Out on the prairie the clear night sunsets linger half an hour past those in the mountains, with light still sneaking back over the curve of the earth throwing shadows longer than human comprehension. Elk and trees and I blended in, each another thing taller than the grass and hilltops, whose rolled edges were themselves bled from grey to dark. I was left sitting on the grass with little sense of up or down, save knowing that like last night the milky way would soon come out quick, and the elk would continue on bugling and chirping in the unseen folds below.
The dull spaces in a day of hunting are ideal for growing doubt. Still cool mornings knolltop and under a cliff band, early afternoon, heat rising such that all save the grasshoppers are quiet, tight to the edge of a sage field, antler tips visible out of the trees 25 yards down the hill, in bed reading satellites from shooting stars, twitching calves poking the mind awake. Will they bed along the ridge, like yesterday? Should I run to cut them off? When they stir will they come this way? Will the lead cow take the east gully over the pass, or the west? Should I stay high and tight to the ridge, for better wind, or move down and have more coverage, if I get to draw? If I shoot that one, should I pack out in two loads or three? Up the coulee bottom cow trails, or out along the finger ridge? Will the rack fit inside, or go on the roof? If I miss again, what sort of person will I become?
Too many elk is one partial remedy for these questions. With all weapons the first battle with elk is finding them. I’ve gone weeks with nothing more immediate towards this end than not utterly dry scat. On this hunt I arrived at midnight, first box checked in a long dirt road drive done with no wrong turns or flat tires. I nearly ran into a spike bull standing on the road 5 miles back, and could hear this herd bugling as the moon heaved to rise. For the three days I had to hunt, past experience was confounded almost once a waking hour, on average. Expecting a silent walk back a simple trail to a shade tree which might have, hours hence, become a glassing location turned up an immediate crack, which turned up one of the several frighteningly tall-tined six by six bulls, walking towards me in tight pines. Forgetting to pick a spot, I shot in front at 7 yards.
Walking up the other side of the same draw, going the opposite direction on the next night, I walked into a herd, up and about far earlier than expected. A spike passed 10 yards below, another bull alternately fed and stared across, 10 yards above, and the fat, dark six by six with shorter, thicker, tightly hooked antlers gurgled happily to himself 15 yards down the hill. As each day passed evening focus became more fleeting as I worked harder and harder to find time to keep up on electrolytes and down on the growing frenzy of the moment. Action culminated the last afternoon, with two separate tall six by sixes. The first morning I had thought them unique. The last morning I descended a ridge from my bivouac tree and saw this one as a virtual quintuplet, one of the herd of over 100 elk and at least 30 brow tined bulls, five of whom were gobsmackingly elevated, to the extent that I could not meaningfully tell them apart. One I saw, by luck and skills mixed, bedded just off that hanging safe meadow, my approach under, around, and behind safe in the wind. I was above at 30 yards, he was bedded back to me, the trees had me slide and crawl much closer than I dared, even on this 25th of 26 stalks, and then bounced my good arrow over his back.
The 26th was him or his twin, bedded on the shady edge of a crumbling dirt knife, idly bugling back to the gurgler, who I had bumped into the next basin. The stalk seemed ideal, especially with no trees between him and me peaking over the ridge, when a spike and cow bedded in thick woods blew out and down the hill. They seemingly took the bull with them, as minutes later I found his bed empty, and myself ready for a short, steep walk back to the road and a drive home without the problem of putting antlers in the back or on the roof. Too many elk where I did not want them, and one too few where I did. The former was by far the more unique, common, memorable, and during the hunt frequent instance. The later is the one which, today, sits heavier on my mind.
The missed shot on the big bull walking towards me in the midday trees is the sort of opportunity that does not happen often. It is as perfect an example as will ever happen of how luck and perseverance become muddied together after a few big days afield, such that the idea of them not being the same is no longer thinkable. Had that bull walked that direction at that moment and I not been there, I would never have known. And whether and how my having been more stealthy, or gone a different way at first light that morning, or taken 10 seconds longer to look at a rock atop a ridge an hour before, might have stirred the bull differently is as uncomprehensible as, the next day, half the herd jumping the fence to continue straight while the other half delayed, demurred, and eventually all went left, to swim in a stock pond.
