Can one ever tire of watching Bighorn Sheep?
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Posted by Michael Patrick McCarty
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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.
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*Update August 27, 2013
There is not a week goes by that someone does not ask if we have had any puma reports, and I must say, I’m a bit anxious myself. The leaves in the high county are beginning to turn color already, far too early it would seem, and it won’t be long before the early snows are as high as an elk’s belly and the mule deer are headed for the lower valleys along the river. The big cats are sure to follow, and it is then that there is a fair chance to record them on a well placed trail camera. We hope that the hunting is good this season, for us, and for mountain lions everywhere.
You can see a short video of our night time visitor here.
Originally Published August, 2012
Many of our followers are aware that I have done a lot of security work over the years, and I still do. I’ve spent many sleepless nights on one type of patrol or another, and I’ve learned to notice many things that most people miss in the world all around them.
Last night I missed a chance to see a big mountain lion moving just a short distance from my solitary post. It was reported to me by an excited and breathless observer, who apparently had some trouble believing his own eyes. He just had to tell somebody, and I’m glad it was me.
The sighting took place on the black top and concrete of a two-track bridge over a cold, clear river in western Colorado, not far from the unfenced yards of several exclusive homes and the manicured grounds of a large country club and golf course. It seemed an unlikely spot to find such a magnificent predator, or so he thought. For his part, the tawny beast was no doubt chagrined to find himself caught in such an exposed and vulnerable position.
The lion enjoys good company as he hunts. Coyote, the all-seeing trickster grows more bold and opportunistic with each passing year, having learned long ago to take advantage of the nonchalance of the family pet. He may have learned it from the big cat. Likewise, encounters with black bears are increasing, as are people and bear conflicts. As a result we receive many complaints about coyotes and bears on the property that I roam, and it looks like it may become particularly bad in this time of terrible drought.
After all, we are surrounded by the rocky mountain west, with national forest and other undeveloped lands close at hand. Still, a mountain lion report is big and electrifying news which will surely surge throughout the small community by morning. This creature rules by stealth, and it is no surprise that most people have never seen one outside of a zoo or animal park.
I have been quite fortunate to study them several times in my adventures and wilderness travels. I’ve spied them without them seeing me, and I’ve noted their reaction when they realize they haven’t seen me first. I’ve hunted them several times, and have found myself standing with the bawling hounds under the killing tree, with an angry and snarling cougar above. I’ve followed their distinctive paw prints over hill and dale, and on more than one occasion found their tracks following me. I love to watch them under any circumstance, and to see them do their thing for any amount of time is an awe-inspiring experience that marks an indelible impression. I can see a stalking cat right now, in my mind.
What I don’t like is this long-tailed ghost watching me, particularly when I don’t know it. I have absolutely no doubt that it’s happened, countless times, at close range and but a primordial fang away. I’d take a bet that it’s happened to you too, if you have spent any significant amount of time in puma country. Fates can change quickly, as the tip of a cat’s tail twitches, measuring what to do. But of course, we will never really know, and it only adds to the mystery and magic of it all.
I would have explained this to my wide-eyed mountain lion man, if I could have gotten a word in edgewise. There are some noteworthy visitors out there in the black night, just out of reach of headlight beams or human consciousness.
Think about that the next time you enjoy a hike on a shadowy mountain trail in a quaking aspen grove, and the hair on the back of your neck stands up for some unknown reason. You may wish to honor that sense. It’s there for a purpose.
Keep it in the back of your mind the next time you go out at night to check on your chickens or other animals in your backyard or back forty. Catch a breath, and take a second to wonder about what just made a nearly silent footfall, behind or above.
The possibility of a lion nearby reminds us of the wilds at the edges, and grounds us in the realities of the natural world. It’s an unsettling thought for some, and one that many of us have to live with when we spend time in the places that we love. Still, I would rather live where I live knowing that a mountain lion lives here too, rather than in a place known to have no mountain lions, and wishing that it did.
It’s a reality I am happy to accept, in the hope of but a quick glimpse, in the corner of an eye.
