A wilderness reunion on horseback for elk.
BY TOM REED
IT HAD BEEN 10 LONG YEARS SINCE THE BROTHERS AND I HUNTED ELK TOGETHER IN THE WYOMING HIGH COUNTRY. Years that had taken me north to Montana, where I hunted with various partners, tried different mountain ranges, scouted new basins. A few elk were taken, but it just did not seem the same, did not feel like the team I was once a part of for many long years. Nothing clicked. The brothers, too, had gone in different career directions, Dave helping run the state’s park system, Al out in Boise fighting fires. They kept hunting together, though, while I stubbornly tried to make Montana hunt like Wyoming, tried to find old friends Dave or Al in new friends like Ty and Corey.
But on this September morning, a morning that feels more like November, the very worst of it, we are together once again. In a blizzard, a full-on, nonstop blizzard that has been on us for most of the week. Opening morning, late in a month that usually is sunshine and short sleeves, and the snow is shin-deep, with more in the air, and the elk herd out in front of us.
It is the height of the rut, and the bulls are in full throat. Two days ago, we had seen the herd, in less snow, tucked up against the timber, across the basin, far away. We sat on a ridgeline where we could spin 360 and see elk country at every degree. Off south toward Togwotee, north to the park. Most of it burned in ’88, right to the ground, creating some of the best elk habitat in the West, opening up stands of monoculture lodgepole pine, clearing out old dying stands of fir and spruce. Thirty years later and the skeletons still stand, some of them, while others are on the ground providing fertile soil for brush in a hard land that is snow-laden most of the year.
So we sat up there two days ago, backs against one of the old victims that had fallen and was fading away, binos pressed to our faces, and we watched the show. Took it all in, that elk herd up there in the snow, watched as cows and calves popped out of a patch of fir, then disappeared, watched as a bull with the hide like my buckskin packhorse raked its antlers against the skin of a woebegone limber pine, then saw him, too, disappear into the folds of the mountain as if swallowed whole by some unseen force. The elk were there. Turn 180 and we could watch a sow grizzly and three cubs of the year working up an open ridge two miles distant, grubbing, scouring September for one last bite before the big freeze and the long sleep. It was a rare moment with sun warm on us, a sun we had not had the pleasure of facing for days, and a wild kingdom playing out everywhere we turned. It was also the final days of archery season. We could go make an attempt, but in two days, the bows would be cased and the weapon changed.
In blackness, in hard-driving snowfall, we had risen and moved to the cook tent. Bundled against it, Al on breakfast and the cookstove, Dave checking the horses and mules out in the meadow, where the week’s yield was 18 inches of powder on the flat. Good stock, tolerating it, plucked from the warmth of a late August pasture in the low country, ridden 15 miles in the rain up a soggy, muddy trail five days ago, right into the heart of winter. Hobbled and picketed, turned out and lovingly checked often every day as the snow deepened and just living got harder. All of us with jobs, unspoken jobs that needed done, taking up the slack, giving slack. Knock snow off the tent in the morning, shuffle to the cook tent, knock snow off it, light a fire to chase away the frost on the nylon and get breakfast going. Post-hole out into it, hoping to get a good bull in the snow with a well-placed arrow, work the day away, then move back to camp, knock snow off the cook tent, and do it all over again. Late September and none of us, western boys with years of experience, have ever seen anything like this last week. Rain on day one turning to snow and snow and then more snow.
Now the hunt. I have not seen Dave for at least two hours. He went one way, I another. Parallel paths in the timber, perhaps half a mile apart, moving toward the herd, which is talking frequently now. We have the ability to talk back, but we don’t. We don’t even cow-call. We don’t make this plan, don’t decide to move in quiet, neither of us tooting on a bugle. We just do it as if we had spent days hatching out a plan, drawing lines with chalk on some board, putting up Xs and Os, drawing arrows and curving, swooping lines. As if we had a coach barking out orders, laying out the game plan, chalk snapping on board, emphasis made.
There was none of that. It just was and we knew what to do.
In the blizzard, wearing wool, clutching a trusted rifle, there is only the whisper of it coming down all around us. Elk call from all around. One that may be the herd bull has a voice as raspy as a pack-a-day barfly, and it lies straight ahead. Our paths, 10 years on pause, may be parallel, but there is no way to communicate, no way to let each other know where we are going, and as the light rises up out of the day, we can only go our own pace. My own pace. Closer and closer to the herd, the wind right, snow in my face, and when I look to the north, toward where Dave might be if he was moving at exactly the same pace as me for the last two hours, there, suddenly, he is. Right there beside me, a half mile out on that parallel path. Then he disappears again, as if swallowed by that same unseen force, into the mountain itself.