I slam into the thick web of branches. I’m soaked past my knees with muddy water and have begun to sweat in the evening air. Frustration builds as I am still two miles from camp, and those miles include dense deadfall and a marsh of alders that feels impenetrable.
My brother and I had left camp before dawn and now, with darkness closing in, I must navigate my way back. A part of me wants to promise myself: if I just make it back to camp, I can take tomorrow off. I resist the urge and turn back toward where I came. I must retrace my tracks across the marsh, skirt the edge and find a better way across the meadow in the dark.
When my brother picks me up on the road, it’s been dark for more than two hours, “I saw one headlamp out there in the dark, and I knew it could only be you,” he tells me.
I laugh at the situation and my drenched clothing. “I need to use your boots tomorrow,” I say. “Yeah, I’ve got some stuff to do in town, so I am going to take the morning off,” he replies.
We return to camp, heat up some non-perishable nourishment of beef stew, and five hours later I am unzipping my sleeping bag and stepping out into the cold, dark morning once again.
The 2018 season had essentially been a mountain bootcamp with an occasional glimpse of an elk. While I had worked on a commercial fishing boat throughout the summer, my brother had guided rafting trips in Washington. Each of us had taken seasonal work with one thing in mind: unemployment in September to clear our calendar for elk season.
We began hunting on opening day, and despite ever longer days and distances covered, we didn’t hear our first bugle until the 16th of September. Other hunters we spoke to had faced similar struggles. Heat, hunting pressure, rain, whatever the reason, the story was the same.
We would bugle and get nothing in response. We would trek over ridges and descend into valleys, still nothing. Our only luck had been ambushing meadows in the early morning hours and long cold calling sequences throughout the day. Though Harrison had hit one bull, we had failed to recover it, and our opportunities were becoming more and more rare.
Eventually, we gave up on our unit and took a tip from a local field officer about a wilderness area two hours north of us. I assumed the officer gave the same advice to every dejected elk hiker that called, but it felt like our only option. Though six horse trailers at the trailhead confirmed my fears of heavy hunting pressure, no other hunters were hiking in each morning, and that left us with a considerable amount of country to ourselves. The following days bolstered our spirits. We heard several bulls responding, and one meadow in particular consistently held elk.
Certain valleys seem to be missing something when seen without elk. The view seems ripped from the pages of a magazine or the bathroom wall of some greasy gas station in Bozeman; the only thing missing is a 6×6. This was the case for the valley two miles upstream from our camp. The steep slopes of the canyon corral the stream as it descends from the high mountain lake above before widening to allow a meadow of short grass speckled with short pines and boulders.
The first two mornings I hunted the drainage, elk bugled from benches above me, but bad luck and inept approaches left me empty handed. On the 18th, with five days left in the season, my brother and I combed the canyon without any sign, then climbed up and over the peak to drop in the far side and down the adjacent valley. The ambitious expedition combined with a poor allotment of time for the walk out forced me to spend hours crossing a grid of deadfall followed by an alder-filled marsh. The following morning, wearing my brother’s dry boots and holding onto hope for the final days of the season, I woke early to follow our trail back to the meadow.
As I creep along the creek, the steep slopes tower above me. In the crisp September morning a bugle pierces the silence and cascades down the drainage. Immediately, I duck into the thick underbrush and scramble my way across the rocks that make up the stream bed.
The bull responds within seconds of my first bugle. A downed tree blocks my view beyond forty yards. I hunch over and stalk forward, scanning for the bull. We exchange bugles of increasing irritability, but neither of us moves any closer. I cow call and rake, but he hangs up and refuses to budge. Limited cover between myself and the bull eliminates any possibility of moving forward without blowing the hunt. As the bull’s bugles begin to move up the ridge I feel he is slipping away along with my remaining hopes for the season. He is likely moving to bed, and if I don’t act quickly, he will be gone.
I weave downstream away from the bull for a hundred yards then turn and charge directly uphill. I need to get on the same level as him and present a challenge. Midway up the ridge, with my heart pounding in my ears and my lungs aching, I cow call, and his agitated bugle careens through the timber back to me. At 100 yards I know that I’m minutes away from the best opportunity in 24 days of hunting.
At sixty yards I can hear the bull breaking branches. It sounds as though he’s raking a tree, but I can’t tell for sure. I cow call and cut off the bull’s response with a challenge bugle of my own. I wade forward into a small clearing and glimpse his bristled back sliding above the brush. He is cutting uphill to gain visibility. I see an opening at 40 yards that he must pass through, and I come to full draw. Instead, he turns slightly more uphill and disappears.
I sprint upward to intercept his path. He emerges at thirty yards from the underbrush as I freeze crouching behind three short pines. The bull towers directly above me. His front half is covered from my angle, and he stares down at me through dense branches. Neither of us moves. At full draw I backpedal around the pines and step into plain view. Vitals fill my sight housing. Time slows and, for the first time, the forest feels completely silent. I can’t steady my pins, and everything looks blurry. The smudge of red that is my thirty-yard pin finally settles behind his shoulder and I release the arrow.
The arrow veers left and connects far forward. I have hit at least six inches left of where I aimed. My heart sinks as the bull turns away and walks up the hill and out of sight. I cow call softly several times, and consider chasing after him to attempt a follow-up shot, but it seems more likely it would just make the situation worse. I hope that the arrow somehow caught a bit of lung, but I feel that I have blown the only chance will get.
I trample back down the hill to the creek bed where I had dropped my backpack when I heard the bull. I replay the shot in my head over the next several hours and, as much as I try to not get my hopes up, my confidence slowly builds. I did not hear the cracking sound of the arrow hitting bone and the penetration had looked decent. I feel the bull would either die within a hundred yards or not die at all. After three hours, I hike back up to the scene.
I begin grid searching for any sign of blood or at least my arrow to determine penetration. Eventually, my eye catches on a few droplets where the bull had been standing when the shot took place. With no sign of air bubbles or smell I wait another hour. The blood trail disappears within ten yards and I began searching the hillside for any splattered blood on logs or leaves. I look farther up the hill and see a large tan rock.
“That’s a dead elk.” I say aloud. I try to keep my emotions in check as I scramble up the hill. As I get close enough to see the antlers towering beyond the heap of the bull’s body, reality sets in. It’s over. After three and a half weeks of searching and breathlessly dragging myself over peaks, I put my hand on the bull’s shoulder and stare down at the massive beast.
A goal that felt hopeless one moment, became reality thirty minutes later. One day I was convinced I would go home empty handed and the next I was tagged out and had eleven months before I could hunt elk again. At the beginning of the week I was the fool that had worked 90-hour weeks during the summer to clear a month for hunting; at the end of the week I the gambler that went all in and hit a flush on the river.
I am reminded that the true reward is in staying committed, determined and focused. While setbacks and frustrations always rise during hunting season, moving beyond them in pursuit of lasting memories keeps us coming back.
Thanks for reading,