I remember my throat tightening as I instantly broke into a cold sweat. I thought that maybe my eyes were playing tricks on me. I vaguely remember yelling “NO”. Whether it was out loud or just in my head I’m still not sure. I watched in agony as my last chance to harvest a deer silently slipped away. I looked west as the last rays of light slipped away and with a pain I had never experienced before realized that not only was the sun setting on that crisp, fall day, it was setting on the last day of my first bow season. And I was left standing there empty handed.
In retrospect, I never thought that I would be standing there, empty handed and heartbroken because I hadn’t killed a deer. I never thought that I would have a closet full of guns, ammo, bows, arrows, and camo. I never thought I would be serious about training and fitness as a way to improve my outdoor experience. I never thought that finding myself up to my elbows (literally) in blood and guts would give my life meaning and purpose. Or that the sound of an elk bugle drifting through the aspens would bring me to tears. Heck, I didn’t even know the difference between elk and deer until a few years ago–I just thought they were bigger deer. I also didn’t think that time spent deep in the mountains would come to mean so much, that those moments would take on something of a spiritual nature for me in my life.
So where did it all start for me? How did I end up standing there watching my deer run off? I give a lot of credit to my family. My grandfather was a great conservationist and outdoorsman. During his professional career he was a park ranger and managed all of Pennsylvania’s state parks. Despite his busy life he took the time to pass his love of the outdoors on to me. He took me on hikes and taught me about nature. He signed me up for conservation camps and encouraged me in my Boy Scout endeavors. Additionally, I cherished family camping trips and any opportunity to play outside as a child. However, I was not what you would call “outdoorsy.” I was more likely to be found playing basketball. None the less the seeds had been planted and had taken root. The pivotal point in my journey was when I moved across the country for college in Utah to what felt like a foreign land nestled in the Rocky Mountains.
I don’t know when exactly it happened, but somewhere along the way the Rocky Mountains stole my heart. Their majesty and grandeur cannot be fully articulated–they must be experienced. Pictures do them little justice. These mountains can be cold and foreboding with snow drifts up to your waist, or warm and welcoming with quaking aspens blazing bright in the fall. Springtime brings a heartbeat of wildlife as animals emerge from their winter holdups and summer heat blazes through the pines bringing a bouquet of fragrances. To quote my favorite movie, I believe that “…the Rocky Mountains is the marrow of the world…”1
While I was coming to realize how much I loved the outdoors and was becoming obsessed with the Rockies, I didn’t ever think I would become a hunter. It just wasn’t something that intrigued me…until I went. My first hunt was with my brother-in-law. Our understanding was that he would do the shooting and I would do the heavy lifting. He said we were going to hunt elk and all I was thinking was, “where am I going to go to the bathroom?” I remember driving out early in the morning and thinking, “I’m not going to come back alive. The family has decided I’m not right for their daughter/sister and I’m going to disappear out here and no one will ever know what happened to me.” Seriously, it was a long drive in the dark out into the mountains where we were going to hunt and by the time we arrived at our starting point I was lost. I remember stepping out of the truck and looking out over a vast, fog covered expanse of dark, silent mountains. They seemed to go on forever and the peak we stood on top of seemed to drop off into nothing. As the sun began to rise over the skyline we began our descent toward the canyon floor. It seemed eternally deep, but we eventually found the bottom.
After some time with our noses to the ground, my brother-in-law found tracks, and we struck out for the dark timber on the opposite of the canyon. I watched in wonder as the forest came alive with signs of life. It was an awe-inspiring feeling to see nature in its purest form. We saw no sign of human life, and I reveled in the solitude. We hiked for a few hours and finally came to a snow covered clearing. Fearing that we had lost our quarry, we decided to cross as quickly and quietly as possible. No sooner did we step into the clearing than we busted a herd of elk on the other side. I only caught a glimpse of them as they ran away. They looked like giants to this tenderfoot! I couldn’t believe how big they were, and yet I remember thinking that they seemed almost ghost-like in their silence as they glided in and out of the trees, disappearing as quickly as they had come. I will never forget the feeling of pure wonder as I watched those elk silently disappear into the timber. I was addicted in an instant. As I look back on that experience, I realize that in that moment everything had changed, and I would never be the same.
Years passed since I saw those elk that November morning. I graduated from college and moved to Montana. I was gearing up for my first hunting season. I heard lots of talk about bow hunting elk in the high country, but I didn’t see what the fuss was about. I decided that since I didn’t have a bow, I would hold out and just hunt with rifle. Besides, what was the big deal about mountain bow hunting anyway? I laugh at myself now about how little I realized the effect mountain bow hunting would have on me. As September approached, my other brother-in-law asked if I would go elk hunting with him to the perfect spot he knew. I remembered my first elk sighting and instantly craved another encounter with those dark timber ghosts.
