Midlife Elk

(Challenge, by Grant Hacking)

INCHING UP THE RIDGE, I got high enough to work slowly around the side of the mountain toward where I last saw the elk. I kept reminding myself that if the elk had not already scented me or been spooked, they should be near. Every step became deliberate, a balance between seeing what was ahead of me and what was immediately underneath and directly in front of me. Bit by bit, I entered scattered timber, mature Douglas firs with well-worn game trails meandering through them. The aspect of the mountain changed under my feet from southfacing to east-facing and, amazingly, a squirt of chalk powder revealed calm wind. It was quiet, completely so. When I took my next step, a grouse, a large blue, erupted just ahead of me, flushing and flying off with wings whirling and thumping around the mountain. I imagined two bulls, startled by the bird and wondering what had flushed it, looking my way. So I waited. Standing still. Trying to muster the discipline to remain motionless until the quiet returned.

My legs and body were thankful for the rest. I looked around at the timber, the mountains, the slope I had just ascended. Across the drainage, I could barely make out where my camp was located. If in the next hundred paces I encountered the elk and managed to kill one, after the joy and euphoria of the moment, the work would begin. Even though it was only 2:30, the night ahead would still be trying. The thought made me consider my age, my capabilities, and the scope of this endeavor. How many more times can I really expect to be able to hunt like this?

On foot, in the backcountry, by myself, with nothing but a bivy? How many more times do I really want to hunt like this? Elk hunting can be so satisfying. Doing it well is to have an experience that allows one to get older without feeling so regretful, to instead feel more fulfilled. 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. A life well lived might be long enough.

Finally, after being quiet and still, I felt safe to move. Another 40 yards, and I had come around the mountain and neared a subtle ridge, the kind that would make it easy for a hunter to take a single step and find himself in full view of the game on the other side. There, I angled slightly up the slope while continuing north around the mountain. Just before I could see over the natural barrier, I heard the distinctive sound of breaking branches and hooves shuffling easy amidst dry grass; and almost as soon as my mind began to imagine the elk in front of me, the midsection and hindquarters of an actual elk appeared some 40 to 50 yards away. The elk was grazing, its head down and behind the trunk of a mammoth Doug fir. Is it a bull? Not being able to see antlers and struck with tension and adrenaline, I began having doubts. I could tell it was going to step forward, and I would likely soon see its head. My instincts told me to move up the mountain another five steps or so, close the gap, and improve my shooting angle while still out of sight. Yet, there I was, rifle in hand and hesitant. I remained there, set my rifle firmly upon my shooting stick, took off the safety, and focused through my scope at the upslope side of the tree. The first thing to appear were brow tines.

(Along the Madison, by Claudio D’Angelo)

After a couple more steps, the bull’s head and chest emerged from behind the craggy trunk of the old-growth fir and a shot presented itself. It wasn’t ideal. I was just far enough back from the slight ridge to make the angle of my shot barely possible. Knowing the elk was not even 60 yards from where I stood, I gently squeezed the trigger, hoping desperately that I could shave the surface of the earth within a nanometer.

I missed completely.

Unsure of where the shot had come from, the elk bounded forward and then alertly trotted another 20 yards farther up and around the mountain. I glimpsed the second bull as it ran over the far ridge and out of sight forever. But now, the first bull had stopped, like a mule deer, and was standing broadside looking right at me. Without hesitation, I fired, and the 168-grain bullet hit the elk’s spine in line with the withers. Instantly the massive animal dropped and tumbled down the steep slope until it came to rest alongside two mature firs no more than 65 yards away. I rechambered, held my aim on the broadside of the fallen elk, and did my best to remain balanced on the slope, my heart beating palpably and adrenaline surging through my system like the jolt from an EpiPen.

After a couple minutes, the rifle held tight against my shoulder, I walked toward the elk. Upon closing in to within 20 yards, I noticed the bull, though without doubt incapable of any significant movement, still twitched with life. To be sure, I fired another round into the back of his chest cavity.

In the moments that followed, I noticed something moving along the ground just up the mountain from the elk. It was the grouse. It looked at me, evidently not much alarmed, and continued walking up the mountain.

A bull elk—the second of my life— lay dead on the ground. Perfect silence surrounded us all, and it was more than likely that there was not another human being within miles of this patch of mountain, this moment—sacred in both geography and time. I moved over to the elk, touched his eye with the tip of my rifle, and sat down beside it. I placed my trembling hand on the giant creature’s neck, closed my eyes, felt the warmth of its body, and gave thanks to whatever there is that is beyond the comprehension of man to fully understand. It was 3 p.m.

I labored the next several hours, dressing and quartering the elk, hauling out what I could through the night. Over the next several days I packed out the rest of the animal with the help of family and friends. I spent the next few weeks cutting up the meat and storing it in our freezer. Over the next several months, we all enjoyed the taste of elk meat and the good health it brings.

But what about the next several years? I hope they will find me still able and willing to pursue my most desired and respected of animals. Inevitably, though, I know there will come a time when I can’t. Maybe, by that time, I will have lived enough and will be able to live with it.

Originally from Maryland, Jimmy Lewis graduated with a degree in English Literature from Montana State University in Bozeman. A former fly fishing guide, he now writes, works as a high school English teacher, and spends his days afield with his wife, sculptor Liz Lewis, and 12-year-old daughter, Hayden.