by Rick Bass
Everything that could go wrong had, or so it seemed. And yet for a while, even in the blown-chances funk, even with the malingering what-ifs, I recognized the funk’s blessing. The last several years I had been fortunate enough to wander into an elk on the first morning of rifle season—incredible luck, one year after another—but on each of those occasions it had later occurred to me that, with more than a month remaining in elk season, my own season had ended almost as soon as it began.
This year I had been missing big bulls by minutes, even seconds. I had tracked them nearperfectly for hours only to step on a twig at the precise wrong moment. With other twig-cracks I had busted up herds whose existence was revealed to me only by the torn-up snow and black-earth divots launched from a rock shelf above. On one mountain I cut fresh tracks in new snow on opening morning, and I was merrily following those tracks up the mountain before glimpsing through the trees two orangeclad hunters hurrying coyote-like across my tracks and down the logging road below, clearly trying the old end-around. Sure enough, half an hour later I cut their tracks where they had come upslope and cut in on “my” elk tracks. If you’ve got to have an elk that bad, just go buy one in a grocery store.
I peeled north and an hour later caught a whiff of elk, then heard them galloping away—a big herd—and followed their tracks back down into another jungle. I was surprised they’d spooked—I’d been downwind—but I didn’t puzzle over it too much. I was just glad to be following fresh tracks on opening day.
Each year the anticipation and the process become ever larger, ever fuller, while the final sight of the animal, turned broadside and looking back, and the subsequent kill become smaller. The intangible and vaporous—the ethereal dreaming and the following—becomes ever more substantial, and the hard, physical, tangible fact of the animal itself—the scent and the sight of it, and later the touch as you begin to clean it, to claim it—becomes more and more symbol, talisman, dust, memory. Imagination, and the simple tradition of being out on the landscape, begins to seem almost as durable as the landscape itself, while the elk—each year’s elk, both those gotten and those not-gotten—come to seem more and more like stardust, fantasy, whether killed or not. Even kneeling next to a big six-point, the bull outweighing you by 600 pounds, the hunt—once a means to an end—now seems as dense and large as the animal itself.
I walked carefully and quietly, and caught up with those animals when they bedded—a cow, a calf, and a spike—and then left them, heading for another ridge where I found horse tracks through the ankle-deep snow.
Too many people! How we need the big wild roadless areas to filter and absorb us, to spread and diffuse us, and to protect our beloved quarry. And what paradox upon paradox: I approve of people having access to the rarity of non-motorized experiences in pristine backcountry—I imagined the horseperson easing along in the new snow, looking around— but it’s a tough way to hunt in this heavily timbered country. You can’t just spy tracks, leave your horse, and wander off following them for 8 or 10 hours in this jungle.
And anyway, what I love best about the backcountry is the solitude—the space and time to think and the space and time where the majesty and glory of the made and intricately ordered, infinitely-complex world asserts itself fully before you, with no mask or artifice of concrete or other brief and flimsy human construct. Where your puniness, your brief human frailty, is revealed to you in more accurate, if not yet overwhelmingly complete, proportions.
And in that newer, cleaner realization of how large and old and powerful the world is and how puny any one life, the traveler, the woodsgoer, the hunter, the searcher, can understand the implicit outcome of that equation, the incredible amount of grace required to balance its inequity: man equals world, man versus world, man in the world? None of it adds up without huge, overwhelming, jetstream-sized flowings of grace.
What paradox, then, to want all fellow travelers to be able to know and experience that awe, and yet—this one snowy morning on this one ridge—to not wish to share it.
As a society we need many such ridges. As many, perhaps, as there are ridges and ravines in the crenulations of the brain— not just any one person’s brain but as many as there are in all the different ridges and folds of all the people living in any one landscape. And the world, the wild world, still can provide this— barely—if we consider such things and act. Certainly this corner of the world can provide it while still yielding more than enough timber for our local family-owned mill along with elk, too, for those willing to go far enough into the forest to look for them and to wait for luck—to wait for the equation to shift, and for the woods to relax; to absorb and incorporate the traveler, the newcomer, into the forest; and to release, occasionally, a gift, and perhaps a necessary part of some tiny circular cycle within an infinitude of the other larger such cycles that comprise the design of the made and natural world.
A paradox: I want us all to be able to know and experience this. Just not this one morning, in this one place. I was still too close to a road, was the problem, and the solution was obvious and not unwelcome even to a middle-aged desk-jockey. I turned west, leaving the horse tracks and heading through a snarl of blowdown lodgepole where no horse or rider could possibly go. And after only 10 or so minutes I picked up still more tracks—never had I encountered such a cluster of elk in this timbered country—although they were panicked, flightsome tracks and not the serene wanderings of a herd as yet undisturbed by the scent or sound or sight of man. Yet they were fresh tracks in new snow—what more could a hunter ask?—and the day was still young.
My pleasure—my anticipation of bounty—was short-lived; after only a few minutes two sets of human tracks joined the elk’s, the irregularly waffled prints of the hunter’s boots disappointingly crisp and lucid in that perfect new snow, and I had to cede territory yet again, under the unwritten rules of manners and of safety.
I dropped still lower on the mountain, deeper down into the timber, where I finally found what I had been looking for: a lone set of crisp, clean, breakaway elk tracks—big elk tracks. Surely an old bull who had learned over the years to slip away from the herd in times of stress, had learned that in their excitement human hunters follow the larger swirl of tracks, the deep trough of torn-up snow, not noticing the lone easing-away tracks of the herd bull; and that in our haste, eagerness, and anticipation we immediately lock in on the groove of the herd and follow them to the horizon, leaving the bull safe in cunning isolation.
