Dreams and Aspirations
Once they get in your blood you are hopeless: For an elk is as much spirit as he is flesh and fur and bone
Photos by Lodgeatchama.Com
The first I saw of the big bull elk as he climbed the far side of the ridge on that icy December morning were two ivory antler tips, shining back-lit by the rising sun as they pierced the eastern horizon 300 yards above me, moving straight in my direction.
They were quickly joined by two more, then two more still as onward he came, and they continued to multiply and gradually grow into a massive set of antlers that was soon connected to his big, burly head, his richly-maned neck, and then his entire body.
He moved with an assuming air of rank and superiority as he crested the ridge, slowly turning his head from side-to-side, the grandest creature I had ever beheld.
His main beams were long and sweeping, their spread incredibly wide. His tines were of exceptional length and proportion, his back splits protracted and even. And suddenly, everything else in the world—the deep snow in which I knelt, the other bulls I knew to be with him, all my longings from the past, all my hopes for the future, ceased to exist, and nothing else held any importance whatsoever, except for this grand bull elk who now began slowly working his way down the near side of the canyon in my direction—at first angling ever so slightly to the left, then farther left still, until for one split-second he turned perfectly broadside and I eased my rifle off-safety.
The very word conjures up images of soaring peaks, high plains, icy sunrises, and snowy meadows. It evokes the cleansing smell of conifers and the healing aroma of sage, while echoing the staccato whisper of the wind as it rustles through the aspens and romps along the ridge tops.
I can’t remember when I first became aware of elk as a child, nor the first elk painting I ever saw, or the first elk story I ever read. And I’m certain that any aspirations I ever harbored of someday actually hunting elk for myself were, at the time, as remote as the possibility that I might one day leave my boot prints on the surface of the Moon or Mars, or on the distant volcanic plains of Patagonia.
But in time, my childhood fantasies managed to manifest themselves into full adult reality, and when my opportunity to hunt elk finally came, I learned all I could about them and their habitat and habits. I made sure I had the right rifle, the right ammunition, and the right gear, hardened my heart and lungs and legs to the N’th degree, honed my shooting skills to the max, and naively thought I was ready. And when I had my first encounter with a big bull elk, and heard—no, felt—his percussive bellows from close within the deep dark timber that surrounded us, all my preconceptions crumbled into a useless heap as his resonant bugles pounded their way into my chest while my heart tried to pound its way out.
But though I failed to connect and bring an elk home from my first hunt for them, it was without question one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. And I knew I must try again. For once you have seen and heard an elk for yourself, you can never forget his beckoning call nor ignore his urgent summons.
And now as I sit here warm by the fireplace on this snowy winter night, I look up and across the dimly-lit great room at the big bull I eventually took on that icy December morning a few years later, and see him staring back down at me.
He topped the ridge at first light, back-lit by the rising sun and haloed in his own shimmering breath hanging crystalline in the still morning air, as I sat hidden in the shadows with my rifle resting in the forks of shooting sticks.
I had followed him from below, slowly and silently working my way up the bottom of the darkened canyon in the dim, pre-dawn shadows as he and three smaller, post-rut companion bulls meandered in and out of the cedars and scrub oaks along the eastern skyline 300 yards above me before vanishing altogether.
But a few moments later they briefly reappeared, still picking their way north along the crest. When they disappeared yet again, I bolted 200 yards farther up the canyon floor and halted in the edges of the thick stuff, set up my homemade bamboo shooting sticks, and began covering the skyline through my riflescope, hoping they would top out once more. And then I saw them—those two ivory antler tips shining back-lit by the rising sun as they crested the ridge one final time and slowly grew into that massive bull elk of my dreams.
He was bearing straight at me as he came over the top, and I had no shot—at least none that I was willing to take. But then he began to turn, slowly angling downhill, at first ever so slightly to the left, then farther left still, until the side of his chest began to come into view. And on he came, until for one split-second he turned fully broadside and I eased my rifle off safety.
But his chest was still partially obscured.
For 10 long seconds he paused there, looking back along his trail before easing forward. And still I tracked him, my crosshairs locked into the center of his chest as he continued weaving in and out of the sheltering oaks.
And then he stepped clear.
A pair of ravens bolted into the sky from the cedars above him as the sound of my rifle spread up and down the canyon and overflowed its rim. The old bull lurched forward onto his knees, and as he tried to rise, my second 180-grain Nosler Partition bullet followed the first one through his chest as he collapsed onto his side.
For 10 minutes or more I watched him through my scope, my third cartridge chambered, safety off, finger resting alongside the trigger, alert for any twitch or movement that might demand one final round.
But none ever came, and I finally rose from the snow and began easing up the ridge, my rifle reloaded and my thumb on the safety as I cautiously approached the old bull from the rear. I stopped five yards below him.
It was obvious he was dead.
And so I climbed those final few feet, knelt beside him, laid my rifle across his chest and my hand upon his shoulder, and whispered a prayer of thanks to Him who had blessed me with this wondrous gift of an elk.
For the better part of an hour I sat there with him as the rising sun brought the world to light and life around us. Little by little, detail by miraculous detail, the mystery of him flaked away as I studied his coat and his antlers, his face and his eyes. Looking up, I gazed at the soaring, snow-encrusted peaks that towered above us to the north, the high plains that lay so far to the south, the icy meadows and canyons spread out below, and listened to the wind as it gave voice to the morning.
I felt the warmth of the sun on my old wool coat as airborne crystals of ice caressed the sides of my face, and knew that life would never be the same.
I have taken many more elk since that first big bull, and now I simply cannot live without them.
I need not see them every day, mind you—or every month, or even every year. Simply knowing they are out there, and that sooner or later I will hear their ethereal calls once more, is enough. And if for some reason God wills that I have already encountered my last elk, then so be it.
For I have already seen them ghosting through the oaks and cedars and dark timber. I have heard their ethereal calls from the bottom of Bear Canyon and the top of Grouse Mesa, and have smelled the pungent odor from their wallows near Whiskey Springs and along the edges of the Strip Meadows just below the divide.
And when, in an hour or so, I set this pen aside and race the rising sun to my bed, I will sleep sound and secure beneath that warm elk robe which came to me one icy December morning so long ago, when those two ivory antler tips were joined by two more, then two more again, and grew into the big bull elk that changed a young child’s wistful aspirations into an old man’s winter dreams.
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