The call came on a warm August evening. My mind was focused on supremely important end-of-summer conundrums. What sunshiny ale to try next. How many backpack and fishing trips could I wring from the calendar before fall. Two months away, my thoughts were far away from hunting. But suddenly, the October opening of elk season seized my consciousness like an unexpected strike from a savage brown trout on a slow day of fishing.
"They closed the road," my caller said.
It was a cousin, Doug, bearing bad tidings. The announcement left me with a profound sense of ambivalence.
For over three decades, most years have found me bumping up a rough, winding trail of ruts and rock once a year—the one my cousin was talking about. My family history with the "road" extends to the fall of 1953, when my father and two uncles made an exploratory foray up this Forest Service road into the Snowcrest Mountains. The pioneers had but two rigs: an old 3/4-ton pickup and a battered stock truck. Neither was four-wheel drive, but in the hearty spirit of the times they chained up and ground their way into the mountains. They at last found a campsite where the rutted trail crosses Beaver Creek.
The camp consisted of a canvas wall-tent, housing bedrolls of cotton sheets and scratchy wool blankets on a length of heavy tarp. A layer of yellow barley straw strewn under the tarp provided padding and a dubious measure of insulation. But despite the Spartan accommodations, each man felt a growing, near-mystical attraction to the landscape that sprang from the terrain as much as from the game. Dawn found the hunters waiting at the edges of open parks where flaxen grass drooped wearily with an icy coating of frost. Riding high on barren ridgetops above timberline, where wind tossed icy shards of snow into an ageless blue sky, the vista revealed rocky slopes descending to waving oceans of evergreens, then rising up again to wild mountain continents as far as the eye could see. When the vehicles turned back down the road, groaning with the additional weight of fat elk, one for each hunter, the three brothers felt as if they'd discovered a misplaced sliver of paradise.
A few seasons later, they moved their elk hunting camp some six miles up the road from Beaver Creek. Not many years after the dawn of the third millennium, the second generation of my family's elk hunters celebrated a landmark anniversary with the single remaining survivor of the first. My uncle, Tom, had hunted for 50 consecutive years from the same camp, the ridgepole elevating the canvas of the cook tent secured to the same pine tree for five decades. In celebration we bought him a fine Filson hunting vest, embroidered with an elk head and an inscription heralding his accomplishment.
"What are we going to do about elk camp?" Doug's voice now scratched from my cell phone, squashing my nostalgic recollections with the burning issue of the present.
"Let me think about it," I said.
Think I did, for several weeks, while members of my extended family pondered the merits of protesting the order to close the road. The route was to be gated at Beaver Creek, far below our camp, the victim of a newly implemented Forest Service travel plan intended to expand the reach of roadless country where illegal vehicle travel and erosion are persistent problems. Like mountain bikers and snowmobilers who claim to support wilderness so long as it doesn't impinge on their favorite riding area, I couldn't help but find the situation irksome. Who were these arrogant, bureaucrat SOBs messing with my family's elk hunting tradition, a tradition likely older than the candy-assed individual signing the closure order?
But even as my gut desired nothing more highly than regurgitating all over those responsible for messing up my recreation, my head heralded the decision. Roadless areas need protection. And numerous studies show that elk retreat roughly a mile from well-traveled vehicle routes. Chances were, a bull could be brought to earth in the meadow adjoining our traditional camping site. It would simply take something like a four-mile hike or horseback ride to get there. Doable, very doable, from a camp pitched near the gate that would now bar access to the upper portion of the road.
A month later I was back on the phone with Doug. Recruits for a hunt below the old camp had dwindled to myself, my two teenage sons, and Doug and his two younger brothers, also teens. The kids were in junior high and high school, so we couldn't take the full span of the opening week to hunt. At best the boys could miss three days. With a full day of travel on either end it seemed too much, a 300-mile drive to pitch a camp in a familiar drainage, but far from the normal areas I hunt.
I inhaled deeply.
"I think I'm out this year, Doug."
"That's okay," he replied graciously, though I knew him well enough to detect the disappointment in his voice.
My boys were far less successful at disguising dismay. "We're not going to elk camp?" they asked incredulously when I announced the change of plans. At two and three seasons under their belt-less hunting britches, they'd already been thoroughly captivated by the experience and its soul-stealing tradition.