I rolled out of bed in a fog, but the thought of seeing elk again jarred me awake, and I threw my gear in a bag and ran out the door. As we drove to the trail head, there was a chill in the air and the sky was ebony black except for the pinpoints of light given off by the stars, that time of the morning that’s stilling trying to hold back the day. In an instant, the sky broke and daylight poured over the foot of the mountain where we waited to start climbing. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect as we hit the trail, and then I heard it, that magically haunting sound of a bull elk bugling during the rut. It started out low and raspy and quickly swelled, climaxing in one long, clear note. Elk lovers will understand the feeling that washed over me as that first bugle drifted out of the timber and down the mountain toward us.
As we approached the mouth of a gulch, we could see a thickly timbered south side and a wide open north side. I almost didn’t believe what I was seeing, but it was real. Scattered over the rocky hillside was the herd. Cows, bulls, spikes, and calves mixed with each other, taking part in their annual September rituals. With the wind in our face, we struck out across the canyon floor. Much to our chagrin, we quickly discovered that the satellite bulls and cows were on the prowl. After bumping a trio we decided to change our tactic and make an attempt to catch them in the timber as they left the canyon to escape the heat.
The bulls were in full rut fever and bugling like mad. We set up with my brother-in-law about seventy-five yards north of me, and I hunkered down at the base of a pine and started cow calling. Somehow, despite my lack of experience, I got a response from a bull in the distance. I was thrilled! I was communicating with a wild animal and the realization of this sent a shock through me. As I continued to call, I could tell that he was moving toward me. I hoped my brother in law was paying attention! Suddenly, a second bull answered my call, and soon it was an all-out free-for-all of bugling between these two rut crazed bulls. I was enthralled as I listened to them challenge each other, and I waited with anticipation as they got closer and closer. Occasionally I would call to keep the tension alive. And then I realized something that made me reevaluate my role in this charade. I sounded like a cow in heat, and judging from the intensity of the bugling and the speed of the approach, I sounded real good. I had a several hundred pound animal with antlers coming to mate with what he thought was a cow, and he was going to find me. Why was I doing this again? What was I, a city boy from out east, doing in the middle of these mountains with these wild animals? At this point I sunk as close to the pine as I could and prayed my brother-in-law was paying attention. Sadly, we never got a shot at either of these giant elks, but I was hooked. That experience of calling two massive bulls in on a string was surreal and set the hook for next hunting season.
September 2015 was my first bow season hunting for myself. With the aforementioned experiences fresh in my mind, I determined that I would be prepared and that my preparation would lead to success. I spent hours practicing with my bow. I not only worked on being able to hit a target, I worked on the minute details of my shot. When opening day arrived, I was ready. On September 5th I woke up at zero dark thirty and did my pre-hunt routine; eat, shower off, de-scent the different layers of camo, check gear one last time, and head out the door. It seemed that Mother Nature wanted to make sure I felt especially welcomed to the bow hunting family as soon I found myself engulfed in a torrential downpour. Nevertheless I was committed and spent the next several hours sitting and waiting. As it turned out, the deer were much smarter than I was, and I didn’t even get a chance to draw my bow. Despite the weather and the lack of game, I was becoming a bow hunting addict. Over the next several months I spent virtually every free moment out in the mountains chasing elk and deer. I had many close encounters, but the situations never quite worked out. Either a good shot didn’t present itself, or I didn’t have the proper tag for what I found. Despite all of this, I was having the time of my life and making some amazing memories. One of my most memorable experiences was calling a huge six-by-six bull elk into ten yards. Despite not being able to shoot a bull in that area, it was amazing to be that close to such an awe-inspiring creature.
As the season was approaching its end I became frustrated at my lack of success and reached out to a friend for some help. He offered to let me hunt his property, and knowing the amount of deer that pass through his property, I felt like success was a sure thing. So on the last day of bow season, I packed up my gear and headed out. I only had about two hours of daylight left. According to my friend, the deer tended to be more active at his place in the evening. I had the perfect set up and only had to wait about twenty minutes for two does to wonder in front of me. I waited for the bigger one to turn board side and I drew back. I placed my twenty yard pin right behind the right shoulder, calmed my breath, and let the shot fly. I watched in horror as my arrow sailed harmlessly below my target. I had anticipated the shot and jerked the shot. I then watched in dismay as my deer turned and trotted off into the dusk of the evening.
For some people moments like this give them a moment of clarity, a grand epiphany where they see purpose in their failure. That wasn’t me. Really I was just mad. Mad at myself for failing, mad that I had wasted an opportunity. I did, however, have what I would term a fanning of the flame. And that, in part, is what the experience of hunting is all about. It’s about rekindling something long forgotten, something primal within. Something that we have pushed deep down with our smartphones, grocery stores, and fast food joints. Pushed down with our domestication. Hunting gives us a chance to reconnect with our truest self. It is survival and defeat, agony and triumph. Hunting is a spark that for some has never been ignited. For others it is a flame that has been doused and will never be rekindled. For yet others, there is a spark waiting to be ignited. I felt that spark light in me that evening in October 2015. My everyday mundane tasks have taken on a singularity of purpose. No longer do I drift through life, rather I’m squarely focused on one thing and one thing only, returning to the mountains and feeding the fire within.
- Wizan, Joe (Producer), & Pollack, Sydney (Director). (1972). Jeremiah
Johnson [Motion picture]. United States: Warner Bros.