Hunting elk in the timber can test your resolve and hone your skills
Bruce Franklin McGlenn
November 14th – 25th, 2004
As the snow sifts through the canopy of the thick pines on a steep side hill at 9,000 feet Dad and I creep – inch – our way over windfalls and broken timber. The wind is unsettled but for the time being is gently pushing the soft dry flakes into our faces – a relieving comfort and necessity for keeping our scent behind us. We’d been following fresh tracks for half the day from an area we had pushed the elk in the morning – having failed our earlier sneak in the timber (it was not the first time). Now more than three miles from camp, we follow them up and over a ridge, periodically inspecting their sign and other minute details to decipher the nature of their travel, and how far ahead of us they are. Tracks spread out in open areas as various elk choose their individual paths and then they close into a single file as the clearings are squeezed away. It is evident we were tracking a good sized herd – about 30.
Looking through the timber is like trying to see through a picket fence that is overgrown with vines – nearly impossible. Our hope is to smell the elk as we get close or use some other primal sense (like the hairs on the back of our neck). The timber is closing in on us now and shutting out the light. We walk in the tracks of the elk – one step, then wait, and wait some more, then another step – being extremely careful not to make the slightest noise. A muffled cough would be more than enough to announce our presence. Faint smells of elk drift down and around the pine trunks – indicating that elk are near, or at least were here recently. Another step. Because we rely on and trust our sight so much, we still fall to that as our default sense. Scanning the white and brown world in front of us, our eyes shoot from one shadow to the next as if trying to break the speed reading record while not missing a single detail. Our attention is focused so much I can feel my heart beat and feel each muscle as it strains to keep me from having to take an extra step to keep my balance.
Suddenly everything freezes, except a small patch of rusty brownish orange, just offset enough to notice it between the curtains of layered bark. I feel my heart rate increase. The challenge of hunting the timber is that by the time you see elk, you are so close that any slight sound or misstep sends them thundering into the next county. So here we are, a close encounter with wild animals the size of horses hiding in the timber. And we are carrying tools that (in the hands of a marksman) can consistently spiral peanut sized projectiles four football fields away nearly three times the speed of sound. A spear might be more useful. By this time the elk have begun to sense us, but because of our tact in our approach they are not sure what or who or where we are. They begin to glide about behind the curtains, occasionally moving past a window that exposes their legs or parts of their body. My heart rate steps up another notch.
Any opportunity I have to move a few steps while the elk are fully enclosed by the curtains I take to gain a new vantage point and wait. A few more steps and wait. Realizing I have just passed one of the few open view corridors, I backtrack a few steps and kneel in the snow motionless. Dad is ten feet to my side, hiding behind a few large trunks. We have been hunting together long enough to know each other’s moves, reactions, and anticipations. We can practically communicate without even speaking or looking at each other – a huge advantage in this type of setting. This is our hunt – we are in it together.
I ever so slightly motion to him that there is an elk about 40 yards below us trying to figure out which way to exit the stage. I am thinking it will move up in front of Dad for a clear shot, but it turns towards me. I can see as it passes a small opening that it is a cow – a legal animal, for only cows and branched antlered bulls can be hunted here. I slowly raise my rifle, seat it in my shoulder, take the safety off, and cautiously close the gap between my finger and the trigger. As the cow approaches the next opening, our last ten days of near misses and 75 miles of covered ground accelerate to a head. My heart races with anticipation and emotion. The cow moves slowly but steadily and as she steps from behind the trees and before she disappears behind more, I know I have entered a moment in time that is as quick as a blink of an eye – but will last as long as the wind blows through the tree tops on this shady east slope above Lawrence Creek. I feel a quickening in my veins and an overwhelming sense of right and connection to the land. The exchange is swift and resolute and it is over with a crack in the silence. There is no hesitation.
From the comforts of home, hunting seems like a simple enough excursion, but when I find myself fully immersed in it, I am reminded how intricate a process it is. Ethical hunting is as much an exercise in human emotion, psychology, and integrity as it is in physical ability and agility. For only I know when I am ready to fully engage in the hunt and lose myself to the wilderness surrounding me. Any doubt leads to hesitation, which leads to overwhelming odds in favor of the prey. A predator’s life is not a simple life. Cougars and wolves don’t just saunter out for an afternoon hunt – I imagine they have to work their way into a state of mind that is fully engaged in the circle of life. Have you ever seen the look in a cat’s eyes while pursuing a bird or a mouse or even a toy that imitates prey? Not quite the same as when he’s eating his canned cat food. This state of mind is what helped our ancestors survive in the real world. To ignore this fact is to ignore part of our genetic blueprint. To accept it is to accept the truth about who we are and where we come from. Although we don’t need to act on these impulses in this day and age to survive, doing so reminds us that there are things in life that are not fully explained – and probably never will be.