Midlife Elk

(Challenge, by Grant Hacking)

Perhaps a life well lived needs no more years than are offered.

[by Jimmy Lewis]

I’m not sure if it’s accurate to claim I’m having a midlife crisis, but here’s the honest assessment: I am aware of my mortality and consciously seek to make the most of the time I have left. Over the past few seasons, this awareness has compelled me to hunt with more vigor and commitment—and there has been a payoff. After pursuing elk for half a lifetime with only a single cow to my credit, I finally killed a bull, two years ago—a nice 4-by-5 out of the Montana backcountry.

This past season, I had hopes for similar success. I knew the backcountry much better than I had the season before and planned to pack in my bivy and camp. Sixteen years ago and still in my 20s, I attempted a backcountry hunt, and it nearly killed me. That hunt is among several that have given me both hard-earned expertise and a kind of PTSD related to elk hunting. Facing down those disappointments, however, to pursue something I’ve always loved (even if I’ve not had much success) is compatible with what Thoreau meant when he talked about sucking “out all the marrow of life.”

DRIVING ALONG THE GRAVEL=STREWN DIRT ROAD, stopping on occasion to glass the timbered canyons and the higher country beyond, I recalled year upon fruitless year I’d just head up to a trailhead in the dark hours of the morning and start hiking, thinking that sheer tenacity in racking up miles on foot would lead me to elk-hunting success.

Around 9 a.m., I stopped and looked through my spotting scope. I adjusted the zoom to full magnification and then focused, rolling the small dial around until the nebulous forms of two bull elk and two moose, a bull and a cow, became reasonably clear. The larger of the two elk charged the bull moose and sent him reeling backwards down the slope. The moose trotted off and only the two elk ambled about the meadow.

A bird could’ve reached the two by flying two and a half miles. On foot, the distance between the nearest trailhead and the elk was about the same, not really that difficult except for the extreme vertical elevation gain involved in getting there. A lot of questions ran through my mind: Will they be there when I get there? Will they retreat into the timber, and if they do, will they come out in the evening? Or the morning? If I kill one late in the evening, how late will I even get out of here? Should I pitch camp and hunt the morning?

I pushed aside the questions and reminded myself, I’m here to hunt elk. And I know where two good bulls are. So I decided to head to the trailhead, hike into the mountains, and put my bivy to use.

FOR ALL ITS WEIGHT, my pack felt surprisingly manageable as I lifted it off the tailgate and onto my shoulders. My idea for a campsite lay two miles away, up a long, steep switchback that rose up to a saddle. Beyond the saddle, the pack trail ended, and covering ground became a cross-country affair. My legs were feeling strong, though, and by the late afternoon I had staked-out and waited for evening to come over the alpine park where I had seen the elk.

Nestled in the thin layer of snow against a bristlecone that stood near the edge of a ridge, I watched the first visitors: two mule deer does about 300 yards away. The deer had come up from the bowl and browsed through a ripening hedge of snowberries. I ranged them and looked at them a time or two through the crosshairs. In the hindmost pocket of my pack, a tag for a mule deer doe was neatly folded within a ziplock bag; right beside it, my bull elk tag. But there were no moose tags, and presently the two moose I had spied earlier materialized from the timber and headed straightway to the snowberry patch. Where are the elk? My instincts told me they weren’t coming; nonetheless, I stubbornly waited it out until the end of shooting light.

Afterwards, I pitched camp on a small piece of level ground not too far from the park. It was a perfect spot and hard to come by in this particular range, which is known for its steep and craggy terrain. The weather turned out to be just right for a bivy camp—clear, calm, and starlit. The view was vast and reassuring in its beauty, and my campfire was subtle and comforting. I nestled into my sleeping bag feeling reasonably secure and happy in my thoughts that this bivy camp had gone so much better than the first one did and that the elk might be there in the morning.

THE NEXT DAY, I was back in the park well before sunup and remained there for a full three hours. Once again, the hunt yielded mule deer, and one unsuspecting forkhorn walked 10 yards from where I sat. The elk never appeared. Neither did the moose. Moving out of my hidey-hole, I walked over to study the area and to see if I could find the direction the bulls might have gone. The earth and grass looked like a well-trodden horse pasture. Animals used this place. Just 24 hours ago, those elk were right here where I was standing—grazing, sparring, walking about. Where are they now?

