, large transmission lines carrying power from a remote Montana wind farm to Las Vegas or Los Angeles hissed like a rushing river. One, foot, then the other… one foot, then the other… one foot… it felt like trudging through a surreal snowglobe.
It had all started innocently enough. Twenty four hours earlier I sent a text. “I’ll make coffee and breakfast burritos…if you drive.” The alarm rang at 4:00 a.m. Then we’re in the truck battling the snow storm. Come 7:30, just as dawn began to penetrate the snow, we were hiking. Puffy pants, pack boots, two down coats, the warmest gloves I own — I did my best to fend off the cold.
We were in unfamiliar country with a topo map, a GPS, a tip that there might be elk and no idea what to expect. It was a shoulder season hunt, legal for cow elk on private land, and entirely new to me. The previous day the kind folks at Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks had told me they had recent reports of elk on a property that not many people were hunting. The landowner had given walk in access to hunters on his expansive ranch. Of course there were no guarantees, but it seemed that a bit of a drive and some hiking would be all that was required. Probably too good to be true… but I couldn’t resist the opportunity.
With cheeks and fingers nearing numbness we continued to move. Visibility was limited by the snow but not the topography. It was big open country. In summer it would be a lush grassland. Today it was an unbroken snowscape rising toward the forested mountains that formed a southern border. A large bald peak guarded the transition. I first made out the peak at 9:30 as its silhouette appeared through the snow. A few minutes later I found the elk, a huge herd blanketing the upper flanks. Without much of a conversation we adjusted our course in unison, using the terrain to hide our progress.
Mark and I started hunting together as little kids. At first it was with our dads, then as teenagers we earned the right to go out on our own. Our friendship has stood the test of time. In the field it’s an easy partnership. We reached the base of the peak undetected and began our climb. Halfway up we paused to catch our breath in the frozen air as steam poured off our heads. We were thinking the same thing: Based on our location, if the the opportunity arose, one elk was all we wanted. If all else was equal, Mark offered me the first shot.
Cresting the final ridge, the elk came into view, 700 yards away, with nothing between us. We backed-up, took another angle that used topography to our advantage, and topped out at the edge of a large bowl. Elk at 450 yards. We began crawling. The farther we went the more elk came into view. They filled the bowl below us, many much closer than those we’d initially spotted. A good plan and luck had allowed us to sneak within 150 yards of over 200 elk. Most of them were bedded down, relaxed, and soaking in the sun that was starting to break through the clouds. A cow stood up, presenting a clear broadside shot. I squeezed the trigger.
Mesmerized, we watched the herd trail off the mountain. Exchanging a glance of gratitude and congratulations we approached the cow. I had pulled the trigger but it was our elk. Shooting was the easiest thing either of us would do all day.
Approaching, I was taken aback by her size. Elk are huge and it gets me every time. Despite the sun the temperature still hovered at zero degrees. We got to work. I left my gloves on as we began quartering. Making short work of the job, we knew the real work lay ahead. The reality of it began to set in.
We headed down the mountain dragging a hind quarter apiece. Steep snow-covered slopes made for easy going. At the bottom we decided I would head to the truck to get sleds while Mark would shuttle the rest of the meat off the mountain. With only a small day pack, ill equipped for hauling meat, I carried back-straps and trimmings and began the ten mile, round trip journey. My achilles, still agitated from an early season injury, began to ache within a mile of the truck. At the truck I chugged the last of my almost frozen morning coffee from my to-go mug. On the return trip my mind wandered frequently. Lost in thought I kept putting one foot in front of the other.
Mark had schlepped all four quarters off the mountain and dragged them nearly another quarter mile. Reunited, we loaded the sleds with half an elk each. Three fourths of the day’s miles were behind us, but the hardest part of our day still lay ahead. As daylight vanished we leaned into our loads. Downhill was easy. On the flats we found a rhythm. Uphills were crushing. We worked as a team.
One sled was tougher to pull, so we gave it the tag team treatment on the uphills. We’d offer each other words of encouragement when needed. In pain, we let each other know it was ok to rest or leave our loads for the next day if necessary. Safety and practicality would guide our decision making. I had run out of water hours before. Mark, was adding snow to the few sips he had left. Rests were welcome but short lived. The cold made sure of that. We reminded ourselves we were proud of our effort. Hobbling on into the night, with individual snowflakes pelting my raw face, I reminded myself it was just a matter of time.
The shortest route to the truck followed the transmission line. The noise made my ears ring. Eighteen hours after leaving the house, and 20 miles after leaving the truck, we reached our rig. With the elk in the back and the heater cranked in the cab, we headed for home. A water jug, beer, or scotch would have all been welcome additions to the trip. We had none. We shared the last sips of Marks cold coffee instead. My body ached and sore knees stiffened. We reminded ourselves that our drive home might be the most dangerous part of the day, took it slow on the slick roads, and used the time to soak in the day. Once home, we dealt with the elk.
Instead of beers we each had a glass of orange juice.