The tracks passed through the fence and continued on the other side, a large wad of dark hairs stuck in the top wire the definitive sign that the obvious was real; the elk had jumped on to private land and my time with it was done. The sense of loss was only indirectly related to the likelihood that my hunting trip was now over, it was everything with how I’d no longer be able to follow the big feet through the sage fields and juniper gulches, linking obvious craters through shaded stretches of deep, crusted snow with bare ground indentations which stretched my ability to see at all.
At first the tracks had been dusted in with grains of snow, suggesting age. Then I had found a bed, melted icy into a hollow under a pine, and circling tracks thereafter. Hard to read which elk was the newest, heading uphill, and it opened the big question of tracking; was I close enough in time and space for it to be reacting to me. 100 yards on and 5 minutes later, on the other side of a sunny bare patch which made for slow going, I found in quick succession two piles of slick, sticky droppings, and the answer to that question became an emphatic yes. From then on the psychic rope going back from the elk to me stayed taught, and it seemed like I could almost smell his mood when it walked a complete circle at the edge of a steep gully, choosing to go around rather than down and over. Unfamiliarity and confusion, I assumed, could only be good for me. Until I realized that the fence was close. The elk repeatedly ducked low and stayed on BLM land, until the public strip became too narrow and tilted between the cow pasture and the big canyon. And perhaps because I was getting so close.
I arrived at the trailhead in the dark, and beat a slow march up the sage field, breaking through the stout 1 inch crust into dry sugar snow which let my boots go all the way to the ground and filtered up into the small spaces of my gaiters. WIth only a vague destination, I kept the crescent sliver moon just off my right shoulder and kept climbing. My pack felt heavy, my feet kept catching under the snow, and the short halo of light my lamp gave minimal illumination to a vague plan. Close to 1000 vertical off the highway I started running into fresh tracks, lots of tracks, and a ways higher some recent looking beds. With enough optimism and exertion harvested I continued into the dark until I found a fairly flat spot under a tree, swept a sleeping space down to bare ground, set up my mid, and went to sleep.
The morning was cold, cloudy, and with just enough irregular wind to cause problems. Stay here? Go up? Go down? I went up, as that had been the plan back home, but the steep climb and deeper snow bogged me down and mentally I was moving slower and slower. Atop the ridge there were no tracks of any kind, and a brief snow squall which blew in fast enough to freeze my hands before I could get warmer gloves out. They stayed cold enough to not shoot well for almost 40 minutes.
The elk were not in the trees, and when I got back to the southeastern slopes and the open pines and sage fields, fresh elk tracks were all over. As in fresh since I left my camp just above that morning. Some times your hour with elk is more academic, if no less poignant and irksome.