"Then where are we going to hunt elk?"
"We'll find someplace close to Red Lodge."
The season opened, and for the first time in a long while, I discovered myself in search of fresh grounds for hunting elk.
A Saturday afternoon found the boys and I idling up a Forest Service road less than an hour from home. Previous study of a topographical map revealed a swath of country about a mile wide and four miles long, a bench of aspen groves, meadows and dense stands of evergreens. To the north, barren foothills trailed away into an empty horizon. To the south, the bench ended abruptly against the canted face of the Beartooth Mountains. A little sleuthing in records from the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks indicated elk in the area. We were ready to go hunting.
But maybe not. The closer we motored to my intended launching point, the more vehicles we encountered. By coincidence, all the drivers and occupants munching corn chips or puffing languidly on an afternoon cigarette were wearing orange clothes. Rifle racks adorned most of the pickups. Rounding a bend, we spied a brace of hunters, guns slung on their shoulders, dragging a whitetail doe toward the road by a front leg and one ear.
"Lotta people around here," Micah observed from the back seat, in case I hadn't noticed. I had, and was possessed of more than half a mind to make a U-turn at the first pullout and sulk back to town. We came to a place to pull over, then waited while a trio of pickups and two chubby hunters on an ATV rumbled past. I killed the ignition, thinking we could at least get some exercise.
We crossed the road, then hiked up a wickedly inclined slope, skirting a barbwire fence that marked the boundary of a small tract of private land jutting into Forest Service acreage. Patches of snow from a previous storm clung crustily to the landscape in shaded areas and dimples along the slope. Though our course followed the most foot-friendly route toward the ridgetop, some quarter-mile away, I saw but two boot tracks.
On the ridge, we encountered a beaten trail made by hunters who scrambled to this spine of grass and stone, then paced along its backbone. Based on my map reading and knowledge of elk behavior, I expected the big ungulates to be a mile or more from this ridge. We pointed our steps east, dipping through a stand of aspens in a depression. From nearly under my feet a startled ruffed grouse took wing, sending my heart pounding into my sinuses. Within minutes we began encountering more deer tracks, but the shuffling, oval-shaped paw marks of the Homo sapiens all but vanished. The forest before us appeared wild and pristine. Towering Douglas and alpine firs, and a smattering of Engelmann spruce thrust their smooth and scaly trunks from the north sides of the rippling foothills. Aspens lined the draws. Though it was early November, I could detect a faint poplar scent on the intermittent breeze. Pausing on a hilltop, I heard the unmistakable music of a frolicking brook in the ravine below. Who cared about hunting? Let's go explore, I thought.
We angled down the slope, arms swinging, laughing and chattering like the most clueless of greenhorn hunters. Then I spied two objects that simultaneously refocused my senses. The first was the waving white tail of a buck deer bolting up through the scattered timber on the opposite side of the draw, no doubt alerted by our careless passage. The second was twin sets of prints in an expanse of snow ahead. Even at a distance, they appeared much too large for deer.
As I suspected, the tracks were left by a critter with larger feet than a whitetail. But it was not the hoped-for elk. Other predators, it appeared, were attracted to the seclusion of the area as well. The pugmarks were as wide as my mittened hand. Though somewhat indistinct, the patently evident pattern of clawed toes spread from a larger pad. My assumption that we left the hunting competition behind on the yonder ridge was in error. At least two other hunters were also seeking prey in the vicinity: a pair of gray wolves.
Looking up from the wolf tracks, movement caught my eye on a south-facing slope, barren of snow, a half-mile from our position. A quick look through the trusty Nikons around my neck revealed the form of another whitetail buck. We were ostensibly hunting elk. But both boys had deer tags in their pocket.
We slid down the gradient toward the creek, slipping on our boots like stubby skis. I sent the boys ahead as I watched the whitetail through binoculars, allowing them another 50-foot slip when the deer dropped its head to feed. We ducked into the creek bottom, jogging along the sprightly watercourse in an attempt to intercept the browsing buck. Moments later, I saw the barrel of Micah's rifle rise slowly above a mound of sage. His first shot flew wide of the mark, but the second connected. We stood and walked toward the motionless buck, Micah's first whitetail. The smile on his face spread as wide as when he'd downed his first elk.