Update: October 17, 2012
Game trail cameras are an invaluable tool for those wishing to document the comings and goings of our wild neighbors, particularly in those magic hours between dusk and dawn. Strategically placed, they can capture a delightful display of animal movements not otherwise observed. It’s great entertainment, with the promise of true surprise within easy reach. My anticipation of the next photo or the next video can barely be contained. You never really know what you’re gonna get…
We use several cameras scattered about the property, which we move on a regular basis. Our main interest lies in the activities of the creatures with two legs. We watch for trespass, intrusion, and foul play. That, of course, is a story for another time. Animal sightings are the bonus feature to the main event.
Today’s review of the image collection was no exception. They held the usual cast of characters. Marmots, foxes, and inquisitive raccoons. Wandering pets, and the occasional biker. One frame held the faint outline of a bear in the shadows, and another the up close face of a young mule deer.
And as you may have guessed by now, one camera captured a video segment of a mature lion on the prowl. At first there was nothing but the wide emptiness of the night, then the world lit up as the beams of infrared caught the ghostly figure like the flashes from an electronic campfire.
He was big and long and solidly built, with well-defined muscles that rippled on his bones as he padded easily back to who knows where. No doubt he had used this route before.
A house loomed large here too, just out of camera range. I know, because I set the camera there myself.
My reaction was sharp, and visceral. It’s one thing to hear someone else talk excitedly about their sighting and personal experience. You want to believe, yet, there’s always a little room for doubt in undocumented reports. It’s quite another matter when you actually see a lion for yourself, or have indisputable evidence in hand.
Real is real, and but a moment away from memory. It is undefinable proof of the untamed mystery of our realm, accessible to all just inches from the comforts of our daily routines.
I shall do my best to stay out of the big cat’s path and unseen wanderings, yearning, for his eventual return.
Hunt well, my friend.
Food Freedom, and Guns Too!
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I arrived home past midnight last night, to find a small herd of elk feeding in an open pasture to the west. My neighbor keeps his horses here, and I have an unobstructed view of it from our house on the hill. I spotted them as I walked over to our dog kennel on the fence line, and as I studied them I saw a big cow raise her head, just to let me know that she was watching me too.
I don’t suppose I will ever tire of seeing elk. They have a way of taking over the conversation, you might say, to make you pause in mid sentence when you spy one, to make you completely forget whatever you had been doing at the time, as if the world is a mere background created just for them. It has always been this way between the elk and I.
They looked particularly surreal this night, quietly feeding on a blanket of fresh, white powder, surrounded by the mystical light of a high, full moon. I am struck by the picture quality of it all, the sharp crispness of the image frozen in the cold night air. I can only smile. It is a perfect moment in time.
My dogs knew they were out there, of course, being that they were no more than 100 yards away with just some old wire to separate them. They had probably been watching them for some time, waiting for me to come home, whining nervously, and wishing they could run over and join up. The elk, for their part, paid us no mind, as they pawed in the snow. They had seen this show before and are not as impressed as us.
We see quite a few elk around our property when the snows grow formidable in the high country. It is one reason to look forward to winter. They especially like to feed at night in a large hayfield below us, and at first light they bunch up and head for the cover of rougher grounds and cedar trees on the properties and public lands to our North. To my everlasting delight, they like to cross one small corner of our property as they leave the hayfields, and if we are lucky, we get to watch. I often sit in an overstuffed chair behind our big picture window, waiting, hot coffee in hand, enveloped in the approaching day as the rest of the world wakes up.
We have seen herds of one hundred elk and more, although smaller groups are most common. One morning I sat transfixed as a herd of about fifty or so lined up to jump the fence at the edge of the field below our house, then crossed our field on a run and passed along our fence line next to the house. I counted seventeen bulls, some small, some large, surrounded by foggy breath when they stopped. I can see it in my mind’s eye, just now.
At times, a small herd will bed down for the night under our apple trees. Once I looked out to see several lying contentedly in the sun, with freshly laid snow still shimmering on their backs. I’ve seen them browsing in the remnants of our flower garden or standing next to our birdbath, and I wave and say hello. Welcome, I say, and good morning to you.
Last night, I reach my door and turn one last time to watch the elk and try to lock this image in my memory bank for all time. It is the quintessential Rocky Mountain postcard, a picture postcard for the soul, and I wish I could send it out to you, to all, with good tidings and cheer.
I don’t suppose I shall ever tire of seeing elk….
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