At an elevation of 10,500 feet, the very air sparkled. Pure silence pulsed in my ears as I spun a 360. To the south, skirts of autumn brocade undulated through mountain forests. To the north, alabaster finery shone on crags and peaks. I felt suspended in a cerulean breast of sky so intensely dazzling I could scarcely breathe: I did it. I was here.
I released the last buckle of my packs and 81 pounds of gear slid from my hips and shoulders: Martha’s Jet Boil stove, Nelse’s Life Straw, Dale’s binoculars and saw, Jeet’s bear spray, Oak’s scalpel-bladed hunting knife and some last-minute oatmeal packets. I even had home-smoked pecans from a past love. So much support. Everything I needed for an elk hunt lay at my feet in the middle of an empty snowfield.
I hadn’t counted on the snow.
My graduate work is a study on wildness between people and nature. I’m enthralled now with the less desirable aspects of “raw” and “wild.” In opening my senses to stimuli I’ve habitually rejected, I’ve felt more alive than ever before. So, snow it is. I shed yet another layer, noting how the cold aroused my skin, my breath, my mindstream.
I began to kick out a circle of snow to make camp, starting with the tent. The rumble of a 4x4 quad perforated the air and a hunter pulled up to me. Most of us have a knee jerk response to bearded white men in camo and blaze; it tends to be a negative one. On my hands and knees pounding teepee stakes into the half-frozen ground, I smiled a hello, anyway.
“Someone said you were up here by yourself. I needed to come up and see for myself, shake your hand,” he grinned. “Not many people would do this,” he said, gesturing at my backpacks and tent. “My wife would. I wouldn’t!”
He was modest. He freely admired his wife. Score, two points for the gentle man. I stood up to meet him.
There is a heart in integrity-centered hunting that binds us, a profundity to immersion in the web of life at altitude that cannot be expressed. He and I sure tried, though, swapping stories and memories. Big game hunting challenges our bodies and psyche like no other. Tethered to life and death, the pursuit of sustenance through ever-expanding mastery is incomparable.
The sun drifted across the sky a bit as the visiting hunter confirmed that I was indeed safe and not crazy. He headed back down the hill.
Apparently, he was one of 28 hunters in the area. The moment I saw tire tracks at the trailhead, I had been forced to make a decision – call it? Or commit anyway? With so many quads buzzing around, the elk herd I had hunted before – that I had counted on, was familiar with? They were long gone. Of course, I was disappointed to have my hopes so summarily dashed, but hunting is so much more than the boom and the meat. It’s the whole damn experience. So I committed. I would scout anyway, scoping out more terrain and savoring a few days of feral solitude.
“We are related to everything in nature. We share the earth with our relatives.”
— Paul Goble, “I Sing for the Animals.”
By the time I made camp, had tea, and warmed up again, I was hungry to explore. Geared up, I hiked to a bowl that had lingered in my dreams for years. I will never forget my first time peering into its depths. The harmony and beauty below me were straight out of Marty Stouffer’s “Wild America.” Fir and spruce glissaded the steeps to embrace headwaters below.
Perhaps 30 elk grazed waves of tawny, salmony grasses and sedges. Evening sun gilded their backsides and danced in the seed heads nodding across the meadow. Three or four bulls were scattered amid the harem, an assembly of cows and yearlings bunched up during the rut. They tussled, browsed and lay quietly, untouched by the distracted lives of Homo sapiens beyond the hills.
Post holing to my knees, I glissaded the now empty meadow. Lenses still, I systematically scanned each visible section of the frame before advancing to a new spot in the landscape. I was looking for the tip of an antler, a flicking ear, the dark and light pattern of a rump or lower leg. Lenses traversing the forest edge, my heart leaped at a shadowy movement. Roan legs stepped from the shade first, and then odd, light-colored plates. It was a young bull moose. How to describe this moment?
I can’t. I stood transfixed, binocs glued to my face, nothing existing but the moose and me. I could feel his lumbering leggy stroll within my own body. The rip and shred of dry willow leaves floated up to my ears as he fed. Snowflakes began to fall, a shared connection. He was maybe two years old, his massive body sweet planes of muscle, his near-black coat sleek and unweathered by adversity. I could barely pull myself away.