Just as the tired sun dropped from the western horizon, leaving the earth cloaked in shadow, we boned the buck and stashed the meat in the folds of its already cool hide.
We returned in the morning with backpacks. Micah elected to build a small fire and hang out by the meat pile. Dominic and I departed on a looping hike farther east, penetrating what I hoped would be more productive elk country. We encountered piles of old elk sign, then discovered a matched set of shed deer antlers, their bone bleached to a hue similar to the faded grass surrounding the tines on each horn. Ahead was a boulder-strewn knob protruding from the edge of the flat bench like the aftermath of a forehead whacked by a baseball; it was a good place to gnaw on some jerky from last year's elk and take a look around. Ten minutes into my binocular reconnaissance, I spotted the large dark bodies of not one, but five bull moose in a not-so-far-away copse of aspens.
As I savored the sighting, Dom lounged on the ground beside me.
"Know what, Dad? Next year we should bring our backpacks and just camp out here."
Whatever regrets he had about missing the traditional elk camp seemed to be gone.
Two weeks later, the week before Thanksgiving, my search for new elk hunting grounds and a potential place to pitch an elk camp closer to home continued. The kids were in school, so my sweetheart and I tromped another drainage issuing from the stern, imposing flank of the northern Beartooths. With six inches of fresh snow on the ground, I looked hungrily for elk tracks. But another deer encounter got in the way. Ahead, in a dense stand of limbless lodgepoles, we glimpsed a whitetail buck weaving through the overgrown matchsticks in our direction.
"Interested in a deer, or are you holding out for an elk?"
Lisa had tags for both species snuggled happily in the inside pocket of her hunting vest. She'd yet to down either species.
"Let's try for this deer," she replied with an excited smile. If eyes had feet, hers were leaping ecstatically around like a bird dog freshly freed from a kennel.
The buck veered away, yielding no opportunity for a shot. Paralleling its course we encountered it again, with scant minutes of legal shooting light remaining. A single shot, and I had another buck to bone and backpack from the forest. I still didn't have my elk or a campsite for future seasons. But there remained Thanksgiving weekend, one of my favorite times to hunt.
A blizzard raged from Monday to the day when Americans pause in grateful celebration for the bounty of the land in which we live. The next day dawned cold, with a fresh blanket of nearly knee-deep snow. Conditions were perfect for elk hunting.
But the rest of the household had other plans. It was opening day of a different sort, the first day of the ski season at Red Lodge Mountain. Lisa and the kids were ready to carve some turns. I stifled my longing to be an egocentric, anti-social male of the most stereotypical stripe, and I pulled on my ski clothes instead of my wool pants and hunting boots. Riding up the Miami Beach lift with my daughter, not two hundred yards from the lift station, I spotted a dozen places where elk had pawed through the snow to reach the grass below.
It was too cold to ski or hunt for the following two days. On Sunday, the last day of elk season, I still had an unfilled tag.
The following morning, with the kids back in school, I found myself riding the first chairlift of the day at the ski area. It was easily as frigid as the previous days, but Lisa had somehow reasoned it was now warm enough to take some morning turns on the slopes. I suspected the eight inches of fresh powder had something to do with it.
Midway up the lift, Lisa spotted an indistinct object at the edge of Lower Royals. It was a cow elk, digging at the snow. The rifle, I thought, might still be in the backseat of the Tahoe. How much trouble would I encounter if I shot an elk, the day after the season closed, from a chairlift, then filched a toboggan from the ski patrol to retrieve the carcass?
The fantasy was lovely, but so was reality, I realized. Although the elk season hadn't turned out exactly like I'd hoped, and though we hadn't replaced a mystical mountain haven with another, neither the boys nor I missed the old elk camp as much as I'd expected. Find enough pleasure in your quest for paradise, and the goal and search meld into one.
The road was still closed. But it didn't matter. For whether it happened on familiar slopes or unknown forests, the magic of elk hunting transcended the bounds of tradition and place.
By the time we reached the lift station, the only evidence of the cow's passing was her wandering trail across the mountain. Next season we'll again look for the prints of her kind. But for now I'm happy to make my own tracks, on skis, in the powder.