This weekend I went hunting. After a week of peculiar weather that began with 2 feet of snow and lows below zero and ended with sunny highs near 60, it was a quiet day. The snow had been melting so fast I found no set tracks, new or old, and by the late afternoon had failed to glass up deer or elk in even the shadiest of beds. When the sun sunk far enough for coolest to seep into the blue I was a ridge further than I had intended to be, and finally seeing deer. Two bucks working through the sage far below me got me diving off the ridge. After surfing scree and cactus down the gully I saw a bunch more, out in the flats, 3 feeding, another half dozen bedded. They were far enough, and the light poor enough, that I pulled out the spotter from kneeling, behind a shrub, and double checked they were not the bucks from earlier. Elimination said the bucks must still be on the gentle ridge, so I hauled down the final slope and up the wall , diagonaling a fresh deer trail through the pines as fast as possibly imminent shooting would allow. Short of the crest I went left, trying to hold something dark in my backdrop, and balancing stealth with the fact that if I didn’t find them in the next 10 minutes lack of light would make further pursuit irrelevant. And I found one, a ways out, antlers tall and white against the sage and then juniper. He had me pinned, and while I had time for an off-hand shot, the distance was a bit much, and the shrubbery made kneeling or sitting impossible. There was not answer, and the deer stotted off hautily as daylight left.
This is where the story begins. I was perhaps 1 and a half miles, straight line, from the car. My route, on the ground, had been easily three times that. Reversing the same route and taking out the squiggles would shorten things nicely, the disadvantage being route finding in the dark along forested hillsides and along steep ridges which I knew had at least a few cliff bands. The safe and palatable alternative was a brief bushwack the other way and a long circuitous walk on trails, faint enough that I would probably briefly get off track a few times. The safe and unpalatable option was a steep side hill to the paved road, and a long walk on a road with no shoulder.
The deer trail led east through the sage, and in a few hundred yards I had decided to take the direct route. Continued progress dead east should whack me straight up against the ridge, and a walk along the top would lead me to a saddle. Ideally I’d contour at the right time, hit the saddle dead on, contour again up the opposite slope to not gain needless elevation, then drop just a hair south to avoid contour lines which looked suspiciously steep on the final descent. And that is just what I did. I had to stop after 10 minutes and do what I ought to have done when I got out my headlamp: put my little Silva compass around my neck. They currently have the Field model listed as a beginner compass. It’s light without being too small, and I have it strung with a length of reflective 1/16″ bungee, on a loop small enough that it hangs high and tight, but can be pulled far enough out to site a bearing. I found immediately that my gut had been right, the sidehill in witch I’d been battling thick fir had curved south, and I needed to cross the gully and begin the steep climb.
This I did, skirting a few cliff bands on the way up, and a few more along the ridge top. Moon rise was still distant enough to give no hint of relief in the night, and I yelled down into the void to double check that I was atop the correct, deep, canyon. I almost hit the contour correct, bottoming out in the now gentle gully 100 vertical feet from the saddle, and confidence reinforced, missed the cliffs on the decent by 20 yards. The moon rose and cold sunk as I reached the trail, and I put on all my clothes for the final 15 minute stroll to the road. What had been a enjoyable and interesting, if unremarkable hunt, had turned into a lovely piece of physical and skills practice by impulsively agreeing to take just a bit of a chance. With everything going correctly, it took a hair over an hour to go from headlamp on to feet on the trail. Either safe option would have likely been twice that.