Hunting wily elk
Wilderness protects them all
Caught my man instead
Steaming sweat streamed down my spine. My 20-pound pack was plastered to my back. I had overdressed, once again, for the last day of hunting season. Or perhaps Mike was moving just a tad too fast up the endless incline, eager for success on that last day. No, I had certainly overdressed.
Although Mike hunted squirrels in his boyhood days, the only hunting I had ever done was for bargains at department stores. I had never dreamed of a day I’d be hunting elk, or any other animal, but there I was in the wilds of Colorado, excited for the shot that would guarantee us fresh meat for months. Mike had the cow tag. He would shoot, and I would do the field dressing. For days and sleepless nights, I practiced in my head what I had learned on YouTube. I knew I’d be a pro.
Like Hansel and Gretel, the elk in the area left trails and trails of moist offerings for us to follow. Mike found them all, and I did my best not to complain when one trail led to another, and another, even though I suspected we were being led on a wild poo chase.
We spent one thirteen-hour day the first weekend of the season, and although I often found myself either sweating bullets or shivering in my boots, I frequently felt just right. Those moments steeled me for subsequent excursions.
We fell into a speechless rhythm. I stopped whenever he stopped, about every eight steps. We did this for hours, and by early afternoon, even my eye muscles ached from the constant, stealthy surveillance.
Countless times I watched Mike stop, pick up a twig and stick it into
a pile of elk poop. I soon learned that the shiny ones were the freshest. There was no doubt in my mind that elk had been there before us.
“Does this look familiar?” he asked me later in the day, quizzing me to test my orientation proficiency. I lied and said yes, though the poo piles were all starting to smell the same to me. I did notice a familiar
twig sticking out of one pile and realized we had made a huge circle.
In addition to coordinating our movement, we also coordinated our pee breaks. Peeing in the woods is the best. After the squat, the sweet release, a clench or two and a wiggle-waggle, I’m ready for the next expanse of forest.
Frequently, busy squirrels chattered at us to move along, though we had no interest in their tiny little nuts. We did our best to be as stealthy as our prey, but Mike had a creaky boot that I’m certain alerted the nut gatherers. Then, of course, the blast of an occasional fart would stop us both in our tracks. We would look at one another in mock surprise and mouth the word, “bugling?” It was always funny, and we found ourselves suppressing juvenile giggles every time it happened.
At one point as we were creeping through a particularly mucky draw, our boots pulling—“Shhgluck!”—from the mud, I had flashbacks to my Army reconnaissance training.
“Feels like we’re in Nam,” I whispered to Mike. He just rolled his eyes.
At one point that long day as we climbed up from yet another draw, we were treated by the flash of two glorious elk cows about 30 yards away. Fortunately for them, they saw us before we recognized them, and before Mike could raise his rifle, they disappeared even faster than they had appeared, and with barely a sound.
Mike continued to zigzag us through the forest in a way I never could. I’ll admit it…I don’t know the first thing about using a GPS in the forest, and would never attempt an adventure like this without him.
Later in the afternoon I began to get cranky and we stopped for a long break. Between hours of trudging in stiff boots and snacks of nothing but raisins and nuts, both my plantar fasciitis and my TMJ flared up. I considered myself lucky never to have had IBS. Because I have celiac, however, the smell of the non-gluten-free beef jerky Mike was eating made my mouth water.
“Let’s go up the trail a bit and find a good vantage point,” he said after we finished our snack. Maybe we’ll get lucky,” he continued, trying to keep up my spirits. I could taste the jerky lingering in his whisper, and started to drool a little.
“You could get lucky right here,” I whispered back, a little more than half-joking.
“Yeah, and right as we’re doing it, a whole herd would walk by,” Mike said quietly, and it was all we could do to muffle our giggles. He sure did want to score an elk that day. I settled for a jerky-kiss, and we continued moving until the sun went down on that long day.
“Let’s head back now,” he said, disappointed, though not defeated. I had no idea where “back” was, but continued to follow my guy, still in stealth mode, into the darkness, just as we had started the day.
One evening later in the week while standing motionless, I noticed a clearing on the forest floor outlined by fallen trees. The sight transported me to the woods behind my childhood home where my best friend, sister and I would set up pretend rooms with branches and stones. The woods were really only a few undeveloped lots, but to us, the wilderness seemed immense. We loved to bounce on a tree bent low to the ground, but never ventured too far beyond it because of the monster we were told lived there.
An enormous crow circling above us brought me back to the present. He seemed to love the sound of his own voice, and Mike and I shook our heads at the noisy ruckus. Growing chilly yet not moving at all lest we herald our presence, I realized about the only noiseless thing I could do was kegel exercises. Since those made me shiver, though, I decided to try balancing on one foot, being careful not to crunch twigs when I switched between the two.
In subsequent days we stood on high lookouts during sunsets and rises.
I watched as spider webs shimmered with bits of sunlight, looking like stray strands of tinsel on discarded Christmas trees.
Despite only one other sighting of elk late one evening after legal hunting hours, we continued to hike with hope each time we went back out to hunt. Huddled against a stone-cold boulder during our last night out, our stomachs growling and shivers setting in deep, we both still thought we might get lucky on our last descent from the forest. Alas, we were mistaken.
“I think we’re elkless,” Mike said near the end of that last day in the wild.
“It was an awesome week,” I whispered. And it was true. We hadn’t had so much quiet time together in years. When we were out there, we had no TV, no politics, no talk of Ebola. No elk? No problem. Much hunting happened, though at the end of the week, the only kill was a pesky gnat I successfully snatched from its orbit around my drippy nose one afternoon.
“And don’t forget,” I continued, “my hunting season starts next weekend!”
After spending days trudging through the woods with my husband on our first ever hunting expedition, I concluded that trying to find an elk in a jillion acres of national forest is even harder than trying to find a pair of reading glasses in your house. You know there are lots of them around, but they’re never where someone claims to have spotted them recently.
We may have ended the week elkless, but the experience brought me closer to the man who grew up raised by wolves in the wilderness of northern California—a story I tell everyone I meet about him. But that’s a story for another day.