“When the buffalo are all gone we will hunt mice, for we are hunters and we want our freedom.” – Sitting Bull
March 2013: Spring has come early to southwestern Montana. I am finishing my coffee this morning while staring out the window at the last remnants of snow clinging in patches to the north and east facing hillsides outside the house. The rising sun is illuminating the snow laden tips of the Tobbaco Root mountains jutting from the horizon of the prairie that rolls to the west. They rise vivid and white against the dark sky.
For centuries the people native to this country ran buffalo herds to the cliffs that separate this plateau from the floor of the Madison River valley. After heavy rains, shards of bone still surface on the slope below the cliff face where thousands of bison were pushed to their death.
I am weary now of winter and look forward with anticipation to the months leading up to the fall. Elk season in Montana is less than six months away. There are rifles to sight in, shells to reload, bows to shoot, gear to prep and an aging body to get back into shape.
2012 was an incredible year. I was fortunate to be able spend 62 days in the field, 44 of those chasing elk, the rest scouting and hunting mule deer. I estimated that I hiked roughly 340 miles and rode over 150 by the time the elk season closed in Montana at the end of November. 2013 is shaping up to be another adventure. I’ve got ten bonus points now for goat, sheep and moose in MT so perhaps this will be the year I draw a tag for one of those coveted hunts. Either way, come September I’ll be hunting elk in Montana with my brother Dan during archery season. I’ve promised to call for him this year until he gets a bull. (update: 4/12/13 – that was before he took a huge red stag in Argentina!) Then Dick and I will be heading to Wyoming on his first antelope hunt. From there we head back to his home state of Idaho for the opening of elk season on Oct 10th. Then I am off to Utah for desert mule deer on Oct 20th. I hope to have elk wrapped up by early November this year so I can focus on Montana mulies during the rut. A really good mule deer buck has still eluded me. I left a few weeks open for solo hunts during archery and rifle seasons in Montana. While I love hunting with family and friends, each season would not feel complete without the trips into the backcountry alone.
When I reflect on last fall I recall moments of quiet reflection and intense concentration, exhaustion and exhilaration, amazement and wonder. Terror and fear.
Watching a pair of golden eagles flying below me on the mountain thermals. Standing motionless while a young bull elk took a bite of grass less than a foot from my boot. The encounters with bighorn sheep, mountain goats, bears, moose and howling wolves. The joy on the faces and tremble in the voices of friends after taking their first bulls. The satisfaction of sitting alone on a snowy ridge at 9500 feet on a cold November morning, nine miles from the closest trailhead, next to a fine bull that strode from the timber above me and paused for just a moment too long. The cold beer that washed down the dust from a 12 mile hike out of the Beaverhead after a fruitless week alone chasing elk in the Madison Range. It was handed to me by an understanding outfitter who was getting ready to pack his clients in for a bowhunt. He figured they could spare me one.
It wasn’t all good. There were long days in the saddle, cold and tired, riding with my brother looking for a bull that he wouldn’t find before the end of the season caught us. The night spent alone at the bottom of a grizzly infested drainage looking for the bull that my arrow caught just a little too far forward in the shoulder. The blood trail growing faint in my headlamp as my despair rose at the idea that I might have lost the elk. Standing knee deep in snow on a mountain ridge at 5 AM staring at a set of grizzly tracks, the claw marks still sharp and not yet dulled by the coming day’s blowing snow. The bear somewhere ahead of me and climbing toward the same bench where I had hoped to find elk bedding at first light. The night I got back to camp so tired that I made no dinner and climbed into my bag and slept without moving. Another night sitting up in my sleeping bag, the hair on the back of my neck bristling as a pack of wolves began howling within a stone’s throw of my tent. Finding them gone as I slipped outside with pistol in hand, my headlamp’s beam searching for glowing eyes in the dark.
A season of emotional highs and lows. How do you begin to describe the experience in words?
Someone once asked me if I was afraid when I go deep into the wilderness alone. I am always afraid. James L. Brooks says that courage is the mastery of fear, not the absence of it. I think for most of us, courage is something we don’t know how much we have. The wildest places are so unforgiving and can be so hostile. They give us a chance to find out. I think a part of all this is wanting to know how I will hold up when it gets down to the wire.
Each time I lock my truck and throw the pack on my back and head down the trail I feel an adrenaline rush of fear and anticipation of the unknown. Each day is a challenge and teaches you something new about yourself. Each time, I come out a little different than I went in.
When I hunt I love going as far from the beaten path as possible. The mountains and vast prairies remind me that there was always something here bigger than us before we came along. Go to these places. Stare across a landscape still umarred by human hands. We must work hard and come a long way to be here. These are moments whose value cannot be measured in anything tangible.
There will come a day, not long from now, when people look back on these times that are ours and they will say that we were very fortunate. In Montana you can still buy a general season elk and deer license over the counter and hunt from September 1st until the end of November. Montana and Wyoming are the last states where you have that priviledge. The population of people will continue to grow and surpass the land’s ability to accomodate all of the need. Then, Montana too will become like most states where you must be drawn in a lottery, or select a weapon, or choose a week to hunt. A week. I can’t image fueling a passion like mine with a week of elk hunting.
I can sense the fleeting nature of this moment. There is a feeling of urgency in what I am doing, the knowledge that this, and I won’t last.
So I spend as much time as I can right now fulfilling my dream of hunting the wilderness of the west. I am wiser now and I am trying to leave ego and vanity behind on this journey. It should be about creating an experience, finding the space to find ourselves. Not the need to fill a tag or to shoot the biggest bull or buck. I admit that I fall short some times of living up to this expectation, but I at least recognize that and I am working on it. I cannot explain what drives my passion to hunt. Only that it comes from somewhere deep inside of me. And while I spend countless hours trying to understand that urge, a full reconciliation with it has eluded me. It must be enough that in my love and admiration for the animals I am reminded that their lives are not small things. And that it is with the greatest gratitude and humility that I ask from them this sacrifice which makes my experience complete.