Elk – Alone

It was the last possible weekend to try to fill my elk tag, and I resolved to go this year, in spite of what she thought.

I set about packing gear for the whole weekend on Thursday night, slyly checking weather forecasts, sneaking bags to the truck when she wasn’t looking, and staging gear by the side door like a thief’s accomplice. I wasn’t fooling anyone though. She knew the signs as well as I did. The skulking just confirmed I was planning a trip without her.

We didn’t even talk about it much. I told her I was going elk hunting. She stared at me, madder because she already knew.

When I left, I looked at her one last time, hoping for a sign of forgiveness in her normally gentle face. What I got was a hard look, one that said I had spent too little time with her lately and too much time away.

But leave I did, hoping I would be forgiven in time for the next trip to hunt birds.

“Bet she eats the couch this time for sure,” I thought as I slipped out the door.

My wife had assured me things would be okay, that there would be bike rides and couch snuggles while I was gone and the dog would forgive and forget like she always does. I married up. I am lucky to know this.

The forecast called for rain Friday night. At the end of October. At 9,000 feet. With maybe, but only a bare maybe, the remote possibility of snow later. Wet snow if we got it.

I packed raingear, brought extra boot wax and a portable boot dryer.

Brought electrical tape for my muzzle.

Changed into hunting clothes at a scenic pullout like a hobo.

Saw groups of mule deer does and fat fawns grazing in every flat spot for two miles.

Switched to 4-low when it got steep and slick.

Got fooled into thinking the mulie bucks 600 yards away were a trio of raghorn elk.

Laughed at myself and my hopes.

Ate a sandwich in the cab, alone, while I sipped a beer and listened to old country on a Friday night.

Forgot to bring enough water and devised a tarp to funnel the sky’s largesse into a plastic jug.

Read and listened to music as the night wound down.

Slept.

Woke and ate and packed and hoped again. Hoped for elk, for blood and for knife work. For hard work. Alone.

I reveled in my return to elk season.

I set off to climb high and drop into one of the several drainages that cut the mountain, then veered off to follow a long, narrow meadow that contoured along for nearly a mile.

Cut tracks and turned.

Struggled up and across the hillside, slipping on downed timber beneath the skiff of snow, cursing and sweating and trying to stay silent. Hating the thin snow for what it hid and reveling in what it revealed.

The snow quieted my footsteps, and the elk’s. That’s how they got the drop on me. Soft footfalls, elk scent and a gentle nudge from behind. I panicked, and then it all went black.

When I came to I was cold and groggy but apparently uninjured. My GPS was in my hand, and a stunned elk calf was standing in front of me, somehow wearing my dog’s tracking and training collar. As soon as I sat up, the calf bolted. On a hunch, I checked my GPS, the same GPS handheld unit I use with my dog when we’re bird hunting. It functions like a normal GPS, and it also tracks the GPS unit on the dog’s collar and transmits that location information back to my handheld.

It was tracking the elk calf.

I was kind of freaked out because what I was doing was really illegal. I turned the GPS off.

A game warden in a red shirt rode up on a tall pale horse and shook his finger at me, then disappeared.

I looked up at the sky and saw the northern lights were out, lighting up a cloud that looked like me. Weird.

Panicked at losing that expensive GPS collar, I sprinted to the top of a ridge to see if I could see the elk calf and was greeted with a steep ravine. From my vantage though, I could see the elk calf reunite with his mother and greet his herd mates. I looked for a way down. Nothing but turtles all the way.

Heedless of the danger, I dropped into the ravine, trusting my boots would see me through plunge stepping down the steep scree below. The drop seemed to go on forever, until I lost the earth and started falling in earnest, only occasionally touching the side of the ravine.

I fell for what seemed like miles, at times falling straight down, other times floating and occasionally, flying, with a rifle in my hand? A jaybird was next to me, following along as I fell, it’s cry louder and more strident than I’d ever heard before.

And then I was sitting up in my sleeping bag, my alarm in my hand, trying to re-orient myself. It was time to get up and get some breakfast in me so I could get out and find some elk.

I never should have listened to that Sturgill Simpson album before I went to bed…

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