Blood Relations 

You can go farther. You can go higher. But nothing will get you deeper into the mountains than elk hunting.

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A couple of weeks later, after a spell of weather warm enough to allow for one last rock climbing trip in Blodgett Canyon, my climbing buddies and I drank beer and grilled backstrap steaks on the front deck of the cabin, the corrals of the ranch spread out below us. The Sapphire Range, with all of its own wild elk country, rose black and tumbled at the far edge of the valley. The steaks were perfect, served with grated horseradish root dug from the unkillable specimen by the steps.

"Yeah," I said, "I just walked up the trail until I ran into him." Beer in hand, I gestured at the mountains and told them maybe I could show them how to get an elk for themselves some day.

click to enlarge JACK BALLARD

It would be some long years before I saw another bull elk in the woods. I hunted hard, climbing high to the bony ridges of the Bitterroots, exploring lost cirques and plateaus, driving the maze of logging roads from the East Fork through to the Big Hole. I obsessed over maps and made long trips into roadless drainages, the Blue Joint, the Overwhich, Two Bear, Jew Mountain, Sleeping Child. Always, there were elk. You could smell them on the wind, hear them crashing away in the lodgepoles, track them through hot afternoons and howling blizzard mornings. I learned something: elk hunting takes its strongest grip on people like me, the wanderers, the climbers, the true outdoor freaks who are desperate not just to kill elk but also to see what's over the next ridge, and the next one after that.

But just burning up gas or boot leather or, as some call it, "rifle hiking," is not really the way to put elk in the freezer. The trick is to take that hunger for big country and high places and tweak it from macro to micro. In short, you find a spot where there are some elk, and you stay there, or keep going back there, until you know every inch of the place: where the trails go to water, to grass, to the black timber where you'll never be able to follow them. What kind of weather makes them move, or causes them to hole up, or leave for higher or lower ground? Where do the mountain lions lie and watch them, leaving their weird, melted-out snow angels behind? Where are the old trails, used when the real snows come, when the danger of predators, like the wolves and the lions and you, are outweighed by the need to move to winter range, and the herds move, in knots and bands, all day long? It is a deep apprenticeship to a landscape. It sounds simple, and it is, just like navigating by the stars, climbing an A4 pitch, or throwing a perfect diamond hitch on a balky pack mule.

For me, a person who loves to ski the backcountry, to climb rock and ice, to fish and wander, there is no relationship to landscape that is as profound as elk hunting. And because there are other sentient beings involved—the elk themselves, the other nations of creatures and birds that share the place with us both—the relationship bores deeper yet. Skiing and climbing, like hunting, are also deep studies of landscape, weather and risk. But a good hunter becomes something that only a few climbers or skiers ever become or even desire to be: an inhabitant. And that is never truer than later, in the relative safety of home or camp, when he or she eats an animal honorably pursued, killed in a place well-loved and well-known. I still love to ski and climb, but to go out every fall and try to kill an elk to feed my family and myself has become one of the most important pursuits of my life.

My new country lies at the southern end of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. I've only been learning it for five years; most of it still speaks a language I don't yet understand. The elk here live with the entire spectrum of predators in place: resident and traveling packs of wolves, mountain lions, grizzlies, and a lot of human hunters on horses who reach deep into the backcountry and haunt the choke points of the migration routes to winter range. Even with all those dangers, the herds remain too big for the winter range, so cow tags are readily available, and I try to get one every year. My hunting partners and I all kill for meat now. If we ever dreamed of massive bulls, the dream evaporated with the need to feed our children at a time when America's commercial food system has become diseased. Even grass-fed and organic cattle are still cattle—slow witted, slow moving, shit-smeared and oblivious. Nothing against cows, really. Perhaps they are just too apt a metaphor for what worries us most about our own species.

The hikes here are long, the early season hot. I've killed some elk here, but I'm still looking for the best place to serve my apprenticeship. Easing down a steep chute on a limestone ridge, I come upon a patch of serviceberry that has been ravaged. All of the rocks, some of them big as coffee tables, have been flipped over, and an ant nest has been dug up. There's a grizzly somewhere close, and I check the bear spray hanging on the strap of my backpack, bracing my thumb on the safety, breathing deep to see if I can smell him. Nothing, just evergreen needles in hot sun, and yarrow crushed underfoot. From somewhere below I can hear the creek, just barely. From an opening on the mountainside, I can see far into the next drainage, where a mix of grasslands, aspen groves and giant Doug fir looks like an elk hunter's paradise. Even with a good pack frame it would be God's own travail to pack an elk from that distance, even a calf. There are fingers of talus, a patchwork of thickets to hide bears—complex, risky country, a long way from anywhere. More to the point, it looks like a hard place to get into on horseback. Perfect. I tighten the strap on my rifle, check my bear spray one last time, and start walking.

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