“…things are not going to be perfect. The more that you can have it in your head – that things are not going to be perfect. It’s not going to be like, ‘OK, we’re going to get set up, get things rock solid, the elk’s going to step out, done deal…'”
It was cold and dark at 5:00am, driving on slippery, freshly snowed-over high country forest service roads as the first real storm of the season rolled in. We were running on interrupted hours of sleep, no thanks to mouse-infested yurt noises after already putting in 12 hours of hunting the day before. The heater was blasting on high, getting us warmed up before we stopped to put on the rest of our layers and gear to set up for another full day of elk hunting in Routt National Forest.
“…success or failure on the hunt will come down to walking up and down hills…”
The drive was silent except for the the Steve Rinella MeatEater podcast echoing a story of a couple of the production team members’ first elk hunts. Words of wisdom hung in the stillness of the moment, resonating as snowflakes blurred in the high beams.
“…how long did it take you to kill an elk? It took me three years, and I grew up in Montana. Three years of bumbling around the woods…”
This was only our second full day of hunting and frustration levels had seemed to already reach their peak. During 3rd rifle season, Routt National Forest was full of hunter competition and gunshots rang through the air the minute hunting hours opened each morning, then sporadically thundered throughout the rest of the early half of the day. Elk hides draped campsites and forest gates throughout the whole area, demonstrating successful hunts all around us, taunting us with the possibility of filling our tags, but not without reminding us that we had to pay our dues.
“…I moved to Montana in 1996, and hunted elk 20 or so days that year, hunted elk 20 or so days the next year, and then killed an elk the third year, and by then probably killed my first elk, which was a calf that I shot with my bow, on probably my 45th day of elk hunting…”
This wasn’t our first elk hunting season, even though we’re still new hunters in the grand scheme of things. I knew how much patience this trip required. Bill, however, seemed to expect a lucky kill right away mostly because everyone else seemed to be filling their tags. Instant gratification isn’t a reality in the wilderness. I don’t know if it is my week-long solo trips into the mountains, or the hours of sitting in silence by the campfire reading Thoreau, or the realization of my own frustrations over the years that you cannot force anything to happen – especially anything in nature. Nothing that you force ever works, and this is particularly true with hunting.
“…I’m just saying that it’s so challenging. For me it was one of the biggest accomplishments to date at that point. You know, I was like, ‘I actually did it. This is an elk. It finally happened.’ Because there were so many days, and so many failures, and so many days without ever seeing or hearing; deciphering two-week old wind-blown elk crap in the Pintlers…”
I had come to realize this year that success in anything means you have to do hard things. This summer I had struggled with asthma on high altitude hikes after a poor night’s sleep on backpacking trips to alpine lakes. The mental toughness it took to keep trudging up the mountain, when everyone else seemed to fly by, despite my hiking schedule of tackling anywhere between 8 to 17 miles of trail above 9,500 feet every week – sometimes multiples times a week. That was a defining mountain moment for me.
“…trudging is the correct term. Many, many, many times in elk hunting it is one foot in front of the other…”
I was adamant about keeping at it, adding American Lakes and Ruby Jewel to my “successfully hiked” summer list. I can’t even tell you how much determination it took to get to Ruby Jewel when my lungs were essentially betraying my body. But I made it, one foot in front of the other, inch by inch, mile by mile, and I don’t think I’ve ever been more thrilled to accomplish a hike.
” …most people think they’re capable of more than they actually are. They think, ‘oh yeah, I’ll go up that mountain,’ but they can’t. And they get halfway up and they go, ‘oh, I gotta problem with my ACL. Or they come up with some thing that’s wrong with them. And you’re like, ‘OK, it’s not going to happen. You told me it’s going to happen, but it’s not going to happen’.”
Hunting requires a zen-like level of mountain patience. It takes the ability to lower your expectations to the point of preparing yourself to come home empty handed – and be OK with it – to be successful. I felt like my mountain addiction this summer really solidified my mindset for hunting this season. I was completely prepared to work really damn hard for that elk, while also having the patience of a monk when things didn’t go as planned. Filling a freezer with meat is always the goal, but I understood that it was never to be counted on.
I had mentally prepared for this hunt all year.
