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Like many elk hunters, I started out with a rifle and picked up a compound bow later in life. I shot a few mule deer and two elk with those "wheelie" bows, but the allure of traditional archery became irresistible after I read a book about it, Longbows in the Far North. I bought a used recurve (so-called for its curved tips), and set my sights on killing an elk with it.
Broadly, "traditional" archery refers to a recurve or longbow, ancient weapons with few working parts. While some longbow enthusiasts who build their own wooden arrows would probably scoff at the term "traditional" to describe my recurve and carbon arrow shafts, I use the word because of the way the bow is aimed and shot. In traditional archery, there are no sights on the bow, and the arrow isn't aimed so much as it is pointed in the right direction.
Accuracy is attained through practice, repetitiveness and consistency. Hitting a target requires cohesiveness between the body and mind as you draw and loose the arrow. It's a Zen-like thing that I don't always achieve, but when I do get in the zone, I feel the way I imagine a pitcher does in a no-hitter.
Archery elk hunting with a recurve, however, is a different ball game than hunting with a compound, something you learn the first time you see an elk 40 yards away—out of range, for a recurve—and think to yourself "If only I had my compound!"
Compound bows use a complex pulley system that generates more arrow speed with less resistance. The hunter draws and looses the arrow in nearly one fluid motion, producing arrow speeds of up to 330 feet per second. A recurve doesn't even come close to that kind of velocity. With my recurve shooting abilities, I have no confidence I can get an arrow through an elk's dinner-plate sized lungs unless it's within 20 yards.
As Lauren and I hunted uphill toward the napping grounds, a potent waft of elk stench stopped both of us in our tracks. The smell of elk musk is a common thing in elk rutting country, but a hunter's nose, perhaps even on a subconscious level, can discern between old sign and fresh. We both scanned the timber, and Lauren let loose with a bugle. Instantly, a previously unseen bull elk jumped to his feet and looked at us in surprise and horror. He turned around and wheeled off before I had a chance to raise my bow. Suddenly we were enveloped by elk.
I concentrated on a cow bee-lining it for me and followed her when she veered off into a patch of timber. Unfortunately, a tree shielded the vital area behind the cow's shoulder. Then a bugle erupted to my right and I turned to see the head and antlers of a bull, his head tilted back finishing what I hoped would be his swan song. He took a step forward, revealing his front shoulder from behind an old-growth fir. He was still mostly concealed behind a stand of small trees, but I found a softball-sized opening where his lungs should be and my mind went into cruise control. I don't remember drawing the bow or releasing the arrow, but when the bull turned, the feather fletchings on the end of my arrow shaft were buried deep in his side, and a rivulet of blood stained his flank. I knew he was finished. My quest to shoot an elk with a primitive bow was complete.
Aside from a couple of crick-boating, backcountry-ski-loonies (who I just happen to share wall tents with on many fall weekends), I don't know anyone who could have completed the pack-out that Lauren did, with over 100 pounds of elk meat on her back, twice, and nary a complaint.
When we reached camp, I pulled two gold cans from the icy stream and my wife and I raised them to the hard work, and to the bull that would feed us for the rest of the year. I've drained a few cold ones in my day, but none better than those banquet beers chilled in the headwaters of the drainage that had just bestowed us a righteous gift.
We rinsed the elk's thighs, shoulders and backstraps in the creek, and laid them out on the cold, shady gravel where the ambient temperature was just right for cooling meat after dragging it off a mountain in 80-degree heat.
We hung all the fresh meat high in the fir trees outside of camp, along with our bloodstained clothing. There's company up here that you don't want to keep, and when you're bivouacked on a game trail miles from the nearest road on your honeymoon, you take every precaution to ensure that the two of you don't end up on the front page as the latest casualties who rolled the dice in grizzly bear country. Then we downed two plates of pre-made elk curry and crawled into the tent, two exhausted newlyweds. The day on the mountain was the crowning achievement in my blessed 20-year elk hunting career, but it was also just the beginning of many adventures in the woods, and through life, with a perfect partner for both.