The last month has been an incredible period of living. A month of firsts. A month of both success and day-after-day-after-day failure. A month of long periods of low-output hiking, looking, calling, listening, waiting, and short periods of brutal hiking efforts, animal encounters, rapid decisions and adrenaline ripping excitement.
I hunted public land for 18 days, with the bow and arrow, on an over-the-counter elk tag. 2 tags, actually. This will be the story and reflection on basically 2 hunts:
Backpack hunting is a mix of a lot of my favorite things – hunting combined with backpacking, deep backcountry, self-reliance, endurance, solitude, wilderness adventure. Wilderness area means no roads, no buildings, no vehicles – you get in on your boots (or a horse, if you’re into that), and anything you kill gets packed out on your back. Your tent and all other gear go into your pack every morning, you hunt all day with ‘camp on your back’, then you set up again wherever you end up that evening.
Elk hunting is hard enough that it’s not really necessary to combine it with backpacking and wilderness survival. To keep it simpler and more focused on ‘just’ hunting, there is ‘multi-use area’ and ‘base-camp’ hunting. Multi-use areas are generally owned by a state or federal agency and allow regulated camping, 4-wheel-drive on-roading and off-roading, horse riding, cattle ranching, sheep shepherding, timber cutting, leaf looking, star gazing, fishing, and hunting. I say this style of hunting is ‘simpler’ because you can drive a truck to your hunting area, stay in a wall tent, have a wood burner to cook and warm up. You hunt from ‘base camp’ every day by walking right out of camp, or by driving to another location and then walking. Every night you return to your base camp to eat dinner, dry your gear, tell stories and snooze.
As I said above, I hunted both of these styles this year. They’re dramatically different, but both great adventures, well-worth relating, and I’m going to tell you about them separately.
At its core, though, all elk hunting is the same thing. The chase. Hunter and hunted. Full immersion, full presence into this environment that at first feels foreign, but that quickly feels natural and home. Every day, seeing the sky lighten, feeling the warm rays of sunshine, and eventually watching the sky re-darken and stars reappear. Walking game trails, meadows and forested slopes. Analyzing prints, rubs and scat. Listening for elk calling and branches breaking. Looking over the next ridge, into the next meadow, treating each like it will be 'the one'. It's the adventure, the quest that has been going on for time immortal - human being seeking game, moving through the 3-dimensional landscape, under the sky, sun and stars.
It hit me, partially, the first morning of the season, as I walked, alone, through a dewy meadow an hour before the sky would even begin to lighten. Above the horizon hung Orion. “Wow, cool, look at that, Orion sure is shining bright.. Orion, The Hunter.. There it is, there’s his star-studded bow, extended and at full-draw.. Hmm, cool, I’m bow hunting too..”**
**Turns out Orion is actually 'holding a shield'. I don't care. In my Orion, it's a bow.
The next morning, again under the pre-dawn sky, is when this thought reached another level. “There he is again.. Orion, The Hunter.. Orion, providing the familiarity, the reassurance that today is another day, that it will be largely like yesterday - he’s still up there and I’m still down here - today I’ll make it through another beautiful adventure on Earth.. Wow, ya know, I’m not exactly the first person to experience this.. Oh my, the long line of ancestors, the hunters that we all come from.. a thousand generations, time immortal, all of us have walked through the prairies and forests as hunters seeking game, Orion shining bright.”
Here I am, backpack hunting, on a day and week of so many personal ‘firsts’. It's as much fun as I've ever had, the greatest adventure, the most tangible quest. I’m having an adventure of my life, a culmination of so much of what I love. It’s a new and unique experience. Unique.. or not. Unique to my life, to this point. But, truly, plain ‘common’. The most ‘common’ thing I’ve ever done. No wonder it felt so right. It’s what we, as humans on Earth, have done for longer than we can comprehend. A hundred, a thousand, ten-thousand generations before me have set off in the darkness, seeking game, every one of those hunts starting the same, every one of those ancestors moving under the same celestial landscape, Orion shining bright from the heavens, just as he is today.
To follow will be my tale of the Elk Quest 2018. I hope I can relate some sense of the adventure, of the unknown, of the challenge and the rewards, the thoughts and stories and laughs. And, if I’m lucky, maybe I’ll capture a small piece of what it is to be human, a tale to link ourselves to one another, both now and to generations past, a story of The Earth, The Hunted and The Hunter.