It is convenient to view my lack of new antlers at home as evidence of poor hunting prowess. In some ways this is true, especially when it comes to shooting practice that was over the spring and summer, plainly inadequate. My longbow practice this year has been focused less on volume, and on hitting a smaller target at varying ranges, and more on form and repeatability. For me, predictability with my longbow blends exactitude and blankness is a way which strongly echos the epistemology of hunting itself. Absorbing focus on the target must be absolute, while in the same moment free of concern about details. Thinking about the arrow tip going someplace will always send it somewhere else; the more precise the concern, the wilder the deviation. Concern with keeping my elbow up will send something else out of line. With that seven yard miss I went all the way back, in the excitement of what I knew to be a dead easy opportunity, and forgot to pick a spot on that all encompassing swath of tan fur. Which is how I shoot a yard off at 7 out.
What no one else will ever be able to know is just how far all the things I did properly over those three days went. There were enough close calls that within the hour one had begun to drown others out. Where there truly elk on every likely hillside, or did my walking into them so often have to do with knowledge, more than probability? No one and nothing can tell me, and like the elk themselves, my supposed knowledge of them, their doings, wiles, and motives is not more than a reflection of myself.
Hunters have become conditioned by modernity, and expect animals like elk to behave as liminal members of society. They hide in obscurity, be that off in the distance our under the armpit of humans, and in either case properly run away from us, quickly and instinctively. The vision of elk as unfogged by that fear is background noise, either in media images of elk locked away from humans on private ranches, or of elk far enough back in time that they lived in a world still primarily there own, or at least primarily not of and for humans. Lewis and Clark hunted within miles of where I was, and that spring lived easy, at least as easily as a diet of almost straight lean game meat allows. Their hunters were skilled, necessity and lifestyle and their place in history giving them skill I’ll always struggle to grasp, but along this stretch of the Missouri the diaries suggest that skill was not much needed. It is easy to forget, in my current non-elkedness back home, that with my effective range pulled out to 80 yards my trip would have been perfunctory.
For three days I was the only hunter in a series of elk-filling drainages that built several hundred feet from muddy cow bottoms up through badlands to the flat tops. The north facing slopes were filled in with ponderosa, which at this latitude and degree of aridity do an excellent pinon pine impersonation. A few, seemingly random pockets of ground water grew old cottonwoods, whose soft and persistent leaves had a dulcet rustle as jarring, in that sharp and silent land, as cracking glass. Elk bedded in all the likely spots right off the ridge tops, and let me get away with things that will surely never work again. On day one I slid down a subtle grassy depression, fully past half a dozen cows and calves, and got within 40 yards of that first tall bull I spotted when lefty, a dark muddy bull with five points on his right antler and none on his left decided he didn’t like me, and spurred the herd into motion. That afternoon a steep route up through dark pines stirred up a spike bull at 15 feet, who stood broadside and starred for over a minute before running off. The next evening I hid behind a moo cow and closed to within 20 yards of a bull, only for the wind to shift.
Like so many dry, cracked, and lonely places in the American West, this elk country was not wilderness. Cattle were ubiquitous. Stock ponds and improved springs popped up hourly. Roads, current and especially past, had at one point gone over almost every likely ridge. Out east across the flats, the big lights of ranch buildings numbered almost to double digits. For all of this enduring human impact, the land was quite wild. It took almost two hours on dirt roads to get there. Those farm lights, candescent as they were, stood also profoundly singular for the darkness everywhere else. The milky way striped horizon to horizon with no softening at the edges, and by full dark the strands of impossible distances stood out and could be seen to intertwine. The elk seemed to only dimly recognize what humans were, or perhaps not at all, beyond another odd thing occasionally too close for instinct. The wildness, as Thoreau talked about, reminded me how brief my human knowledge will be, and just how small I can hope for the radiance of its luminence. And that is something to carry at once lighter and far heavier than meat and a set of antlers.