I pulled up my binocs and began to pan the far mountain and the saddle leading up to where I killed last year’s bull. There! Near to the top, I saw two bulls—likely the same two I had seen the day before. They were bedded down, undisturbed, and a good two and a half miles across a drainage involving a 2,500-foot-vertical elevation loss and gain. I checked my watch—almost 10 a.m. I had eight hours to make the short hike back to camp, eat, gear up, and begin my approach and get back before dark.

Compulsively doing the math in my head, my calculations placed me in range of the elk by around two in the afternoon. I had slept well the night before. My legs felt fresh, my body and mind rested. I ate a quick and hearty lunch at camp and felt I had time to make this happen. The stalk would be demanding but not impossible.

My rifle slung across my shoulder, a full daypack, and a walking stick in hand, I set off, first descending a scree slope and then moving my way north into some timber. The heavily forested north-facing slope would eventually carry me down in elevation more than 2,000 feet, then drop sharply into a creek that trickled along the bottom of a steep, short canyon. As I came near the creek, the timber abruptly ended at a cliff wall covered in wet moss. There was a manner of descent to be attempted adjacent to the slippery slab of limestone, and I opted for that, grateful for the numerous sprouting pines and tufts of willows that helped to arrest my fall enough to almost make my arrival at the creek bottom appear smooth and intentional.

My boots partially submerged, I looked up, honestly wondering if I’d be able to climb out of what I’d slid into. The first 100 feet of slope would be the most difficult. Hands and knees, then, hands and feet. After 50 yards of climbing, I was somehow upright and making good use of my shooting stick, a trekking pole modified for shooting that made a quasi third leg. One at a time, I placed my feet along the edge of the slope, the whole time gaining insight into why mountain goats rarely gain elevation by going straight up. Legs trembling, I finally made it out of the creek bottom and was a third of the way up the mountain, looking up the ridge and into the timber, checking the wind, catching my breath, and considering my next path of ascent.

“Maybe if I could live the rest of my life in the same way, by the time I reached the next stage, I would find myself not wishing for anything more, content, perhaps, to rest—even to rest forever.”

There were a couple of small couloirs between the next ridge and me, and I began moving toward the first. Despite the steep pitch, I managed and concentrated on my stalk rather than worry about slipping down the loose rock and scree toward a misaligned rifle scope, a broken bone, or worse. To my surprise, I soon found myself on level ground— a wallow at the bottom of the couloir where there was water, grass, and mud, and elk tracks less than a week old. Thankful to be horizontal, I restored myself for a few minutes and then advanced out of the gully toward the next ridgeline. Once there, I would be halfway up the mountain and in a position to survey the southeastern corner of the summit where I had seen the elk bedded down.

I continued to gain elevation and got closer to what appeared to be the top of the mountain, but climbing a summit can be deceiving. You can top the “crest” to find it’s a ridge that only masqueraded as the horizon. I was thinking the elk could be nearby somewhere, so I started to pay attention to the sound of my footfalls, feeling around with my feet for dry leaves and twigs before taking the next step. Making ground on the ridge, I used the occasional rock outcropping as cover to peer over before exposing myself.

The wind had changed direction three times since I began my ascent, and it started to become apparent that my approach was a crapshoot in the way of avoiding being scented. I continued until I arrived at a substantial boulder that provided effective cover and, if need be, a solid rest for my rifle. I considered settling in to wait for the evening to come and the elk with it. There was a clearing in front of me that ran about 350 yards to the timber at the far edge, just within range of my .30-06 and the skill I have in wielding it.

The elk, I thought, should be moving soon if they had not done so already, and I imagined they would pass through the park in front of me before dark. Again, questions and even the answers plagued me. What if I have a long wait? What if I am successful? I’d have a difficult night ahead of me, field dressing, quartering, and hauling meat and horns out of the backcountry—this backcountry—in the dark. And what if the worst happens and I wound an elk—up there at that hour? Tomorrow’s Monday. I have to work tomorrow, too.

I glanced at my watch. It was two o’clock. I had to move.