For the next two hours, I crept through the forest above him, leaving him in peace. I tapped into several days worth of bobcat tracks and entered into its life, scrambling over fallen trunks, weaving between venerable fir, observing the tableau of its roamings. The variety of animal tracks spurred a bit of envy for all the fauna that thrive so purely up here.
Dusk was coming on and the temperature dropped as I made my way “home.” Apprehension grew as the wind kicked up and dark clouds gathered. Back inside my teepee, reality set in.
My tent is a Kifaru, designed for light and fast backcountry hunters, so it has no floor. I was camped on a carpet of packed snow with tufts of huckleberry poking through. The Kifaru uses about 20 stakes, pegging the perimeter around a central multi-section pole. Winds gusted wrathfully and snow pelted the Kifaru. Inside, the walls heaved and shuddered. At times, I reached to grab at the fabric, fearing lift off. The volume of the storm was unnerving and yes, I was scared. I thought of my daughter, thought of single-digit temperatures, and did everything necessary to ensure that I would wake in the morning to another day. I woke a few times in the night to cold toes or blood-drained body parts, flexing and stretching afflicted parts until it felt better. What a first-time experience at winter camping.
“The birth of each new day is a sacred ceremony: the earth awakes, refreshed from the night. First one bird starts to sing, and one by one they all join in chorus. The sky brightens, changing from white to pink to blue, and then the sun comes up with golden light.”
— Paul Goble
The next morning was a clean slate, the day a stellar invitation to a walkabout. I layered up, put on my blaze and reached again for my rifle.
I would imagine some Mid-Valley people cringe at the thought of firearms after the Lake Christine Fire.
I deeply love my Finnish Tikka T3 .270. Eighteen years ago, I had researched the selection of my big game rifle intensively. Her ballistics were the highest-rated that year. She partnered with me on my first deer and elk, and every one since, feeding family and friends. She’s taught me focus, respect, self-discipline and restraint. Learning with her has placed me in the diverse company of quality people embodying these virtues as well. I do not bear her lightly.
Scouting the previous month, I had been very conscious of how others might view a fellow hiker with a firearm. I was sure to carry and point her safely. I had looked each hiker I passed in the eye to reassure them, but I couldn’t say the same for those passing me. The first few groups of women I passed did not pause to chat or acknowledge the human behind the rifle. Eventually, hiking back out, I had come upon a 40-something dad with artful tattoos, brown hair and a golden beard. Two adorable tow-heads eyeballed my unfamiliar firearm.
“What’s that?” one squeaked out, pointing with her pudgy little finger.
I struggled for words, settling on, “It’s my magical food-sourcing stick!”
“We’re pretty straight-talking,” the father said to me. “That’s a rifle for hunting for food,” he explained to his little girls. I was so grateful to be acknowledged and for someone to honor my intentions that day. We chatted about grouse, squirrels and hunting, and parted ways.
Hunting is in the midst of a global renaissance. Locavores, foodies, conscientious hippies and even new media are wrestling this sport from the capitalistic claws of base and greedy marketing machines. It’s happening right now – 4x4 Razors, chew and all the other shit products and attitudes of hunting clichés are being subsumed as public land advocates, conservationists, high-performance athletes, and culinary professionals lay claim to the primal art of hunting.
As I set out on what I decided to be the last day of my hunt, I carried my rifle with, frankly, love. I’m a hippy chic. In addition to the hunt, I reveled in the high country and my solitude. The highlight of my walkabout was encountering the aftermath of a black-capped chickadee feeding frenzy. The silhouette of spread wings and extended tail feathers told the story of its landing. Diminutive claw tracks hopped from silver-seed-headed aster to black nubbin coneflowers. At each feeding point, there was a miniature yard sale of seed husks and pale petals atop the snow. Their meandering tracks made me chuckle, reminding me of my own hunt — wandering from place to place in pursuit of life, connection, food and pleasure.
“We need not feel lonely in the fields and woods. Birds and animals, and the butterflies speak to us...it is the same at night: the stars speak to us...we are never alone.”
— Paul Goble