For what seemed like an hour, I knelt uncomfortably behind the cedar at full draw. The bull had responded aggressively to my challenge and bugled back, enraged that any intruder dared trespass onto his valley. I watched the old monarch shred two cedars as he charged up the dark, heavily wooded canyon towards me.
The bull roared again at twelve paces, reducing me to a quivering, sweaty pool of fear. Time stood still as an epiphany caused me to realize this monster bull elk was now hunting me! How did this happen? My arms began to tremble as muscle fatigue set in from being at full draw for too long. I waited and prayed the bull would take the last three steps to clear the cedar and provide a shot opportunity. I tried unsuccessfully to regain my composure, I was rattled for sure. “If this bull takes three more steps”, I thought to myself, “I will find out if I have the mental toughness to seal the deal.” Could I do this? What if he charges? Three more steps…..
Through the cedar I was concealed behind, I watched the bull breathing, so close I could see the matted, wet hair on his neck. He cautiously surveyed the mountainside for a glimpse of his target, for he had a score to settle. One step, two, three. As he cleared the cedar, I settled my top pin just behind his shoulder. The wild-eyed bull snapped his head toward me, glaring through bulging eyes. The moment of truth had arrived, it all came down to this. I had prepared my whole life for this moment.
It had been a long and arduous journey to this point. I had spent my youth hunting squirrels, rabbits and whitetail. I had subscriptions to every hunting magazine in existence, reading cover to cover, and over again. I loved the stories, but was especially fascinated by the tales told of high mountain adventures. The tough, dangerous, unforgiving region that grizzly, mountain goats and elk called home, where rough men on horseback spent long days matching wits with Mother Nature and oftentimes returned to camp hungry and empty handed. I wanted to be like them, rambling through the alpine meadows of the high mountain country and sleeping under the stars-where eagles dared.
For eight long years, I faithfully applied for an elk permit in Montana. After a lifetime of dreaming and researching, I concluded Montana was the place- the last, best place to find out what I was made of. On my 8th application attempt, I was notified by the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks that I had been successful in this years drawing. My dream was falling into place and I almost cried as I opened the letter containing my tag. OK, I did cry, but just a little.
As prepared as I could be, I left the Hill Country, Texas heading North. From Kerrville to Denver took 15 hours. Then Denver to the Beaverhead National Forest in Montana. Arriving at the trailhead, I spent the next few hours of daylight setting up camp and organizing gear. Have you ever seen the sun set across the Rockies? Better than I imagined, it took my breath away.
The next few days proved humbling for a flatlander Texas boy like me. Things, everything was made more difficult in the mountains. Returning to camp after dark every night, I soon realized why, statistically, there are more millionaires in America than there are hunters who have harvested elk with a bow. Miles and miles of hiking, dozens of close encounters and two blistered feet later, Ifelt closer than ever to nature and believed my opportunity would soon come. The elk bugled from every draw and my mountain man skills were improving after every blown stalk.
The mornings, crisp and clear were my favorite. Although cooler than I was accustomed to, the morning chill added a special element to the excitement. For nine days, I hunted hard covering many miles with mixed results. I saw lots of elk and deer but usually they were out of archery range. The coyote's were heard every night. Breathtaking mountain views, flowing glacier fed rivers full of trout and skies that went on forever provided a hard earned reward unto itself. Life in the mountains had a rhythm learned only through time spent learning and listening. It started to make sense. I was no longer an outsider, but a player in the winner-take-all game of life, and death. The lines that separated predator and prey overlapped occasionally as I was reminded daily by the griz tracks located along the trail. In the rugged mountains of Montana, you are always only one mistake away from being lunch.
As my 10-yard pin settled just behind the shoulder, the bull glared defiantly. A backcountry showdown! I don’t remember consciously pulling the trigger of my release, just watching the fletching spiraling towards the nine hundred pound angry bull. The impact of the broadhead surprised us both as the arrow buried deep inside the bull. He spun around, crashing through the timber and back down into the dark valley below. I knew my shot was true.
Exhausted and triumphant, I set my bow down and laid on the forest floor. The leaves in the Aspen above waved in the wind as I stared up into the sky. My lifelong quest of chasing elk through the rugged Montana wilderness had come true. The breathtaking scenery, the ruggedness, the wildness of it all exceeded my expectations. It was everything I ever dreamed.
Two days later, with everything packed neatly into the pickup, the tailgate shut and I prepared to return to Texas. I stared at the Forest Service gate at the trailhead that started every days new adventure. I thought of the switchbacks, the countless blown stalks, the blisters, the sunrises and the cold, clear mornings easing up through the meadows. I remembered the cow and calf moose I watched feeding on the second morning. The bald eagles, the snow-capped mountain peaks, the rainbow trout that broke my line. I smiled earnestly as I recalled the band of bighorn sheep I glassed bedded on the opposite ridge. What an adventure I experienced! As I started the truck, I vowed to return again one day. To venture way beyond civilization, behind the gate and off the beaten path. To breathe that cold mountain air again. A once-in-a-lifetime trip? Think again!