Feeling as though I’d found a huge diamond— feeling indeed far richer, for a diamond is enduring and hence ultimately common, whereas the gift of the moment, of one elk in new snow on the first day of the season in my 46th year, was temporal, already vanishing in the winds of time—I settled deliciously into the quiet pursuit of that solitary bull.
I tried not to anticipate the end of the trail, or the sight of his huge body and giant antlers just ahead of me, which would mark the end of the hunt.
I followed him for two hours, trying hard to be perfect, and finally I glimpsed his flank not 40 yards away. He was slipping through a forest of big larch. I knelt and scoped him—one more second— but then he was behind a tree, still walking but out of sight.
I hurried forward but his pace was calibrated to mine—he knew there were hunters on the mountain, knew somehow he was being followed and was evidently resolved to give no ground.
I didn’t find him again. After so much hope and investment—so much work, even if gloriously exalted work—his tracks crossed those of the other hunters above me, who had been led by “their” herd as though traveling in parallel series to this same conjuncture, the bull evidently not yet willing to give up the herd and the herd not yet ready to release the bull; the two braids, previously separated in the wild yaw of panic, tightening again and recovering here on the mountain’s backside.
Once more I was among others, though unseen—separated in the dark timber by seconds— and now I found where they had spooked the herd yet again, setting off a whole new chase and further educating—terrifying—the elk.
I turned and headed home. There were still 34 days left in the season. I would find a farther mountain, and would travel farther in.
The next day I did just that, cutting solitary tracks on a mountaintop not long after daylight— a beautiful sunrise, blue sky, and sparkling snow on top of the mountain with the valleys below swimming in rivers of silvery serpentine fog— and I followed minutes behind him all morning before bumping a snow-buried log with my boot, and not 60 seconds later coming upon the startle of tracks, indicating where he had heard that little misstep and bolted down the mountain and out of the snow. Thirty-three days left.
The day after that I followed a giant bull on yet another mountain for 12 hours—following him in a circuitous wandering across creeks and rivers, up and down mountains and through nearly impenetrable alder as he tried to shake me—never panicking and running, only trying to wear me down into quitting as I in turn tried to wear him down to the point of pausing, just once, on some knoll and looking down with fatigued curiosity to see who or what was dogging him and to reassess the threat.
After eight hours, exhausted—as I knew he must be—I saw the knoll where I sensed he would make his broad sweep. It’s odd what you can divine about an animal after following in his tracks for so long—ducking under the same branches and choosing this path over that path thousands of times, eventually locking into a kind of physical and even mental apprenticeship upon that certain landscape. I broke off the tracks and headed for that knoll, 90 degrees to the direction he’d been traveling.
When I crested the knoll I found that he had indeed turned and headed for it, but he had gotten there seconds before I made my own turn and must have seen something, perhaps some tiny movement in the alders below, because there was a gigantic absence of tracks where he had leapt from the knoll. And then it was off to the races, back down the mountain again, unspooling 3,000 hard-earned feet of altitude. I followed until dark through curtain-branched hallways of old larch and across clear riffling creeks in shadowy canyons, breathing twin jets of vapor from my nostrils in those frigid canyon-shadows.
Thirty-two days left.
There were days when I floundered through snow without ever cutting a single track, a day when I heard the steady boom of thunder and saw bolts of lightning flashing through the falling snow, and I became more and more worn down, more and more gaunt and tender-footed and sore-kneed and exalted—disappearing deeper into the hunt with each passing failure, each passing gift.
I stick-cracked another unseen herd into flight one day—so close—but caught back up with them and watched for several minutes as a cow, calf, and spike fed just ahead, sequestered in an old forest of Douglas fir, the winterlight upon their gold and brown backs looking like the ancient illuminations in some olden painter of the Hudson Valley School, only it was neither olden-light nor olden painting but the here-and-now in a way that I’m rarely able to experience any more, my mind too-often filled these days with hopes or regrets or both, and with dreams and plans, lists and responsibilities, schedules and deadlines—some professional, some familial, some personal, some activist—and as I crouched there watching the small herd paw the snow and graze contentedly, unaware of my presence, I felt myself filling with something that had been long gone—some strength, some wildness, some beauty and solace and some indefinable other thing that I knew would sustain me long after the season was over and was, these days, almost as much a reason for hunting as the meat itself.
I watched these elk—I was nearly among them, so close but still unseen, unsensed—and I rested and felt my spirits refilling, felt it so strongly that it was almost audible, like the sound of water dripping into an empty well, recharging it slowly but steadily, one more time.
I was remembering that old lesson, increasingly sweeter with each passing year: that although there is a blessing in finding an elk early, in good wild country there is also a blessing in finding elk later in the year or even in not finding them at all. As long as they are there and in their wild country . . . That’s what matters. And the longer the season and the more places they have where they can run and hide, the better.
I was blessed to finally catch up with an animal, and to make a hard hunt in so doing. But a year later, remembering, the searching was no less fine than the finding and the taking.
Rick Bass is the author of 23 books of fiction and nonfiction, including Colter: The True Story of the Best Dog I Ever Had, and Winter: Notes From Montana. He lives with his family in northwest Montana’s Yaak Valley, where he is a member of the Yaak Valley Forest Council.