Residential buildings in Montana generally don’t have air conditioning, making the 5-8 weeks each year when night lows don’t go into the mid-50s or less a period to be endured, with windows wide open. So it stood out like a stick cracked deep in shadowy, still lodgepole when last week we woke cold and with the heater on. Late August nights down to 45, in town, bespeak snow and hail in the mountains, and let us and the squirrels know quickly: summer is over.
While scouting for bison in the Absaroka, a sense of urgency was plain. Small birds everywhere, looking for final foods before they move on with autumn. Mule deer fixed on pockets of browse, tied tight to the bits of spring which still linger as meadow ribbons a foot either side of unexpected springs. The first night I hid my tarp a few hundred feet above the creek and 50 feet off the ridge top, on one of the few flat spots amongst the new growth pines that was out of radius from the many standing, burnt and dead snags. That night I woke after an hour of sleep to drop the windward corner, a safeguard against stray blow drops but mostly against flapping. I slept well for a further 9 hours, and was greeted with clouds barely above me, which occasionally revealed snow a thousand feet higher. Half a dozen new deadfalls fell in the 36 hours between my hike in and hike out.
I saw no bison, just a few piles of old scat, and spent most of the last day in my rain gear as waves of sun, graupel, and drizzle took their 30 minutes turns. It was a long climb back up to the trailhead, a mile down on the other side of a 9000′ divide, and thoughts of the moment included the probability of those sticky mud patches on the steep drive down and out, and the relief of not having to make the same 11 miles back up through horse beaten rocks, multiple times and with very heavy packs. More than is usual the quick, cold, damp transition to the heated car and unnerving, simple speed left me dizzy in another world.
What do I want out of hunting? Every year of the past five September has rolled around and I find myself lingering on how swell it would be to not be hunting. Fall has always been a precious time, and until the lush, flush inaccessibility of spring in the north half of the hemisphere came into my life, my unquestioned favorite. The crisp scarcity engenders focus, something only enhanced by the harsh freezes of northern night-times, and the promise of December and its 8 hours of daylight. Hunting has given me a lot, most prominently reasons to walk places I never otherwise would have, and the practice of hours sitting still and watching. But hunting is heavy, and of necessity slow, and its logic really dictates you go where animals might be, all of which run against the grain of cruising the landscape, just looking. How much of this weight is that of expectation, how much restlessness and the desire to see new things, and how much trepidation, the animals waiting out there to be things which I cannot control?
This is the implacable genius of hunting generally, and the current draw regime in particular. As with a creek which rarely rises enough to run, or a chute which rarely fills in enough to ski, many of the best hunting opportunities only come along but rarely. Unlike any other outdoor pursuit, save rafting the marquee western rivers, when those occasions happen has nothing to do with the inscrutable weather, and everything to do with the inscrutable human institutions. The later mystery is of course the greater and less predictable, so the chance it gives is consequently of higher urgency. My task is to embrace the opportunity to inhabit the habits of a bison hunter this fall, and also to let go of the assumed correlation between that status and having a bison hide on the wall 4 months from today. Trophys, be they antlers on the wall or summit photos, make it easy to pass over internal questions.