Returning home from a short week of elk hunting with a long drive ahead, I had an opportunity to reflect on what had obviously been a very successful endeavor. Our small group of four hunters had managed to tag out under some challenging conditions, chief among them the obvious fact that the migrating herds we sought had simply not arrived in our hunting area. We were incredibly lucky to find and set up on some small groups of resident elk, and managed to take advantage of what would have probably been our only opportunity while other hunters searched in vain all around us.
It would be fair to say that it was our hunting skills that made the difference, and it would not be exaggeration or boast. My friend Pat and I have shared more elk camps that either of us could ever count. We paid our dues in those 35 years or so, and we have learned a thing or two along the way. Mostly we learned that elk hunting is a grand adventure which takes extreme dedication and hard work, with odds of success sometimes quite low or nearly impossible. That of course is why they call it hunting, and not shooting.
His two sons Mackenzie and Conner are young men know, and it is good to see them grown up and strong and eager to find their place in the world. They love their elk and their elk hunting, and they have managed to soak up a lot of elk hunting wisdom already. In fact, they have already taken more elk and mule deer than the average hunter. They do it all with the anticipation and joy that only young men can bring afield, and it is fine to be near them and bathe in the glory of their bright eyes and spontaneous laughter. There is something about elk and elk hunting that can bring out the best in us all.
Still, I wonder why some hunter’s are nearly always successful, while others are mostly not. Are hunters born, or molded by curiosity and circumstance. Is is skill and experience that makes the difference? Is is attitude and determination, perhaps? Or is it something else, maybe some undefinable quality hiding just beneath the skin. Maybe, just maybe, it is something much more mysterious and magical.
There was a time when the bringing home of meat meant everything. It was literally and obviously the defining line between life and death. It determined how many of members of your tribe or community would survive through the empty winter, and whether your own family and children would go to bed with a belly full of life-sustaining protein, or nothing at all. An empty stomach can make for a long and anxious night, and has a way of permanently arranging a person’s priorities.
Hence the pursuit of game was most often a full-time activity. It took great effort and unwavering attention to the little details that could make a difference between success and failure. It was an endeavor which could require great physical effort, and could produce great fear, and result in permanent injury and even death. The hunting game was very serious business indeed.
It is not that way for most of us today, at least in the United States. Most hunting today falls under the guise of “sport”. At least that is what the uninitiated call it. But don’t try to tell that to the many families who count on their annual moose or elk to fill their larder. There are countless households who could not do without the small game and birds they bring home either. It would appear that wild game is still an important and critical component of the american diet. It has become even more important in the lean and terrible years of a struggling economy.
Hunting has always come easy for me, and I have had more than my fair share of successes. Animals have always been part of my everyday world, and their has never been a time when I have not felt deeply connected to them in some way. They have come to me as naturally as trees reach for the sky, and it was a great long time before I began to realize that this was not so for everyone. It is a phenomenon I have yet to fully comprehend.
I took my first white-tailed deer with a bow and arrow when I was twelve years old, much to the amazement of my friends and family, and even myself. Similar successes followed over the next few years, and I was often the only person to harvest an animal in a growing number of hunting camps. Other hunters began to look at me out of the corner of an eye, and wonder.
When you are young, it is easy to attribute such things to hunting skill and determination. When you get older you begin to wonder if it is just incredibly good luck. Many years ago I realized the great blessing of it all. I realized that something much more intriguing going on, but just what it was I could not say.
It was easy to wonder these things while wondering the sand ridges and washes amidst the cedar and low gray sage, with arrowhead chips and ancient bones at our feet. I could feel the ancestors there, as strong as I have ever felt it. It was easy to imagine them standing there, watching. They huddle quietly under the cedars, taking the measure of the quality of your soul and heart’s intentions as you stumble clumsily through their world.
A small movement on the side of a distant peak snaps me back to the task at hand. A small herd of elk has bunched up below a small snowfield, and three of us sit in the mud and glass them, wondering which way they will go.
They are more than a mile off, and they mill around one way and then the other as they sort out their collective mind’s. For our part, we whisper strategies and discuss this’s and that’s, eager to jump into action. It is always the best part of a hunt, that first contact and the knowing that something is about to happen.
Suddenly, the elk are moving fast in single file, all at once like the synchronized wheeling of a flock of birds in the sky. We are up and moving too, pulled together like powerful magnets that have just been energized.
Miles and miles of empty and desolate country surround us, yet, for no obvious reason the elk run directly to us as we scramble for position and shooting lanes through the scattered trees and brush. The bullets fly and lives change as they find their way home, leaving those left behind even more rooted in the way’s of life and death. We can only look at each other in silent amazement, sure in ourselves that something wondrous had just occurred.
How could it be, we all murmured? How could elk such as these choose to run in the only direction which would surely place them in harm’s way, when a simple turn or slight alteration in their path would have delivered them to cover and safety. How indeed? There are simply some things that are unexplainable in a hunter’s world. It may be best not to try.
The next morning was eerily similar. Connor had been sick for several days, and had been late from camp each morning. Today he was feeling much better, and the previous day’s adventures had motivated him ways only he knew.
There are times when even the best of hunters cannot find an elk, no matter the need or how hard they try to make it happen, or pray in hushed tones on bended knee.
One thing I know: “The elk will come to the hunter when it is time to leave this earth, when they are ready, and in their own time. They will only come when you are ready to receive them and to help them with their journey to the place that the spirits live. Each wish only to carry along the respect and dignity that you both deserve. I am honored; we are free.”
[Article In Progress]
cheering us on….happy for our results…This is special, they say. Don’t ever take it for granted. Do not let our sacred way of life and our precious values disappear into the dust and immorality of a civilization who has lost its way in the face of misplaced anger and disrespect.