Hunting, family, wilderness, & restoration is how I classify the past week. Reflecting all I can think is, “Man I needed that.”
I woke early Saturday morning, trying to get ready in the dark while my family slept in the one room log cabin. It’s off the grid and quiet as can be unless the generator is running . Even tip-toeing around in the dark, my youngest woke and wanted held. After getting him back to sleep I got in the truck and headed higher up the mountain. I’ve been looking forward to this morning all week, yearning for it, solo time. Just me, the mountains, and God. All week my Father in Law and I packed the dirt roads looking for elk out west. It’s not my preferred way of hunting, but he has a hip replacement and can’t hike much. This morning I knew I got to be out in the wilderness, up high in the mountain, and hiking deep in the pine trees and aspens. Today I had an overwhelming confidence that today was the day, like God was preparing me for what was to come. Still pitch black out I got to where the good dirt road turned into a rough ole’ two track. I put my old truck in four low, rolled the window down, turned heat to the floor vent and up high, and drove in silence. I enjoy that feeling, cold air coming in the window, hot air on the floor, the hum of the old truck and smell of a banged up exhaust. There is a spot I like, and much to my disappointment it’s been getting pretty popular lately. We call it the meat hole.
While bumping along I had a thought in my head, if anyone else is parked at that trailhead, I’m turning around and heading for the top of the mountain. I coasted in as quiet as my old truck would go, and as I rounded the last corner I realized that I was the first one there. It made me smile, because it reaffirmed the feeling I had, that this morning was meant for me. I parked, grabbed my gun and pack, closed my door as quiet as possible, and headed down the foot trail in the dark.
It had been a few days since it snowed, and I was getting annoyed trying to walk quietly. The snow crunching beneath my boots sounded like it was being amplified through a bullhorn and echoing off the next mountain over. Two hundred yards down the trail my fears materialized when I heard a branch snap, then more crashing as a herd of elk stood up. Busted. I froze and watched as the lead cow walked toward me, trying to figure out what I was. She held her nose high, and got within 50ft of me. Then her eyes seemed to lock on mine, she stomped, and the herd took off on command. It was just bright enough to see the cows dart downhill through the aspens: cow, cow, spike, cow, cow… Ten altogether. I let them be and didn’t push. It didn’t sound like they ran far. I figured that they would either stay put, or run down the meadow, and I could cut them off by heading northwest and waiting for them on the fence-line which marks the west border of the Routt National Forest.
I split off the main trail and started heading down through the trees to a beaver pond on the fence-line. I had a passing thought, proud of myself for knowing the national forest and this land so thoroughly. This is my spot, my day. I worked my way through the deadfall, down a ridge, and out through the oakbrush. I sat up high with a vantage point of the ponds and both directions looking down the fence-line. The sun was just starting to shine it’s rays on the top of the mountain to the west, and slowly working it’s way to me. Here I prayed, and genuinely talked to God. It’s been a while since I did that. I asked for him to speak to me, that I desperately wanted to hear him. I need him to guide me and father me. I sat in silence for a while, then I had a thought, “I need to stay on that hill until the sunlight touched the fence line.” So, I did.
When the sun touched the barbed wire I stood and shouldered my rifle. Five seconds earlier, or five seconds later would have changed this whole story. I headed down the fence line quietly. About a mile south and two ridges over, there is a reservoir I figured I would get to and sit on for a while. When I got to hill overlooking the reservoir I started to unload and pick a spot to get comfy, but felt that I needed to keep moving. So, I shouldered my rifle again and kept moving. I walked down the fence line to the next ridge which overlooks a valley. Usually this valley is where I turn around. The hill I stood on now overlooked about 500 yards full of aspen trees spread out just enough that I could pick out deer milling around in the bottoms. I stood and watched, combed over every inch. When I was satisfied that there was nothing down there, I turned and headed up the hill to the east, ready to work my way back to the truck. As I started working my way back up the hill I stopped to look at a big empty wasp nest at the edge of a meadow.
I sat next to it, took a photo, and lingered for a bit. I started up the hill again, and I got about a hundred yards up the ridge line when I heard brush and branches snap behind me. I crouched and turned to look, using my scope I could see the back hair of an elk coming up through the oak brush, I flipped the safety off, and worked back down the hill. Then, a big beautiful bull stepped out into a clearing, not 10ft from where I had stopped to look at the wasp nest. He stood broadside, his antlers were dark and majestic. I had my rifle shouldered, looking through the scope I could count 5 white tipped points, and some big ole’ long brow tines. I don’t know how much time transpired while I processed all of this, but it felt like time was standing still. I had envisioned this scenario all week, and felt surprisingly calm. Standing upright with my feet staggered, I pulled the butt of my fathers rifle tight into my shoulder. I put the crosshairs in the breadbasket, exhaled and pulled the trigger.
Then time sped up, the bull turned on a dime and crashed down hill. I walked confidently to the spot he was standing, but I couldn’t find any blood. I turned and followed the path he took crashing back down the hill. Dropping off into the valley there is a small bench with dried grass. I worked back and forth looking for blood now a little frantic and second guessing my shot. What if I bumped my scope, did I pull the shot? What if? Then I saw him, lying down in the bottom in the tall grass.
It’s hard for me to describe just how I felt. It had been 3 years since I had been blessed with a bull, and it is a blessing. I was overly excited, relieved that I didn’t didn’t have to track a blood trail and worry about wounding an animal. I felt validated, as a marksman, as a hunter, and as a man.
I knelt down next to him in awe. This is my biggest bull, thick, dark, and a damn good public land bull. I bowed my head and thanked God for this animal, I thanked the elk for his life, and the life he would provide in good meat for my family. I promised God I would respect the animal’s life by taking care of the meat. This is the first time I had done this, but it felt right, and it is something I will continue to do. I will teach this tradition and pass it down to my sons. The Yukon Men say, “Anaabaassee Dinaahuto.” While I don’t share that heritage, it is a very honorable tradition and way of thinking that I want to emulate. To honor the animal. The elk was down 2 miles from the truck. I am blessed to have family and friends that jumped at the call, and the pack out is a story for a different day.
At the end of the day I felt restored. I felt like my steps and actions had been led by God, he placed he there at that exact moment in time, and blessed me with a majestic bull. I asked to hear from him, and he answered that prayer. I had to do my part and listen. Hunting is so much more that trophies, meat, and guns. For me it is spiritual, there was a place in my heart that was touched, blessed, validated, and restored.