That morning while listening to this episode of MeatEater, a podcast series that we often listen to on mountain adventures, we had gone to the top of a forest service road, about 8,600 ft in elevation, maps sprawled out to look for a prime location. We had narrowed this part of the mountain down by the sounds of gunshots from earlier on our first day and determined that this is where the elk were probably headed – up and deep into thick lodgepole pine forests.
Elk are smart. They know it’s hunting season, they know the public land boundaries, and they know exactly when hunting hours start and end. This is why I squint my eyes judgingly when people declare that elk don’t have a fair chance during rifle hunting season. They have NO IDEA what it’s really like out there.
Hunters pulled up right behind us, increasing our competition, so we decided to take a different side of mountain as snow piled up on the ground and the roads began to rut deeper, increasing the risk of the truck getting stuck. As we came back down the road, silently choking down frustration while taking comfort in the knowledge that other hunters go through the same trials, a cow sprinted across the road right in front of us. We had a cow tag.
“IT’S A COW! A COW! A COW!” I yelled, as if I thought we’d never actually see an elk during this hunt. Bill pulled over, geared up, and began tracking. Which in hindsight is ridiculous because you can’t chase after elk in a forest. They’re too fast, this is their home, and they’ll bounce out of there faster than you can blink.
But, he settled into a spot for a few hours while I waited in the truck listening for gunshot and his instruction on our walkie talkie to hike down and help field dress. Or, that was the hope, anyway. I continued to think about the life lessons the trails had taught me this year and worked on applying those to the hunt.
A hunt is often full of close encounters, creating a rollercoaster ride of emotions. The night before Bill had been in a spot where the forest met the meadow with a river running through, hoping to ambush an elk coming down for a drink. As the night creeped upon us and the sunset began to throw its brilliant colors in the sky, he could hear a huge bull slowly making its way through the forest, scraping his antlers on the branches, and carefully, slowly stepping his way out. But, the sun had set, darkness had fallen, and hunting hours had just closed. Waiting any longer would have been futile. But they were right there. We were right there. This was the motivation to keep going, but it didn’t last long.
The snow fell, the temperatures dropped, the competition increased, and the elk hunkered down in the forest. Bill was ready to give up and call off the hunt.
“No, we can’t call it quits,” I told him. “Not now. We’re only two days into our hunt! Have you been listening to this podcast? We have to pound the mountain. We have to hike up in there. An elk isn’t going to just walk in front of the blind and make it easy on us. We can do this.” I sounded like a hunting cheerleader, and maybe that’s the benefit of a hunting partner, other than the packout help when you actually end up filling your tag. Someone to keep dragging you along when the mental frustrations take over. It happens to every hunter, even the most experienced guides. It happened in the podcast that we listened to that morning.
So we hiked. We scouted. We kept going. We glared at each other a few times. Hilariously, before we left for our hunt Bill had said, “OK, we’re going to be together 24/7 for a week in the mountains. We’re going to get frustrated with each other. So much, we’re probably not going to talk to each other at some points. I’m just saying this now, because it’s true. So whatever happens, just know I love you.” Hunting creates the perfect storm for disagreements, especially going with your spouse – whom you’re already around ALL THE TIME. At least we saw the humor in it to have the “pre-fight” conversation. It actually helped in these glaring moments of hitting snow-crunching mountain sides.
We stuck it out and tried our best the rest of the day. And then we went into town for pizza and beer. A hot meal and a cold beer can be an awesome morale booster, and it really prepared us for the next day.
4:30am came quickly, especially after another noisy night of mice running around. Bill looked out the window of the yurt. I could hear the wind beating against the canvas walls. There was a blizzard out there.
“I’m calling it off. We’re done. It’s not worth it,” Bill sighed. This time he was right. Between the hazardous drive up to the hunting spot, the challenge the wind created in getting an accurate shot if we miraculously saw an elk, and the fact that they would be hunkering down anyway, calling it off was the best decision.
We slept in a little bit later and then packed up to head home. We drove over Rabbit Ears Pass in the blizzard with limited visibility and semis pulling over to chain up.
“Yeah, it was smart to call it off today,” I turned to Bill. “But next year, I’m getting my own rifle and putting in for my own tag. I’m not quitting on hunting.” Fortunately, he’s not either.